Planning your San Francisco Family Photography Session
I’ve been doing San Francisco family photography for a long time. It’s hard to believe, but I actually started photographing in SF before Facebook, before the iPhone, and definitely waaaay before Instagram. Social media has uncovered and popularized many of the spots that used to be off the beaten path and well kept secrets. If you’re a family looking to plan your San Francisco family photography session, you’re now facing a double challenge: (1) You want to find the best location for your shoot, and (2) You probably don’t want your photos to look like everyone else’s.
“Help! Please recommend your favorite San Francisco family photography locations!”
I joined lots of Facebook parent groups after becoming a dad. This is one question that gets asked very frequently – especially when fall rolls around and families begin mobilizing for their holiday card shoots. That’s one reason I finally decided to aggregate all of my photography experience and write this post. I am going to be as comprehensive as possible, with lots of visual examples, and hopefully it saves people a lot of time and research.
Think in Categories.
The most logical way to approach your San Francisco family photography session is to think about outdoor locations in three broad categories:
- Organic – park, beach.
- Iconic SF – Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts, Legion of Honor, Pier 7, etc.
- Urban – neighborhoods that have great color, texture and visual interest. Think North Beach, Clarion Alley murals, Outer Sunset next to Great Highway. Views of the SF skyline such as you can get from Potrero Hill or above Crissy Field.
I’ll go in depth into each category now, and give lots of examples. But before I do that, remember that these categories are not always mutually exclusive. Some locations check all of the boxes. For example, Baker Beach has views of the Golden Gate Bridge, water, sand, forest, as well as old fortifications which have great texture and lots of visual interest. Not to mention that on the right San Francisco day, you might get super lucky with a gorgeous sunset. It’s no wonder that Baker Beach is so popular with photographers.
Just as well, you should consider that a longer session can allow you to tackle multiple spots. Of course you have to know your family and have a realistic sense of their endurance.
One category I didn’t mention above is the most obvious one: home. If you have a home with some nice visual interest, it can be a great place to do some, or even all, of your photoshoot. It’s certainly much easier to manage at home if you have a baby, and photos at home can be very meaningful when you look back years from now. Perhaps you have a nice backyard, or interesting decor. I often do combination sessions at my clients’ homes and out and about in the city.
Finally, there’s always the option to do a studio session, and/or combine with some of the above. I have built out a very nice and versatile studio space in San Francisco, which is a luxury that many photographers don’t have (or they don’t know how to shoot in a studio). Studio shots can add a professional sheen to your photos, and the layered lighting and interesting backgrounds will make your photos stand out.
San Francisco is blessed with many gorgeous parks, and several beaches. Let’s take the main and most accessible beaches first – Ocean Beach and Baker Beach. I like to think of these two beaches as the proverbial Jackie and Marylin: both alluring, but each with her own temperament, charms, and hazards.
Ocean Beach has a gritty feel. Often gray, with rough, crumbling concrete in places. RV’s, tailgaters, skaters and unhoused folks hang out in and around the parking lots. To actually get near the water, you’ve got to trek through soft sand quite a way. It’s not friendly to nice footwear, and it can test your young kids’ patience. I bring a lot of gear and lighting to my shoots, so if it’s an Ocean Beach adventure, I physically prepare myself for a hike. However, Ocean Beach has a strange and wonderful energy. If you don’t mind the wind in your hair, you can get some amazing photos in the dunes and on the parapets overlooking the water. Nearby you also have the Cliff House, the Queen Wilhelmina Windmill and Tulip Garden, and the colors and textures of the Outer Sunset neighborhood on the other side of the Great Highway.
Baker Beach is definitely the Marilyn. More picture-perfect, with myriad photo opportunities as I already pointed out above. There’s also a parking lot and convenient bathrooms. Even a foot washing station! However, on perfect, sunny days, Baker Beach is crowded. Especially weekends. Parking is hard to come by, car break-ins are not uncommon, and you have to have a really skilled photographer to compose all of the other visitors out of your photos.
Golden Gate Park and Other Parks
Golden Gate Park is not this monolithic place that tourists envision. It’s a huge, eclectic stretch of San Francisco. Some places are reliable tourist haunts, such as the Japanese Garden, Academy of Sciences area, Botanical Garden and Conservatory of Flowers. Farther west, however, you can find a lot of still hidden nooks where you can enjoy privacy for your San Francisco Family photography session. Often times, my clients approach me with the idea that they want to go to the Botanical or Japanese Garden. Why? I ask. Well, because we love the nature. OK, but the good news is that you can get lots of nature, the same greens and browns and yellows and plants, just without the tourists, ticket prices, and restrictions. I try to steer my families away from paid attractions for this reason. There are so many gorgeous parks around the city, all of them free, all of them full of greenery and space. Bernal, Lover’s Lane, Grandview Park, Tank Hill, Corona Heights are just some examples of places with beautiful city views and natural architecture that locals love.
Iconic San Francisco Family Photography Locations
There are too many to name really, but we can focus on the well known ideas of Golden Gate Bridge; Legion of Honor; Palace of Fine Arts; Embarcadero (including Pier 7, Ferry Building, Bay Bridge); Alamo Square (Painted Ladies). All of these places have one thing in common: they will be crowded, and as I mentioned before, this comes with parking and safety challenges, as well as the demand that your photographer can skillfully navigate a crowded situation.
Golden Gate Bridge
There are several approaches and views of the bridge. Fort Point has a convenient parking lot and places you right at the base of the bridge. Torpedo Wharf is just a short distance from Fort Point, and gives a more lateral view of the bridge (you’re looking at the bridge, instead of along it). The Wharf is very poor concrete and can be hazardous to navigate in the wrong footwear. There are lots of people fishing and tourists touristing along the wharf. Both can be incredibly windy. Baker Beach, as mentioned above, also gives a great view of the bridge. You can go to the Bridge Overlook, the one that all the tourists go to before they walk the bridge, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Parking is nearly impossible and it’s always super crowded.
Palace of Fine Arts
One of the most iconic SF spots. Also one of the most heavily-trafficked by tourists, photographers and thieves. It’s really a fascinating ecosystem. Photographers and their clients, as well as hordes of tourists feed on the natural, classical beauty of the place. And the thieves feed on careless and unsuspecting visitors – mainly ones that leave valuables in their cars. I’ve documented hundreds of sessions there: weddings, engagements, families, surprise proposals, corporate shoots, quinceñearas, lifestyle shoots, dating photos, and on and on. Palace of Fine Arts rarely disappoints.
The eastern part of the City offers a lot. Better weather, more of a city feel with the buildings of the financial district rising up above you. The buzz of the Ferry Building and the hum of the cars traversing the Bay Bridge. You can walk around and explore the waterfront – a great bonus that promises lots of variety in your photographs. However, keep in mind that on a sunny day, the sun will set much earlier over the buildings of downtown and you’ll lose the sunlight far before actual sunset happens over Ocean Beach. I personally think that the Embarcadero is very compelling at night, with the lights of the City all aglow. Many photographers consider themselves “natural light” shooters, and so they shy away from nighttime shots that require additional lighting and complexity. But I think that’s where the impact is! If you want photos that don’t look like all your friends’, then a nighttime shoot on the Embarcadero could be just the thing. (This is easier in the fall – gotta be mindful of kids’ bedtimes).
Legion of Honor
Sparkling white. Classic. Iconic. Unmistakable. The columns in the courtyard sing their own geometric beauty. There’s even a view of the Golden Gate bridge if you take just the right angle. The main challenge with Legion is that the courtyard is not always open – it’s often closed for private events. Moreover, with COVID, the Legion has been requiring masks to be worn inside the courtyard as well. This is obviously not conducive to a good photoshoot. Be careful once again with parking and leaving valuables. It’s a popular target for thieves.
I love to pick a San Francisco neighborhood and explore it. A walkabout immediately opens up lots of options for variety. You’ll discover things that you’d have never seen if you just picked a spot on the map, drove there and parked. I personally love North Beach for the architecture, vibrancy and city feel, Castro for the colors and energy, the Outer Sunset area near Judah for its colorful homes and walls and proximity to Ocean Beach/Windmills/Cliff House/Golden Gate Park which makes for a nice combo session. Chinatown is a cool place to explore. There are several sites around San Francisco that offer beautiful street art and murals. Some are amazing. Some are… not that great. Many of these areas have unhoused people, they can be dirty and odorous. If you want the color and pop of the street art, you gotta pay the price.
What to Wear
Think of the locations as part of the color palette for your photographs. If you’re going to the park, for example, you’re looking at predominantly greens and browns and yellows. The classic red flannel shirts and denim can look really nice against that backdrop. The beach will have blues and whites and possibly lots of grey on a foggy day. Legion of Honor is a blank canvas. Pick colors that complement or contrast nicely with these dominant environments. Bring a change of shoes, a hairbrush for windy days. Going to the beach? Towels might be a good idea in case you end up wading in the surf. Coordinate your family’s outfit so that there’s something of a unifying theme. It’s predictable, it seems cheesy at times (white shirts, denim), but there’s a reason people do it. It works. Clashing / contrasting colors, loud patterns, logos are not recommended because it just doesn’t look as good when you put it all together.
Observe the most important six words of advice I ever got: Dress in layers and bring snacks.