San Francisco is a great city for photography lovers. Of course, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge is a perennial favorite, but there are many other great shooting locations in SF. And the city has museums and galleries dedicated to the art of photography. So pack up your camera and charge your batteries for this guide to the 11 best photography spots in San Francisco.
How to Find Your Photographic Inspiration in San Francisco
Think of what follows as a 4 day photography itinerary. Spend the morning getting inspired by the works of others and visit these San Francisco galleries and museums which are dedicated to photography. Then create your own masterpiece by going out to a great shooting location and get those San Francisco Instagram shots. Mix and match these 11 best spots for photography in SF and create your own perfect photography-inspired itinerary.
1. Pier 24
Pier 24 was founded with the intent to provide a contemplative environment for viewing photography. They offer several shows a year which range from the exhibition of a single artist to collected works around a particular theme.
I have visited the gallery several times and am always impressed by how thoughtfully they have designed their space. They have an appointment-only reservation system specifically designed to meter the number of people who are in the gallery at any given time. And the galleries themselves are very spacious, giving a lot a room to stand back and observe those pieces that are better seen from a remove. Pier 24 rotate exhibits every four months-ish. So if you live in SF or are a frequent visitor, you can become a repeat offender.
- Hours: Pier 24 photography is open Monday-Friday 9-5:15.
- Location: Pier 24 is located on the Embarcadero at Harrison. There is good muni access and it’s a fairly easy walk from the Caltrain station and Union Square/downtown hotels.
- Reservations: They require advance reservations. But if you have a flexible schedule, you can often get a same day ticket on weekdays. Check the schedule on the website. Other things to do in the area include the Ferry Building (where you can eat yourself silly) and the Exploratorium.
2. Fraenkel Gallery
The Fraenkel offers monthly exhibitions showcasing a wide variety of photography styles. It’s a small gallery of just three rooms. But the exhibits are so well curated that you can spend a lot of time there. There are also other art galleries featuring photography in the Fraenkal’s building and elsewhere along Geary street. So feel free to create your own art walk.
- Hours: The gallery is open Mon-Fri 10:30-5:30, Sat 11-5.
- Cost: Free.
- Location: The Fraenkel is located in the center of the Financial District on Geary between Kearny & Grant. It’s an easy walk from downtown and Union square hotels and very close to both Bart and bus lines. Other things to do in the area include: Union Square shopping and viewing the iconic Transamerica building.
3. Leica Gallery
The Leica Gallery is a gallery space as well as a store selling beautifully crafted Leica cameras. They offer five exhibitions a year featuring the works of Leica photographers. The photographic art on display is always interesting. And the beautifully crafted cameras on display are also works of art. The gallery also has a large library of photography books that are available for perusal.
- Hours: Mon-Fri 10-6, Sat 10-4.
- Cost: Free for the gallery, $21,940 for the Leica DSLR 10803S camera body.
- Location: On Bush street between Grant & Kearny. It’s just a few blocks uphill from Union Square and a few blocks downhill from Chinatown. It can be accessed by the Powell street cable car and multiple bus lines.
SFMOMA’s mission is to make the art of our time a meaningful part of public life. They do this through the exhibition of modern works of paint, sculpture, film and of course, photography. In fact SFMOMA was the first museum to recognize photography as an art form and they have collected over 17,000 works. With the new museum expansion, they have tripled their space for photography.
It’s a busy museum and you won’t get the intimate experience of Pier 24, but with their scale comes astonishing variety of works. And the light filled architecture also makes MOMA one of the best photography spots in San Francisco.
- Hours: SFMOMA is open Fri-Tues 10-5, Thurs 10-9. They are busiest on weekends and Thursday evening. They advise getting advance tickets from their website. But if you go on a quieter weekday, you can usually just walk in. Better yet, take their daily photography public tour, offered daily at 11:30 am. Their guides are very well-versed on the most current exhibits.
- Cost: $25 for adults. But once in, the pubic tours are free.
- Location: SFMOMA is located on third street at Mission in the SOMA Neighborhood. Other things to do in the area include: The Yerba Buena Center for the arts, Metreon movie theater and the Powell street cable car.
“The art of seeing through creative looking”
5. SF Camerawork
SF Camerawork’s mission is to encourage and support emerging artists in the photography arts. They began as a cooperative venture among Bay Area artists to promote photography as a fine art form. They encourage emerging artists and experimental and challenging new works. It’s a small exhibit space and it won’t take you long to visit. But do make make time for it. Their exhibits are often very local and quite edgy. They rotate exhibits every other month and also host regular events.
- Hours: Visit SF Camerawork from Tues-Fri 12-6, Sat 12-5.
- Cost: Free.
- Location: Located mid-Market at 6th street. It’s an easy walk from SFMOMA or the Union Square area. Other things to do in the area include the Asian Art Museum and San Francisco City Hall.
Gear Up for Your San Francisco Instagram Shoot
When I shoot, I am all about going light. I considered selling my husband into slavery so that I could buy a Leica, but instead I got a mirrorless Olympus OM-D EM-10. I love it. It’s so light that the body and three lenses fit neatly into my purse, making it easy to shoot on the fly.
I use a neoprene case that offers a bit of padding and protection from wet weather. And I have a handful of gadgets including a Nikon lens cleaning pen, iPad card reader, Guerilla Pod and extra memory.
6 Best Photography Spots in San Francisco
Now that you are geared up, let’s go shoot. What follows are some of the best San Francisco Instagram spots. You can visit any of the following shooting locations on your own. But if you would prefer to go on a supported shoot, consider taking a private photography tour with your own personal guide. Check out reviews and book at Viator.
6. Sutro Baths
Jim Barcelona, (@Barce on Instagram) recommends Sutro Baths. “Where the city meets the Pacific… where a ruin falls & crumbles into the sea… where there have been Instameets of two or three, or on one occasion 400 or more… where there are so many angles to shoot… where underground bands play at night in a tunnel… where the unfortunate few have been swept out to sea… where I heard the giggling ghost… where I photographed their engagement… where there was that scene in Harold and Maude…. where I practiced shooting Sunsets waste deep in water in preparation for Iceland… where we welcomed Penélope to America… there, you will find Sutro Baths.”
The Baths are located in the far western edge of SF. You can take the Geary bus or Uber out there. But going in a car will be much easier and you have the flexibility of exploring the surrounding area.
7. The Presidio
Jonathan Borroso (JonnyBGreat from Instagram) recommends shooting in The Presidio at dusk. “My favorite place to shoot is the presidio, there is so much to discover. There are trees everywhere to catch light rays and create moody shots. The best time to shoot there is at sunset but get there early to catch the light rays.”
The Presidio has very limited bus service so you’ll want a car to fully explore the area. The Lover’s Lane trail pictured below is located in the southeastern section of the park. You can find a map here. But there are twelve distinct trail areas within the Presidio and each offers its own opportunity for great shots.
8. Marshall’s Beach
Ryan Garcis (@ryan.g.415 on Instagram, or here on his blog) recommends going to Marshall’s Beach. “The Golden Gate is iconic San Francisco; visible from so many places, there is no shortage of photographic opportunities. Marshall’s Beach, in my opinion, is one of the most ideal spots to shoot the bridge. Accessing Marshall’s provides a nice little downhill hike. The rocky shoreline provides the idyllic foreground to the Bridge with plenty of alluring wave action. Be prepared, a trip to Marshall’s almost guarantees your lower legs will be soaked…but the outcome is so worth it.”
Marshall’s Beach is on the very western edge of the Presidio so you could combine it with one of the above hikes. Park at the Godfrey Battery overlook lot and hike down from there.
Marshall's Golden Flow. 〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰 anyone know what kinda bird that is tho? 〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰〰 . . . #agameoftones #theimaged #fatalframes #heatercentral #moodygrams #illgrammers #way2ill #artofvisuals #folkgood #folkvibe #visualambassadors #aov5k #instagood #instagood10k #jaw_dropping_shots #earth_shotz #eclectic_shotz #ig_udog #udog_peopleandplaces #feedbacknation #hubs_united #super_hubs #special_shots #world_captures #thebest_capture #ig_vision #ig_unitedstates #ig_masterpiece #untoldvisuals
9. Hawk Hill, Marin
Andrew Frawley (@photoswithandrew on Instagram or here on his blog ) recommends going across the Golden Gate Bridge to Hawk Hill. “Hawk Hill is going to feel a bit commercial and touristy, but the long exposure shots I have scored here at night are unbeatable. The park closes at sunset, so get there early to score an… an unbeatable long exposure of the Golden Gate.” Or the following sunset shot from one of the old WWII military bunkers.
Drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, take the first exit and then circle left back under the highway onto Conzelman road. Driving along the road you will find many pull-outs with great shots of the bridge. The road ends at the Marin Headlands at the site of an old WWI bunker and battery. So you can also get in some urbex shots of the abandoned facility.
10. The Mission
This is from my own Wayfaring Views feed. If you like some grit and street art, you should definitely go to the Mission. It’s the best photography spot in SF for street shooting. You can take my street art tour of the Mission or just wander the local coffee shops and bookstores in search of photographic inspiration.
The Mission is well served by Bart and several bus lines. Daytime is best for seeing and shooting the street art. But it’s a fun neighborhood at night with lots of bars and restaurants, particularly along Valencia.
11: The Embarcadero
Another great spot for street shooting is the Embarcadero. You could spend all day strolling along the Embarcadero from the Giants Stadium all the way over to the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a great place for street shots, architecture and people watching. This shot was taken right outside of the door at Pier24.
The Embarcadero faces the east bay and the light is particularly luminous in the early morning. That said, the Bay Bridge puts on a sparkly light display at night that it also fun to shoot. So go twice.
“I don’t press the shutter, the image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered”
San Francisco provides an inspiring backdrop for photography. Soak up the interesting, edgy or groundbreaking work of others or create your own master works. Either way, you can get a lot of inspiration from visiting these 11 best photography spots in San Francisco. So go out shooting and get gently clobbered.
Your Parting Shot
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