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Capturing Autumn

The Capitol Dome in Fall 2012
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Michael Dunn, AOC’s chief of photography, draws upon his 15 years of experience to share tips for photographing the Capitol Grounds in fall.

Autumn color on Capitol Hill is a beautiful reminder of the passing year, visible against a gleaming backdrop of architectural permanence. The combination of lightness and gravitas makes for great photography. I’m very pleased here to share some thoughts after 15 autumns of photography on the Hill. My best advice to fellow shooters is simple. See pretty color, shoot pretty color. 

Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of the Capitol Grounds, used low-slung hardscapes and carefully chosen foliage to create a setting fit for our jewel-like Capitol on the Hill. In sturdy gray stone, lilting walks, and multi-textured lawns, plants, and trees, he framed vistas from which to appreciate the Capitol’s great Dome. These same vistas make beautiful photographs.

Gingko tree in fall, located northeast of the U.S. Capitol
Gingko tree in fall, located northeast of the U.S. Capitol.

Whether wielding professional gear, camera phones, or anything in between, always keep lighting in mind. On clear fall days as at all times of year, dawn and dusk remain compelling hours in which to photograph the landscape, with dramatic and distinctive lighting.  But in the autumn, dawn comes later, dusk earlier.Stroll Olmsted’s curving walkways around the Capitol and see what comes into view.  His landscape affords a graceful transition from the natural world to architectural world. By way of Olmsted’s planned vistas, you’ll be getting the advice of a master landscape architect as you incorporate fall color into your Capitol photographs.

From my photographer’s perspective the woods covering the well-manicured parks around the Capitol, Congressional Office Buildings, Library of Congress, and Supreme Court are more a curated “library” of trees rather than a typical forest. Many of the trees on the Grounds serve as memorials and are native to the state they honor and several are gifts from friends of the United States from around the world. Resembling congress itself, our grove of Capitol trees hails from all corners.

As a result of diversity of species on the Grounds, fall color on Capitol Hill continually bursts in individual specimens or small groups of trees from early October through November and sometimes beyond. Never all at once.

A location that I love to photograph this time of year is a rare exception to this variety: the Senate parks. The grove of oaks located in the park due north of the Capitol covers acreage owned in the 18th century by George Washington. Also, further north on the lower level of the same park, is a collection of cherry trees that are lovely in both fall and spring.

Capitol Grounds in Fall
Capitol Grounds in fall, photo showing small depth of field

The diverse arrangement of tree varieties opens up the opportunity to incorporate different textures and in a single photographic composition. A single shot this time of year can capture two or more annual stages in the life of deciduous trees, from green through color to bare. Careful framing is necessary to give the impression that fall color has overtaken the entire Hill. It is possible to juxtapose colorful deciduous and dark evergreen trees, and throw in the Capitol Dome for good measure! My own favorites are trees, including a Gingko (shown above), that turn brilliant color in the northeast quadrant of Capitol Square. 

Using a shallow depth of field (large aperture, example shown right) or a perspective-control lens with some pan/swing/tilt distortion can open up other effects, such as abstracting fall colors into a pleasingly soft backdrop for a portrait, or separating a colorful fall branch from its still-green surroundings with pinpoint focus.

With so much autumnal beauty outdoors, you may need reminding to take in the tour inside.

A few parting thoughts as you pack your camera bag:

Please be aware that use of a tripod requires a special permit from the United States Capitol Police. Also, construction of the platform for the upcoming Presidential Inaugural limits movement on the grounds of the West Front of the Capitol.

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