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A Very Different Photography Tripod Story: Washington DC


(National Cathedral – Crypt: Three stage Vertical Panel in HDR)

I’m just getting back into the land of the living after the running around in Photoshop World. This is by far my most favorite event to do as both instructors and attendees alike give 150% if their energy and enthusiasm. They leave it all out there, and we return as spent carcasses, spending months getting ready for the Vegas show.

Fight For Your Right?
Before I went out there, I saw a flurry of conversation about the possibility of shooting out in DC using a Tripod. Facebook posts, G+ entries and Twitter streams talked about how the police out in the DC area were very hard against photographers (some even called is Gestapo-ish) and that we needed to collectively remind these people of our rights, what we can do and how we wont take it. I saw PDF’s of memos being passed around for people to download, so in the event that a police officer/ranger/park officer stopped you, you could flash this document and remind them that this is your right..

Behold, I’m A Photographer
One of the things that amazes me about photographers and the use of their tripods is how entitled we sometimes are about this use. Look, I get that we love photography. I get that we are committed about wanting to do it. I get that we want to take the extra step to make our images great. At times, however, I feel like we get a little overbearing with this passion. I’ve been to a lot of tripod bearing places.. and at times, it feels like a photographer comes upon a scene with a tripod, and all rights are due to him.

It’s like the photographer shows up and says “Behold, I am the photographer. Step back one and all, as I splay these tripod legs out and dazzle. Step back everyone.. Look how much space I can take up with my legs. Should someone try to stop me, I have this here paper in my hand reminding one and all of my inalienable right to be a photographer!”

Here’s the deal, buddy. We’re Photographers – not Cancer scientists.

My Take:
In Photography, sometimes I think we focus too much time on reminding people of our rights, than respecting other people’s authority.

Lincoln Memorial by RC Concepcion (aboutrc) on 500px.com
Lincoln Memorial by RC Concepcion

I Did Not Have A Single Problem in DC
My experience in Washington DC was not only the complete opposite of what the internet was telling me it was going to be, it was actually more welcoming than I would’ve thought it to be. I shot with my tripod in all of the places I wanted to. On all of these occasions I came in contact with officials in the area. On every occasion I was allowed to shoot what I wanted to shoot.

Matter fact – take a look at the above shot of Lincoln. This shot was done with about 10 tripods present, not at 3 oclock in the morning (as the internet wanted me to do to sneak in a shot) but at 10:30 at night. Not only were there a ton of tripods but the official in the area at one point stepped into the middle of the memorial, looked at all of the tripod bearing folks, and said the following:

“To our guests using tripods. If the memorial starts experiencing more foot traffic, I will be asking you to bring in the tripods. Once the traffic abates, you are more than welcome to re-set yourself”

HUH?!?!?!

This was Washington DC! I expected to be tackled as soon as I set foot in the chamber with my Gitzo! How could this be? What could be going wrong here?

The Cops Know Your Rights Too
As it turns out, the police/rangers/officials know your rights too. These rules are in place to do two things: 1. Protect people from busting their butt on your tripod 2. Protect the monument so it looks good for a very very long time. Authorities are not out to get anyone – theyre just trying to preserve and protect. Considering that millions of people come through these places.. it can sometimes be hard for them to make discretionary calls. This means that there is -some- probability that you will be on the tail end of a bad call. Is it like that all the time? Absolutely not. Its just a question of time vs. mood (mostly yours), versus the amount of people in the area.

How To Increase Your Chances on Success
Believe me when I tell you this, I tell you this out of love. The best way for you to increase your chances in being able to use your tripod is to not be a tool to the people around you or the officials. Understand that yes, you have a right to do something, but they have a job. If you want them to meet you in the middle on some of these things.. you need to give a little on your own side. Here’s how I give a little:

  • Introduce Yourself:
    If you see an official out there working, take a minute to go over and say good morning and introduce yourself. I usually feel the situation out before I extend a hand out for a shake as a cop could be a little leery of the gesture. Usually a smile, a nod, a good morning can get you a long way. When you’re asked if you are doing this for commercial reasons be truthful. If you are doing this for non commercial tell them its for your hobby. I usually just say “oh, im doing this because its a hobby I love.” – it shows my intention and passion.
  • Dont show up Splayed Out
    If you think that theres a chance that you cant shoot with a tripod, dont ensure that your first words with your official are “Why is your tripod out?” Instead, keep your tripod tucked in a position where its visible, but in an obvious state of “im not taking this out unless you say its OK to do so,” This lets you talk to the official, and he gets to use his discretion (his power) rather than you challenging it with your -right-
  • Show Your Feet
    No, this isn’t like a rollover doggie kinda thing. Im talking Tripod feet. In places like this, they are very very concerned as to what the gear will do to the environment. Will your tripod legs scuff the stone? Did you guy tripod and only have spikes at the bottom of it. I make sure that the tripod has rubber feet on it, and I make sure that in the conversation I say “I have this tripod that has rubber feet so I dont affect or damage anything” in the conversation.
  • Take up a small Footprint
    I see people all the time splay out their tripods to take up the maximum amount of space they can with them. Why? This only increases the chances that a police officer say “Oh, heck no!” and come and wrap you up. Instead, only splay out your legs as wide as your shoulders, or in between your feet. By keeping a smaller footprint, you are telling an official (as well as others) “Im concious about safety, and concious about taking up more space than I need to be.” This will give you a lot more leeway with an official, and you’ll find that you’ll get to splay out wider if no one is around later. Does having the legs this close affect stability? Sure. However – you should be shooting with a cable release anyway, and wouldnt you rather have something instead of nothing and going hand held?
  • Tell Them About It
    As you’re working on your image or immediately after, go over to the official and thank them for their time. Throw in a little conversation along the lines of “Hey.. i really appreciate you letting us photographers shoot here.. we really love it and I was apprehensive about doing it without asking for your permission. its cool to know that you guys are on our side.”
  • Taking a couple of seconds to let them know that you appreciate things could open a door for you to shoot other things, but could also help the other photographers coming to that location by having an official that feels like they weren’t dismissed because we wanted a shot. Your talking to them is your way to pay it forward to the next person. Obviously, all of this stuff should be taken with a good dose of “Your Results May Vary”, but I’ve shot in a lot of places – not just DC. Keeping these rules handy have gotten me more access than not. Hope they help you.

10 comments

  1. Actually, it was supposed to be 2 o’clock in the morning, not 3 – per the recommendation I received from the NPS ranger at the Lincoln Memorial.

    For the most part, my experience in D.C. was as peaceful as yours. On the rare occasion I was told I couldn’t use a tripod (such as at the White House), it was handled in a very friendly and easy-going fashion by the Secret Service officer who approached me. The same was true at the Supreme Court and in various Smithsonian museums. There wasn’t a single person who was obnoxious about the way they approached me regarding the tripod, and I never felt like I had to whip out anything to demand my rights.

    If anything, I found many places were willing to accommodate me. The National Botanical Garden has you fill out a simple permit form (no charge) and then you’re free to shoot. The National Zoo welcomes photographers & tripods right on their web page.

    DC is full of places to use a tripod.

  2. So true, RC. Another gentle, but powerful blog post. My generation were brought up not with rights, but with responsibilities and regard for others. I’ll probably never get to DC but I’ll certainly be trying your approach when I give my new Manfrotto it’s first outing to a big city – seagulls and scenery don’t seem to be so fussy about tripod legs.

  3. RC – having spent lots of time in LE I can tell you that you are right on with what you are saying. Lots of times it is a CYA thing, and the last thing any guy wants is to be filling out all the paperwork when someone got hurt tripping over something that doesn’t “need” to be there. If you know that the person is aware that they are creating a hazard and will do everything to minimize it that goes a long way to keeping me out of trouble so now I can let others have the option of doing the same.

  4. I had the same experience RC – not a single problem. I shot all over the Mall, at the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the WWII Memorial and not one problem. I was at the Lincoln Memorial Monday evening after PSW ended. At about 9:30 it was still quite crowded so I did more exterior shots. As the crowds left (including Moose Peterson and his group of friends) I moved inside. I was inspired by the images you showed in your HDR sessions that day so spent a couple of hours composing, bracketing, and shooting with a few other tripod-minded guys and no issues at all. I did talk with the ranger for a few minutes, explained what I was doing with the HDR brackets, showed him a few shots on the back of the camera and all good. All in all a great city, and not a single problem shooting with my trusty Gitzo all weekend.

  5. I think you are very right about this RC…very frequently we as photographers can sometime, perhaps be a bit obnoxious. I have not heard these same woes about DC…generally you see tripod (and flash) bans where there are lots of people. If you prepare before hand and ask for permission, share with people your work so they realize you know what you are doing, you can often get access though it is not at the best times. If you want the shot… I am often surprised at the number of people who don’t know the expression you catch more flies with honey.

  6. I had a similar experience as well last summer. I even snuggled up next to the columns in the Lincoln memorial propping my tripod up against it to take shots with a full crowd in place…not a single word or glare from anyone. Thanks for sharing, RC.

  7. RIght on point RC…. well done. Last year while in DC I shot the Lincoln Mem and this is what I did. I went up to the officer and said HI and then said, since you have been here for a long time, what is your favorite shot or angle that no ones ever gets….. He showed me a couple and I got his name and sent him a link to my DC Gallery. Got a nice note back from him with the offer to look him up the next time I was in town for some more good locations. Our attitude can make all the different in the world. Here is a link to that gallery. http://www.wowphotoshdr.com/Other/Wash-DC/

    Hey, look forward to teaching with you in Page, Moab and Monument Valley in October, Bill and I are getting fired up already. Thanks

  8. Thanks for sharing this great info. I’m actually heading to DC this weekend and was on the fence as to whether I’d bring my tripod along on my planned Smithsonian visit day or not. I believe that I will. Knowing that I can’t use it in the museum, I’ll keep it bagged up. But, I gotta have it handy for the sunrise and sunsets! Great tips on being courteous. Often times, people forget that the best way to get something you want is to ask for it, not to just take it.

  9. I’ve lived in the DC area my entire life and have never had a problem taking pictures in DC. Never had a problem with tripod use either, this includes standing in front of the capitol for 2 hours taking almost 300 images for a stitched image. Maybe I’ve just been lucky! But I do think online people make it seem like a big deal when it’s really not.

  10. Well said, RC.

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