As one of the busiest and most popular cities in the United States, San Francisco is easily accessible for photographers that are looking to capture life on the West Coast. It’s literally filled with tons of perfect locations for photographers to set up and start snapping away amazing photos. The famous landmarks will speak for themselves, but there is so much more to the city than just one or two locations.
We’ll cover those, too, but this quick guide to the top spots to visit in San Francisco will help you quickly establish a plan for setting up for some great city shots.
The Golden Gate Bridge
Okay, it’s the big obvious one. It’s an internationally recognized symbol of San Francisco that was opened to the public in 1937. It’s known around the world and has been photographed millions of times. So, how can you get a good shot of this that stands out from the rest? Since this is the most photographed location in all of San Francisco, that’s going to be difficult. The nice thing about the Golden Gate Bridge is that it changes throughout the day, with the rising and setting sun, as well as the rolling fog. Try walking along the bridge, where you can see Alcatraz, and find a unique and interesting shot from on the bridge itself, perhaps upward into the suspension cables.
In terms of the overall landscape shot of the bridge, there are lots of spots all offering different angles and photographed at different times of the day. Fort Point, Crissy Field, Baker Beach (see below), Golden Gate Overlook and Battery East all offer an alternative view. On the other side of the bridge, Battery Spencer offers great views looking back toward San Francisco.
This public beach on the peninsula of San Francisco begins south of Golden Gate Point, and it is about a half-mile long. It is perfect for getting shots of the bridge from beneath. The cliffs and rocks in the water make for some iconic photographs. You can also get some nice shots of the Marin Headlands and you can also check out Battery Chamberlin. This historic gun installation was put there in 1904 and it can make for an interesting shot when you see what’s in the background.
If you’re looking for bright colours and amazing backgrounds that are vibrant and lively, then Chinatown should be on your shot list for your trip to San Francisco. This is where you want to keep your camera at street level, to capture the festive and illuminating stories of the people who live and work there. The red lanterns and pagoda buildings set the scene in Chinatown beautifully, but get up close to really see what makes this area of the city magical. The graffiti, the parades, the people, the food, the lights…it’s all so captivating that it can be hard to look away at times.
It’s not in the heart of San Francisco, but the view that you’ll get from venturing to this spot is really worth the trek. This area will give you a panoramic view of the city, making it ideal for some early or late night photography. Try to get there on a fairly clear day (some scattered low clouds can be really good for your composition) so you can see all the way to the water. If it’s really clear, then you might even be able to see across the bay all the way to Oakland or Berkeley! If you are going to be photographing early in the morning or later in the afternoon, make sure that you take your tripod. You can also experiment by using a telephoto lens for your cityscape shot.
There are a lot of tall buildings in San Francisco, but the Coit Tower is spaced far enough away from most of them that you can get a great shot of downtown’s skyline from within and not have to worry about another skyscraper blocking your line of sight. It was named after Lillie Hitchcock Coit, and from here you can scope out 360 degrees of the downtown area. It also happens to be one of the highest points in San Francisco. Bring your wallet, though, because there’s an $8 admission fee to get up to the top of this tower.
Not exactly the island that Robert Louis Stevenson conjured up for his novel… This was the site of the 1939 World Fair, located in San Francisco Bay. It is a great area to capture a shot of the city skyline, as well as the Bay Bridge and the ferry building! You can also see Alcatraz and in the distance the Golden Gate Bridge. At the right time of day, this can be an incredible location to capture the city skyline and really see a side of the city that most people aren’t familiar with.
Hamon Observation Tower
This glass-walled space will give you another 360-degree view of San Francisco and is great for seeing aspects of the Bay, Golden Gate Park, and the Marin Headlands. When up there you may ask why there is a lawn on top of that building you see? Well, it’s the grass-covered roof of the California Academy of Sciences, and you may not have seen that strange roof if not for stopping at the observation tower. It’s free to get in, and when you’ve finished snapping off photos, then you can visit (for a fee) the attached DeYoung Museum to get some more culture fit into your day.
Point Bonita Lighthouse
Taking photographs of the lighthouse itself is a great shot the late afternoon light. With the craggy rocks and splashing water beneath, it can look fantastic and with the bridge in the background it can really be a memorable scene. But coming to this location can also really bring out another side of the city. Here you can see the raw, jagged landscape that surrounds some of San Francisco. Most people think about San Francisco as a fun, colorful city full of people and it is. But from the lighthouse, you can also see the more natural side of the city as it is built into the landscape instead of on top of it like some other cities. While you are here, you can also have a walk around Battery Mendell which offers wonderful views of the coastline.
This is where you can see everything from sea life to street performers and historic ships. You could spend an entire week at Fisherman’s Wharf and probably still not capture everything there is to photograph. Here you can get some great lifestyle shots of the populace, as well as the setting sun behind the sea lions. San Francisco is known for Fisherman’s Wharf, so it would be a crime not to visit here and check everything out for yourself.
The cable cars that make San Francisco commuting so efficient are still running today. Powell Street is probably the best place in town to get a great action shot of these iconic trolley cars in action. It’s a great slice of daily life to see people hopping on and off these cool old-style cars.
As the second tallest building in San Francisco, this is also the financial district’s shining tower and is made of white quartz. It was designed on the concept that financial security was something that everyone should have, like sunlight, and therefore was made to let more natural light through to the street level. This instantly sets it apart from the boxy buildings that are its neighbours. It’s a unique building and you absolutely have to take a shot of it when you visit the city. Try to capture a shot from Columbus Avenue where the colourful shots on both sides of the road can act as leading lines to the building. Just be careful of traffic and the cable cars.
The Palace of Fine Arts
While it belongs to the city now, it didn’t start out that way. It was originally built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Its classic Roman rotunda has made it a very popular photography location for residents and tourists. The building itself is surrounded by a wonderful lake that is usually swarming with swans. The white waterfowl bring a vibrancy to the site, so be sure to spend a few hours here to capture all of the angles as the light moves throughout the day.
An iconic spot that is also notoriously difficult to photograph well. The sharp curves are accentuated by the flower gardens and typically most photography of this street is either from the top or bottom. Early in the morning when it isn’t so busy is a good time to try and photograph it, as it will allow you to stand in the road to get a different shot then you normally would during a busy time of day. Blue hour is also a good time as you’ll be able to capture a nice cityscape shot with the Coit Tower in the background.
This is the favourite spot for many people who love to walk around town and through the outskirts. Travel from the park all the way through the headland, where you’ll see exceptional views of the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge. Longer exposure shots are a good idea here as the rushing water gurgles around the nearby rocks. It’s a nice change from the busy downtown San Francisco area and will provide some gorgeous coastal shots.
Another classic shot of San Francisco are the row of Victorian houses in Alamo Square known as the “Painted Ladies”. These gorgeous houses are beautiful to shoot at dusk when the blue hour means street light add a golden glow. It’s an interesting composition of the old and new with the skyscrapers in the background.
As with any city, there are tons more places and things to photograph in San Francisco. But these top spots should help you cover off some of the most iconic locations and shots on your shot list.
Photo credits: Dreamstime – All rights reserved. No usage without permission.