Monumental Photos

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.

Temple Of Kukulcan, Chichen Itza, Mexico


I use Singh-Ray polarizers to reduce unwanted reflections and to enhance blue skies, as well as the company’s graduated neutral-density filters to bring back a sky that may otherwise be lost to a contrasty situation. HDR software (high dynamic range), which combines different exposures of the same scene into one image, is another popular technique for contrast control and image enhancement, but needs a tripod to be most effective.


One piece of equipment that I’ve found indispensable for successful monument photography in low-light situations and night photography is a small, but sturdy carbon-fiber tripod with a ballhead. Too often photographers leave tripods in their car or hotel room because of the hassle of carrying it and the time it takes setting up and breaking down. But a little advance preparation can make working with a tripod easier. For example, I have the ballhead’s quick-release baseplates attached to my camera bodies, so I just have to slip the camera into the ballhead, lock it down, attach a cable release, compose and shoot.

Temple Of The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan


Even if an on-camera flash could project itself far enough to illuminate a distant object such as the Crazy Horse Memorial, it would ruin the carefully constructed light design that was created for the monument. Setting the camera to the lowest ISO will produce the least noise (digital grain) in the resulting image. The long exposure required for a night shot with a low ISO necessitates using a tripod. Proper tripod usage means making sure to turn off the lens’ vibration reduction, using a cable release and, if possible, locking up the camera’s mirror to eliminate any potential camera shake. For the best results, shoot in RAW and fine-tune the Kelvin color temperatures as needed using programs such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple Aperture.


Many historic sites have specific days that can yield the most dramatic images. Twice a year, for example, on the spring and autumn equinox, the northwest corner of the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico casts a series of triangular shadows that create the pattern of a serpent descending its steep staircase. If this was by intention to represent the feathered-serpent god Kukulcan on the equinox, it’s both an incredible engineering and scientific feat. Getting to the site early and staking out a position elevated above the soon-to-arrive throng is the only way to capture this dramatic display. A little advance planning goes a long way toward capturing memorable photographs.

See more of Mark Edward Harris’ photography at

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