Washington DC Professional Photographer Neil Colton » Professional Portrait + Lifestyle + Travel Photography

Masthead header

Washington DC Portrait Photography: Portrait of a Correspondent


Gunnar was in panic mode.

He had just received the word from his editor.  An article he had recently authored was going to be featured by Der Spiegel.  He was told by his bosses in Berlin that they needed a current professional portrait and a headshot… and they needed them fast.  As a Senior US Correspondent for Der Spiegel, he was accustomed to having his articles published, but always with a text by-line, not a portrait or a headshot. It had been years since he had a professional portrait or headshot done. He was scrambling to find a photographer who could create the type of environmental portrait that matched the look he wanted. He had searched dozens of Washington, DC portrait photographer’s sites and found nothing that inspired him to hire them. He was frustrated.

Then he found my site.

I was traveling when his email landed in my IN box.  I looked ahead to the first opening on my schedule,  called Gunnar, offered him the date and he booked me. The relief in his voice was palpable. His job was done. Mine was just beginning.  Gunnar wanted an environmental portrait that had a ‘natural’ look. No cliche shots of him sitting on the steps of the Capitol or straddling the center line of Constitution Avenue at 5AM. No shots that would scream ‘correspondent in Washington DC’.  Gunnar wanted something entirely different.

I knew just the place.

We met at a small park in the Virginia countryside, about an hour out of downtown Washington. I don’t shoot there often, but when I do, I remember just why I like doing outdoor portrait sessions there. Tall mature trees create large areas of wonderful open shade, next to sun drenched fields, bordered by wooden fences and low stone walls.  A working grist mill and restored historical buildings strung around the site offer great options for settings and backdrops. Add in a lily pond, walking paths and a restored hand-built tool shed, backing up to a giant wood pile of freshly split oak, and the option list for portrait shots grows. Early on a weekday morning, the park feels like it’s our own outdoor studio. We are virtually alone.

Gunnar is nervous.Very nervous.

I solve that issue quickly, by getting right into the session. No time to worry or over-think how you look or how to pose, clothes choices or whatever. We get right into it. It works. Within 5 minutes, Gunnar is comfortable with me, with himself and with the session. We are rolling. We move around the site, working the settings and creating a series of portraits and headshots of Gunnar.  A little over an hour later, we are finished.

Washington DC Portrait Photography: Portrait of a Correspondent






Washington DC Portrait Photography: Portrait of an Architect


The call came in while I was enjoying a rare period of quiet, on my front porch. I was sorting through images from a recent portrait photography session in Washington, DC.

I love porches.

Looking back, it was probably the reason we built the house. Spanning nearly the entire width of the facade’ of our Arts + Crafts style home, it’s a simple porch, framed  in crisp white trim boards with a flagstone floor. Defined by white pyramidal columns and a white Shaker style railing and. set against the pale yellow clapboard that wraps the house, it provides a warm and inviting main entry into our home. With wide open views of the 280 acres of protected wetlands that border our land, it offers a quiet retreat. I retreat there as often I can.

Back to the call.

It was Mark Yoo, an architect in Washington, DC. He had been referred to me by a friend, an architect. He liked my portrait work and thought I may just be the right portrait photographer for what he wanted. Mark was building a new website and creating a new brand. He wanted a new portrait, a new image, a new look. A portrait that would match his vision of his work and his new brand. He wasn’t a fan of the portrait experience, though. His last ‘professional’ portrait session had not been good.

That portrait was professionally done. Studio setting, studio lighting, black backdrop. You know the drill. The result was a typical generic headshot. It had all the charm of a marketing promo for a DJ.

For the next 20 minutes, Mark talked about architecture and his work. He spoke of his vision, of his new brand and the look he wanted me to bring to this new portrait of him.

Finally, he asked “Are you interested?.”
I didn’t hesitate before saying “Absolutely. Let’s talk about how to do this.”

Many portrait photographers are wary of working with architects. They occupy a unique place in the portrait universe. Architects are often perfectionists, highly critical, consumed with detail and self absorbed. Traits may lead them to success as architects, but qualities than can be daunting for a portrait photographer.

I wasn’t concerned.

I spent years working for and with some of the top design firms and architects in the Washington, DC area. My career as a professional photographer began with architectural photography. I enjoyed working with architects, whether it was on a construction site, behind a graphics monitor in an office cubicle or, now, from behind a camera.

We made a plan. Mark had designed a new dance studio, at an arts center, an hour south of the city. It was nearly finished. We would meet there and choose a location for the portrait session. A week later we met. I chose a spacious corner studio, with beautiful northern light falling into the room from the tall windows that lined the outside walls. The exposed brick walls, aged hardwood floors and barrs (ballet rails) added texture and an understated elegance to the setting.

We were set. This would be an environmental portrait, created at one of Mark’s projects.

We agreed on a date and time and agreed to sort out the details (like clothing), soon. Before I left, I scouted the studio, and the grounds outside the studio, for alternate locations, just in case. After years of location photography I have learned, the hard way, to have a Plan B (and a Plan C) ready to go on session day.

On the day of Mark’s portrait session, the outside temperatures were hovering in the mid 90s. Humidity was high. No problem, though, since we were working in the dance studio, in a beautiful room with soft northern light. Right?

Not so fast.

The studio was now open for business and the afternoon students were rolling in. The studio administrator had never received the message (from Mark by way of the studio owner) that we would be there, that day at that time. They were using our session room, and would be, for the rest of the day. No other spot in the studio was available, anywhere. Remember Plan B? No problem. We’ll just move outdoors. Right?

The spots I had scouted on the grounds were OK, but not great. Shade was a problem. There wasn’t any. I had found one spot that had a decent background, but the backlight in that scene would be so intense, I would have to overpower it with strong light on Mark. I wasn’t in love with that option. So I kept looking, in the studio.

And there it was.

On the way outside, where we would fight the heat, the high humidity and the sun, I spotted a small room off the  hallway. Brick walls painted white, tall windows and a view of the buildings beyond. The light coming in the windows was good, but fading. And so was our time. The studio was filling up fast and we had one hour, or less, to clean the room (it was full of furniture and staff gear), set up and get our shots.

No problem.

Mark was a great subject. It started slow, but he really perked up when Erin, my assistant, decided that he was a Bradley Cooper look alike. Once I was able to calm Erin down, things went well.

Less than hour later, we had wrapped up, packed up and were on way to our next adventure.

To learn more about Mark and view his work, click here.

Portrait of Washington, DC Architect Mark Yoo


Washington DC Portrait + Lifestyle Photography: Olga + Sergio


My schedule was full. I had no open dates the type of  portrait and lifestyle photography session Olga wanted.

It wasn’t always that way.

Just a few years ago, I was struggling to keep up with the pace of the lifestyle photography and family portrait sessions I was booking.  All that changed when I turned my attention to professional portraits, travel photography and teaching. Add one or two long term personal projects into the mix and my available shooting days were limited. Lifestyle Photography is still a part of my work, but I have to be  much more selective about the number of bookings I accept. As we were talking, I was thinking of ways that I could tactfully tell Olga I wouldn’t be able to do this for her.

Then, Olga casually mentioned that she was an artist. She went on to explain that she was drawn to my portrait photography as art, from her perspective as a visual artist. I was IN.  She had me at artist’. Full disclosure. I have an ego. Flattery does work.

I have a soft spot for artists and creatives. That is probably why I have so few professional portraits of lawyers, bankers, CEOs and political types in my portfolio.  Creating a portrait is very much a collaborative process. Creating a compelling requires a strong rapport with the subject. I confess that I struggle to connect with traditional corporate and legal types in portrait sessions.  But match me with an architect, a writer, a musician, an actor or an artist and I feel an immediate kinship. An understanding and an appreciation of a shared interest.

I genuinely enjoy those sessions.  It shows in the final portrait images.

Back to Olga and Sergio.

We decided on Georgetown as one of two venues for their Lifestyle Photography session.  One of my favorites spots to work in Washington, DC, Georgetown never disappoints for texture, context and setting. Here are a few of my favorite portraits of Olga + Sergio from their session in Georgetown.

washingon dc portrait photography olga and sergio
washington dc portrait photography olga and sergiowashington dc portrait photography olga and sergiowashington dc portrait photography olga and sergiowashington dc portrait photography olga and sergiowashington dc portrait photography olga and sergiowashington dc portrait photography olga and sergiowashington dc portrait photography olga and sergiowashington dc portrait photography olga and sergiowashington dc portrait photography olga and sergio


Anna - Neil, you’ve done a great job – the photos are absolutely amazing. You are a very talented photographer. I like the framing and the light, and the couple on the photos. Georgetown is definitely a very romantic place for a photo shoot.

Kvetka - Wow… What a great photo session! I love to see a couple so relaxed on the photos and so in love with each other. Georgetown is very recognizable and such a great spot for photography and at the same time the photos look as if it belonged just to Olga and Sergio! The light and the texture of the old walls, the canal with the shadows on the water and the walking path under the bridges – all looks just remarkable…

Irina - Beautiful photo session of one of the most beautiful couples I know!

Travel Photography: The Manistee Chronicles: Arcadia Bluffs


Welcome to The Manistee Chronicles, an occasional series of posts about a summer trip to Manistee, MI. This post features Arcadia Bluffs, one of the premier links golf courses in the United States.

When last we met here, I had just announced my ‘retirement’ from the work and business of wedding photography. On the heels of that sublime moment, I was elevated, but I was also burned out, creatively, Tens of thousands of pictures of brides and their maids can do that. At least to me.

So, I took some personal time to recharge my creative batteries and spend time with friends and family in beautiful Northern Michigan.  After intense periods of work, with crazy deadlines and demanding clients,  time away from the camera can be a very good thing. New places and new projects can be a tonic for renewal. It was for me. Unlikely as it would seem,  I got my photography mojo back during a round of golf on one of the most beautiful and challenging golf courses I have ever set foot upon. A place called Arcadia Bluffs.

From Wikipedia:

Golf Digest selected Arcadia Bluffs as one of the 100 Greatest Golf Courses in the United States in 2005. The course was ranked #10 in America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses list and #56 in the 100 Greatest Golf Courses list. In addition to the Golf Digest ranking, Golfweek magazine ranked Arcadia Bluffs at #24 in their listing of The 100 Best Courses in United States.”

Arcadia Bluffs is a links course, in the style of the early Irish and Scottish courses, carved into the bluffs on the shore of Lake Michigan. At its highest point, it sits a few hundred feet above Lake Michigan. The views from the elevated tee boxes are simply stunning. It is challenge enough just to play this course, without the pull of amazing vistas to complicate your vision and your swing. I have no complaints, though. I am convinced that in the heart of every amateur golfer lies a belief, however fantastic, that on one day, in one place, all of the hours, days and weeks spent in toil will coalesce into a perfect round.

On this day, in this place, for a few brief moments, that happened to me,  at a place called Arcadia Bluffs.

Portrait of Arcadia Bluffs golf course with golfers in the distance along Lake Michigan
Portrait of a golfer as he tees of at Arcadia Bluffs in Arcadia, Michigan.A gollfer tees of at Arcdia Bluffs Golf Coirse set against the brillaint summer Michigan sky.Silhouette portrait of a golfer teeing off toward Lake Michigan at Arcadia Bluffs in Arcadia, Michigan.Portrait of Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course against a brilliant blue Lake Michigan.Still portrait of a golf ball on a green at the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia, Michigan.Candid portrait of a golfer putting at the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia, Michigan.Portrait of one of the majestic greens on the Arcadia Bluffs Glof Course in Arcadia, Michigan.Portrait of a lone golfer planning his approach shot on a fairway of the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia, Michigan.Portrait of the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia, Michigan. bathed in late after Michigan summer sun.Portrait of a golfer driving his cart along the fairway as the sun sets on Lake Michigan at the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia, Michigan.Action portrait of a golfer powering his way out of a bunker on the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia, Michigan.
Candid portrait of a golfer chipping onto a green at the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia, Michigan.Portrait of a golfer chipping onto the green as the sun sets on Arcadia Bluffs golf course in Arcadia, MichiganSilhouette portrait of a golfer putting on the back nine of Arcsdia Bluffs with Lake Michigan in the background.Portrait of golfers on the tee at Arcadia Bluffs golf course, with Lake Michiga in the background.Portrait of the setting sun on Arcadia Bluffs Gof Course in Arcadia, Michigan.Portrait of the course at Arcadia Bluffs as the sun sets on Lake Michigan.Portrait of three golfers on the back nine of the course at Arcadia Bluffs.Night portrait of the clubhouse at Arcadia Bluffs, as viewed from the 18th fairway.

A note about that water color. That blue is real. I kid you not. I capture all images using Neutral setting on my Nikon bodies. For you Nikon shooters that’s a setting below standard. By below, I mean less saturated. Nikon’s Standard setting is still too ramped up for me. The colors seem unnatural and over saturated, with too much pop. I do all of the color work in post (after the image is in my editing software). I actually had to ramp down (reduce saturation) the colors in many of these shots, because they were so powerful. A local resident tried to explain why the lake was sooo blue, but he lost me at kelp.


Washington DC Portrait Photography: Portrait of an Author

Portrait of author Joel Backaler in Washington, DC.

The email was from Joel Backaler, an old friend and former client.

Joel was close to finishing his first book,  an exploration of Chinese companies expanding internationally. He needed a distinct professional portrait that would be used for the jacket cover. According to Joel, this portrait of an author must have a different look than the the ‘standard’ headshot and corporate portrait so often used for websites and media.  It would appear in his book, on his website, in major major media publications and at his speaking events around the world.

Based in Washington DC, Joel is a consultant with the international consulting firm Frontier Strategy Group. Before coming to Washington, Joel spent 5 years in Asia, working and traveling across Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. This gave him a unique and very personal perspective on the country and the commerce he explores in his book.  Although this is Joel’s first book, he is no stranger to writing or to being published. His writing has appeared in many major publications including Business Week, Forbes and Fortune.

To the session.

We discussed the setting.  Joel wanted his portrait to be taken on location, somewhere in Washington, DC.  He wanted the final image to be about him and not about the background or the context. He wanted to convey professionalism, strength and confidence. and be interesting. I settled on a location near the edge of the National Mall.  The DC WW I Memorial is lightly traveled, easy to reach and user friendly. It is nestled in a wooded stretch of land that acts as a buffer between Independence Avenue and The National Mall. As much as Joel didn’t want this image to be a ‘typical professional portrait’, he didn’t want it to scream ‘Washington, DC’. No iconic monuments or memorials as a backdrop.  This was the perfect place. It was in DC, but not of iconic DC. Columns for framing, a dome for shade and a broad colorful landscape beyond, for context and depth.

The session wasn’t without it’s share of challenges, but would life as a professional photographer be if every shoot was like a stroll trough the park. As luck would have it,  there was a special event at the site the day of the session.  We worked between and among the event people passing through, milling around and visiting.  No problem, right. Piece of cake. With Erin, my assistant on the day, working quickly and quietly in the background. we captured 6-8 good ‘looks’.  Within an hour we were done and on our way.

China Goes West was released in mid-April to critical acclaim.. A marathon of early morning, late night and non-stop weekend writing sessions finally come to a close. Now, the book tour begins!

Congratulations, Joel. It’s time to start racking  up those frequent flier miles, again.

 Inline image 1
Praise for China Goes West:
‘A thorough and thoughtful examination of one of the most important trends that will help shape the future of business, technology and society. Joel has written a clear account of the globalization journey, helping readers understand the challenges, opportunities, risks and rewards of ‘going global.”

Yang Yuanqing – Chairman and CEO, Lenovo Group

“Smart, practical and highly readable… In China Goes West, Joel Backaler brings an important, accelerating global business trend into timely focus.” 

Mark Duval – President, American Chamber of Commerce in China

‘Joel Backaler’s book is a real eye-opener. Written in a clear, precise, and ready-to-use manner, it tells the tale of contemporary China’s ‘Journey to the West’.’

Davide Cucino – President, European Union Chamber of Commerce in China

‘Joel Backaler’s comprehensive China Goes West will be the go-to-guide for those looking to get up to speed quickly on the greatest business story of our time.’ 
Julian Chang – Executive Dean, Harvard Kennedy School    
More information can be found here:


Professional portrait of author Joel Backaler in Washington, DC