If you have lived or worked in the DC Metro area then you know that the rush hour traffic is almost as famous as the National Monuments and Museums in downtown DC. A recent report put the average commute time at 35 minutes, with 25% of workers travelling for over an hour to get to work. These numbers don't take in to account rush hour "snags". I know from experience that it is very normal for a commute that takes 45 minutes on a normal day, will take between 1.5-2 hours at least one day a week due to a traffic jam caused by a wreck, construction, or even worse by seemingly nothing at all!
But there is beauty to be found in this commute, and I found it in early morning long exposure shots. A couple of my favorite roads for this is the George Washington Parkway and the Arlington Memorial Bridge. They contrast beautifully in that the Parkway is smooth and flowing, while the bridge is potholed and bumpy.
I found it best to start shooting around astronomical dawn (usually about an hour prior to sunrise, which is technically when you can see the horizon). This allows time to walk a particular area, view the flow that morning, and get set up. By the time nautical dawn came around (usually about 30 minutes prior to sunrise) I usually had a shot or two picked out and I could execute my plan.
I would usually start out by taking a high ISO shot to get the framing correct, then dial the ISO back to 100 and start with a 7-10 second shot. That gave me an idea of what I was going to capture, and how the flow was going to look against the backdrop. I would then adjust my aperture accordingly, but usually I would end up with quite a small apeture setting to allow for the longer exposure. After those test shots, I would set the camera to 20-30 second exposure (depending on the lighting), wait for a pod of traffic, and start the shot just before the pod of traffic came in to my field of view.
Finally, I can't say enough (and it probably goes without saying) that a good tripod is paramount when taking shots like this. I have a number of photos that I was initially excited about, but due to my use of a sub-standard tripod, ended up unusable due to camera movement. Those frustrations are a main reason I went to a Gitzo traveler tripod; an awesome piece of equipment.
Another piece of equipment that is nice to have for a situation like this is a remote shutter release. While you can either carefully press the shutter or utilize the timer, each of these approaches has their own drawback. If you carefully press the shutter this will undoubtedly lead to a shot or two that are blurry due to that initial press no matter how careful you are. If you utilize the timer it becomes much more difficult to time the shot with moving objects, like cars traveling at varying speeds.
All American Commute
This is one of my favorite photographs. There is so much character in the car lights, and the runner's light on the right hand side of the photo. I really like how the headlights illuminate the bumps in the road that are the cause of erratic lines in the first place. To me the lines symbolize the chaos that is the daily commute in DC. A commuter really never knows what he or she will face when they first leave the house in the morning.
This photo was taken with my Nikon D7000 with the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 lens. It is a 30 second exposure with a large aperture setting. I was actually standing on the edge of a round-about, protected by some construction signs (which is also seemingly fitting). I did not have a good tripod at the time, but made the clunker that I had work.
As far as timing goes it snapped this exposure about 15 minutes prior to sunrise. You can see the haze creating a nice reddish tint on the horizon. At first I thought I would have liked to have taken this photo a bit earlier in the morning, but the more I study the photo the more I like how the white, yellow and red of the sky match up with the colors in the break and headlights that flow across the bridge.
Overall, if I had to do it again I would like to have my D800 camera and see what this would have looked like with a full frame sensor. But alas, it was not to be...and as I it I really to like the way this photo turned out.
Potomac Bridge, Morning Commute
This photo was taken pre-dawn on a cloudy day in DC. I was actually perched precariously on the wall that you can see in the bottom third of the photo. This may not have been the smartest decision, especially because it was a windy day, but it gave me the elevated perspective I was looking for. This allowed me to split the frame on the horizontal axis with the land, which creates a nice balance between the water and the clouds; which both have a nice purple tone to them.
Again this is a longer exposure photo at 25 seconds, and it took patience to capture traffic both on the bridge and on the expressway on the far side of the river.
I like how reflective and somber the photo is, and how it incorporates the entire length of the National Mall (from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capital Building). It would have been neat to have more color in the sky, but in the end I'm not sure that would have made the photo better, just completely changed the mood of it.
For this photo I again used my Nikon D7000 with the 18-105mm kit lens. I again used a small aperture, which in addition to allowing the longer exposure also created a nice sparkle on the lights. The shutter speed was again around 20 seconds with an ISO of 100.
World War II & Lincoln Memorials
For this photo I again used my Nikon D7000 camera with the kit 18-105 lens, and had lens as wide as I could go; which admittedly with this setup was all that wide; but I think it all worked out. I was standing about al close to the road as I could without being in traffic (which again is not advisable, but completely necessary to obtain the desired affect).
I also waited until a couple of tour busses were lined up to cross my path and started the exposure just prior to when the entered the frame. You can tell it is a clear pre-dawn morning as the sky in the background is a deep blueish purple. You can also see a plane in the top third of the photo, it had just taken off from DCA and was heading up the Potomac over Rosslyn and out of the city.
To me this photo is fast. I'm not sure why I get that feeling when looking at it, but I most definitely do. And that is strange because the posted speed limit on this road is 25 MPH, but nobody ever follows that sign and most commuters go at least 40 MPH; maybe that explains why the photo feels fast!
Full Moon over the Patomac
This view of the memorial bridge is one of my favorite early morning / late night photo points in DC. There is just so much going on. If there is a (close to) full moon then it is usually setting over Arlington Cemetary (the hill in the background). There are always cars racing along the Ohio Drive portion of the expressway. If the weather is right then you will see plenty of folks out rowing on the river (you can see their lights in the photo on the left). And of course, there is always traffic flowing across the bridge.
Or maybe it's just a great place to find free parking! This portion of the parkways has free parking that is usually open at this time of the morning and provides easy access to the bridge and the Lincoln Memorial side of the National Mall.
I took these shots at 18mm on my Nikon D7000 with the kit lens. Each photo has a small aperture setting (between 7-16) and a longer exposure of around 25 seconds.
GW Parkway & Rosslyn Towers
This photo is of the George Washington Parkway and was taken from underneath the Memorial Bridge tunnel while on the bike path (finally a barrier between me and the traffic!). You can see the twin towers of Rosslyn in the upper middle third of the photo, they are designed to look like airplane wings and are awesome structures. You can also see a bike light in the background in the middle right third of the photo.
What I really like about this photo is how smooth and fast the break lights are and how these lights really light up, what was a completely dark, underpass. I think it is really awesome how the lights all start red and they seem to color shift to yellow as they turn the corner.
This photo is emblematic of what happens at least half the time when I go out on a photo walk. I usually have a plan, and a couple of particular shots, in mind. But inevitably some of my favorite shots end up being the unplanned scenes that I see on the way.
For this photo I again used my Nikon D7000 with the kit lens at 18mm and my horrible tripod which I have since replaced.
Washington Monument, Sunrise Bus Lights
This photo again was an unplanned event. I was taking photos of the World War II Memorial (just across the street from the Washington Monument, to the left of the frame in this photo) at the time. What I really like about this photo are the high light lines created by the bus flowing across the frame. I also like that you can see through the trees in the middle of the photo, and see more of the gorgeous clear pre-sunrise color in the sky.
One thing I didn't like at first was the construction sigh that is in the left middle third of the shot. But after looking at the photo for a while I started to recognize this as a necessary evil in Washington DC; there is always some type of construction going on. It is something that goes with the territory of being in the city, it communicates progress and everyday annoyance and frustration that go along with that progress.
I again used my Nikon D7000 with the kit lens at 18mm. I had no protection between my camera and the traffic, so that part of the process was a bit nerve racking yet exhilarating.