Saturday, October 2, 2010

How I Photographed a Sunrise at the Golden Gate

The Agony and the Ecstasy!

The Golden Gate Bridge is a great place to shoot.  Everyone knows about the fog and the views and how the light and visibility can change in an instant.  When I take people up here for workshops on a foggy day with the mist swirling below, they tell me that they have never seen anything like it anywhere in the world.  It is not just the view but really how the fog behaves.  It almost seems alive sometimes.  To most people, fog is something that forms in valleys on cold nights with little wind.  Usually the wind is the enemy of fog and the slightest bit of wind will blow it away in a few minutes.  But here, the wind acts like a warm breath into a cold freezer case at the local grocery store.  Warm air above a cold ocean are the required elements, and this happens in very few places in the world.  Namibia in South Africa and the coast of Northern Chile are two places where this commonly occurs.

There are some tricks to capturing the fickle nature of this place.  Conditions have to be just right.

1.  The fog has to be low enough to see the bridge.  Of course this is true, but often it gets too deep and overwhelms the view and even the tops of the surrounding hills are obscured.  Most local people know about this, but conditions are right for the best fog when it is about 300 feet deep (100m) to match the level of the bridge deck above the ocean.  You need a warm spell caused by an weak inversion of warm air.  This usually happens just before and after summer, so April-May or September-October.  It can happen at any time of year but in the summer, the inversion is too strong and fog is often too deep.  In the winter, there are storms which make the upper air as cold as the ocean.  This low and thin fog happens just before or just after a hot spell.  Sometimes there is a very thin layer of fog even during a hot spell.  So you must watch the weather forecasts carefully.  

2.  One difficult problem is that if you want a truly memorable picture, it is good to have some higher clouds in the picture.  A flat blue sky is boring, but unfortunately, the warm high pressure conditions that create the fog also block clouds from forming.  As a result, most of the foggy days have clear skies above them.  So look out for those rare clouds.

3.  It can not be too windy.  Even though the fog is caused by warm winds over cold water, if it is too windy, it is just too difficult to keep the camera in place.  It can literally be blown over while on a sturdy tripod.  Light winds happen just before or after a hot spell.  Also, the wind can feel really cold.  Sometimes it is mixed with warm air but you never know.  

4.  Sunrise is better than sunset when shooting on the Marin County Headlands you will see below.  However, when shooting from the bay side, north or south of the bridge, sunset is best.  But this blog entry is about sunrises.

5.  If you wait until it is light-enough to see if there is good fog, you have waited too long!  You really need to get there in the dark in order to get ready for the best light.  This increases the risk that you will be there when there is too much fog or none at all at sunrise.  But if you don't go for it, you will never get a shot like the first one below.  And this is why you have to study the weather closely, so that you can increase your chances.  I live 1 hour away from the bridge, so it is a lot of effort (and co2 emissions) for me to make an attempt.  I'm right about 30% of the time even after all that effort so don't be disappointed!

I could go on, but the point is that taming this fickle beast takes a lot of preparation!

The shoot:

On this particular late September morning, a hot spell was just ending.  It was hot overnight at my house about 20 miles inland and I noticed that some high clouds were streaming in from the south.  I read the local weather discussion and it talked about a very low inversion layer with hot air above.  It also said that the hot spell was going to break and the fog would be moving in sometime in the early morning.  So about 90 minutes before sunrise, I drove to the bridge.  From across the bay in Berkeley as I drive, I can sometimes see how the fog is moving.  However, at this time I could not see much in the dark but a bit of hazy light below the bridge.  That gave me hope.

I decided to chose the first tourist pullout on the Marin side as my location.  Despite its popularity, I have always avoided it because it is so overshot.  But the fog was obscuring other positions.  This is important.  Do not get married to an idea about what you wish to shoot.  Planning is good but be prepared to abandon your plans in favor of good light and visibility!

As I pulled in to the completely empty but well-worn lot, there was an eerie 3-ft. deep layer of fog on the road with solid fog below on the hill.  I could easily see the bridge and realized that the fog was just forming just at that moment.  As I walked to the edge of the cliff, the fog suddenly thickened and the wind came up strongly and my visibility went to about 20 feet!  The temperature dropped from being dry and warm to cold and clammy in 20 seconds.  I had on just a thin short sleeved shirt so it felt cold for a few minutes.  Of course it was just becoming light but I hoped that I'd get some openings in the fog, so I continued to the edge of the cliff.  

Of course I can not settle for just a shot of the bridge, I wanted to get down the cliff a bit to see the ocean below and some foreground in front. The problem was that is was still dark and very foggy.  So I only went down the cliff about 20 feet past the fence (which is supposed to keep people from falling in the the pacific Ocean!)  

Then the wind stopped and the fog level dropped to the same height of the bridge.  It was still dark but some light was appearing on the horizon and there was a bit of blue in the sky.  You really want some light in the sky even though the orange bridge lights make this sort of shot work well.  You get just a few minutes when the light in the sky is even with the bridge lights so you must be prepared.  Fortunately the view opened up and I saw this view.

The fog was moving in between the two ridges in the foreground.  Without this fog, the viewer would not realize that there is depth to be seen here.  So I moved around to show these two ridges.  This is a two minute exposure and I used a 0.9 ND grad filter because even though the sky was dark to my eye, it was still brighter than the bottom of the picture.  Avoid using two filters with bridge lights in the dark because you end up with double reflections of each light!  The fog was moving fast so I waited for it to be covering the bridge traffic deck, but just a little.  Sometimes the deck was completely invisible and sometimes it was completely out of the fog.  Neither effect looks as good as this partial-fog effect. 

At this moment, there were no other photographers here.

The fog got thin, so I waited for it to thicken up.  While I was waiting, the sky got brighter and the bridge lights became dimmer in comparison.  As I mentioned before, you only get a few minutes.  Fortunately, the fog cooperated for just a minute in order to capture this view below.

There was still some nice light from the bridge lamps so I lucked out.  Right after this exposure, the fog moved in thick.  But these two photos looked good in my viewfinder so I moved down the cliff very slowly to avoid falling off!  When I review the photos, I look at the graphs to make sure I have a good exposure.  In the dark, the viewfinder looks bright and colorful, but on your computer, you may discover that the photo is dark!  I also magnify the image to 100% to make sure it is sharp and of high quality.

At this moment there was one other photographer here, shooting with a tripod but no grad filter and simply shooting the bridge with no foreground in the shot.

The reason I wanted to move further down the cliff is because you can get a better view of the crashing surf, and that is what was missing from the first two photos above.

Once in my lower position, I waited for the fog to move and it did!

In some ways, the light is not as dramatic here, but the pre-sunrise light was bathing the fog in a reddish glow, so that helped.  The high clouds were a bit thin for my liking too, but since there are usually no clouds at all, I was happy to see them.  The light in the sky was now overwhelming the bridge lights, but they are still visible though not as glowing as before.  I put on my second 0.9 (3-stop) ND grad filter for a total of 6 stops.  Also, the towers are no longer glowing as they were.  At this point, I was going for more of a standard landscape than the nocturnal sort of shot.  There are really two sunrises to shoot at this location, one for the bridge light and one for a dramatic sunrise behind the bridge.  

The fog got thick again so I waited for the fog to become interesting once more.  Finally I saw this sight below and gave it one more try.

This deck lights are now gone, but the sun is spreading red light in to the clouds.  This is when some thick dramatic clouds would be nice.  I must remember to come back to get that view.  One thing I've noticed about red clouds is that my Canon 5d mkII and most other cameras can not record red as our eye sees it.  I had to desaturate the red channel in Photoshop because the red clouds were just red blobs.  But now you can see the detail with a desaturated red channel.  It makes things a bit flat in color but this is reality!  And I really want to show things as they are even if it does not catch the eye like a hyper saturated photo.

After I made this image, I climbed back up the cliff.  I was about 100 feet below the tourist fencing and when I went around the fence, I saw 10 photographers with tripods just setting up.  My guess is that they looked out the window, saw the fog and headed out.  But they were too late.  Right after this, the light became harsh and bright.  

When I looked at all 12 images I made this morning, I really am only going to publish the first one to my website.  The others are a bit flat compared to the dramatic north tower in the first photo above.  But I'll be back!

Remember, get here in the dark!

Go to my Flickr stream below for a big version of the first photo above.

Thanks for reading,


My fine-art website
Learn from the old masters with my 325-page e-book!
Hi-res downloads and framed photo prints



  1. I appreciate the increased blogging from you, keep it up!

  2. Awesome shots, Patrick!
    Hard to say which ones I like more! :)

  3. The first image is spectacular.

    The glow in the fog and the dots of the bridge lights blending into a long stream of light is truly magical (and not the Steve Jobs type, more the old time Disney magic).

    Very nice work - congratulations.

  4. Great tips, Patrick...especially for those of us who are highly allergic to mornings (unless we've been up all night). Next time I'm in SF, and the conditions look right, I'll stay up late and try your techniques.

  5. Years ago, I used to travel a lot...
    Guess I did at least 7000 hours flight (working)!
    I found a lot of souvenirs by looking at your pictures...
    Good you have a blog as well, Patrik...
    You have got a special gift in being able to transmit to the watcher a very strong feeling…
    I have usually this by reading a very good book…
    My compliments!

  6. Your spectacular photographic results from studying the weather/fog patterns in such depth remind me of Galen Rowell studying light or my father Philip Hyde studying geology. Appreciated reading this post.