Thursday, December 8, 2011

Monumental Photos

Wherever they're located, the one thing that almost all monuments have in common is their size.
By Mark Edward Harris Published in Shooting
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
Wherever they're located, the one thing that almost all monuments have in common is their size. They're big—very big. No person or civilization wants the symbols of their existence built for posterity to be diminutive. In photographic terms, it means that unless you're planning to carry thousands of pounds of floodlights, you need to let the sunlight or the site's artificial lights at night do the lighting for you. This may seem obvious in theory, but it's not put into practice as often as it should be if your goal is to capture a dramatic image of a historic landmark or monument.

Washington Monument

In the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Keystone, South Dakota, I chatted with a camera-toting couple about their next day's itinerary. They planned for their morning to be devoted to the Crazy Horse Memorial and the afternoon to Mount Rushmore. This strategy would work if their goal was to photograph both locations backlit. Backlighting works great when you photograph a person without them squinting and to have a nice, natural hairlight. But neither Crazy Horse nor Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt needs this technique in their current stony state. Backlighting these historic figures would result in a very flat photograph. Shadows cast by direct sunlight, on the other hand, would give these gigantic sculptures texture and depth. I didn't run into the couple the next day at either monument, so I don't know if they heeded my suggestion to reverse their itinerary.


A successful photo shoot should be planned in advance and figured into a travel schedule. It's not rocket science—but it is science. Since the sun rises in the east, objects facing east will be front-lit in the morning. Conversely, afternoon sun will illuminate objects facing west.

Be aware that even if you're shooting in a westerly direction in the morning or facing east in the afternoon, natural and man-made objects can cast shadows on your subjects. Flexibility is an important component of photography, especially when the subject is of monumental scale. While Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial and other historic sites such as the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, and the Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza, Mexico, tower above their surroundings, others like the Paul Revere House and the landmark where the Boston Massacre took place do not. While illustrating my master's thesis on the interpretational methods used by Boston's historic sites, I had to constantly be aware of the position of the skyscrapers that now dwarf in size—but not in stature—Beantown's colonial past.

Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt

Before my trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota, I called the ranger's office at Mount Rushmore to confirm the exact direction the presidential heads were facing. Fortunately, the Crazy Horse Memorial was frontlit in the afternoon, which made it possible for me to photograph both monuments in one day. I stayed on at the Crazy Horse Memorial into the evening to photograph the dramatic laser-light show there.

Once you're at the right place at the right time of day, you need to use effective techniques to capture the grandeur in front of your lens. After taking the standard wide, medium and telephoto front views of Mount Rushmore in the beautiful morning light, I took an exhilarating 15-minute helicopter ride over Mount Rushmore for less than $100. I used a fast shutter speed of 1?1000 sec. to avoid camera shake caused by the vibration of my flying camera platform. I then drove halfway around the mountain for some profile shots of President Washington.

Finding an off-the-beaten-path angle at a popular monument can be difficult, but can yield unique images. It's also an enjoyable photographic exercise. For those attempting to create successful stock photography, getting a different perspective is essential.

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