Photo-friendly D.C.: springtime and cherry blossoms

Spring's the best time to see the nation's capitol.

Sunrise at the Jefferson Memorial as photographers line up to get the best shot.
  • Sunrise at the Jefferson Memorial as photographers line up to get the best shot.

“Spring is nature's way of saying, 'Let's party!'” ~ Robin Williams

Spring is the best time to be in the nation’s capitol. It's perhaps the only time where everybody uniformly agrees on one thing – especially in light of the partisan divide and recent government shutdown – that is, the viewing of the cherry blossoms.

The best nonpartisan event in Washington, D.C., is the annual bloom of over 3,700 Yoshino cherry blossom trees. The cherry trees were a gift from Japan in 1912 as a commemoration of the 1854 Treaty of Peace and Amity, which officially established formal relations between the two countries.

Early morning joggers pass cherry trees in bloom along the Tidal Basin.

Early morning joggers pass cherry trees in bloom along the Tidal Basin.

The first cherry trees were ceremonially planted by First Lady Helen Taft and Japanese Viscountess Iwa Chinda on March 27, 1912. 3,020 trees were planted throughout the modern National Mall and Memorial Parks as a gift from Yokohama, Japan, to Washington, D.C.

The arrival of the cherry blossoms also marks the arrival of spring to the nation’s capitol. The most photogenic groups of cherry blossoms are located around the Tidal Basin, a manmade inlet adjacent to the Potomac River. Here photographers can frame the vibrant pale pink and white flowers with iconic landmarks such as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. With the recent addition of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, photographers have yet more opportunities for creative compositions.

The cherry blossoms only bloom in the spring and the window of opportunity is very small. I photographed this sunrise (top) at the Jefferson Memorial on a Tuesday, when the cherry blossoms were at their peak, and by that Friday night strong winds blew most of them off the trees.

Biker along the Tidal Basin.

Biker along the Tidal Basin.

Photographers are not the only ones who enjoy the cherry blossoms. Joggers and bikers have a scenic view as they circle around the Tidal Basin. Instead of waiting for them to leave your frame, include them in your composition to give a sense of scale and human element in your photo. I composed this composition with the passing joggers and the path of the Tidal Basin serving as leading lines to the beautiful Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

As with any once-a-year photographic opportunity, it can be very crowded with people. Hordes of photographers, tourists and fitness enthusiasts will be jockeying for position to get a view of the pink cherry blossoms. Here are a couple of tips to enjoy and photograph the cherry blossoms:

Don't drive. Do like the locals and either take the handy Metro (the nearest stop is Smithsonian) or walk to the Tidal Basin. Parking is very limited unless you get there early in the morning. If you do need to drive, I found the most convenient parking lot is the one near the Jefferson Memorial.

When to photograph. The best time to photograph is during sunrise and sunset. My personal preference is about thirty minutes before sunrise, when the crowds are thin and the light is warm and soft. Try to visit the Tidal Basin during the week when the crowds are much more manageable.

When to time your visit. Just like politics, the timing is everything when visiting D.C. to see the cherry blossoms. You'll want to time your visit around the last week in March through the first week of April. Of course, this varies from year to year, so consult the National Park Service's cherry tree page and the National Cherry Blossom Festival website.

Have patience. Hordes of people will have the same idea as you. Everyone's there to enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms, so kindly wait for people to move out of your frame when photographing. Remember, these aren't the boisterous halls of Congress – so smile and enjoy the scenery.

Essential photography gear. A tripod to stabilize your camera, flash unit for fill light and a circular polarizer to remove reflections and get those deep blue skies.

Escape the crowds. The Tidal Basin is ground zero for the cherry blossoms. If the crowds get to be too much for you there are plenty of places you can walk to that offer some great photo opportunities such as the Washington Monument, Hains Point, Capitol Building grounds and Arlington National Cemetery.

The author at work.

The author at work.

After an early morning start be sure to head to the Lincoln Waffle Shop, located right across from the historic Ford’s Theater for a nice, hearty breakfast.

Spring was a little late in arriving to the nation’s capitol this year so I had to wait an extra week for the bloom. When it finally did arrive, what a grand entrance it made! So pack your photo gear, warm jacket and patience for next year’s cherry blossom bloom in Washington, D.C.

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