3d pan white

Washington, DC on $85 a Day


Update on the lastest viral phase from Google+ and lauren.vortex.com at the bottom of this (long!) backstory...




Fun with perspective around Washington, DC. The US $5, $10, $20 and $50 notes feature the Lincoln Memorial, US Treasury, White House and Capitol respectively.


(The $1 and $2 don't feature buildings, while the $100 features Independence Hall, in Philadelphia.)


Getting these right took a wide angle lens and really small aperture, both of which help give the depth of field needed so that both foreground and background are reasonably crisp.


With the exception of the Treasury, these buildings ranked highly on the recent "AIA150" list, with the White House at #2, just behind the Empire State building; Capitol at #6 and Lincoln Memorial at #7. All are also National Historic Landmarks - except for, oddly, the Lincoln Memorial.




This one really has become popular, a very pleasant suprise. Here's some more of the back-story: two weeks ago (Nov 2007), I get told that I need to attend a Monday all-day conference near Dulles - the airport that's 30 miles or so from DC, more or less in the middle of nowhere. Cool, says I, I haven't been to DC before; so I get to book a flight out on the Fri night and back on the Tuesday (getting the company the cheaper weekend flight), and get myself a hotel on Priceline for the days that I have to myself.


The overnight flight from Seattle to DC (about 4 hours) is painful. I get no sleep at all, but figure I'll get through it. About 7am local time I get into Dulles - which is a really ugly airport if all you see are the Arrivals parts with the dropped tile ceilings - much nicer when you depart from it, and see the spacious terminal. I find the undocmented DC transit bus stop - only $3, goes all the way to downtown, but there's no signage at all for it in the airport, you need to know in advance which curb to get it from - I ain't going to pay for an overpriced $9 shuttle that only takes me as far as the metro, or worse, and overpriced taxi. It takes me to L'Enfant Plaza, and I catch a red line up to Woodley Park where the hotel is.


I check in, freshen up, and figure I'll walk to downtown to get a feel for the city - DC is one of those mythic places - a bit like Vegas, actually - where the thing it's most famous for is not really representative of the city itself or where 'real' people live. So I stroll down Connecticut Ave to Dupont, seeing some of 'neighborhood' DC, and eventually make it to the White House.


As I pass one of the buildings on the way, can't remember which one, I remember something that I read in the "Irreverent Guide To Washington DC" about the Treasury building being the one on the $10 note... I suddenly realize that the building that I'm actually looking at, the White House, is also on a US note... Huh, what's on the others? I fumble in my pockets and find a $1 - boring - then a $5 and $10 and $20 - gosh, the're all... here!


First shot of the White House was from behind the railings, and totally washed out - too much exposure. So I tweak ISO, shutter and aperture a bit more, and play with setting focus near vs local vs part way between - and after a couple more photos, get a good balance between near and far. But the bars are annoying, so I try sticking my left hand through - keeping the camera just behind - to get some clear shots.


One interesting quirk of the White House drawing is that it's actually taken a bit to the left of center: the clue is the way the pillars line up with the windows behind them, and the flag pole vs the tip of the roof.


So I'm dead pleased that I've got a good White House photos - so on to the Treasury, next door...


Which looks nothing like the note. Oh, wait, wrong side... Walk around to the other side, and there it is... but the statue in the middle of the steps is far too big, I can get the columns to line up, but it doesn't work at all. So I need to walk backwards to get the perspective right. Conveniently, there's a monument just behind that has a ledge on it - I head over, step up, and now the picture fits.


I play around here for a while - main issue here is whether I hold the note in the sun, or in the shade of the monument - the photos with it in the sun worked better, so ended up using that.


This was on Saturday. First time in DC, so I'm really there to do basic sightseeing. I next head to the Old Post Office and take in the view from the tower, and do some more wandering around. I'm beginning to get *really* tired, what with the lack of sleep, overnight flight, and the time diference - so I end up heading back to the hotel and sleeping for the rest of the evening right through till Sunday morning.


Sunday morning - still tired, but I somehow motivate myself into dragging myself downtown... I must complete the Set, I tell myself, who knows when I'll be back here again. Back to the White House, get a couple more shots, and a few more at the Treasury. This time I have the technique down pat.


On to the Lincoln Monument - I skip the Washington Monument, pass through the new WWII memorial and get some basic tourist shots. Try taking a photo of the Lincoln Memorial from there, but it's too far away: it might line up, but the note is too big, and my arm isn't long enough for it to work. So I walk around the reflecting pond to the monument itself.


Odd thing here is that the picture of the monument is taken from the road between the two sets of steps - it doesn't work if you're down one set at the same level as the reflecting pool. The sun is being a problem here again - as with the White House earlier that same day - shining in from the left, and showing through the back of the note. I try blocking it with my hand, but that gives the picture a weird pose - nobody holds notes like that. Finally I stick a $1 inside the $5 just to block the light - and it works a charm. Some 20 photos later, I figure I've got what I need, and head North to the Foggy Bottom subway station, to head to Union Station.


I get some food at the Union Station food court, and take a few photos in the station itself, quite an impressive place. Now on to the Capitol...


There's one problem, though - I don't have a $50 note. Who uses $50's these days? ATMs seem to dispense only $20... Crap. I'm going to have to ask for one... So I go to one of the stores in the station, and spot a book that I figure I'd get for a friend anyhow. While paying for it, I ask the cashier - hey, could you give me back a $50 note? - as I offer $60 for my purchase. This gets me a puzzled look, but the guy plays along anyhow. He jokingly holds up a $100 note, as if offering me more money, and my immediate reaction is "no, that's not from DC, it's Philadelphia", which he totally doesn't get; but I get the $50 note anyway. It's a bit crumpled, but hey, the picture is still visible. I can work with this.


Out to the Capitol. The East side is off-limits - there's a new visitor center being constructed - and I hope that the pic on the note is of the other side... So I walk around to the front - and it sorta matches. I'm far too near, though - the perspective is all wrong, and the wings are too far apart. I take a few tourist photos anyhow, and head out to the field in front, to join the other tourists who are taking photos there.


I then spend probably 15..25 minutes wandering around in the field, holding up the note, checking out if I'm standing in the right place. This time, the ideal spot is just a touch to the right of center.


The sun is a problem yet again: I'd like to have the note in direct sunlight and get the crisp colors that I got with the Treasury shot, but it's not going to happen here: I need to hold the note so close to the lens that the lens itself is casting a round shadow on the corner of the note where my fingers are. Flash is no use, since it would also be blocked by the lens. It's just got to be a shade photo, then...


Another 20 or so photos, and I hope that I've got a good one. Then it's south to a subway stop, back to the hotel, collect my bag, take subway out to Rosslyn subway station, and catch the 5A bus back to Dulles area for the conference on Monday.


Back at the hotel, I pick the "best 4" - some of the other shots lined up a bit better, but these all had the same basic framing, with finger-and-thumb and the same level of scenery around the note. I use a simple photo editor to balance the colors a bit and get the light levels more or less in the same ballpark, glue them into a single image, and upload to flickr - and just for fun, submit to DCist. Hey, ya never know, they might get a click or two... next thing you know, it's front page on digg and reddit, and the hits come pouring in!




Some of the tech details with this sort of stuff:


I've played with perspective stuff before, so mostly know how to do it. Key things that help are:


* Having a SLR camera: what you see through the viewfinder ("through the lens") is exactly how the finished shot will look. With a point-and-shoot with separate viewfinder, what you see is slightly off from what you get, so you need to work with the screen on the back, and they're usually not detailed enough to get fine alignment.


* The big trick for near/far stuff like this is getting a big enough depth of field - otherwise background is in focus but the note is blurry, or the other way around.

Using a small aperture does the job here - this was probably F22 or so. Go too small, though, and sensor dust can start to become an issue. Smaller aperture can also mean darker image, but there's plenty of light in these daytime shots, and wide angle (as opposed to telephoto) also means there's more light to work with. I think these were ISO100, and still had a decently fast shutter speed so that shake wasn't an issue.


* Wide Angle lens (Sigma 10-20mm) was really useful here - I needed to hold the note fairly close to the lens for these, and wide angle still got some of the surround. Also has larger depth of field, which helps keep everything in focus.


* Lining things up: need a reasonably steady hand, and lots of patience. Just keep moving around till things line up. Look at the drawing for clues: eg. how are pillars aligned compared to windows? Bits are cheap, so take a ton of photos. Accept the fact that your hand - both hands, really, since the camera plus lens is quite heavy - will sway slightly, so as soon as things look close to aligned, press the trigger. And again, and again. Delete the ones that are clear misses, and then go shoot some more. Realize that it's only when you get back to the laptop or desktop that you'll know which ones really work, so take extra, just in case.


* I used Manual mode for these - setting the aperture small, and then playing with shutter speed, while keeping an eye on the light meter info. The great thing about digital is that you can see if it works there and then, and adjust as necessary. To dark? Longer shutter. Too bright? Shorter shutter. Not sharp enough? Try smaller aperture, and play with focus a bit: keeping in mind that when looking through the lens, the aperture is completely open, so doesn't represent what will actually get captured.


I'm not sure if it's possible to do these with a regular point-and-shoot camera. You'd likely have to use the screen on the back instead of the viewfinder to line things up. As for depth of field - smaller sensors should mean you get a decent depth-of-field. Some point-and-shoots might not go wide enough, so the note may get cropped a bit - but you could probably move back further to get more space (though you then may end up with railings in the way - or wet feet, in the case of the Lincoln Memorial :) )




Google+ / lauren.vortex.com update:


A few days ago - June 2011 - I noticed a spike of about 300 views a day on this image on its flickr stats - and all the referring URLs were nonsense - like "/url?sa=z&n=1310582468976&url=http%3A%2F%2…" . These seem to be redirect URLs that Google+ uses internally - follow them, and you don't get to the article that refers to this page - you just end up right back at this page.


One link, however, came from lauren.vortex.com/archive/000879.html - a blog entry entitled " 5 10 20 50 - How to Get Fake Credits on the Web". Somebody has posted a copy of the image on Google+, the image had gone viral on Google+, getting about 1000 +1's, and being widely shared. The guy who uploaded the image didn't have any attribution, however. One of the people who saw the image recognized it, did an image search, found this page (the original!), and wrote the blog entry, and posted that as a comment to the Google+ image. That blog entry contained a link to this page - and that's how I found that blog entry which explained the story.


You can't get to that Google+ image posting from outside Google+, however, so I finished signing up for my account there, searched for the title of the post ("U.S. Bills mission complete"), and found the post - and added a comment basically saying "Hi! I took this! Original here! kthxbye!"


I've no ill will at all to the guy who uploaded this to Google; people upload cool stuff they find on the internet to their Google+/Facebook/etc pages all the time. I don't think he was thinking that by posting the image to his page, that other people who saw it would assume he was the creator; his intent was just to share something cool that he found. I'd certainly have preferred that he link directly back to this page and/or provide attribution - but unfortunately since this image has been widely copied without attribution, and he very likely found this on a site without that information, he wouldn't have had the information to do this. (tineye or google image search are great tools to use for tracking down images, but they're at least level-2 web user tools.) I added the copyright notice to the image in early 2008 after I noticed a lot of copies appearing - but by then it was too late...


The appropriate folks to be annoyed at are the various 'cool image' aggregation sites that pull content from elsewhere on the web and host copies of it, rarely with attribution, rarely with a link back to the source, and which make money from their page hits.


Anyhow, all ends well, more folks get to see and enjoy the photo, so I'm happy - another fun chapter in the story of my 15secs of internet b-list fame!

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Taken on February 6, 2008