I have just added what may be the final installment of my near year long project of photographing in San Francisco. Although prolonged it has been a most enjoyable self assignment, one that has served to expand my photographic skills and interests. Up to this point I had mostly concentrated on scenic landscapes and wildlife, in fact shunning urban areas. In San Francisco, and to a lessor extent San Diego, I was in a totally different environment that forced me to think differently and approach photography differently. Besides having all kinds of distractions to deal with in my photos (people, cars, buses, signs, electrical wires, etc,) I had to decide when and where to include those "distractions" as appropriate parts of my new landscape. It didn't take long to understand that cities and people, for example, go together and I thereafter sought to include them where appropriate. I also changed my post production thinking rather markedly. As a landscape photographer I endeavored to edit "true to the scene" as much as possible, in other words make it look realistic. In editing my urban images I felt much more at ease about using a bit of creativity, for instance skewing the shape of a cable car, or doing a bit of stylizing with Willy Mays. These are "travel" photos and I felt free to do whatever I pleased with them. It was fun, and as a side benefit, I became a more skilled Photoshop user.
This turned into a major project in terms of time and necessitated thinking about the scope of what I wanted to accomplish as it could easily become a never ending job. I shot thousands of photos and edited around 800 (so far). Much of the content on this site involves architectural or street art content, subjects I enjoy and have experience with. But San Francisco is so much more than that. One could concentrate for a considerable time on people alone. I've often thought that sitting on a street corner and photographing passers by would yield interesting results...maybe a theme for another time.
Several subjects in the City I think deserve special mention from my experiences. I have always enjoyed photographing churches and San Francisco has several that can be considered works of art: Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in North Beach (Roman Catholic), Cathedral of the Holy Virgin in the outer Richmond (Russian Orthodox), Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill (Episcopal), Mission Dolores in the Mission District (Roman Catholic), St. Ignatius at Univ. of San Francisco (Roman Catholic), and St. Mary's on Cathedral Hill (Roman Catholic) are examples. The latter, while not in my opinion the most interesting from the exterior is exquisite inside. The architecture is modernistic and stunning. To do it justice one needs a tripod...and pick a time when religious services are not being held or tour buses lined up outside (this is DIFFICULT). I was lucky and had the cathedral mostly to myself for nearly an hour (just after early morning Mass). I used a technique called HDR (high dynamic range) photography making five images at differing shutter speeds to control the high degree of contrast & range of light, then combining those five images into one for final editing. I think the results stunning.
Another subject was street art at Balmy Alley and Clarion Street in the outer Mission. Here one finds murals painted on houses, garages, fences, whatever is available. The murals rise far above graffiti to the level of art. This is an area of high Hispanic concentration and the murals all have a message ranging from social protest to the religious. They are worth photographing. They are also venues the average tourist is not going to see. There are other striking examples of street art throughout the City too numerous to list but a few of which are included in my web portfolio.
I found Fisherman's Wharf rewarding for maritime images, but this is subject matter best approached in early morning before breezes disturb the water, and before hoards of tourists descend on this popular area. At any other time I believe the wharf best avoided.
I spent a morning hiking up California St. from the Bay to the top of Nob Hill. This is an endeavor not to be taken lightly as it entails a steep climb. It doesn't look like much from the bottom but you will think differently when you reach the top. It is a workout especially when loaded with camera gear. This walk takes one from the Embarcadero through the financial district, along the edge of Chinatown, past several world renown hotels, past remarkable churches, lively street activity, great architecture, and in general represents much of the essence of downtown San Francisco.
If an enthusiast of classical architecture one could do no better than visit the Palace of Fine Arts, Palace of the Legion of Honor, City Hall, War Memorial Opera House, and Herbst Theater. Other architectural venues of interest include the DeYoung Museum, California Academy of Sciences, Japanese Tea Garden and Davies Symphony Hall. I spent considerable time around and about all these places.
Finally, I created innumerable iterations of the Golden Gate Bridge, a cliche for sure, but impossible to ignore because it is so entwined with the popular image people have of San Francisco. I was surprised by the numerous unbelievable vantage points to view and photograph this icon. I am completely "bridged" out but I still have not exhausted the possibilities to present different perspectives of this engineering marvel.
San Francisco is indeed a great city and has much to offer. It's population is diverse, indeed much of the charm of the City is in its unique neighborhoods such as North Beach, Chinatown, etc. There are decidedly upscale neighborhood like Pacific Heights where the rich and famous live in jaw dropping magnificence. But there is also the other side of the coin. One is going to see disturbing sights of homeless people living on the streets, some there by choice no doubt, but many too by circumstance. I debated about photographing that and decided that was not what this project was about. Still, I find that people living in such marginal conditions in a country as rich as our's disturbing. How can this be, and why can't we find a way to alleviate such suffering? In a way I can't explain I feel responsible for these people, and at the same time frustrated at my powerlessness to do much about it. Perhaps for this reason I did not feel comfortable photographing the plight of others.
I will end with this thought. I believe the images in this portfolio represent most of the major points of tourist interest in the City and a good place to visit if one wishes to research an expected visit. Keep in mind though that if you only have three or four days you are not going to see everything. It took me roughly 10 visits to the city to create this portfolio, and for most of those I was set up and ready to shoot a few minutes before sunrise. However you choose to approach the City be assured it is one grand place to visit.