A Photographer’s Tour of Arlington

With beautiful memorials, charming neighborhoods, and endless views of the Potomac River and Washington, D.C., Arlington has an intriguing mix of scenes to keep any shutterbug clicking away. “I love shooting the skyline from Arlington, as nearly any photo captures the city of Washington so well. Anyone worldwide will instantly recognize the city!” says local photographer Jake McGuire. We asked Jake to recommend his favorite Arlington photo spots (including many places to shoot that famous skyline). Check out his list that will leave you with beautiful pictures of your capital region vacation.

1. Gravelly Point Park

A local photo favorite, Gravelly Point is a wide open grassy area along the Potomac River just north of Reagan National Airport. This park is a wonderful place to shoot photos due to its vast expanse and panoramic views at any time of day. Part of the National Park Service’s George Washington Memorial Parkway, it features plenty of room for picnicking and sports for the whole family, all while having “monumental” views of the Washington, D.C. skyline. The park’s location near the north end of the airport’s main runway provides an added bonus: everyone gets the thrill of seeing and hearing low-flying aircraft taking off and coming in for landings. The best time for catching low-flying aircraft is when the wind is out of the south, so the planes come from the north to get extra “lift” for a better landing!

Jake's Tips: It is a wide-open space with views in all directions: the river, the airport and the bike trail with lots of activity and motion! I like to shoot pictures with movement (boats, bicycles, people) with a striking backdrop like the D.C. skyline and the monuments. I most often use a telephoto lens as it brings objects closer together and has them "stacked up" in a tight composition. So here, you can get bicycle riders on the path or boats on the river with the U.S. Capitol looming in the background. Most cell cameras can do a zoom in to mimic a telephoto lens by bringing the distant objects closer and thereby filling the frame. The place is alive with activity, especially when the weather is nice, so shoot away!

Planes fly overhead Gravelly Point Park as people take photographs
Planes flying overhead at Gravelly Point Park

2. Mount Vernon Trail

Running alongside and through Gravelly Point, the Mount Vernon Trail is a popular multipurpose paved path used by bikers, runners, joggers, walkers and parents pushing baby carriages. It also features panoramic and monumental views throughout. The trail is a great place to take pictures any time of the day. Make sure to pull off the path to snap that perfect picture, since some of those bikers ride quickly!

Jake's Tips: While the Mount Vernon trail has many photogenic spots, my favorite areas to shoot are close to the water (the Potomac River), which helps you get photos with vast vistas, up and down the river. The trail also crosses over and under some unique bridges that can add intrigue to your images.

Bicyclists, walkers and runners enjoy the D.C. views along the Mount Vernon Trail
Activity along the Mount Vernon Trail

3. The View of D.C.

The View of D.C. is Arlington’s new, high-rise attraction where you can take in magnificent panoramic views of the greater D.C. area. It provides a complete view of the Washington, D.C. skyline, showing virtually every monument, landmark and memorial from the venue’s ultra-modern, 12,000-square-foot space. The observation deck has an entirely indoor, 360-degree view of the region where you and your family or friends can have fun spotting the Pentagon, Reagan National Airport, Georgetown, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Capitol building, and a vast view of the Potomac River flowing as far as the eye can see. You can also make your way upstairs to the outdoor deck for closer views and fun photo ops.

Jake's Tips: For photo buffs, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows allow you to shoot photos no matter what the weather is outside. You can take pictures any time of the day or evening as the light changes color, tone and direction each hour of the day. The best time to shoot the D.C. skyline (to the east) is in the afternoon or evening when the sun is behind you (to the west), giving your photos a brightly lit scene. When the evening arrives and the sun sets behind you, the monuments and memorials light up with their own lights giving your photos that "sparkle" that is best obtained during twilight. Why? Twilight is the period after the sun sets, but before it gets completely dark, so your photos contain a balance of a little light left in the sky with the warm glow of the city lights.

The view of the D.C. skyline from the Observation Deck at CEB Tower
D.C. skyline from The View of D.C.

4. Potomac River

The Potomac River runs alongside Arlington and is the dividing point which separates Arlington and Washington, D.C. Rivers, in general, are great places to shoot photos, but the Potomac borders on the magnificent as it has monumental views in all directions and is easily accessible by boat, canoe, kayak or tour boats. It can also be photographed from the five bridges crossing the river, between Arlington and D.C., as well as many tall buildings in the area. The river flows more than 400 miles from the Potomac Highlands in West Virginia into the Chesapeake Bay, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Jake's Tips: Take your camera along for a walk on Key Bridge, which connects Arlington to D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood. This iconic bridge is about 100 feet above the river, offering a different vantage point than the bike trails that are usually at river level. Views are magnificent in all directions allowing picture takers to capture the famed Watergate complex, the Kennedy Center and crew boats and races that glide across the river on many spring and autumn days. If you're lucky, you can catch a high school or college crew regatta racing through. A bright midday sun makes things sparkle, but sunsets and sunrises are often reflected in the river for extra color and drama in a photo.

Crew boats row on the Potomac River
Crew boats row on the Potomac River

5. Air Force Memorial

The United States Air Force Memorial honors the service of the personnel of the United States Air Force and its heritage organizations. The memorial is adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, up the hill from the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Joyce Street. The three memorial spires range from 201 feet (61 meters) to 270 feet (82 meters) high and appear to be soaring. Its array of stainless steel arcs against the sky evoke the image of contrails of the Air Force Thunderbirds as they perform the Bomb Burst aerial maneuver. While you are there, the nearby Columbia Pike neighborhood has an abundance of coffee shops, cafes and international restaurants.

Jake's Tips: Taking photos at the Air Force Memorial is both fun and a challenge, as the memorial is a unique vertical structure with lots of curves. While the memorial is stationary, the ever-changing clouds above and the sunlight on the reflective, stainless-steel surfaces change by the minute as the sun methodically moves from east to west. As the day progresses, you'll have an infinite variety of shots to take. Pick a time, stay for a while and your images will all be different. The only difficulty will be editing down your dozens of beautiful shots. Happy shooting!

View of the Air Force Memorial from directly below the spires
The Air Force Memorial

6. Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 United States active duty service members, veterans and their families, as well as many notable citizens from throughout American history. While a solemn place of respect, the serene cemetery is an elegant and quiet place to snap photos in nearly any direction, and is home to many monuments and memorials. With this photo, I captured the Kennedy gravesite below with Arlington House, the former Custis-Lee Mansion, above. Rather than catching people in the image, I thought it was appropriate to just get their shadows as visitors are merely passing through.

Jake's Tips: Arlington National Cemetery has many photogenic places. I like to shoot at the Memorial Amphitheater (pictured here), the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the John F. Kennedy Gravesite, and the seeming miles of roads winding through the area. Each vista has long lines of grave markers, which provide repeat patterns and images with rich textures. Autumn is my favorite time to shoot, as the colorful trees offer a kaleidoscope of inviting colors!

John F. Kennedy gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery
The John F. Kennedy Gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery

7. Marine Corps War Memorial

One of my favorite places in Arlington to take photos is at the United States Marine Corps War Memorial (often called the Iwo Jima Memorial). The location can't be beaten, as it is on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River and provides magnificent views of the D.C. skyline. Also, being a 360-degree, three-dimensional memorial, it has an infinite variety of angles to find unique compositions with plenty of features and detail.

Jake's Tips: The Marine Corp War Memorial at dawn provides a stately view of the D.C. skyline. Take a slow 360-degree walk around the memorial, shooting various angles. Come at least once at dawn and once at sunset to shoot some more, if you have time. You’ll have dozens of great photos to frame or post on social media.

Marine Corps War Memorial at sunset with the Washington Monument in the background
The Marine Corps War Memorial at dawn

8. Theodore Roosevelt Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island, an 88.5-acre island located in the Potomac River, is a great place to shoot photos. It is a seeming wilderness of forests, swamps, trails, and wildlife, and appropriately features a giant statue of Theodore Roosevelt. It is also a quiet refuge from the bustle of the city. The island is maintained by the National Park Service as part of the nearby George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Jake's Tips: Even before you cross the footbridge to the island, you'll see that the Potomac River is teeming with wildlife, kayakers, crew teams and paddle boarders offering you lots of photo ops. Once on the island, take the foot trail that circumnavigates the entire island, as each bend in the path reveals the likes of the Georgetown waterfront, Georgetown University, the Kennedy Center and much more. I’d suggest taking photos midday, as the park is closed at night. In the middle of the day, beams of sunlight make their way through the high treetops, giving photographers more light to work with. On the south side of the island, there is a real marsh with a boardwalk allowing you to pass through the area; it's often frequented by long-legged birds like Great Blue Herons looking for a fishy lunch. The boardwalk eventually takes you to drier land and through the trees where you get additional views of the Kennedy Center and the D.C. skyline, along with boat traffic and rowers plying the Potomac.

Statue of Theodore Roosevelt at Theodore Roosevelt Island
Statue of Theodore Roosevelt

Make memories in Arlington and leave with some fantastic photos of your experience. Remember to tag your photos with #StayArlington.

Jake McGuire is a Washington, D.C. photographer and author. Find out more about Jake and his Little Square Picture Books featuring Arlington and D.C. at his website dcjakemcguire.com.

Author: Jake McGuire