5+ Questions with photographer Brandon Kopp

Every day, tourists and locals try to photograph Washington’s grand monuments and memorials and are befuddled by shadows. How can these grand structures be shown well?

Monumental Thoughts.com talked with local photographer Brandon Kopp on not only photographing monuments, but also major events like the White House Correspondents Dinner where celebs shine. We noticed the outstanding photography by Kopp at his website PhotoTourismDC.com Be sure to check it out.

1. What is the key to photographing the large memorials around town? It seems like there are shadows no matter the time of day.

The key to photographing the memorials, as with anything, is lighting. It’s very tough to take a picture that shows off the majesty of the memorials at 1 p.m., regardless of your level of skill. There are three things I would suggest for finding the best lighting and making the most of the situation when you can’t. First, if you can, go to those places you most want to photograph around sunrise or sunset. The golden hours, as they’re called, provide soft, colorful illumination. You’ll want to keep the sun behind you. This means taking pictures of the Lincoln Memorial at sunrise or of the west facing side of the Capitol at sunset.

You may not be in control of your schedule if you’re with a tour group, traveling with friends or family or if you simply have too many things you want to take pictures of and don’t have enough sunrises or sunsets to get everything. For these situations, you’ll have to make the most of the lighting that’s available. If you’re out in the late morning or early afternoon, overcast or cloudy skies will be your friend. Stake out a good spot and wait for the sun to disappear behind a cloud before taking your picture. The shrouded sun will provide diffuse, even lighting. This should soften the harsh shadows. Clouds also make for a more interesting background than a flat, blue sky.

Finally, you can use High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography techniques. In HDR, you take two or more pictures of the exact same scene at different levels of exposure and use a computer program like Photoshop or Photomatix to merge the photos together. Options within these software programs allow you to obtain beautiful details in both shadowy and brightly lit areas. You can get great pictures at almost anytime of day with HDR.

2. Is it possible to photograph the monuments at night? The pros make it look easy, but amateurs like me often leave frustrated. What are your tips?

From the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol, from the Jefferson Memorial to the White House, there’s no shortage of opportunities for great night photography in D.C. The hard part is the execution. Some buildings in D.C., the Capitol for example, are unevenly lit. The dome is much brighter than the building itself. Trying to even out the lighting across the whole building is difficult, especially with your camera set to adjust all of its settings automatically. Turn your camera to manual mode and adjust the aperture and shutter speed yourself and find the right combination of settings to get well-lit pictures. The Capitol is somewhat of an anomaly though. Many of the major memorials are evenly lit. My favorite for night photography is the Lincoln Memorial.

One necessity for night pictures is a tripod. Be aware that these are not allowed everywhere in D.C. (e.g., close to the Capitol and White House,) though they are allowed around, but not on, the major memorials. In some of the places where full-sized tripods are not allowed, you can get away with using a table-top tripod or a Gorillapod.

3. Turning indoors to the museums, how can you photograph exhibits to make something inanimate more lifelike?

The best advice I’ve ever received about photography (and now I’m not sure where I got it) is that painters make their art by including important elements in a scene but photographers make their art by removing unimportant elements from a scene. If you want to make the stuffed lion in the Natural History Museum look more real, zoom in and use a large aperture to blur the background. Remove all those elements that let you know that you’re in a museum; the groups of schoolchildren, the display cases, and the descriptive signs. With that said, don’t be afraid to include people in your shots. A wide-eyed child staring up at a plane in the Air and Space Museum can make for great memories, too.

4. You’ve also photographed the red carpet of the White House Correspondents Dinner. What’s it like to be a “paparazzi” and how do you get something different from 100 others shooting next to you?

I loved taking pictures at the White House Correspondents Dinner (WHCD). Before going, I had seen a handful of celebrities in my entire life and, in that one night, I got to see most of pop culture’s biggest stars (think Donald Trump and the cast of The Hangover). I’m also a news buff and a policy wonk so seeing the politicians and reporters was a big deal for me too. The great thing about going to the WHCD is that if you show up with an SLR, you’re already going to get something different than the hundreds of people surrounding you. Most of the people I saw there were random passersby taking pictures with their cell phones and pocket cameras. Again, the best thing you can do is eliminate the distracting elements (i.e., crowds of people) from your picture by zooming in and blurring the background using a large aperture. If that doesn’t work you can always crop out those distractions once you get home.

5. What’s your favorite place to shoot in Washington?

Hands down, my favorite place is the Capitol. I work near there and walk around it almost every day with my camera in hand. When the Congress is in session there is almost always some kind of protest going on and they always provide great photo opportunities. It’s also the most visually striking building in Washington. I’ve been there at sunrise, sunset, high noon, after dark and have never walked away without at least one great picture.

5+. Any future projects you’re working on?

I am working on getting my PhotoTourism DC blog off the ground; improving my communication skills, learning some new technologies and trying to make sense of all of the social media.

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