San Francisco is a seriously photogenic city. Having been based around this area for a period of time whilst in the US, I took advantage of the photography opportunities it presented to test out my Vanguard VEO gear. Which, it turns out, is just at home in the city as it in in locations as stunning as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
Today I want to share some of my favourite spots for photography in San Francisco, from my personal photography expeditions around the city. I’ll also share some resources at the end which will help you find more locations for your own adventure. Just be aware – San Francisco has countless opportunities for photography, so you’re going to need a while!
Let’s get started with some of my favourite places to shoot San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge, and then move onto some other locations around the city.
The Best Photography Spots in San Francisco
1. Baker’s Beach
I’ll start off with my favourite location in San Francisco for shooting the bridge, Baker’s Beach. You’ll have to park above the beach and walk down to it, but the view as the sun set across the water is just stunning.
You can also walk from here towards the beach for closer shots (although be aware of the tide!) if you want the bridge to seem larger. There are also some photogenic rocks the closer you get to the bridge for foreground composition.
I was pretty happy with just hanging out on the beach and enjoying the sunset though.
2. Battery Spencer and Vista Point
On the opposite side of the bay there are two easily accessible locations to shoot the bridge from – Battery Spencer and Vista Point. Battery Spencer is a little higher, and puts the city of San Francisco behind the bridge. Or it would, on a clear day. Which, as you can see from my photos, I didn’t exactly have.
Still, the Fog is kind of a San Francisco thing, so it’s not really the end of the world if it’s a bit foggy. It adds to the atmosphere, you can tell yourself. If you’re really lucky, then you will be able to get above the fog and shoot the bridge poking out of it from the Marin Headlands (see below). I wasn’t lucky.
Across on the other side of the freeway (there’s a pedestrian tunnel to go underneath), is Vista Point. From here you can shoot the bridge with the skyline of San Francisco visible. It’s also a great location to shoot directly down the length of the bridge.
3. Bonita Point Lighthouse and Marin Headlands
Once you’ve visited Battery Spencer and realised the whole world is covered in a thick, impenetrable fog, don’t panic. Head further up the coastal road and if you’re lucky, you might be able to get above the fog and get some seriously epic photos.
As previously mentioned, I wasn’t exactly lucky.
Still, I could definitely See The Potential, which is why this drive, all the way along the Marin Headlands to the Bonita Point Lighthouse, is included in my location options. There are also some wonderful abandoned old fortresses up here, so if you’re into that kind of grungy decay, you’ll do well up here.
4. Land’s End
Side note – Land’s End is my favourite place in San Francisco for a spot of walking. You can walk from the car park here all along the headland, with excellent views of the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate bridge. The beaches here are also excellent for longer exposure work, with plenty of rocks and rushing water to get excited about.
With a longer lens, you can can also get some great shots of the bridge from here.
That’s probably enough of the Golden Gate Bridge. Check out my resources section at the end for some more excellent ideas on locations for shooting the bridge at different times of day. Now, let’s talk about some of the locations in the city for photography.
5. The Financial District
Like many US cities, San Francisco has some gorgeous skyscraper’s to admire, with my favourite being the Transamerica building – a bizarre pyramid shaped building that is a lot of fun to shoot.
With the right cloud cover, an ultra-wide lens and a Neutral Density filter (check out my photography gear post for tips), you can have a lot of fun shooting the buildings in the financial district.
6. China Town
If you’re into colorful street photography, head to China Town. I was lucky, and caught the Chinese New Year’s Parade, which was spectacular, but you don’t need an event like that to get some great street shots of a different style to the rest of the city.
Street photography is really more about being unobtrusive, so a tripod didn’t come in that handy, but since the VEO range is so light anyway, it wasn’t a problem to stuff it in my bag whilst I went handheld.
7. The Castro District
A little different to Chinatown, the Castro is the centre of gay San Francisco. The colours (and characters!) here are just fantastic, and I was particularly enamoured by the rainbow coloured crosswalks. There are also plenty of rainbow flags here of course.
8. Corona Heights
If it’s a fantastic view of the San Francisco skyline you’re after, head up Corona Heights, where you’ll get a fantastic view across the whole city. We came up here recently as part of a San Francisco walking tour, and the climb up was more than worth it!
9. Pier 7
San Francisco is surrounded by water, and as a result has a rich and interesting maritime heritage. It also has a great many piers to explore – the most famous of which is Pier 39, also known as Fisherman’s Wharf.
I’d recommend starting your Pier exploration at the Ferry Building, and walking from there all the way to Pier 39, with a stop off at Pier 7 on the way. You’ll see some delightful old-time street cars on the way, and also have the opportunity to stop off at Pier 7, which is my favourite.
The street lights along the pier are beautifully symmetrical, plus there’s an excellent view of the Transamerica building.
10. Pier 39 (Fisherman’s Wharf)
Of course, you can’t come to San Francisco without coming to Fisherman’s Wharf, the most amazing tourist trap in town. Which, as you would imagine, makes for some excellent photo opportunities. Oh, and the clam chowder isn’t half bad either. Get the stuff from Bourdin, served in a sourdough bun. It’s delicious.
Where was I? Ah yes, photography. Pier 39 is good for photographing people, sea lions, and people taking pictures of sea lions. There are also all kinds of stores and street entertainers to keep you going.
Pier 39 is also a good spot for getting photographs of Alcatraz, as there are some lovely views out into the bay, particularly with a long lens.
11. Nob Hill and Powell Street
Trams! You can’t leave San Francisco without an iconic photo of a tram, ideally ascending or descending one of those improbably steep hills. I have a couple of options for you. First – Powell Street, at the Market Street end of the cable car, where the cars are turned around. Personally I found this area a bit crowded for decent photos, but if you head up Powell a little, you can sometimes find a row of cable cars that are waiting for their turn. Which means you can get some people-less pictures, if that’s your thing.
If you want some shots of the trams in action, then you’re going to have to walk. My advice is to head up Powell Street to the intersection with California. Here you’ll be able to get some good steep street shots. Pack a long lens for some nice lens compression effects.
Whilst you’re in the area, you can also enjoy some of the architecture of the Nob Hill area, which has some fantastically grand hotels.
12. Mission District
If you’re looking for street art, or just something a bit more gritty, then head to the Mission district. There’s a whole alley of street art to start you off, after which you can wander the Mission District. This area used to be one of the more dangerous in the city, but has become a lot safer in recent years.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
There are plenty of options for accommodation in San Francisco. We’ve stayed at and are happy to recommend the Hotel Rex, which is well located in the city center and within walking distance of many of the locations in this photography guide.
You can see more options for hotels in San Francisco here, there’s a wide choice across a range of budgets!
Additional reading and resources for photographing San Francisco
I don’t feel that one post can cover the whole city, nor do I feel myself to be anywhere near an expert in all the photographic locations in San Francisco. I’ve not even mentioned the Bay Bridge, the Painted Ladies, Haight-Ashbury, the various musuems… the list goes on!
Thankfully, this isn’t the only website in the world, and there are a good number of other posts as well as books available on the subject. Some to take a look at include:
- The top photos spots in San Francisco, according to Nomadic Pursuits.
- An excellent guide to the Best Places to Photography the Golden Gate Bridge, by my friend Brendan.
- Thoughts on the best photo locations in San Francisco, from Shot Hotspot.
- Jess’s Guide to the Top 10 Things to Do In Golden Gate Park – another excellent photography location!
- A Digital Field Guide to Photographing San Francisco
- The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco
- If you are looking for a tripod (and if you’re serious about your photography, you absolutely should have one!), then Vanguard have an excellent range. The VEO system I was using for this shoot is specifically designed for travel, meaning it’s super-light and easy to use, plus they won’t break the bank.
- If you’re in the market for a new camera, check out my definitive guide to the best travel camera, with something for every budget
- My other photography location guides, to get you the best shot in destinations around the world
- Finally, if you’re looking to learn more about photography, I run an online travel photography course which covers everything I know about photography, plus you get one on one feedback directly from me as you go! Check it out and let me know if you have any questions.
And that’s it for my guide to some of San Francisco’s best photography locations! If you’ve visited San Francisco, do share your favourite photography locations in the comments below – particularly if you found a great spot for sunset or sunrise, and don’t forget to check out some of my other photography location guides for more travel photography inspiration!