I had just finished an evening shooting at Bowling Ball Beach near Point Arena. On the way back to San Francisco, I took US-101 South, which of course crosses the Golden Gate Bridge.
The vantage point is Hendrik Point, as close to the water as the fences will allow. Getting there is pretty simple now that construction on Conzelman Road is completed. Follow CA-1/US-101 toward the bridge from the north or south, exiting to Alexander Ave., which allows access to Conzelman Road. A quarter of a mile west on Conzelman Road, a parking lot is on the left. Walking south from the parking lot through the old military installation will take you to Hendrik Point.
There was a typical amount of winter haze under clear skies. Visiting this location right after a (rare) rainstorm offers less haze and less light pollution. Typically the location is fairly to very windy, but winds were light to calm. It was probably about 10ºC/50ºF. It was dark, of course, so I brought my Petzl Tikka XP 2 headlamp – the white LED is great for getting from the parking lot to the point and the red LED is perfect for seeing controls for adjustments without ruining your night vision or long exposures. All while keeping your hands free!
There is an alternate vantage point that is excellent for telephoto lenses further up Conzelman Road past the roundabout, but it was closed and is probably closed shortly after sunset until just before sunrise.
- Body: Canon EOS 5D Mark II
- Lens: Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM
- Tripod / Head: Vanguard Espod Plus 203AB with Vanguard PH-32 3-way Magnesium Panhead
- Filter: none
Because I had my tripod handy, long exposure was a clear option. Fast, open, high-ISO shots had individual cars on the bridge, which was visually distracting, so I pegged exposure at 30″ to get light trails. If I had my remote shutter, I may have gone for a longer bulb exposure. I stopped to a mid-range aperture of f/11 for the best sharpness possible. Reviewing a few test shots showed ISO 200 to be about the right sensitivity for the chosen time and aperture values.
Original composition was at 29mm. The obvious composition includes the bridge to the right of frame, since the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco is visible right-outside frame. Because the land of the point extends out several feet beyond the fence, you’re limited as far as vertical composition to include more water. It unfortunately also obscures the part of the bridge that would exit frame bottom-left. Because we can’t capture that closest bit of the bridge, it obscures the scale of the bridge. Perhaps it’s shovel time?
Because of the small aperture (f/11) and distant subject, little-to-no depth of field was desired. The bridge was closer and had more detail to offer, and small distant lights are easier to see if slightly out-of-focus, so the decision to focus the bridge was easy. The area around the deck of the bridge offers some vertical lines and shadows, so I used AF on it without issue even in low light.
The Golden Gate Bridge’s International Orange naturally provides some interest. However, as-shot at a custom color temperature for sunset and moonlight from my earlier shooting (7400K), the light pollution of the city provides no contrast and obscures the actual colors of the man-made lighting from downtown San Francisco. The orange is also slightly blown-out at the lower heights from the bridge’s artificial lighting.
Some tweaking came up with a pretty skewed color temperature and tint, but at night any expectations about this kind of thing can go out the window. Below shows the same shot with a temperature of 3300K and a tint bias of +37. This adjustment provides a blue-purple tint to the light pollution that looks natural in a skyline with the bonus of contrasting with the bridge’s orange. Neither adjustment severely affects the orange of the bridge.
At this point, it’s hopeless to give the bridge’s size justice at a wide angle. However, the downtown skyline offers complementing visual interest at large sizes. Zooming to the maximum 40mm of the 17-40, we can include much of the distant Bay Bridge and some of the far cable drape. In so doing, we exclude the far tower of the bridge, but the included tower is powerful and has depth to give some scale.
The in-camera crop has a flaw: only one of the pair of collision avoidance lights on either side of the tower is visible. We’d like to crop narrower. A 4×3 or Square crop can both fix this issue, but a square crop affords more opportunity to emphasize the downtown details.
I try to avoid using Photoshop to alter reality, so some bothersome details remain in the final image:
- There’s only one collision avoidance light atop either of the bridge’s towers. Why they put two on the cables but just one atop the towers is beyond my comprehension.
- The landing light trail of an aircraft (likely landing at KOAK) is visible above downtown at sizes larger than about 18×18″. In theory this could be edited out pretty simply, though it would be quite manual as it does cross the suspension wires of the bridge.
The problem of the point obscuring the rest of the bridge also stands, and short of (dangerously and perhaps illegally) crossing the fence, I’m unsure there’s much that can be done from this particular vantage point. Perhaps a ladder would work to get above it.