How to photograph Cable Cars in San Francisco

Cable Car on Hyde Street

Cable Car on Hyde Street

Ask any tourist what they expect to find in San Francisco and Cable Cars are always on the short list. The old cable car system is world famous and a landmark of the city by the bay. Take a ride in the only moving national landmark.

The Gripmen are the cable car conductors. A cable runs underneath the city streets and the Gripman grips the cable with a vice like clamp, which he operates with a large lever. The Gripman brakes with foot pedals and another lever using only his muscles and leverage. The system is fantastic, fascinating and somewhat frightening. It is almost like a thrill ride going down Hyde Street, witnessing how hard the conductor has to pull on his levers to stop the cars.

How to get there

Cable Car Map (click to enlarge)

Cable Car Map (click to enlarge)

This map shows the three cable car lines, the end stations (turnarounds) with their respective GPS position and a few good spots for taking photographs. Click on the map to see a larger version. Get the day pass and take any other public transportation to get to one of the turnarounds with ease.

GPS position

Fisherman’s Wharf Turnaround:

Taylor Street Turnaround:

Powell Street Turnaround:

California Street and Market Stop:

California Street and Van Ness:

How to photograph Cable Cars and where to find them

Take the “classic” shot of a cable car with Alcatraz in the background from the intersection of Hyde Street and Lombard Street or Hyde Street and Chestnut Street.

Position yourself between the parking cars and wait for the cable car to approach. Start shooting when the cable car is still far away. As you have to zoom in, you are automatically taking advantage of the effect that a longer focal length will compress the space between near and far objects. Alcatraz will look larger in your picture. As the cable car comes closer, you are forced to zoom out, changing the perspective and the apparent size of the background, while keeping the cable car roughly the same size in your picture.

Try different combinations of horizontal and vertical framing and photograph several different cars. They run in approximately 10 minute intervals, with times changing slightly during weekends.

California Line

California Line

The most prominent line is running between Fisherman’s Wharf on Hyde Street to Powell Street. It is marked red on the map. You can take the famous shot with Alcatraz and the Maritime Museum as a backdrop. This line passes by the most famous section of Lombard Street, another iconic location. The popularity of this line usually means that you have to wait longer at the Fisherman’s Wharf turnaround.

Alternatively, you can climb on board the Powell-Mason line at the Taylor Street Turnaround. This line runs to the same turnaround at Powell and Market. Make sure you get a place near the Gripmen to document their work or get a place standing at the side, so that you can photograph the car from an interesting angle. Just do not climb too far inside if you can avoid it. Wait until the Gripman pulls the brake and has to lean into the levers with all his or her might, to show the hard work that is involved in running these cars.

Use a fast, image-stabilized lens to photograph inside the cable cars.

The Powell-Hyde and the Powell-Mason lines pass by the free cable car museum at 1201 Mason St.

Best Time of the Day and Best Season

Mid morning to late afternoon is perfect. Schedule the cable cars so that you can use them to go around and see different icons (e.g. from Fisherman’s Wharf to China Town).

Exploring San Francisco during the winter months always bears the risk of rain.

Time required

The ride on the Powell-Hyde car takes about 20 minutes one way if you go the entire distance. Depending on your waiting times at the turnaround, you need to plan accordingly. This is the longest of the three lines.

Equipment

You just need a normal to wide-angle zoom lens on your camera, so that you can start zooming out as the cable cars come closer. Use an image-stabilized lens to photograph inside the car.

Fees

You can get Tickets at the Turnarounds. It costs $5 each way or $10 for the day pass, including local transport with streetcars, buses and BART. Three and seven day discounts are available too.

Difficulty Photographing

The streets of San Francisco are busy with parking cars and people dashing around, both of which can spoil a good photograph. It may take several trials to get the shot you want, but the cars run frequently. It just takes a little patience and planning.

Close Locations

Useful Resources


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16 Comments

  1. Posted 2009/03/03 at 05:32 | Permalink

    Great post as usual, I’ve always been facinated by cablecars, great shots
    Later…Ed

  2. edvatza
    Posted 2009/03/03 at 22:25 | Permalink

    I particularly like the opening Hyde Street photograph. The car, the hill, the background, even the people look great.

  3. Posted 2009/03/04 at 00:51 | Permalink

    Now, where were you when I lived there from 1967-70??? I took not ONE photograph in those days but if I ever go again, I’m printing this out. This is great advice and generous of you to give it.

  4. Posted 2009/03/04 at 04:32 | Permalink

    Thank you very much for the kind words everyone.
    W1kkp: You should visit San Francisco again. The city is surprisingly resistant to change.

  5. Posted 2009/03/04 at 05:26 | Permalink

    Die aufnahmen sind wieder super geworden, vorallem das erste gefällt mir sehr gut wegen der Perspektive.

    Lg,
    Rewolve44

  6. Posted 2009/03/26 at 11:44 | Permalink

    ooh, i like your first shot, i used to tear through these streets on a computer game ‘driver’ smashing up these trams. we have them in melbourne too but they operate via overhead cabling.

  7. Posted 2010/10/04 at 14:11 | Permalink

    Okay, this is weird. I think the old guy in the second photograph standing on the rear running board could be me. I live in Austin but go to San Francisco every chance I get which isn’t very often. We were there last Labor Day weekend and I know this is an old photo so it would have had to be many years (and a few pounds) ago. Any chance you could send me a higher resolution picture of that shot. That would be very cool. Even if it isn’t me I’d like to have it to remind me of why I love San Fancisco. Great photos BTW – Mike

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