Categories: How-to Guides

How-to Guide: Lincoln Memorial Statue Bathed in Golden Sunlight

A couple of times of year, around the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun rises more or less directly east. And because Washington DC’s National Mall is lined up on an east-west, north-south axis, that means there are some great photo opportunities for lining up the rising sun with silhouettes of some of the distinctive monuments like the Washington Monument or US Capitol Dome.

If you’re lucky enough to get a perfectly clear sunrise during that time, you’re in for a treat from the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Most of the people there will probably be looking east, towards the rising sun reflecting on the still waters of the Reflecting Pool.

But if you turn around you’ll see something quite unusual. The massive statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln is deep in the back of the Lincoln Memorial’s main chamber. So nearly all the time it’s deep in shade. But with the right combination of time of year and a perfectly clear sunrise, for a brief time the sun shines in directly onto the statue itself.

It doesn’t last very long. Once the sun gets too high or off to the side, the statue will be in shadow again. And the light changes quickly. For about five minutes after the sun first pokes above the horizon you get this wonderful deep orange light. It gradually turns whiter as the sun gets higher. The kind of golden light in the photo above–there’s no Photoshop trickery here; this is how it is directly out of the camera.


You need two essential things for this shot to work. The first is time of year. The ideal time is a week or so either side of one of the equinoxes. Much further away than that and the sun doesn’t line up in the ideal position to give the right combination of light directly onto the statue and the golden color.

The second is a perfectly clear sunrise. More specifically, you want the horizon to the east to be perfectly clear. Any clouds on the horizon will diminish or ruin the effect.

And you obviously want to be there right at sunrise. I’d even recommend getting there half an hour early to take advantage of some beautiful predawn hues on the Reflecting Pool and through the columns of the Lincoln Memorial (I’ll post separately on each of those soon).


Any lens will work, from wide angle to telephoto. This particular shot uses a wide angle (27mm in full-frame equivalent) to incorporate the negative space of the shadow in more of the chamber. But you can also get some very effective shots with any other focal length you have in hand.

I’ve taken many variations of this shot with a number of different cameras. This particular one was taken with a Fujifilm X-T2 with the kit 18-55m lens (at 18mm).

But the specific camera doesn’t matter all that much. I’ve included some variations taken other cameras in the examples below.


While you could, in theory use a tripod, this was shot hand-held. Technically, you’re not allowed to use tripods inside the Lincoln Memorial or on the steps, but the mileage of what you can get away with might vary.

Standing to one side, I tilted the camera up slightly to crop out the shadows that were falling on the statue’s pedestal from some of the other people who were.

Every camera’s metering will react a bit differently to a contrasty scene like this, but my rule of thumb is to meter off the statue–that’s the main focus of the image, after all, and underexpose by about 2/3 to 1 stop. That brings out the rich golden color of the sunlight. It does mean less detail in the shadow, but I want the shadows to be quite deep anyway to provide the natural contrast.

In terms of post-processing, there’s really nothing done to this one. I typically shoot RAW, and I did for this as well, but there’s not extra saturation, contrast, or filters applied here. And thanks to the X-T2’s viewfinder guides, I was able to make sure the alignment was vertical in the center of the frame to create that slight leaning look coming in from both sides.


This is taken inside the main chamber of the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial is open 24/7/365, so there’s no special planning required to get in.

You can find more logistical information on how to get to the Lincoln Memorial here.

Center map

Variations on the Theme

I have a separate post on the Lincoln Memorial where you can find some variations on this theme as well as logistical and other information.

Here are a some examples:

Photo by David Coleman

Photo by David Coleman

Taken with an iPhone 11. The camera has applied the HDR-like look to boost the shadows–it’s not something I did in post. Photo by David Coleman

Taken with a Nikon D810.

Taken with a Ricoh GR III compact.

Taken with a Ricoh GR III compact.

Taken with an Olympus OM-D E-M1X.

Taken with an Olympus OM-D E-M1X.

Taken with a Sony a6400.

Taken with a Sony a6400.

Last update on 2020-08-06 at 23:05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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