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5 Great Places for a Portrait Session in DC (That Aren’t the Lincoln Memorial)

Why Not the Lincoln Memorial?

DC is a popular place for portraits, especially family portraits and engagement portraits, and people who want to make portraits there often want a strong DC vibe. Some of the most visually iconic places in DC are the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, making them popular choices. However, the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument also have some serious drawbacks most people, especially those not from this area, probably haven’t considered.

Parking is a major problem. It might take you quite a while to find parking, especially in the evenings and on weekends and holidays. Then even if you do find a spot, it might be quite a walk to meet your photographer.

Scale can be another significant issue. If you look at the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial on a map, you might get the impression they are basically right next to each other, but people often don’t realize just how big the area really is. There are about 8 city blocks between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and the Reflecting Pool alone is about 5 city blocks long. That’s about a 15-minute purpose-driven walk—almost a mile—and it will take even longer if there are small children or large parties involved. Along the way, there are relatively few hotspots that take advantage of the iconic scenery in unique ways, and many of them are very far apart. Additionally, the pockets of other great spots you’ll find are generally not unique to this specific area in DC—they could be basically anywhere in the monuments district of the city. From an aesthetic standpoint, one historic building in DC kind of looks like any other historic building in DC.

Tourists can be another confounding issue. These are some of the most popular locations in the city for tourists, and there is almost never a time of day, or night, when you won’t find fairly sizable crowds milling about. The weekends can be jam-packed, especially around graduation season or during various city festivals. Of course, when shooting portraits in DC, contending with tourist traffic is just part of the process, but if you’re not attached to these views, of these specific buildings, then avoiding the most popular places and times when possible can make a world of difference.

So what are the other options? I have tons of DC locations worth checking out, but here is a curated list of 5 others that feel “quintessentially DC,” while avoiding some or all of the major problems associated with the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

The Jefferson Memorial

Situated south of the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial offers the grandeur of iconic DC monuments with big white stone steps and pillars, but with significantly less tourist traffic. The out-of-the-way geography helps with that. Dedicated parking is available about 10 minutes away on foot, and the walk to and from the parking lot takes you through a number of great alternative areas, such as the George Mason Memorial. Plus, from the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, you can capture an iconic shot of the Washington Monument. Additionally, the Tidal Basin is just a short walk away, providing scenic variety that rivals even the most beautiful views in DC.

The Library of Congress Grounds

For the historic DC aesthetic, the grounds around the Library of Congress are nearly pitch-perfect. Beautifully manicured lawns are surrounded by huge stonework steps and fountains, offering great opportunities for portraits every 50 feet or so, resulting in a lot more variety with a lot less walking. Multiple points provide exquisite views of the Capitol building, especially from East Capitol Street. The Supreme Court building and its giant pillars also offer a lot of what makes the Lincoln Memorial visually interesting in portraits, but with far fewer tourists. While parking here can be more challenging than at the Jefferson Memorial, it is generally available within a few blocks.

The Kennedy Center Grounds

Though not often thought of as a DC destination for portraits, the Kennedy Center is unmistakably DC when you arrive. The huge white marble building lined with narrow golden pillars offers dramatic angles and beautiful light, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. A sprawling garden and a series of miniature reflecting pools near the front of the building provide a good dose of variety for portraits. Behind the building, there are running water features and sweeping views of the Potomac River. The grounds are often relatively quiet during the week, though they can get busy during shows. Parking is available in the lot under the building, with occasional street parking nearby.

Theodore Roosevelt Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island is a true hidden gem in Washington, DC. A quarter-mile footbridge separates the island from a small dedicated parking lot on George Washington Memorial Parkway. The island is one of the rare locations in the city that blends a natural trail network with monumental architecture. The sprawling trail system offers opportunities for rustic images, and the core attraction in the middle of the island features huge stone slabs and a very-DC statue of Roosevelt. Tourist traffic here is mostly made up of locals. At times, especially on nice days in the evenings, there can be a lot of them, but the scale of the location makes this mostly not an issue. Parking is the main challenge as there is no street parking anywhere, and the dedicated lot is quite small. During busy times, you may have to wait quite a while for a spot to become available. I recommend using this location in the early morning during the week whenever possible.

Bartholdi Fountain & Gardens

Easily overlooked, Bartholdi Fountain and Gardens is 4-5 blocks southwest of the Library of Congress, directly across the street from the United States Botanical Garden. The footprint of the gardens is small, but there is a lot to work with. The centerpiece of the garden is a huge fountain designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, which offers a lot of iconic DC stonework. Pathways wind through the garden and provide many nooks and crannies to discover, offering beautiful settings for portraits. From the gardens, views of the Botanical Garden building and the Capitol building provide opportunities to highlight the DC-centric vibe. In terms of popularity with tourists, Bartholdi is almost entirely unknown. Visitors are typically made up of workers enjoying breaks or locals reading books in the shade. Like the Library of Congress, parking can be a bit of a challenge at times, but during the week, especially in the evenings, street parking is typically available within a couple of blocks. This location also puts you within walking distance of Union Square and the Capitol Reflecting Pool, opening up even more opportunities.

If You Still Want to Take Your Portraits at the Lincoln Memorial…

If you really have your heart set on the Lincoln Memorial, consider holding your session during the week to avoid the weekend influx of tourists. Scheduling early in the morning can make finding parking a bit easier, and help you avoid the tourist rush later in the afternoon. Pick your priorities and don’t try to do it all. I suggest focusing most of your session mid-way between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, where you can get nice views of both locations without wading through the thickest of tourist activity. Out of respect for their purpose, do not use the war memorials dispersed throughout the corridor as playful backdrops.