As the official title “Surf City USA” states, Huntington Beach is the self-proclaimed surfing capital of the United States. The most photogenic landmark in Huntington Beach is, without a doubt, the Huntington Beach Pier. Stretching out into the vast Pacific Ocean from the intersection of Main St. and Pacific Coast Highway, the pier is the hub of beach life in Huntington Beach. And, as most people who have visited the long stretches of beaches in Southern California know, the addition of a pier actually adds some photographic interest to your pictures rather than just the long and endless drab blue green ocean stretching off for parts unknown.
Whether your interest is dramatic landscapes and sunsets, street photography, or action sports, you can usually find something of photographic interest at the Huntington Beach Pier.
How to get there
The pier is located on Pacific Coast Highway, directly opposite Main Street in Huntington Beach. From locations south of Huntington Beach, take Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) heading north. From locations north of Huntington Beach, you can travel south on Highway 1 or take Interstate 405 to the Goldenwest Street exit , travel about 5 miles and make a left onto Highway 1.
Parking is available throughout the area. Free street parking can still be found in the neighborhoods near the pier, but for the most part expect to use the parking meters along Highway 1 or pay $10 for the lots near the pier. During big events, you may have to use the parking structure off Main Street or park a mile or so away from the pier and walk.
How to photograph Huntington Beach Pier
Photographing the pier really depends on the time of day, season, and weather. On most days, even cold and rainy days, you should be able to find something interesting to photograph. Here is a breakdown of a few of my favorite subjects.
The Dramatic Landscape
The coastline runs from the Southeast to the Northwest, with the pier jutting directly southwest into the water, which means that dramatic sunset shots are not always possible from the pier area during the summer months. In the summer, the sun sets far to the north, making it challenging to capture the setting sun and pier in the same frame and most of the area north of the pier is long stretches of beach. The closer it is to the Winter Solstice, the closer the sunsets near the pier. On clear days, usually during the Santa Ana Winds or after a rainstorm, clear views of Catalina are also visible in combination with the pier. I usually position myself on the south side of the pier at various distances, depending on the sky and size of the surf. My experience has shown that getting closer to the waterline gives you more options than standing back at the parking lot.
My favorite strategies for the dramatic landscape include:
Photographing at sunset when the tide is low at the tail end of a storm. This usually brings high surf and dramatic clouds (and if I am lucky, a view of Catalina). The low tide helps create a reflective surface in the sand creating additional foreground interest. I usually prefer to wait until the sun has set, but have also created some interesting silhouette shots of the pier while the sun is still in the sky.
Photographing on foggy days. Fog often results in a mysterious view of the pier and is great for black and white work. Utilizing long exposures (a neutral gradient comes in very handy) allows you to create a silky blurred effect, which softens the foreground.
For those who like to create patterns or use strong compositional lines, photographing from underneath the pier can give you a few hours of enjoyment. During the late afternoon, sunlight shoots through the pylons and creates interesting patterns. If you position yourself correctly, you can also use the pylons stretching off into the distance as an example of a vanishing point. This is a fantastic place to experiment with long exposures.
Huntington Beach is famous for surfing and action sport related competitions held at the pier throughout the year. On most days, the surf at the pier is nothing out of the ordinary, especially if you are not interested in being part of the dawn patrol (early morning). However, on those occasions when a storm rolls in (or a swell rolls in from points far out in the Pacific), large waves can be seen crashing in to the pier and that is when things get interesting. I have seen amazing photographs of huge waves breaking near the top of the pier, but for me the best subject to catch are the hordes of surfers lining up on both sides of the pier. Using a telephone lens (the longer the better), you can capture great shots of some of the best surfers Southern California has to offer. Because of the location of the pier, you may have to watch your exposures carefully to ensure the subject of your photo is not underexposed or covered in shadows. Sunrise provides the best light for the action on the water and therefore is probably the best time to catch surfers in action.
As the hub of beach life in Huntington Beach (and really all of Orange County), you can usually find other activities around the pier, including beach volleyball and weekend festivals/competitions. Nets are located on both sides of the pier, but most of the action takes place on the south side. At certain times of the year, you can also catch skateboarding and biking competitions.
Like most piers in Southern California, Huntington Beach Pier attracts an interesting and varied crowd. Walking along the pier offers plenty of opportunities to capture some local color, including street entertainers, homeless people, couples, and families fishing at the end of the pier. Photographing late in the day, towards the end of the pier, can offer some interesting possibilities to silhouette fishermen casting their lines.
In addition, as with most beach locales in Southern California, when the weather turns warm, you can see plenty of “beautiful people” walking around the pier area.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
Late afternoon to early evening during the winter months is usually the best time for pier photography. Regardless of when you visit, however, you should be able to find some interesting compositions.
Usually 2-3 hours are sufficient, but it all depends on the weather and what you are interested in photographing. During the summer months, you can probably make a day of photographing the pier. Spend early morning photographing surfers, mid morning capturing some pickup beach volleyball matches, the afternoon roaming the pier area for interesting candid/street shots and end the day trying to catch some dramatic sunset landscape shots if the weather and sky permits.
- Wide-angle lens
- Telephoto lens
- Neutral density filters
There are no fees to access the beach. However, you may have to pay for parking.
- Seal Beach/Seal Beach Pier
- Newport Beach/Balboa Island
- Naples and Belmont Shore
- Crystal Cove State Park
- Queen Mary
- Shoreline Village
- Angel Stadium
- Laguna Beach, Treasure Island
- San Juan Capistrano Mission
- Crystal Cathedral
- San Pedro
- Sean of Redink Photography kindly provided this article to us.
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