The San Diego Maritime Museum captivates mariners, photographers, and casual visitors alike. The impressive collection of historic vessels, the fabulous exhibits, and the premier downtown location make the museum a fantastic lifetime experience.
The museum preserves the ships in a seaworthy state and even offers the occasional cruise. You can book a harbor cruise or explore the moored ships with your camera. The excellent weather and the fantastic shooting opportunities make a trip to the museum a guaranteed success for your next shooting adventure.
Step aboard the old ships and replicas and discover the age of sail, the age of steam, and the silent submarine service era of the Cold War!
How to get there
The San Diego Maritime Museum is conveniently located in Downtown San Diego at 1492 North Harbor Drive. Please find parking information in the resource section below.
How to photograph the San Diego Maritime Museum
The Star of India
The Star of India is the undisputed star of the museum. She is the oldest active sailing ship and dominates the pier, stretching her masts 7 meters into the sky. She started her life in 1863 as Euterpe, and later became the Star of India.
On board the Star of India, you can experience the age of sail first hand and photograph the classic ship up close.
Climb below deck to discover exhibits detailing the life on sailing vessels like the Star of India. The exhibits are interesting and educational, but they take up all space worth photographing below deck. The stern living quarters on the other hand contain the passenger quarters and the captain’s space (image above) which are preserved in their original state and very photogenic.
The best place to photograph the entire ship is from the bow area of the HMS Surprise. From there, you can position the Star of India in front of the San Diego Skyline, which looks especially spectacular during the late afternoon or early night. .
The HMS Surprise is a replica of an 18th century Royal Navy frigate. 20th Century Fox used the ship to film the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and then sold it to the San Diego Maritime Museum.
Below deck, you have a chance to see the expertly arranged display of cannons and the captain’s quarters. Use high ISO settings and keep from using flash to avoid unnaturally flat looking images. Crouch down beneath the canons for a better-looking perspective (image above).
Above deck, it is hard to make sense of the confusing ropes and countless props. Additionally, you have to deal with busy backgrounds. You can only isolate the ship from the pier, right in front of the bow. Place the ship to the right in your frame to keep other ships out of the picture and avoid cutting them in half at the edge of the frame.
B-39 Russian Attack Submarine
An original Soviet attack submarine, the B-39 saw active military duty for over 20 years in the North Atlantic. The crude but effective Foxtrot class ships constituted the bulk of the Soviet submarine fleet. The Russians sold the boat after the cold war and the San Diego Maritime Museum eventually acquired it, adding it to its fleet of exhibits.
The best outside view of the B-39 is from the stern of the HMS Surprise.
The inside tour is claustrophobic, but worth the hassle. Torpedo tubes, cramped living quarters, bulkhead doors, hydraulic machinery, and an astonishing amount of levers, knobs and dials paint a grim picture of submarine life and provide you with exceptional shooting opportunities.
Sometimes I did wedge into a corner to let people behind me pass by. Staying patient, in the face of potential anxiety below the water line, is worth it to get good shots.
The red battle illumination in one area of the boat helps to create the right mood in your pictures.
Steam Ferry Berkeley
The ferry, once operating in the San Francisco Bay, now houses the Maritime Museum headquarters and museum. The restored steam engine in the bowels of the ship is the most interesting. The lighting of the huge machine is superb for photography.
Simplify your compositions! It is easy to create confusing images in this giant room filled with metal, but it is just as easy to look for simple forms, symmetries, and unusual lighting to create pleasing photographs.
Climb up to the bridge to gain an overview of the San Diego Bay, before heading over to the USS Dolphin!
USS Dolphin Deep Dive Submarine
The Dolphin holds several submarine records and firsts. The most significant is the deepest submarine dive ever recorded. Although decommissioned fairly recently, the Dolphin and the B-39 Soviet submarine both were in service during the same period of the Cold War, yet the Dolphin’s crew quarters appear much more livable than those of the Soviet boat.
True to her nature as a research submarine, the Dolphin is packed with equipment.
Don’t forget to try out the periscope, it works and turns!
The Californian is the only ship to hold the title “official tall ship of the State of California.” She is a replica of a mid 19th century cutter, a sailing ship, and was launched during the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.
The ship is cramped and hard to photograph. With a wide-angle lens, you can take a couple of decent shots under deck.
Steam Yacht Medea
The Medea is a sleek yacht built in Scotland at the turn of the last century. The stylish upscale interior and the engine are the most attractive areas on the boat.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
Fortunately, extreme heat and rain are rare in San Diego, making a visit to the museum pleasurable throughout most of the year.
During the Festival of Sail, held every three years, all sailing vessels are sailing the bay. The star of India sails each November. A good overview location for these events is Point Loma in the southwest (see map above and photograph below). You will need a telephoto lens.
You need at least two hours to see most of the ships and skip over most of the exhibits of the museum (inside the Berkeley). Since your ticket is valid for the entire day, I recommend a morning tour and another stop just before sunset. This allows you to take advantage of the best light in all directions.
- Wide-Angle lens
- Image Stabilized Zoom Lens
Tickets cost $14 for adults, $11 for seniors and active military personnel, and $8 for children older than 6 years.
- San Diego Night Tour
- Aircraft Carrier USS Midway
- Seaport Village
- Coronado Island
- Hotel del Coronado
- Santa Fe Depot
- Balboa Park
- San Diego Zoo
- Old Town
- San Diego Mission
- Point Loma
- Cabrillo NM
- Mission Bay
- Pacific Beach Crystal Pier
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