Where can I take pictures in DC?
June 23, 2008 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Photography in Washington, DC: Where can I take my camera, and where can I take my tripod?

I'm going to DC for a few days, and would like to take some pictures. I'm an avid photographer, and will be bringing a large SLR and tripod, so "sneak the camera in your back pocket" isn't an option. Showing up at a place with my camera that doesn't allow it would be a major imposition to me and everyone I'm traveling with, so I'd like to hit the ground running.

Can anyone comment whether cameras and tripods are permitted at the following places:
- White House (okay, this is a no, I know)
- Old Post Office Pavilion
- On/of the metro trains? (Boston's T doesn't allow photography, I know)
- The various Monuments (I've heard that the Lincoln Monument security disallow tripods)
- Inside the Capitol
- National Cathedral
- Smithsonian
- International Spy Museum (no cameras per their site)

Bonus points: any other good places I should bring the camera that I haven't thought of?
posted by fogster to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're correct on the Lincoln Monument, but it only applies to the interior. I was told not to use it in there, but the steps and lower portion was fine. It gets pretty crowded, so I guess that makes sense. I've never had ANY issue with a camera at other DC locations/museums. I wasn't using a tripod at those, though.
posted by blaneyphoto at 11:15 AM on June 23, 2008

For the various monuments, your best bet may be contacting the Parks Service.

Inside the Capitol: Are you an American? Contact your congresscritter, and ask a staffer - if you need special permission for the tripod, they may be able to arrange something. This isn't weird. Staffers get asked stuff like this all the time.

For the Metro, this slow-to-load pdf seems to indicate that you should ask permission from the press office. I have taken photos in the Metro, and seen a zillion tourists take photos in the Metro, and never been or seen anyone be stopped or questioned for doing so (even post-9/11), but these were all small point-and-shoot cameras, not DSLRs with tripods.

I can't help with the others, but for additional cool places to photograph, how about Rock Creek Cemetery?
posted by rtha at 11:20 AM on June 23, 2008

I didn't take my tripod to DC, so I can't help you there, but I had no problem taking photos with my SLR in any of the monuments, the Capitol, Library of Congress or the Smithsonian museums. As I recall, you aren't allowed to take photos in the Library of Congress reading room or in the observation deck above, but you are allowed to take photos in the other parts of that incredibly beautiful building. My guess is that you won't be allowed to use a tripod inside the Capitol because it's incredibly crowded and the tour moves quickly. You can carry your camera, but you are not allowed to take photos inside the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. If I remember correctly, photography is allowed only in limited areas of the Holocaust Museum. Also, there has been a recent controversey about photography in DC's Union Station.
posted by cnc at 11:31 AM on June 23, 2008

Here's a pamphlet outlining your rights as a photographer. Read it, and keep a copy with you to present if confronted. Enjoy!
posted by mdonley at 11:45 AM on June 23, 2008

I lived in DC up until a few years ago and took thousands of photos all over the city. The rule of thumb was to always keep moving when close up to any of the monuments, the security people sometimes get pretty nervous when someone pauses for a while, especially when it disrupts traffic flow. The pathway around the back of the White House is especially notorious for this so take pictures and go on your way.

Also, if you aren't sure about the rules just ask a security staff member. They're used to getting questions like this all of the time and you never know, they might say yes to the tripod.

I was able to take all of the pictures I wanted in the Old Post Office Tower and up in the Washington monument. I've taken lots of pictures inside all of the Smithsonians and it seems like it's unrestricted as long as you don't use a flash. This policy might not be uniform in all of the museums, but I've never been stopped or scolded. If there is restricted photography on the Metro I've never seen it enforced; I've seen people busted for eating french fries, but I've never seen a tourist get in trouble for taking snaps in the terminals.

As for extra photographic opportunities, I would look into shooting the Library of Congress (though I'm not sure if you can get in without a card), the national zoo, the tidal basin/Jefferson Memorial, the giant Einstein down by the Academy of Sciences, the Gothic buildings of Georgetown U. Also, all of the monuments are open at night. Most of them look really different after dark, and some of them, namely the Korean War Memorial, are much improved.
posted by Alison at 11:55 AM on June 23, 2008

I know first-hand that photography is allowed in:

National Gallery of Art (sculpture wing is great)
All of the Smithsonian galleries (they have a flickr page, even)
Phillips Gallery
Nat. Arboretum
Nat. Botanic Gardens
Building Museum hall (exhibits are off limits I think)

Without written permission I wouldn't try to set up a tripod anywhere but the outside attractions.
posted by cowbellemoo at 11:57 AM on June 23, 2008

Tripod will be a problem at the Capitol. CHPD are trained to stop anyone using a tripod anywhere on the Capitol grounds anywhere within the area bounded by 1st St NW, 1st St NE, and Constitution to Independence Avenues. That includes the lower terrace, lawn, and Summer House. Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial will probably be likewise. Haven't had a problem using a tripod by the Washington Monument, at least.
posted by brownpau at 11:58 AM on June 23, 2008

Ooh, and don't miss the LoC's Jefferson Building fountain (capitol side). Best in the city.
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:00 PM on June 23, 2008

You can, indeed, get into the Library of Congress without a card, at least into the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building, where all the good stuff is.

Pretty much, though, it seems to be up to the particular security guard. There was a recent incident at Union Station much discussed on the DCist website; the comments give a lot of anecdotes about DC photography.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:42 PM on June 23, 2008

On/of the Metro trains I've seen signs in some Metro stations that say Photography Not Allowed, most prominently (not surprisingly I suppose) at the Pentagon stop.

DC's Metro stations are all boringly the same and the lighting is kept very low, so I think you would be using a flash which may draw attention to yourself. Having said all that, I often see tourists taking pictures of each other on the trains themselves.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 1:16 PM on June 23, 2008

This isn't on your list, but I heard on the news last night that photography will be allowed within the Pentagon 9/11 memorial.
posted by sperose at 1:49 PM on June 23, 2008


But for the record, photos are not currently permitted. We were there for a tour last week (you need to arrange this in advance through your congressman/senator's office) and they only permitted photos in the "holding area" outside the gift shop.

The National Archives allows photos of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution (no flash). However, both days we were there, there was a line to get into the building and a line to see the documents. We finally got in as they were getting ready to close, so the guard wasn't allowing pictures, just rushing everyone through the line. If you want pics, get there earlier in the day.

The Awakening is a cool sculpture that would make a unique photo op! It's on a peninsula in the Potomac.

If you happen to get a Capitol tour, with gallery passes you won't be able to take your camera into the gallery. All electronics, including phones, must be placed into an extremely high tech......cardboard box.

And whatever you do, don't leave anything unattended in the Capitol! We had to evacuate the Capitol during our tour due to a suspicious package. The bomb squad was called in and we later got a glimpse of the package - a lovely tapestry knitting bag!

Chinatown (near the Smithsonian American Art Museum) has a very cool archway upon entering. The art museum itself has incredible architecture. it recently reopened after being remodeled and now has a large enclosed courtyard....the Great Hall upstairs is just stunning.
posted by caroljean63 at 3:06 PM on June 23, 2008

My post above was supposed to say "But for the record, photos are currently not permitted in the PENTAGON"
posted by caroljean63 at 4:29 PM on June 23, 2008

Unless you're rocking some weak-ass t-rex arms, do yourself a favor and forgo the tripod. I'm a photographer and I work in DC. I've never had any issues photographing anything in this city. Granted, I have press credentials issued by the federal government, but I prefer to avoid attracting any attention that would warrant their use.

Travel photography 101: you can't hit the ground running with a tripod. If you're really not strong enough to hold your camera properly by bracing your elbows against your body, you should get a retractable MONOpod. It gets the job done, takes up less space, weighs less and attracts less attention.

DC is a photogenic city. You can photograph freely in any place with reasonable public access (Metro, etc.)- this means public and private property. If you are asked to cease on private property like the Spy Museum, you must do so or risk arrest for trespassing. Be respectful of law enforcement and signs that say no flash photography and always offer up a smile instead of a scowl. Assholes with cameras make my job that much harder when I'm dealing with an authority figure who has had one too many run-ins with self-righteous camera-toting tourists. Smiles and common courtesy will go a loooong way toward enhancing your DC photo safari experience.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 5:26 PM on June 23, 2008

Maybe they're getting slack or you folks are lucky, but to the best of my knowledge its still illegal to take photographs on the Metro. (I do know people who have been threatened very seriously with arrest for it, though not in the last several years.)
posted by desuetude at 8:21 PM on June 23, 2008

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