The best things to do in San Francisco for an amazing trip.

San Francisco To Do header image 2

Capturing San Francisco: Guide to Shooting San Francisco’s Iconic Photos

December 4th, 2011 · 3 Comments · Photography

Photos of San Francisco


San Francisco is a playland for photographers. Natural and architectural beauty is all around, and the hills give you some fantastic views. This is my guide to capturing seven iconic photos of San Francisco.

1. Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge at Sunset

What better way to start this off with the most iconic shot of all — San Francisco from Hendrik Point.  To get there, take the first exit off the Golden Gate Bridge, to Hendrik Point in the Marin Headlands.

The best time to go is the hour before sunset, the ol’ golden hour, when the Golden Gate Bridge will look scorching red. Stand on the elevated rim at Hendrik Point and frame San Francisco between the bridge’s platform and closest suspension tower. Your focus should be on the tower.

Try to use a low aperture so that San Francisco is in focus as well as the Golden Gate Bridge (f10 or higher).


2. The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square, brought to you by “Full House”

Full House Intro -- Alamo Square

The “Full House” intro was a generation’s introduction to San Francisco. There go the Tanners across the Golden Gate Bridge! Danny bicycling down Lombard Street!

And who can forget Baby Michelle toddling across a picnic blanket as the camera pans out to reveal… the Painted Ladies and downtown San Francisco. It’s the best of San Francisco’s architecture, in one shot.

To recreate it, head to Alamo Square at Steiner Street and Hayes Street, accessible by the 5, 21, 22, and 24 MUNI Lines. You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you see a hillside full of amateur photographers.

Walk midway up the hill, just above the fountain and close to Hayes St. Since this is a landscape shot, a low aperture is the way to go. Focus on the Painted Ladies, and snap away.

If you really want the exact same photo, use the roof angles as your benchmark. And maybe borrow a picnicking family. Preferably one that includes a cute baby with a few zany quips in her wheelhouse.


3. Hyde Street Cable Car and Alcatraz

Hyde Street Cable Car

I’m including this one to tell you that this photo is most likely staged. You won’t be able to get it, and no, that’s not a challenge. Looking closely, to achieve the same angle, you’ll need to be in the middle of the cable car track while also standing in the center of a four-way intersection. And standing on a box. Notice how the only person in the cable car is the gripman. Staged.

Assuming you don’t have an in at the Transport Workers Union, here’s how to get a good-enough shot.

First, head to the corner of Hyde St and Chestnut St. Make sure not to get hit by the Audi’s accelerating around the narrow Russian Hill streets. (I’m not singling them out because they are luxury cars; I’m singling them out because I nearly got hit by four of them.)

To get a good-enough photograph, stand on the southwest corner and wait. Your goal is to get a photo of the cable car, just as it is crests this stretch of Hyde St. Hyde St is so steep that you won’t be able to see the cable car approach until it’s 10 ft away from you; I recommend standing on the northwest corner until you see it climbing up the hill, then switching to the southwest corner. Thanks to the sharp drop off down Hyde St, you won’t be able to see the cable car until it’s 10 ft away from you. I stood at the northwest corner, until I saw a cable car start marching up the hill, then crossed the street and primed myself.

It’s always a bad idea to play chicken with a cable car. It’s particularly true here, since the gripman won’t see you until he’s at the intersection and four seconds away from running you over. Be smart, don’t stand in the middle of the road, and get out of the way as soon as you can. Because you know some Lexus is trying to peel out from behind that cable car.


4. Mini Golden Gate Bridge

Mini Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco is a perfect city to experiment with tilt-shift effects. All the hills give us the elevated vantage points we need to really pull it off.

To recreate the mini Golden Gate Bridge shot, you’ll need a telephoto lens, a tripod, and Photoshop.

I took this photo from a deserted battery in the Presidio. To get there, drive to the Presidio via 14th Ave, avoiding the tourist traffic east of the bridge. Park at one of the lots near Merchant Road and Lincoln Boulevard. You can also take the 28 MUNI line to the Golden Gate Bridge and hike on the Coastal Trail from there.

Cross through the parking lot on Merchant Road, just to the left of the trailers, to the battery. Climb up the concrete stairs to the battery’s flat roof. The Golden Gate Bridge will be straight ahead. You’ll have to stand towards the rear peak of the roof to line up the shot symmetrically.

For the tilt-shift effect to work, at least some part of the photo has to actually be in focus. Hence the telephoto lens. Also, the cars will be traveling at 45mph, so your best bet is to try this on a bright day and with a high aperture and fast shutter speed.  I used a 250mm lens at f5.6, and that worked fine for me. Instead of trying to focus on moving cars, it’s easier to focus on the NO U TURN sign on the bridge.

Another tip, bring a tripod. The Golden Gate is a wind tunnel, and I found it difficult to both hold a heavy lens and keep it from shaking in the wind.

Once you have the photo, it’s time to tilt-shift. I used this tutorial, blended with some of this tutorial since Photoshop Elements doesn’t have the masking feature. Have fun with it; it’s supposed to look silly.


5. The Rice-a-Roni Cable Car

The Rice-a-Roni Photo

If you are a child of the ‘80s, you have this Rice-a-Roni commercial lodged somewhere deep within your prefrontal cortex. Marketing: it works.

I’m not gonna to lie; this photo is difficult to get. To take the photo, head to the northeast corner of California Street and Mason Street, a short and vertical walk from Union Square.

Be prepared to wait. The California cable car line comes every 14 minutes and travels at a steady 9 mph. The photo is shot from the center of the right lane. You only have 5-10 seconds to get the shot. A lot of things can go awry in those 5-10 seconds.

I tried to get this shot over the course of two days and at least six cable cars. Once, I was stymied by a friendly tourist asking for directions, just as a cable car lumbered behind me. On the next attempt, a man jumped out of his car just in front of me – my entire shot was his blurry, baffled face. The next day, a Powell Street cable car broke down in the middle of the intersection, halting traffic for a half hour. As I said, be prepared to wait.

The best place to wait is in front of the Fairmont Hotel entrance on California – it’s a loading zone which means no parked cars will obscure your view. Aim to do this on a weekday, when there is less traffic. On weekends, the loading zone becomes a taxi line, feeding the grand Fairmont Hotel entrance around the corner. They didn’t seem too thrilled, or concerned, with the amateur photographer standing between them and paying customers.

Take some test shots while you wait. When you see the cable car peak at Powell St, get ready. If there are any cars in the right lane, all is not lost. They’ll be traveling faster than the 9mph cable car. Hopefully, they’ll pass and still give you enough time to get your shot. Autofocus is your friend, here, for the few seconds you have to get the photo. Good luck!


6. Transamerica Building and Columbus Tower

Columbus Tower and Transamerica Pyramid

Sighs of relief! We’re back to safe ground! No moving objects! The key to this photo is the juxtaposition of the ornate, oxidized Columbus Tower with the stark, mid-century Transamerica Pyramid. All with a crisp, cobalt blue backdrop.

You can shoot this photo on Columbus Avenue in North Beach, from the northwest corner of Pacific Avenue and Columbus. The 8, 10, 12, 30, 40, 41, and 45 MUNI lines will get you there. You’ll have to step just to the edge of the sidewalk to avoid getting a streetlight in the frame.

I chose a mid-range aperture (f8), to give the photo a little bit of depth without blurring out the Transamerica Pyramid. That’s all. Super easy, right?


7. San Francisco city skyline from Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

This final photo is also fairly easy. The Twin Peaks’ overlook is inches away from a large parking lot, and the 37, 44, and 48 MUNI lines will get you close to its base.

From the overlook, you’ll have a choice of angles. Most photographers stick to the paved overlook, with photos of Market Street veering off to the right. If you walk south along the access road, you can take a symmetrical shot of Market Street with the Ferry Building standing at the terminus. I like to include a bit of Twin Peaks in the shot because it’s vertigo-inducing. If you have a wide angle lens, this is the time to use it – head to the northernmost edge of the parking lot to include the serpentine access road in your frame.

Since this is a landscape photo, you’ll want to use a small aperture, f10 and up. The top of Twin Peaks can be very windy, so this is another spot where a sturdy tripod might be useful.


Is there a photo of San Francisco you’d like to recreate? Drop me a line in the comments, and I’ll see what I can do!


by Maria/Far Out City.  Maria publishes elaborate San Francisco Bay Area day trip itineraries over at  All photos copyright by 2011 Far Out City.

Tags: ···

3 Comments so far ↓

  • Your guide to seven iconic San Francisco photographs | Far Out City

    […] frogger between a taxi, an Audi, and a cable car. Head on over to SF Travel for my latest article: Capturing San Francisco: A Guide to Shooting San Francisco’s Iconic Photos.Related posts:Photo of the Day: Autumn LeavesPhoto of the Day: AndrePhoto of the Day: Hayes Valley, […]

  • Janet

    I really enjoyed your writeup. San Francisco is my favorite city. The tips you gave were simply wonderful. 🙂

  • Allison


    I am heading to the US from Australia in about 8 weeks and wanted to thank you for this amazing information and gorgeous pictures. I hope I can manage to squeeze in a couple of these shots myself. The tilt shift process is one I am particularly keen to capture. Thanks again. 🙂

Leave a Comment