From time to time I’ll post stories of journeys I’ve taken in the past. This is from a trip to San Francisco, California, in December of 2016.
With freezing nights and cold days on the forecast for home, and with plans to spend Christmas with family in San Jose, we decided that the week of Christmas 2016 would be a good time to visit the City by the Bay.
Holy Virgin Cathedral Russian Orthodox Church
We arrived in San Francisco the afternoon of Wednesday the 21st of December. We arrived early, so before checking into our hotel we headed over to the Holy Virgin Cathedral Russian Orthodox Church on the recommendation of the wise people of the Internet as an interesting place to see. As we walked by we noticed that the front door was open and stepped inside. The church was full of people, both in the main sanctuary as well as an outer vestibule. We stood and watched the service with interest. After a time, the service seemed to be closing down and people started coming out of the sanctuary and passing us to exit to the street. Then the unexpected happened. As we watched, pallbearers carried a wood coffin past us and out the front door. At that point one of the people waiting in the vestibule area told us that this was a funeral. Now you tell us. It would have really been nice if she had told us this ten minutes before so we could have made an early exit and returned after the service. I can’t remember ever having felt as awkward as crashing this funeral made me feel, but at least if I’m ever asked if I’ve attended a Russian Orthodox funeral, the answer will now be “Yes. Yes I have.”
The Castle Inn
We had booked a room for two nights at the Castle Inn, a small hotel within walking distance of Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. The hotel had good reviews, and we were not disappointed. Free parking was offered in a small downstairs garage. The staff was helpful when we checked in, showing us a map of nearby attractions, giving directions to where the local restaurants were, and marking dangerous areas that we should avoid. We requested a room away from the street, and they obliged by giving us the most distant room in the hotel. The room was very clean and street noise, while sometimes audible, was low. But the room still wouldn’t be ready for several hours, so we left the car in the cramped garage and headed off on foot for our adventure.
Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Cathedral
We walked about eight blocks to Chinatown, and then to Little Italy where we stopped at the Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Cathedral. Unlike the Russian church, there was no funeral in progress and the sanctuary was relatively empty except for an occasional visitor.
I wanted to try something different. Instead of handheld high ISO shots, I set the camera down on the small collection box that was situated against the back wall between the entry doors and centered perfectly to the altar. I brought the ISO down to 100, set my f/stop to 11, and took some long exposures ranging from four to twenty seconds. This capture of a mother and child was shot at six seconds giving a sharp church interior while slightly blurring moving people.
After St. Peter and Paul, we headed towards Fisherman’s Wharf and walked down The Embarcadero. We passed the expected sights, boats on the bay, street performers, and a plethora of restaurants, but I didn’t see anything that I was really inspired to photograph.
San Francisco Cable Cars
It was getting to be time to return to our hotel. We chose to skip the long climb up the hill that is Hyde Street and picked up cable car tickets for the ride back to Chinatown. After we got in line we realized that the wait to get on a cable car was close to forty-five minutes. That was more time than we planned on, so we pondered our options and decided to walk up the hill after all.
After only four blocks we encountered a sign indicating that this was a cable car stop. Here’s a tip for would-be cable car riders: Don’t get on the cable car at the terminal. The lines are long and you’ll be standing there for a while. Walk up the street a bit and pick up the car at one of the many cable car stops along the way. Instead of waiting for nearly an hour, we were able to get on the next cable car that came by. I can’t guarantee that this strategy will work since the cable car might be full, but it’s what I would try if I was going to ride a cable car again in the future.
We stood behind the gripman (that’s the guy who drives the cable car) for a while, but a few stops later some passengers that were sitting on the benches in the open area out front got off and we were able to move to the now vacant seats. As we traveled I held my camera upside-down over my left shoulder and shot blind on rapid-fire with my wide-angle 11-16mm lens. This got me some good shots of the gripman operating the control levers.
We got off the cable car at Union Square and as we walked back to our hotel via Chinatown, my companion from SwanTrek.com stopped to photograph the window of a small restaurant along the way. Following her lead and with the 11-16mm lens still on my camera, I looked for “the shot.”
Like many of the restaurants in Chinatown, this one had a plate glass window facing the street filled with ducks, geese, and other meats hanging from hooks. I positioned myself in the gap between the unlucky fowl to get a clear view of the kitchen, pressed the front of my lens against the window, and captured this photograph quickly before I would be noticed. I think this picture has everything: glimpses of the busy background kitchen staff, the clock and Chinese artwork on the back wall, and the priceless expression on the main character’s face in the controlled chaos of the kitchen.
California Academy of Sciences
We checked out of the hotel the next morning and drove to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. This is a spectacular 400,000 square-foot facility that includes a planetarium, a four-story rainforest, an aquarium, a roof covered in vegetation, and more. It was completed in 2008 to replace the old facility that was severely damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
I wasn’t expecting to get any spectacular photographs in darkness of the Steinhart Aquarium, especially shooting through several inches of Plexiglas. I decided to mount my 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye lens to my camera. This would be best in low light, give me weird fisheye photos, and generally entertain me the most while snapping pictures that probably wouldn’t come out very well.
I shoot all of my photos in what’s called RAW, the camera maker’s proprietary format. This gives the best results, but necessitates running the photos through special software to convert them into a standard format such as jpeg. One of the features this software has is the ability to detect the lens used to make a picture and run it through a process to correct optical flaws such as lens distortion. This works great with wide-angle lenses because they often cause straight lines to bend outward, but it’s a feature I have to disable when using my fisheye lens because the distortion is the whole reason for my using that style of lens in the first place.
In the case of these two aquarium photographs, I found that the stretching caused by the removal of the fisheye effect made for much more interesting compositions. I chose not to disable the distortion “correction” in these cases.
We left the darkness of the aquarium and went upstairs into the rainforest, a three-story glass dome that replicates Central and South America with a path that meanders from the forest floor up through the mid-level and to the rainforest canopy above. I switched from using my widest lens to using my longest zoom to capture this photograph of a blue morpho butterfly.
The Presidio of San Francisco
After spending the the morning at the Academy of Sciences, our next stop was the Presidio. I’ve been to San Francisco many times, but have never explored this park. We parked the car at Fort Point, the Civil War era fortification at the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula and located under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge. The fort was originally planned to be demolished when the bridge was built, but the engineer who designed the Golden Gate Bridge saw the fort’s architectural value and designed an arch section that allowed the bridge to be built above the fort. When you look at (someone else’s) pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge you can see the steel arch on the San Francisco side before the suspension section begins.
Leaving the fort on our way to the Palace of Fine Arts, we passed the San Francisco National Cemetery. I pulled in to the military cemetery where row upon row of white headstones lines the hill. Being the Christmas season, wreaths had been placed on about 1000 of graves by Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit group dedicated to placing wreaths on soldiers’ graves across the country each December.
The Palace of Fine Arts at the west edge of the Presidio was our last stop. You never know who you’re going to see when traveling about. This person was all decked out in her cosplay outfit, and although a companion was taking pictures of her among the Beaux-Arts architecture, she took a minute to take a selfie on her phone before attaching her wings. We were quickly losing our light, so it was time to get back in the car, head to the family’s house in San Jose, and end our San Francisco adventure.
More photographs from San Francisco from this trip and others are available for purchase in my online store.