You're visiting San Francisco and the first item on the agenda is shooting the famous Golden Gate Bridge. Then uploading it to Facebook. Then Instagram. Then Twitter. But even before you can gloat on social media you got to find the bridge first, right? So you hop in your Prius, plug Golden Gate bridge into your GPS, drive across the actual bridge towards the Toll Plaza until a shiny Exit Sign catches your eye: Golden Gate National Recreation Area View Area. You exit with all the other clueless Prius driving tourists and realize you've entered into a huge trainwreck of a parking lot. Did I also mention the parking is metered and there is an additional parking lot for $5/day? Brilliant. After you've circled the lot about five times and have managed to find an open space that's not occupied by a motorcycle, you start to question why you came here in the first place. The entire lot is overrun by small kids and tourists in huge hats, freezing their butts off because they decided to wear shorts since hey they're in California. The view of the bridge is nothing spectacular and it's even nearly impossible to remove unwanted heads, faces, and body parts from your shot. Oh and if tourists and a bad angle can't ruin the shot, then the fog will. Totally Instagram worthy.
So to make sure you don't make the same mistakes as all the other newbie tourists, try opting for these hidden gems instead (with free parking!)...
1. Battery Spencer
McCullough Rd & Conzelman Rd, Mill Valley, CA 94941
Congratulations you're already across the bridge. So exit out of the trainwreck lot and make your way over to Mill Valley. Battery Spencer is gaining more popularity and becoming more well known thanks to the Internet. The advantage of Battery Spencer is that it is an elevated vista point looking downwards towards one of the main towers. My advice is to park alongside Kirby Cove Road or Conzelman Road and walk along either road to Battery Spencer. Views from many different angles along those roads provide equally fantastic perspectives. Come during the morning if you like ample fog or wait until the afternoon for some of the fog to burn off. Bring your tripod because it can get pretty windy at the top. I got lucky and found a ledge to rest my camera. I used a 10-22 mm wide angle lens to fully capture the length of the bridge. I also used a neutral density filter to create that oh so hazy fog effect.
2. Fort Baker
557 McReynolds Rd, Sausalito, CA 94965
For the photo enthusiasts who want to capture the bridge at sea level, this is the spot for you. If you're already across the bridge, keep heading north on the US Highway 101 and exit on Alexander Avenue. Parking should be fairly decent as the majority of people in this area are either jogging, fishing, or crabbing (San Francisco is famous for the dungeness crab). There's a nice fishing pier located very close to the North Tower that you can walk down to take photos. Fort Baker is also one of the few places where you can capture Angel Island, Alcatraz, Yerba Buena Island, the Oakland bridge, the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge all in one panoramic shot. Yowza.
3. Fort Point
Marine Drive, San Francisco, CA 94129
If you're on the other side of the bridge in San Francisco, there are plenty of vantage points too. Fort Point is a military fortification that was designed before the American Civil War to protect San Francisco from the Confederate Army even though it was never attacked. Touring Fort Point is absolutely free and is open Friday through Sunday from 10 AM to 5 PM. This tourist attraction also allows you to photograph the Golden Gate Bridge from underneath. There is also a lengthy jogging path along the water that leads to Fort Point. This path in general is not very crowded, leaving plenty of room to take lots of photos. However, the weather can make this spot a challenging place to shoot. If there's lots of fog or the sky is cloudy that day, the sky may appear washed out (see photo above). The actual parking spots in this area tend to fill up fast. I would recommend parking alongside the road and beware of parking spots that are not meant for visitors (resulting in hefty fines!).
4. Baker Beach
1504 Pershing Drive, San Francisco, CA 94129
Baker Beach is another favorite, less crowded option and reserved for the adventurous. You can't get super close to the bridge but if you have a zoom lens and a sturdy balance, you can climb atop the beach rock formations to capture a great shot. Before you go, you should know that it's probably going to be colder at the beach and you may want to wear sneakers if you're climbing up the rocks. Once you reach your perch, sit down, relax, soak up whatever sun's left, breathe in the salty air, meditate, and absorb all the wondrous nature that surrounds you. If the romantic nature becomes too overwhelming, gaze around the beach and you're bound to spot some nude sunbathers as an added bonus. No there aren't signs that this is a nude acceptable beach (but hey did you forget you're in San Francisco?). Yes it's windy and freezing and probably 65 degrees which isn't exactly nude friendly weather. But as long as there isn't random dong obstructing your beach scenery and panoramic shot of the bridge, what do you care?
5. Lands End Lookout
680 Point Lobos Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94129
Lands End Lookout is the farthest vantage point from the bridge, but it provides a relatively straight horizontal view of both the bridge towers if that's your goal. If you have a better zoom lens than the one I used (mine was 10-22 mm) you can capture a much clearer, distinct shot than pictured above. Either way you got the mountains, the green grass, the blue skies, the wispy white clouds and blue water in one nice shot.