Washington DC Professional Photographer Neil Colton » Professional Portrait , Lifestyle & Travel Photography

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Travel Photography: Southern Exposure In Charleston, SC




This was supposed to be Barcelona.

Instead, we are sitting on a hard plank bench at the front of a weather beaten covered wooden wagon, being pulled by two aging mules through the streets of this 350 year old southern city.  Yes, mules. From our tour guide, we learn that mules are best for this sort of thing. Less mercurial. More cooperative. Easier to manage. Who knew. As we start our tour, our resident-scholar-farm-boy-part-time-law-student-turned-tour-guide launches into a monologue about South Carolina’s glorious political heritage,  embodied in that great southern independent thinker, statesman and champion of free thought,  Strom Thurmond. Terrie and I trade concerned glances. I look at my watch. We are 10 minutes in. This is going to be a very long ride. The heat and humidity of high summer in the south is oppressive. We roll on.

Through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina.

Back to Barcelona. That’s where this trip was to start, flying into El Prat Airport in Spain. A few days in Barcelona, then we hire a car and drive though northwestern Spain to Andorra. From Andorra, we would travel along the eastern coast of France to Marseille and Monaco. Slowly, we would wind our way to Paris, reveling in the French countryside. It was settled. Done. Reservations had been made. Only the plane tickets were left to buy. Then, at the last minute, we had to change our plans.

Now, we needed a plan for a trip in the states.

Barcelona and Paris had been easy destinations to agree on. Where to go in North America would not be as easy. I lobbied to go north. Quebec had been wonderful. When we were there, we fell in love with the city and vowed to return, soon. That was nearly 10 years ago. My vote was Quebec. No contest. Quebec with a Montreal chaser. Let’s book the flight. Terrie loved Quebec, right? Yes, she did, but not for this particular trip. This time, we were going south, to the Carolinas, with day trips into the deep south, where we could enjoy “southern hospitality”, experience the “beauty of the old south” and “travel to places we had never been before”. I was in.

Next stop, Charleston.

Consistently ranked as one of the 10 Best Cities to visit in the US, Charleston knows how to take care of tourists and travelers.

From Wikipedia:

‘Known for its rich history, well-preserved architecture, distinguished restaurants, and mannerly people, Charleston has received numerous accolades, including “America’s Most Friendly City” by Travel + Leisure in 2011, and 2013 and 2014 by Condé Nast Traveler and “the most polite and hospitable city in America” by Southern Living magazine.’

Charleston is all that and more.

Looking back, I wish we had planned more time in Charleston. As it was, this was the third/fourth stop on our Southern Tour, after stops along the Carolina coast and a trip to Savannah, Georgia. By the time we arrived in Charleston, I had one eye on the road north, heading home to Washington, DC. This would be the last leg of this trip and we had clearly saved the best for last. In the end, we only allowed for a few days in Charleston. It deserved more.

Back on the covered wagon.

The tour picked up pace, politics made way for historic architecture and stories of this charming city. A cool evening breeze moved in, clearing away the heat and humidity of the day. Our tour guide even taught us how to make southern fried cheese. Really.


For Travelers and Photographers

Charleston is a very photogenic city, as you can see. Lots of good eye candy there. I was drawn to the French Quarter on this trip. My background as an architectural photographer, and history buff, led me there. The French Quarter, alone, could keep a photographer busy for days. I had an hour and a half. I tried to use it wisely.

The images I have included for this post were captured on two separate days over a combined period of about three hours. That’s not a lot of photography, at least not for me. On an assignment, or traveling alone, I’ve been known to shoot from dawn to dusk, grab some for fuel, then out again after dark. Depending on the place and the assignment, that could on for days or longer.

Like most vacations, I was not alone.  I shot this more like a vacationer might. A snapshot of the city, but not the whole story. Not compelling content, but rather a collection of photographs that convey a sense of place.

Most of us don’t travel alone to beautiful cities, alone, simply to photograph them. We are traveling with friends and/or family. The challenge for photographers on vacation, and vacation travelers with cameras,  is how to capture a place with memorable images, without straining relationships with friends and family. Here are a few tips that can help you capture the sense of a place and still keep the peace with your significant other.

  • Scout before you go. Take a virtual tour of the city or place you’ll be visiting. Identify the areas, and things, that will help you tell the story of your visit. Have a plan for your photography, before you get there.
  • Work your photography into the flow of the vacation. Wedge an hour of photography into a shopping trip or the like. Take a stroll, together, through parts of the city you want to photograph, with a shared event, like lunch or dinner at a special place, as the end reward for patience.
  • Travel light. I carry one camera body and 2/3 lenses. max. In Charleston, I used my Nikon D4 and 2 lenses to capture all of the images here. The 24-70 f/2.8 is my workhorse for travel photography. For details and tight shots, I use the 70-200 f/2.8. I prefer the VR II version. On this trip, the 70-200 wasn’t with me, so I used a 20 year old 80-200 f/2.8 as my long lens. No VR, but still a great lens. You don’t need the latest and greatest gear to create good images. What matters more is technique.
  • Know your gear. This seems like common sense, right. Funny, though, how people (photographers included) often wait until the moment they are about to press the shutter release (or after…) to learn their way around the gear they have in their hands. Know before you go. Your pictures will be better for it.
  • Keep it simple. Visual story telling, for travel photography, is about creating  a collection of images that convey a sense of place. Trying to capture that singular image that your friends, family (or editor somewhere) will swoon over, will take valuable time away from the rest of the story. Odds are that a completely unscripted, unintended, brilliant scene will come along and you’ll be there to capture it.
  • Be conservative, but be good. This is not a political suggestion, even though this is Charleston. No, this is about doing the best you can to capture images quickly and well, then moving on to the next image. If you’re a professional photographer, you know this. Enough said. What I often find, working with amateur photographers in workshops, is a need to overshoot. Dozens of images of the same scene. Control this and your work, and life, will be better for it. Think quality, not quantity.

Now, to Charleston.



Washington DC Lifestyle Photography: Olga + Sergio






My schedule was full. I had no open dates for Olga’s family session.

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 doing.  Requests and bookings were coming at a fast and steady clip.  It was the main focus of my work. That changed when I turned my attention to professional portraits and travel photography.  Add long term personal projects and commercial clients to the mix and my available shooting days were limited.

As Olga and I were talking, I found myself drawing out the conversation, uncomfortable with telling her that I wouldn’t be able to work with her this season.

Then, Olga casually mentioned that she was an artist. She went on to explain that she was drawn to my portrait photography as art, as seen from her perspective as a visual artist. That’s all I needed to hear. I was IN.  She had me at artist’.

I have a soft spot for artists and creatives.

That is likely why I have more portraits of creatives in my portfolio than of lawyers, bankers, CEOs and political types.  Creating a portrait is a collaborative process. Creating a compelling portrait requires collaboration at a very high level. I confess that I may not connect with traditional corporate and legal types, in portrait sessions, in the way that I do with creatives. Look, I enjoy the challenge of creating original portraits of anyone, 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.

It often 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 rarely disappoints for texture, context, light 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
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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!

Washington DC Portrait Photography: Portrait of a Correspondent


Washington DC Potrait Photography: Portrait of a Correspondent

Gunnar was frustrated.

He just the word from his editor in Berlin.  An article he had recently authored was to be featured by Der Spiegel.  The folks in Berlin said that they needed a professional portrait and a headshot… and they needed them fast.  As a Senior US Correspondent for Der Spiegel, Gunnar was accustomed to having his articles published with his online articles, but with a text by-line, not a portrait of him. 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. Frantically, he had searched the web, scouring dozens of Washington, DC portrait photographer’s sites. He found nothing that inspired him. He was frustrated.

Then he found my site. He liked what he saw.

I was traveling when his email landed in my IN box.  Gunnar wanted my earliest open date. He chose me, because, according to him, my portraits were “classic and unconventional” at the same time. I liked that. 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 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


Travel Photography: The Manistee Chronicles: Arcadia Bluffs


Portrait of golgers at sunst at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course in Arcadia MI.

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, 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.