San Francisco is arguably one of the most photogenic cities I’ve been to; dozens of hills scattered along the city provide you unique vista points and jaw-dropping cityscapes. Then add its picturesque architecture, and you get the perfect recipe for stunning city photography.
There’s many locations I enjoy photographing from this city, there’s always something going on no matter what time of the day, but my favourite subject is hands down the skyline at dusk–I’m sorry dear Golden Gate Bridge…
In my opinion, 20s/30s long exposures right after the sunset bring out the best results, those few minutes when the lights of the city are starting to shine and there’s still a color cast lingering on the sky. You can add some interest to the foreground including some light trails from vehicles or some colorfull victorian houses, and the result never dissapoints.
To make this captures you obviously need a tripod; that’s non negotiable. But basically that’s it. For better results though, I use a polarizer to darken a bit the sky and bring out cloud details or reduce some unwanted flare. Sometimes, if the sky is still too bright, I throw a light neutral density filter, like a 0.3.
With this post I want to share some of my favourite locations in the city where you can capture the Skyline with an interesting foreground, in order to make your pictures more compelling.
90 f22 25s ISO100
This is an HDR image, made out of three long exposures. I’m a huge fan of this location because the 280 Highway twisting along the frame adds a futuristic look to the capture. Traffic is usually heavy around 7 or 8pm when everybody is commuting in&out of the city, so in Spring time you get very consistent light trails from the cars right after the sunset.
45 f16 30s ISO100
This is also an HDR image combinig different long exposures. Probably this is my favourite location in the city, because it feels like my backyard. I live two blocks away from Alamo and many times I carry my camera while walking my dogs early in the morning or late at night.
It’s specially charming during the blue hour, when all the tourist are gone–during the day it’s impossible to get a clean foreground–and the city lights are at full glow already. The Painted Ladies make a wonderful foreground for the capture, and from this view you can see the most emblematic buildings of the city, like the Transamerican Tower or the the new SalesForce Tower under construction.
This may be considered one of the most iconic shots of San Francisco, and I know it’s been captured countless times, but long exposures allows you to be a bit more creative and come out with a more personal image.
If you wanna add the car light trails you may have to stack a bunch of different exposures when editing your final image because traffic tends to be scarce at this time of the day at Steiner Street. I also recommend getting there before sunset so you can get more detail and color out of the Painted Ladies; they get a bit dusky when the sun is set, and there’s kind of poor street ilumination.
40 f11 1/125 ISO100
This is a pretty impressive location. You are way closer to the Skyline than in Twin Peaks, but at the same time far enough to get a capture with strong depth of field. It’s located in the geographical center of the city and has an easy access to the peak: All smooth and easy.
In my opinion the best time to capture the city from Corona is during sunrise, as the sun is reflected on the bay and early rays of light sneak into buildings creating truly amazing effects. The only thing to consider is that the sun is rising right in front of you, so a polarizer or even nd filters can become very handy for better results.
105 f9 30s ISO100
This is a 30 seconds long exposure taken from Treasure Island. Despite having to cross the Bay Bridge, the Skyline of the City with the bay as a foreground never fails to impress. I always make sure the weather conditions are appropiate for the kind of shot I want to get before driving to Treasure Island, even though conditions can change in San Francisco in the blink of an eye.
From this location you can also get very interesting perspectives of the Bay Bridge. If you are into panorama, this is a brilliant spot, too. There’s definitely plenty of opportunities in Treasure Island.
During sunrise this location looks totally different since the sun bathes directly this side of the city, and you tend to get plenty of morning fog. I like it better after sunset, because there’s just a thin light coming from behind and the contrast between buildings and lights is simply stunning.
Be aware there are massive racoons living among the rocks from where you get the best perspective of the city, so carry your bag on your shoulder at all times! I’ve seen racoons stealing food and bags from tourists, and they can act agressively if you face them.
This is just a shortlist of some of the many photographic opportunities San Francisco has to offer. Stay tunned for new locations in the city and accross California!
If you want to see more of my work visit my Instagram account @robert_ruz