Recently, I had to go to San Francisco for less than 24 hours. I was flying in at 3 in the afternoon and had to catch a flight back to Seattle at 1 pm the next afternoon. With a city as great as San Francisco and with thousands of photo opportunities, finding the right mix was not going to be easy.
Think about it. If you had 24 hours in a city how would you prioritize what to shoot, and at what time? Even if you come up with the perfect game plan weather, traffic, and any other myriad of unforeseen obstacles can put the brakes on everything.
So what do I recommend? DON’T HAVE A PLAN AND BE FLEXIBLE!!!
When my plane approached San Fran, I immediately scanned the horizon to see if I had any weather to contend with. Even if the skies were clear it did not mean that a fog bank could suddenly develop and move in. The skies for the most part looked pretty clear. I could see there were some low level clouds, but nothing too ominous.
I scrambled to get my rental car as I juggled tripod, laptop, and camera equipment. My body looked like a walking, drooling, spastic cramp. My trail of tears ended with a huge surprise. My friends had rented me a convertible… something I would have never done, but as you will see it made for a magical trip. I hopped into the car and was soon off to my 4:00 o’clock appointment.
An hour later I was done and free to explore… the fo… the fog… THE GREAT WALL OF FOG THAT JUST MOVED IN. You have got to be kidding me! Mother Nature is constantly toying with my emotions and has sent me on many a fruitless goose chases. Nothing can screw up a shot more than fog, especially San Fran Fog. “I call this picture “Cloudy Nothing”… yeah just give me a thousand bucks and it’s yours.”.
Plan B came to mind… but that’s right I had no plan. What the hell was I going to do?!?!
I through an internal tantrum as I tried desperately to look cool in my perv-mobile. I decided to just drive around and see if any inspiration could penetrate my creative fog.
I headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge. With the top down, Sirius pumping, and the heat on full blast, I cruised through San Fran like a mid-life crisis in training. My hair blew in the wind… causing some major afro-ization which soon morphed into a troll-like existence as it formed and aerodynamic point. As I glanced in the mirror I could not help think I looked like the Unabomber… great!
After a few u-turns and a couple flips of the bird I was found myself crossing the Golden Gate. My face was wind burned and my body was now hypothermic, and worst of all, I had to pee. Doubts about the trip and my ability to get some good shots started filling my brain.
Then out of nowhere the sun came out!!! Of course, this caused instant blindness, yet I became overcome with joy. I tried to look around to see what might pique my interest but everything I looked at now had purple dots masking it. White-knuckling the steering wheel became a side effect of trying desperately not to get killed by the California enduro-racers that raced and zig-zagged over the bridge. It seemed inevitable that I would cause an accident or in the least the evacuation of an unsuspecting tourist’s bowels.
As I approached the end of the bridge I was spying for a parking spot when I became horrified by what I saw, a ”Tourist Infestation”. A photographers worst nightmare. These blind, mindless pests are constantly bumping into equipment, running in front of shots, and generally suffer from head-in-butt syndrome. Their offspring are even worse. They are usually screaming and have no problem with wiggling in front of what would be a masterpiece. THE HELL WITH THAT!
My mind began to scatter as I rifled through the possibilities and trade-offs of where I should shoot. It’s Friday afternoon and the traffic is horrible and I want to be in position for the sunset. This whole situations has the potential to suck. Then a moment of pure genius hit me. I thought “where could I drive that will provide a constant stream of beautiful sites to choose from and not have to worry about traffic??? PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY BABY!!!”.
I jumped off the highway and followed the signs for Stinson Beach and Muir Woods. I was soon at the top of a bluff overlooking the stunning coast. My best view was towards the sun. My eyes burned and spots once again began dancing around what was left of my vision as a I struggled to compose the shot. I opted for black and white as all the color, much like my retinas, would be completely burned out of the picture. The subtle shades of the cliffs and the shimmering ocean in gray scale worked out.
PCH and I are old friends and I have been to this part of her once before. I was lucky enough to drive the majority of this coast into Oregon. The next 1000 miles north of here are arguably the most beautiful coasts on earth. Everyone should go once in a lifetime… or seven times should you be so lucky. The northern part of PCH is profoundly un-Californian in its pristine nature and raw beauty. Long gone are the traffic jams and the canterlevering of hundreds homes off of unstable mountain sides. Don’t get me wrong, there are towns along the way that epitomize tourist traps of Cali, but nothing like crawling down PCH in Santa Monica., or worse, Long Beach.
With the top down, I snaked my way down the bluff to Stinson Beach. The last time I was here I ate at one of the only places open. The food was great, but the gas station situation was pathetic… well non existent. In short, it was the beginning of a slow and sometimes redundant crawl up the highway as my car and my mental stability crumbled beneath me. The highlights included begging for gas from the sheriffs department, a murder at Goat Head Beach (not involved), and the leaving of 7 memory cards including pictures of Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park on top of my car (directly responsible).
This time was completely different, my head was completely removed from my butt cheeks for one, and it was late summer. I am glad that I came back. The ocean air was invigorating and the views of the bird-laden marshes were beautiful. Soon my negative associations from my previously tormented past were permanently replaced.
I was in a race to see how far I could get up PCH before the sun set. The road twisted and turned and rose and fell as I weaved through patches of forest segmented by golden hills shining brightly in the soon-to-be-setting sun. Surprisingly, there were park rangers with radar guns all over the road. This had no effect on me because I am stuck behind the remake of “Driving Miss Daisy”. The other problem is that there is no place to pass Speedy Gonzales due to the hundreds of curves in the road and lack of anything consiedered a straight away. Fortunately for Mr. Gonzales the fact the Sirius Satelite radio kept on cutting out proved more infuriating then his attempt at breaking the record for at the slowest speed possible with a foot placed on the gas.
I got as far as the Point Reyes turnoff when I decided to go back. I knew I couldn’t make it to the next beach, nor the 28 mile journey to Pt. Reyes before sunset. After all, I had plenty more shooting back in San Francisco. I reluctantly turned around in order to insure good positioning for what could be a good sunset. The truth is though, I would love nothing more than driving straight back to Seattle on this road… maybe next year!
On my way back a fawn jumped out in front of the car trying to show off some new dance moves. It kicked and pranced across the road and then suddenly stopped. I slowed the car hoping to capture it in silhouette. Right when I got the car stopped, the little deer continued his dance back up the hillside. Oh well, this isn’t the first time an epic shot came so close to happening and then disappeared.
Instead I settled for some burned out branches on a cliff. The cloud line was going to quickly swallow the sun. I only had but a few minutes before the sunset potential was all but wiped out.
I was pretty hungry by now and wanted to grab some grub. My stomach grumbled the whole way back on the roller coaster of a road called Pacific Coast Highway. I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner in Sausalito. This little town boasts dozens of great restaurants, charming architecture, pricey shops, and million dollar views.
It might have been the miles of ocean or the formation of what could be “budding man-boobs” on my chest, but I decided on having fish. As I strolled aimlessly around the town a sign that said “Fresh Sand Dabs” piqued my interest. I guess it’s San Fran’s signature fish. It is supposedly a little flounder-looking fish with tons of bones. As I scanned the menu I considered the bones, and then the recent oil spill here… a cargo ship scraped the side of pylon at the Golden Gate bridge dumping tens of thousands of gallons of oil. That’s when I decided to forget about the Petroleum-encrusted Sand Dabs and decided to go with the mercury poisoning instead. “I’ll have the Ahi Tuna!”, I exclaimed starvingly.
The service was quick, almost rushed. The tuna hit my table just as the last bit of salad left my fork. Normally I might be put off by this, but eating at that point was a necessary inconvenience. All I really wanted to do was take some more pictures.
I was soon out the door and heading back to get the car. To my relief nothing was stolen out of the trunk and my photographic adventure could continue. I may have driven a quarter mile before I saw my next subject. The city from across the water.
I set up my tripod, 70mm – 200mm, and my cable release and began experimenting with the different apertures and exposures. After a couple horrible shots I was dialed in. I took a few more shots and new that it was time to look for some better shots.
My buddies have always talked about the great times in Golden Gate State park. I had driven by it a half a dozen times, but always feared the Tourist Infestations. After wasting an hour driving past the exit, getting lost, and turning around totaling 3,600 degrees I was finally here. I entered the long dark road back lit by the Golden Gate bridge. Despite it being after 9:00 there was still a good amount of lovers “enjoying the view” aka watching submarine races. Despite the automobile-based procreation, parking was easy to find. I pulled up to the first spot I saw and started my picture taking ritual all over again.
This place is beautiful. The darkness of the park made the Golden Gate bridge seem as if it were on fire. While I was up there several ships arrived providing for a hauntingly ghost like image as it passed slowly under the bridge. Seeing how wide the bridge is made me wonder how in the hell could you actually hit a pylon. Sure dense fog might be a good excuse, but I am pretty sure the Golden Gate bridge might be large enough to show up on radar.
I spent almost an hour and a half moving up the road. The further up the road I traveled, the more isolated I became… HEAVEN! With each bend in the road came a new perspective of the Golden Gate bridge and San Francisco. The only thing missing was a full moon or even better a meteorite streaking across the sky.
I must have stopped at seven different spots in the park before deciding that my photography marathon must end. Reluctantly, I packed up my equipment and concluded what was a great session. Looking back, I covered a lot considering the impossibly short amount of time. Plus, I will use this experience to help plan for my return to San Francisco… whenever that may be.