Photographer’s Guide to Cherry Blossoms in DC

It’s that time of year that photographers love and dread in equal measure – cherry blossom season.

cherry blossom photography

In 1912, the people of Japan sent 3,020 cherry trees to the United States as a gift of friendship and today in DC approximately 3,750 cherry trees bloom in and around the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. Each year we celebrate with the National Cherry Blossom Festival  which is now one of DC’s most iconic, colorful and most requested backdrop for spring themed portrait sessions.

The 2014 Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 20 – April 13, which is three weeks and four weekends of events promoting “traditional and contemporary arts and culture, natural beauty, and community spirit.” This year’s Festival marks the 102nd anniversary of the gift of the cherry blossom trees. You can click here for the latest updates, and here for a full list of Festival events.

Given the significance of this Festival, it’s no wonder that it’s almost a requirement to have pictures made with cherry blossoms at least once during your time in the DC area!  Attendance estimates are well over 1.5 million people so photography sessions done during this time of year can present some special challenges!  (If you do the math 1.5 million people, 3,750 trees… chances are that each individual tree will have a dozen people around it at any point during the Festival!)

Before planning your session though, there are a few things to consider!

Tips for Cherry Blossom Portrait Sessions

  • Be sure to ask your favorite photographer about Cherry Blossom Portrait Sessions well before April. Many photographers offer just one or two of these types of sessions because of the large expense, permits and big logistical and safety hassle that it can present for photographers.
  • Apply for your photography permit three weeks or more in advance of the bloom period (see below for links to the permit locations!). Permits range from $50-$300 (and fines for not having a permit for your professional photographer can reach $5,000 or more!)
  • Understand that you will likely have to get up before dawn in order to arrive at sunrise to the Tidal Basin in order to make images before the crowds get there
  • Parking will be a huge challenge in and around the Tidal Basin and every year the local news cautions visitors to avoid driving at all
  • Be prepared for very long walks (make sure you have comfortable shoes!)
  • During peak bloom there will be more people than you can imagine packed in so tightly.
  • Be prepared to pay your professional photographer extra for a Cherry Blossom Session!  They will likely need to spend twice as much time on one session in the Tidal Basin area because of the logistics and then twice as much time in post production to remove extra people. For the safety and security they may also need to hire extra staff to help with your safety and theirs (not to mention their expensive equipment too!)

DC cherry blossoms map

Locations for Cherry Blossom Portraits

The Tidal Basin is the first choice that most couples and families think of immediately, but the Tidal Basin is also the least ideal place for a session! Between the crowds, the lack of parking, the long distances to restroom facilities, and the difficulty in carrying professional photography gear around safely it might be worth considering some other locations.  Get creative and look in and around your local neighborhood parks.  Check out some of these recommendations below too!

The National Arboretum

The National Arboretum is a sprawling parkland within Washington DC. It’s not walkable from the National Mall, and once you’re there, a car of bicycles will help a lot (it’s a large area). There’s a huge variety of flora here, including many other flowering trees and plants.  This location requires a $320 permit 

 Hains Point

There are a couple of thousand cherry trees around the waterfront of Hains Point. Most people use Hains Point as a parking lot, but it’s a great place to find some beautiful cherry trees all to yourself if you go very early in the morning. And there’s plenty of room to sit and enjoy the view of the river too. This is National Park Service land so a $50 permit required from NPS

The National Mall

There’s a grove of cherry trees on the edge of the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Tidal Basin. If you’re looking to take a photo with the top of the Washington Monument in the shot this is a good bet. This is National Park Service land so a $50 permit required from NPS

Capitol Grounds

According to one photographer on April 8th: “I applied for a permit to shoot on the Capitol Grounds and have talked with one of the Capitol Police Officers several times this morning. He said that any commercial shoot is restricted to area #15 (west side of the Capitol) and when I explained it was just a portrait session for the family’s personal use (not bringing tripod or lighting), he said it didn’t matter. They define commercial as any money being exchanged at all.”  This document here does specify on page 2 that photography is permitted, but only for private use (ie businesses are not permitted to conduct sessions on the grounds)

Upper and Lower Senate Park (Capitol Grounds)

Upper and Lower Senate Park is located between Constitution Avenue, NW, and D Street, NE, and 1st Street and Louisiana Ave, NW. The park is divided into two distinct sections. The lower section contains a shallow rectangular reflecting pool flanked by wide pathways and fountains, and is bounded by two sets of steps, while the upper section is centered on a large fountain and plaza and a tree-lined lawn panel connecting to the Senate and Capitol grounds.  The space has several bunches of cherry trees, very little “green” with views of the Capitol dome in the distance. See above for permit links.

Scott Circle Park

This small park in northwest DC is pretty tiny, but it does have a number of pretty trees!  There are no lines of sight to monuments or other typical “DC” like tourist sites… which can be a good thing sometimes!  Scott Circle Park is a National Park Service managed park so the

Dupont Circle

This small park in the historic district is a pretty popular place to sit by a fountain and enjoy the outdoors, and it does have a number of pretty flowering trees, but only a couple cherry blossom trees.  There are some nice stone chess tables and some historic DC architecture around the park as well.   Dupont Circle Park is a National Park Service managed park so a $50 permit and occasional headaches apply.

Dumbarton Oaks

Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown has a marvelous orchard of cherries and there is an $8 admission fee that goes to support the gardens. However professional photography is not permitted  at all!

Kenwood, Bethesda

The Bethesda neighborhood of Kenwood for their stunning display. Park and walk in for an immersion in cherry tree lined streets. Keep in mind that this is a residential neighborhood and you must respect that people do live and work here!

Brookside Gardens

Brookside Gardens also has beautiful cherry blossom trees and many other flowering trees like plum, apricot, magnolias, and quince in bloom.  This location does require a permit in advance but it is free for groups of less than 10 people.

Stanton Park in Capitol Hill

This park has a slightly European  and is located at the intersection of Maryland Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Northeast, Washington, D.C. A large statue, small playground and city benches dominate the view. Typical city park space. This is National Park Service land so a minimum $50 permit required from NPS.

Anacostia Park

Grab some cupcakes  at the newly opened Olivia’s at 2318 Minnesota Ave., SE, then head back toward the river where you can picnic without people in matching T-shirts asking your for directions. (Park entrances are close to several Metro stops.) This is National Park Service land so a $50 permit required from NPS.

Druid Hill Park

Located in downtown Baltimore this lovely park has plenty of spring blossoms!  There does not appear to be a need for photography permits in this location, provided you do not have props/ stands or structures with you.

Foxhall Village

Foxhall and Reservoir Rds, NW. Washington, DC. The neighborhood near Georgetown has cherry blossom-lined streets that are known as the best-kept secret among locals.  Be sure you don’t stray into Dumbarton Oaks as photography is strictly prohibited there.