I start this article as I sit at an overcrowded charging station at Oakland airport getting ready to board a flight back to Tampa after spending the better part of a week in the San Francisco area. I am going to structure this post into multiple parts based around the day's activities and the photos from them. I'm also going to explain a little bit of my thought process (if there was one) and my approach for each day's photo opportunities while piggy backing on the normal tourist activities like sight seeing, bike tours, and restaurant hunting. If you are looking for things to do while visiting in San Francisco this might be a good guide for you, if you also enjoy taking photos, this might be a great guide for you.
Before I get to the meat and potatoes of my trip I'd like to address something that I under estimated prior to my trip, the weather report. When the weather report says it's going to be in the 60's in San Francisco that doesn't mean the same thing as it does in Florida. In fact, I'd say 30's in Florida is equivalent the 60's in San Francisco. Something about the windy bay blowing in cold damp air or the concrete wind tunnels formed by a mixture of steep roads and the buildings that line them that changes the "feels like" temperature drastically. I packed an equal amount of shorts and jeans for this week long trip assuming I'd be rotating between them...nope! The shorts are still sitting in the same compartment in my suitcase as they were the day I left Tampa. So in short (pun intended), leave the shorts at home if the weather report is hanging in the 50's-70's, you won't need them.
Let's talk gear for a second. Throughout this trip I will be using my FujiFilm X100T with a GoPro Hero 3+ sometimes attached on top of the hot shoe mount or on a selfie stick (shut up, it creates some cool angles!). If you aren't already familiar with the X100T, it's the latest model to Fujifilm's X100 series and is a mirrorless cropped sensor camera with a fixed 23mm (35mm equivalent) lens that is less intrusive than a DSLR setups, a perfect option for travel and street photography.
I had the X100T / GoPro setup attached to a Peak Design SlideLITE Mirrorless Camera Strap which I kept around my neck for security and quick access reasons. I also carried the Peak Design Everyday Messenger Bag to hold a couple of bottles of water, extra batteries & memory cards, and misc cables & chargers, however I decided to leave my Macbook Pro in the hotel room while in the city.
Street (of San Francisco) Photography:
I started Tuesday with several free hours that I needed to fill before taking a trip to Alcatraz later in the afternoon. I decided I wanted to take my stab at street photography which I never really attempted as an objective, in the past I would take random shots of people when walking around a new city but this time, I wanted to set out to capture some moments in the city. I grabbed an Uber from Oakland to Union Square in the city which I found out would be a decent spot for street photography through my trusty friend, Google. I also figured San Francisco was a progressive and artsy city, so they shouldn't mind me sticking a camera in their face, right?
For the ride into the city, I took advantage of a new beta program Uber is launching which is called "Uber Pool", described as being the cheapest option behind UberX. Basically, you are splitting the cost into or around the city with other passengers. The downside to Uber Pool is you have to either drop off or pick up other passengers before you get to your final destination, this added about 20-25 minutes to my trip and only saved a couple of bucks, in my opinion not worth it.
Once arriving at Union Square, which is an open plaza that has vendor carts selling the typical tourist stuff, you know, like the spray paint art of the universe and "unique" souvenirs that you can find in countless shops throughout the city, yeah that stuff. Since it was a weekday and in the early afternoon there wasn't too many vendors set up and even fewer people shopping so I decided to walk around the streets surrounding Union Square. It didn't take me long to figure out that wearing ear buds with music blasting is a must for street photography, at least for me it is. The music not only kept me in my happy place, it also helped me avoid people from making conversation about camera gear or simply hearing the sighs of disgust after I snapped a picture of them.
After making several trips around the block with not much inspiration I decided to park on the corner near a bus stop and wait for people to walk around the corner to ambush them with a candid shot (Surprise MotherF$%$#%). I figured this would create the most natural shot since they wouldn't have a chance to see me coming and have it affect their facial expression. After about an hour of squatting down on that corner, and seeing countless homeless butt cracks and inhaling enough second-hand marijuana smoke to put off a job interview until next month, I decided to start walking towards Pier 33 where the Alcatraz tour left from, about a 30-minute walk from Union Square.
The walk towards Pier 33 was pretty uneventful, a couple of cool abstract shots of buildings and a homeless guy walking with a cane wearing a Security jacket that no doubt someone gave to him on a cold night made up the highlights of my shots between Union Square and the docks. I arrived at the launching point and checked in at Will Call about an hour before the departure time so I did what anyone leaving in 2016 would do, looked for an outlet to plug in my devices. I was lucky enough to find one behind the Will Call shed and quickly set up camp while plugging in my GoPro charger. Those cheap Amazon versions of the GoPro batteries are straight garbage, they are rated to record for over an hour and a half yet I am lucky if I get 30-45 minutes out of them. I decided to head to Best Buy the next day and pick up a couple of OEM GoPro batteries for the rest of my trip.
Alcatraz Photography Tour:
For the low price of $33.00 you too can see where Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery saved San Francisco from domestic terrorist. While Alcatraz doesn't have any historic record of VX gas missiles being pointed at the city, it does a lot of history to include multiple prison escape attempts, being occupied by native americans after the prison closed, and plenty amazing photographic opportunities. The island is also inhabited by a wide variety of plant and bird life which makes for some unique subjects while touring the island.
For the trip over to Alcatraz I opted to stand on the bow of the boat so I could capture some candids of other passengers and the island as we approached. Little did I know that those signs that say "Caution Wet Zone" weren't there just for show. Halfway through the short trip a rouge wave crashed on the hull of the ship and sent thousands of salty droplets towards me and my camera gear. Apparently I was in the perfect spot too since none of the half dozen other people on the bow seemed to get wet by this wave, just me, my GoPro (in a skeleton case) and my X100T...the rest of the trip was focused on drying the cameras before the water made its way to the inner components.
Upon arrival on Alcatraz Island, I opted to take a self-guided tour after watching a short historical video. To my surprise, the area where they kept the inmates was rather small, just 3 or 4 cell blocks no larger than a high school basketball gymnasium. The light inside the cell house was rather dim and overcrowded however so there were limited photo ops however it was interesting to see where the inmates escaped from their cells that were portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the 1079 film Escape from Alcatraz.
Another fun fact, the island is home to all kinds of seabirds that you hear as soon as you near The Rock, most common are the seagulls which have become very accustom to their human visitors. In fact, you could almost reach out and pet one if you were brave or stupid enough, and they weren't shy from approaching you if you decided to bring food with you.
After viewing the cell block I headed up to "the yard" which was up a steep flight of stairs and didn't offer too much to see so the amount of tourist walking around this area was scarce. At one point I was the only person in the yard which was pretty neat to stand there and look around an imagine the history that took place right where I was standing.
At the end of the day, even after being soaked by the freezing San Francisco wave, I still think the trip to Alcatraz was very much worth it. I'd recommend it to anyone that appreciates history and if you enjoy photography too there are plenty of different subject matters to get some great shots.
Driving the 1 to Muir Beach Overlook:
Here's something to do when you have a couple of hours to kill. We had a free afternoon and wanted to see some of the scenery that makes up the famous California coastline highway known officially as California State Route 1. From the Golden Gate Bridge it's about a 30-40 minute drive to the overlook but only a 15 minute drive to where the road starts to get interesting. Winding roads leading towards the ocean are accompanied by steep cliffs and a narrow two lane road, where the locals or driving enthusiasts don't seem to blink an eye at going 2-3x the posted speed limit. Like any courtesy driver, I pulled off on the shoulder to let the fast cars by at every chance I got. The drive is a lot more enjoyable when you can take in the beautiful scenery and smells of eucalyptus trees apposed to worrying about the old lady in a hybrid riding your ass down the mountain.
Upon our arrival at Muir Beach Overlook we took a short stroll down a manmade path to the actual overlook where we enjoyed the view and took a couple of GoPro Selfies along the way. Absolutely amazing scenery, and one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Bike Tour (Streets of San Francisco):
What better way to see the city than by trying to ride a bike with a selfie stick in the air while dodging a fleet of Prius drivers? With another full day at our disposal we decided to give the Streets of San Francisco Bike Tour a try, since they were killing it on yelp. We went with the "Heart of the City" bike tour which consists of a 3 1/2 hour trip throughout the different neighborhoods of San Francisco for a total trip distance of 9 miles. I opted to have the X100T around my neck, bouncing between auto focus mode when riding and manual focus when stopped. I also brought the GoPole selfie stick which I purchased from Best Buy before our cruise down Route 1. I would rotate the GoPro from being mounted on my front basket which I used for the majority of the ride to capture video in a POV type shot and a couple of selfie moments halfway through the ride where I captured mostly photos but a few short video clips too using the GoPole.
We arrived at the SOSF headquarters which in true San Francisco fashion was a couple of shipment containers turned into a bike rental shop. Upon our arrival we met our tour guide, a true local who was born and raised in the city, Josh. After being assigned a bike, each of which had a unique name, I was on "DJ Chrome", we met the rest of our group which consisted of a mother and daughter from Istanbul, Turkey, a young lady who told me she was from "Jersey" in a very British accent, which confused me for a good second until she verified it was an island off England, a middle age lady that was a local for the past few years, and myself and Jaclyn, and of course our tour guide, Josh.
The tour was broken up into several stops to talk about art or the history of a specific area or neighborhood which made the tour both an interesting and easy workout. Any calories that may have been worked off during the ride was quickly put right back on with a stop to a local bakery which was so well known throughout the city that it did not have any store signage out front, however the amazing smell of freshly baked pastries and the line to get in did a lot more advertising that any sign could do. After stuffing our faces we ventures through more neighborhoods until arriving at the holy grail of neighborhoods...that's right, the park where the Olsen Twins and dare I say the dreamy Jesse from Full House held their picnic during the opening scenes. Turns out it's a pretty amazing view, and it's packed with tourists. Apparently one of the homes was purchased by a Facebook employee not too long ago, but besides that they are just owned by regular people (with a lot of money). After checking off one more item on my wife's bucket list we headed back to the SOSF lot and said farewell to our fellow biker gang members.
Golden Gate Bridge:
What trip to San Francisco is complete without a trip to the Golden Gate Bridge, which I learned is actually painted a color known as International Orange. Apparently during the construction of the bridge it was painted this International Orange as a primer type color while the official color was being decided. After seeing the color against the contrasting blues of the bay and skies the city and its residences voted to keep the color International Orange. True story, bro...or at least that's what our hippy tour guide told us on the way to Sonoma wine country...gotta be true.
We must have driven over the bridge a dozen times in our week's visit however we wanted to stop get out, take some photos, and maybe walk across the bridge too. On the first day stopped at the bridge to take a photo well after the sun set, first on the city side, and then we drove over and parked on the other side. While there was some great ambient light, I didn't have a tripod so I was limited to how slow I bring the shutter down to while hand holding.
The second day we visited the bridge was early in the afternoon after completing the bike tour. I wanted to check out the area at the base of the bridge where I have seen countless photos from. This area is ideal for getting a true sense of just how impressive the bridge is without fighting through the crowds of tourists that form at the overlook at either side of the bridge.
We then headed up and over the bridge and parked at the visitor's center which looks back at the bridge and the city, and is easily the more crowded area to view the bridge. However since it was a Thursday afternoon so not too many people were on the bridge even though it was one of the few times fog didn't cover it. The walk across the bridge provides a windy and chilly view of the bay but is plagued with the sounds and sights of cars zooming by a few feet from you. Not much more to say about the bridge walk, something to do but not too thrilling, I imagine it would be more fun to ride a bike across it.
Fisherman's Wharf and China Town:
Arf arf Arf arf! That's the sound a sea lion makes as it does battle over a little piece of real estate upon a wooden dock outside Pier 39. Fisherman's Wharf is made up by a series of concrete piers and the shops that line them, a tourist trap for sure. However, one thing that made this area unique was the sea lions that perched themselves in a designated area smack in the middle of this tourist trap.
Down the road are two business landmarks that are on many must visit lists on countless travel blogs throughout the interwebz. One being Ghirardelli Square which gives you a sample as you walk in, and has plenty of diabetes causing treats for your choosing. The other being Boudin Bakery where sour dough bread loafs soar through the air in baskets above your head.
After spending a couple of hours in the Fisherman's Wharf area we strolled to China town to check out Hunan's Home Chinese restaurant which had the highest ratings among the list of Chinese restaurants in the city. We made it there around 2pm and found ourselves with a 5-10 minute wait to grab a table. The food, although I was too busy eating it and forgot to take any photos of, was pretty decent. Not the best Chinese food i've had but definitely good, the green beans were amazing, worth a visit for sure.
The walk back to the parking garage near Pier 39 was met with some steep hills and some excellent people watching / photographing opportunities. Lots of good Street Photography options here, between the locals, homeless, and tourist there is always someone to take a picture of.
This is another one of those "must see, must do" things while in San Francisco. We unfortunately didn't get out and take photos or walk up it since we remembered to do it on one of our last days in the city and after a full day of walking around already so we were pretty tired. However, we did take the drive down which we captured on the GoPro, nothing too exciting but worth a quick drive down.
Sonoma Valley Wine Tour:
Our last full day in San Francisco fell on a Saturday, the night before we teetered between driving to Big Sur or heading up to Wine Country. After deciding the 3 hour drive (one way) wasn't worth it we landed on checking out Napa Valley. We knew we didn't want to drive ourselves since you know drunk driving is bad, and we're old enough to know wine tasting = a pretty good buzz. We found a wine tour however all the Napa Valley tours were sold out, it was Saturday after all, they did however have Sonoma spaces still open so we signed up.
Since we were staying outside the city in Emeryville we had to take an Uber into the city to a meet point at the Parc 55 Hilton hotel. After being picked up, by a much smaller bus than the Napa Valley bus we went hotel to hotel picking up different characters. After filling up with 12 total guests, including us, we headed towards Sonoma, but not before a stop at the Golden Gate bridge for a bathroom break. The crowd on Saturday at the bridge was insane, try getting a photo of you without someone's head in the background is impossible.
The ride up to our hour drive to Sonoma was narrated by a free spirited young lady who I believe died at Woodstock in her previous life...along with half of the other San Francisco locals. Our first stop in Sonoma wine country was a very small winery named Homewood Winery where we had a private tasting area. Met by our wine expert (who just started a couple of weeks before) we sampled very generous sized glasses of a nice variety of different type of wines. This was easily my favorite as far as wine quality goes among the three total wineries we visited on our tour. A bike wine tour was also at the winery which I found to be pretty amazing.
Next up was Larson Family Winery which was more of a drunken party atmosphere than a wine tasting experience. A good place to have a bachelorette party but pretty lame if you were expecting classical music, a cheese plate, and quality wine. There was a goat though so yeah it's got that going for it.
The last winery we visited I don't even know the name of, the wine, horrible, the property, awesome. This property which was a cattle ranch back in the day had a great breeze blowing through it. After tasting the wines, one of which had mushroom flavor, we opted to sit outside and enjoy the weather and scenery.
All in all the Sonoma Wine Tour was pretty blah. It was good to say we did it but I wouldn't recommend taking the bus tour besides being over priced it was limited to only three wineries and much of the time was spent in the van.
San Francisco Summary:
As you can see, there is plenty to do while visiting San Francisco and plenty of reasons to bring a camera with you. I'd rate the bike tour and visit to Alcatraz on the top of the must do list while visiting with your camera. There are plenty of other people walking around with cameras so you won't feel too out of place if you enjoy street photography. Besides a couple of sketchy homeless people the majority of the people were in their own little world and mind their own business, even as you pointed a camera at them.
If you have any questions or comments please leave them below, if this was helpful please let me know also.