Bay Area Photographer, Best of San Francisco, Documentary Photography, Lifestyle Photography, Photo Tips, San Francisco Family Photographer, San Francisco Photography, San Francisco Photography Locations, Session tips
Photography has long been a hobby for me, and I’ve always treasured old family photographs and the rich stories they carry with them, but it wasn’t until I became a mother that I became obsessed with the need to preserve and remember each phase and detail of my family life.
If ever there was a place that held my heart, San Francisco is definitely that place. Being a photographer here is an endless treat of exploring wild, beautiful, funky and fun places. I frequently get asked about my favorite locations to photograph for my client sessions, so I decided it was time to finally create a blog post on them. Here I offer many of my favorite spots in the city, what I love most about them, what are their potential drawbacks, if any, and other pertinent details. I hope this helps you pick the right spot to record a beautiful chapter of your family love story. Let’s make some memories together!
Mile Rock Beach
This beach is located off of the main Lands End trail. When you hike down, you are rewarded with a cliffside labyrinth offering stunning vistas of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The beach itself varies depending on the tide. At high tide it is a beautiful but small beach often filled with cairns. At low tide, it is a long rocky beach (hence the name) with abundant tide pools teeming with sea anemone, mussels and sea stars. This location is great for a couple, an adventurous maternity session or families with older children (or children that can hike a bit and be trusted around cliffs edges) as there are some areas with a steep drop-off particularly near the labyrinth. This location can get crowded on weekends so is preferable on weekdays and it requires at least a ½ mile hike to get there.
China Beach is a small beautiful beach cove located in the Seacliff neighborhood of San Francisco. There is a short staircase with easy access to the beach. The beach itself is a small sandy cove surrounded by impressive rocky coastal cliffs on both sides and a clear view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I love this location for an early morning session or weekday sunset sessions and if we are lucky sometimes the beach is entirely empty save for a few surfers or ocean swimmers. It is not recommended for weekend sunset sessions because it is so small, it can get overcrowded easily. I also like that this location works well on both sunny and overcast days.
This is my most requested location. A beautiful beach, iconic bridge views, sandy cliffs, coastal trees, and some dilapidated but aesthetically interesting barracks… Baker Beach is a one stop shop for a variety of beautiful backdrops. It works equally well at sunrise and sunset. I do love shooting here, but I don’t love the crowds as they can distract from the beauty of your photos and the intimacy of the session. Sunrise sessions are usually uncrowded and weeknight sunset sessions are also manageable in terms of crowds but weekends are usually too busy here. I do not recommend this location for a weekend sunset session as it is just too hectic. I also have a preference for this location in sunny weather so not as ideal for summer months when Karl the fog is ever-present. One final downside is the old dude nudists are a fixture at this beach so if you don’t want to see old naked men or don’t want your kids to, this is not the location for you.
Another fabulous beach option, this beach is easy to access and offers long expansive views down the beach and toward the Pacific. It works great for early morning sessions or weekday sunset sessions. It also is one of SF’s more popular beaches, so I don’t recommend it for weekend sunset sessions. The unique feature at Ocean Beach that isn’t found at many others is the beautiful coastal dunes which is where I start my sessions here. If you are looking for a coastal and minimalist vibe to your photos, this location works wonderfully. At the northern end of the beach, the iconic Cliff House is in the background.
This is a hike-in only beach and requires about a 15-minute hike down down down to the beach and then up up up at the end of the session. The hike is truly stunning though! I find it really worth the effort for the right family or couple and in my personal opinion, this beach offers the best and closest views of the Golden Gate Bridge. A short jaunt down the beach leads to some cool rock and formations by the shore. This works really well for sunset and because it requires effort to get there, it sees fewer crowds than most of the other SF beach locations. But be warned, the nudists old dudes common at Baker, sometimes hang out here too.
Thorton Beach + Bluffs
This is the Bay Area’s best kept secret in my opinion. It’s south of Fort Funston but sees far less visitors partly because you have to know the way down to the beach and the route is not obvious. It is so unknown that at the time of writing this, I have yet to have a client want to do a session there…Thorton what? Thorton where? Maybe you’ll be the first? It is an epic spot! This is a location for an adventurous pregnant mama, couple or family that is willing to hike for glorious scenery and views. It does require a considerable hike down to the beach, and some of the best views are en route along cliffs edges. I do not recommend this spot for spirited toddlers or wild young children. For babies that can be carried down in an ergo or older children that can hike, it is a lovely spot. I have seen whales breaching just off shore at this beach many times. There are gorgeous views from the bluffs and every time I go here (which is quite often with my family), I am blown away by the sweeping coastal views that are right at the city’s edge.
This is one of my favorite spots in the city and I am often left in disbeleif that such stunning beauty lies within our city limits. It’s truly a lovely spot and sometimes we are gifted with extra session surprises like whale watching during the session (true story — I’ve seen whales a couple of times while out shooting here). There are lots of places to shoot at Lands End, but I have a short loop I like to take with clients that shoots along the trail for a little bit, out on the bluffs and then in the windswept cypress trees. It offers a variety of beautiful backdrops in a short walk. Some of the best views are out on a bluff so not ideal for folks with a fear of heights or wild toddlers (since it could be dangerous in those cases). Otherwise, it is a dreamy backdrop especially at sunset. I defintely recommend this location for weekday sunsets as it is pretty crowded on the weekends and I like to keep my sessions intimate and special for my clients.
This is a very popular spot for photographers but for good reason. Once the world’s largest indoor pool house, the archaeological remnants are now an iconic staple of San Francisco. The cliffs above the baths at Lands End offer windswept cypress trees and views out to the ocean. There is even a small hidden beach in front of the baths that can be accessed at low tide. This spot works well in the morning or for sunset. I won’t shoot here on weekends though because it can be such a zoo and it’s not safe on the baths if we are working our way through crowds and also trying to have a photoshoot! My absolute favorite time to shoot here is actually an hour or two after sunrise. The light can be extra beautiful reflecting off the baths at that time of day. So if sunrise or sunset doesn’t work for your family, but you still want a coastal location, this is your spot! Another bonus of this location is that I love it both in fog or sun – the ambiance is different but both are stunning to shoot in! For those that like hiking, Sutro Baths can be combined with some of the backdrops in the Lands End location as outlined above.
SF Botanical Gardens
The San Francisco Botanical Gardens is a beautiful oasis located in the middle of the city’s Golden Gate Park. This is a great location for those who know sunrise or sunset session timing won’t work for their schedule. It photographs well throughout the day, sun or fog, and there are a variety of beautiful backdrops from giant trees, different blooms each season, a small redwood grove, succulents and cactus, and lush, verdant, hidden gardens of plants from around the world. Entrance to the gardens is free for SF residents with proof of residency but there is an entrance fee for those coming to the city from out of town.
De Young Museum Skyspace
I have so many favorite spots to photograph in the city and this is definitely one of them! The skyspace is an outdoor exhibit, free to the public, that offers a beautiful backdrop of terracotta walls, and extremely interesting light and shadow play. The space outside the De Young has very interesting opportunities to use architecture, lines, light, and texture for a fun, artistic and unique session. Not the best option for energetic little ones since freely running around isn’t encouraged here, but it can work great for couples, maternity sessions, or families with older children.
The Mission District is filled with colorful and beautiful murals that make this an excellent backdrop for a casual, fun and urban vibe session. I love using art to create more art and this location is perfect for that! This is another great option for those that can’t do sunrise or sunset timing as the lighting here can work well throughout the day. In addition to the murals, you could add-on a visit to a local coffeshop or ice cream parlor for a documentary and natural vibe to the photos. It could also be combined with a visit to Dolores Park or Bernal Hill to offer even more variety to your gallery.
Mallard Lake and Elk Glen Lake in Golden Gate Park
This pair of lakes is relatively unknown in the expansive Golden Gate Park. I actually stumbled upon them accidentally while running through the park and immediately thought of how well they would work for a family session especially with little explorers. It is sometimes hard to get away from crowds at SF locations, but not here. Both lakes have the verdant tree-lined lake backdrop so classic of Golden Gate Park. When I think of this location, I think of me documenting your kids being kids — having fun, exploring outdoors, playing, and maybe getting messy too. There are some cool and gnarly australian tea trees that allow for safe and low tree-climbing, stone pathways, a creek with crayfish, wispy trees, sticks and flowers to collect, and a really shallow shore at Elk Glen Lake for rock throwing and splashing (bring your kids’ rain boots!).
Woodline in the Presidio
You can’t go wrong with Woodline. Sun or fog and almost all day long this site is a crowd pleaser. It’s a small forested area of the Presidio with a nature-art installation by Andy Goldworthy in the form of a winding river created by tree stumps. If you’ve never seen it, it is very cool and it works super well for sessions. The light seeping in through the trees is atmospheric, and kids love balancing on the tree stumps, collecting sticks, and exploring the little tree forts.
This is not exactly in the city but it is located right across the Golden Gate Bridge in the Marin Headlands. The area is actually a small campground of 5 sites (for all you campers out there — it’s a true gem of a spot!). It requires a 1-mile walk each way from the parking area down a fire road to get to the cove but if you don’t mind the walk, you are rewarded with a stunning forested cove, almost private beach, and vistas practically under the Golden Gate Bridge and toward downtown San Francisco. Pelican flocks frequently swoop overhead and sea lions play in the water just offshore. This spot is for all you adventurous hike-loving families and couples. And it is absolutely worth the adventure!
A National Historic Site located under the Golden Gate Bridge and at the entrance to the San Francisco Bay, this is another one of San Francisco’s beautiful and unique locations. Fort Point is architecturally stunning with interesting geometric backdrops, beautiful brick-red archways, and especially fun for all you history buffs out there. On the top level you can stand underneath the golden gate bridge with views of the Pacific Ocean, SF Bay and downtown SF.
Legion of Honor
A dramatic and impressive site, the Legion of Honor offers a beautiful archway into a neoclassical court with corinthian columns and is an architecturally impressive site for a session. Rodin’s “The Thinker” sculpture is in the middle of the court and across the street there are views downtown and a fountain flanked by an impressive modern art sculpture. The site can only be accessed during open museum hours and is not recommended on weekends due to crowds, but still a very dramatic and outstanding option for a weekday session.
Lincoln Park Mosaic Steps
If you are looking for an off-the-beaten path vibe, this is the location for you! The colorful mosaic staircase at Lincoln Park is truly a work of art. They are located at the end of California street where it dead-ends at Lincoln Park. The colorful staircase makes for a bright and beautiful backdrop for a session. The nearby area offers a short and verdant tree-lined trail that connects to the eastern end of Lands End. This session would start at the stairs, meander through the tree-lined trail and finish at Lands End with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Alternatively, it could be combined with a Legion of Honor session for a formal and casual combination.
Gray Whale Cove
This is a new addition to my favorite locations and it’s actually not in San Francisco but it’s such a great spot that I had to include it here. This beach and cliffside area is south of Pacifica. I love this beach location because it can work really well not just at sunrise or sunset (which is usually a requisite for beach sessions). There is a tree swing in a small wooded area on the cliff overlooking the beach. The beach itself is quiet and beautiful. The most epic light I’ve ever had the fortune of getting at a session was here so I am always hoping to see it again. This session works particularly well in the morning a couple hours after sunrise.
UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens
Okay, so this location also isn’t in SF but I love it and even though I mostly shoot in SF, I do have lots of East Bay clients and this is a favorite spot there. The University of California at Berkeley Botanical Gardens is up in the hills and it is only open from 12-5 and currently requires advance-purchase tickets which are 15/per adult. The redwood grove is absolutely wonderful as is the cactus garden. This location doesn’t require much walking so it’s an easy in and out but with two distinct and gorgeous backdrops.
I hope this post has helped you to discover a location that is a good match for the vibe you are after at your next photo session! I always love scouting new locations and try to create beautiful photos wherever I go, so please don’t hesitate to ask if there is somewhere else you want for your session. San Francisco has so many wonderful spots that I am constantly discovering new places I want to photograph. This certainly is not an exhaustive list of all the rad places to photograph in SF, just some of my faves that I wanted to share with you.
Ashley is an award winning & published
lifestyle photographer based out of San
Francisco, serving the greater Bay Area
and is always down for an adventure. Just
tell her where to go!
Wow such an amazing post and so many beautiful locations 💖