Alcatraz, the infamous penitentiary, is visible from the hills and beaches of San Francisco. It is San Francisco’s second most famous tourist destination, after the Golden Gate Bridge. Deceptively beautiful from a distance, the sheer cliffs, icy cold water, and treacherous currents made escapes from “The Rock” a futile attempt.
Authorities sent only the hardest criminals to this maximum-security facility. Among its famous residents were former Chicago mobster Al “Scarface” Capone, murderer George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and snitch Theodore “Blackie” Audett. The design of “The Rock” served to intimidate the criminals while it simultaneously reminded them of their lost freedom, due to the close proximity to San Francisco.
Today, Alcatraz still grips morbidly fascinated visitors, while offering unique opportunities for photographers. The dark dungeons of the cellblock let you create spectacular images that set a gloomy tone. The absence of natural predators like coyotes makes the island a preferred breeding ground for sea birds. The colorful wildflowers provide an unexpected foreground for the decaying concrete and steel buildings.
Alcatraz offers more than you might expect. It is therefore vital to prepare and get the most from your trip. Board the ferries and get ready to discover a piece of American history.
How to get there
You can only reach the island by boat. I recommend booking with the official provider, Alcatraz Cruises, who are under contract with the National Park service (see resources below). Avoid third party providers, who will resell those tickets. Book your tickets well in advance, since the tours fill up fast. If you are serious about your photography, you need to take the early bird tour, which sells out the fastest, often weeks in advance.
Park your car at Pier 27, on the “Priority Parking” lot. Nobody beats their weekend rate of $10 for 12 hours. From here you can walk to Pier 33, the Alcatraz Cruise terminal, in less than 10 minutes. Weekdays are just $15.
The parking lot across the street from Pier 33 charges a hefty $25.
How to photograph Alcatraz
Your photography adventure starts the moment you step on the ferry. You will have good views of downtown San Francisco, Coit Tower and Fisherman’s Wharf including the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. Use a telephoto lens, preferably with image stabilization, and a circular polarizer. Get a place on the top deck of the ferry. Do not worry where you sit. As soon as the ship leaves, people are up and about, moving around the boat. The port side (left) of the ship offers the best views on the way to Alcatraz.
Once you are on the island, the park rangers will give you a short introduction. This is a good time to buy the $1 brochure “Discover Alcatraz”. The tour to the main cellblock will lead uphill to your right. Stay to the right and start walking uphill as soon as the rangers give the command. The whole mass of people usually moves with you. As long as you are with the first few people you will be fine.
The rangers hand out audio tours at the entrance. The audio tours include instructions where to go and what to see. Fortunately those instruct visitors almost immediately to stop and observe some plaques. Keep moving ahead and walk through the cutoff into the main hall, called Broadway. You will have this hall to yourself for only a few minutes until the audio tour catches up with you. Use a wide-angle lens (image at the top of the article) or fisheye lens (above) to give the halls even more depth.
Make sure you bump your ISO high enough to avoid camera shake. Since you have only a limited amount of time, I recommend erring on the high side to avoid blurry images. I simply set my camera to aperture priority mode to guarantee sufficient depth of field and used Auto ISO mode. Sometimes I set my camera to manual mode to guarantee depth of field while ensuring a maximum exposure time. Auto ISO mode takes care of the rest. The digital grain (noise) usually works well with historic subjects.
Moving along the route of the tour, you will pass the library (above). The library is just an empty room with many windows. Taking advantage of the spotlight on the floor, this scene works well either completely empty or with a lonely person sitting on the bench. Use a wide-angle lens and leave some room on the side to allow perspective correction on the computer. This is a common problem with wide-angle lenses that you tilt up or down.
The administrative section is very interesting but not very photogenic. Leave the building toward the warden’s house and the lighthouse. From here you have the best views of San Francisco, the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Walk down the stairs and to your right on West Road to the historic gardens. Since 2008, a colony of white egrets has made this area their home.
With some patience, you can sometimes catch the birds flying across the trail to the garden area to forage for food or nesting material. The birds are graceful in flight and comics in nature. Arguing over resources, the animals make almost human sounds, while at the same time sounding just outright hilarious. If your camera has a video mode, this would be a good time to use it.
To photograph the birds, set your camera to high speed shooting mode, select the center focus point, and use the focus servo mode to track them. You probably need several trials to catch them whizzing across the trail.
In spring you can see the gardens in full bloom. The bright colorful flowers contrast with the dull and lifeless concrete walls of the prison. You can take a docent lead garden tour Friday’s and Sunday’s at 9:30 am. The tour includes gardens that are off-limits to visitors, like the Rose Garden. The photographs on this page are all from publicly accessible areas. The picture above shows the west-side gardens with the cell house and the water tower in the background. I took the poppy photograph on the trail between the guardhouse and the Post Exchange.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
I recommend the early bird tour, since this is the only time of the day where you can get the cellblock shots without massive amounts of people in your way. The light in the evening is best for photographing San Francisco, which creates a small problem, forcing you to wait or prioritize.
Summer can often be foggy and winter can be rainy. Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit the park, while spring offers the best shooting options. The white egrets nest in spring and the wildflowers add a wonderful touch of color to the bleak, barren island.
You need to book in advance, and thus have little control over the frequently changing weather. Even gloomy days offer good shooting, enhancing the mood of the dark prison cells theme, while sunny days offer exceptional views of San Francisco.
Once on the island, you can stay as long as you want. The ferries run on regular intervals. We spent the whole morning here, returning about 1pm. This gave us sufficient time to see every location multiple times.
You could arrive in the morning and wait for the light to change toward the evening, but you will run out of things to do and since there are no food services anywhere on the island you need to prepare yourself for the trip accordingly.
- Tripods: Contrary to information posted in some internet forums, you can bring your tripod. If you plan to shoot San Francisco during the late afternoon, you probably should. Although the lighting conditions inside are less ideal, I prefer not having a tripod. This gives me more flexibility to deal with the crowds and quickly take advantage of an opening. Ultimately it comes down to your preference.
- A wide-angle lens is indispensible in the tight cellblocks.
- A fisheye lens will give you even more field of view to photograph inside a cell or create grossly distorted views.
- A telephoto lens is necessary to shoot the birds and San Francisco. Image stabilization will be useful to avoid the tripod and to photograph from the boat.
- A circular polarizer brings out the colors in the flowers and the buildings, especially if you continue shooting until mid-day when the light is harsh.
- Food and drinks are not available on the island. Bring your own.
- Bring a jacket, even in warm weather. The conditions on Alcatraz are unpredictable. Wear shoes suitable to climb the hills and stairs of the island.
- Charge your batteries and bring sufficient storage / film to last all day.
A ticket with Alcatraz Cruises (the official operators) costs $26. This includes the boat ride to the island and entrance fee as well as the audio tour.
Difficulty Getting There
You can only get to Alcatraz on a ship.
The crowds make photography difficult. The early bird tour offers the best option.
- Ferry Building Farmers Market
- Pier 7
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Fisherman’s Wharf Street Photography
- Pier 39
- Treasure Island
- Financial District
- Coit Tower
- Embarcadero Center
- Maritime Museum
- Lombard Street
- Fort Mason
- Alcatraz official website
- Alcatraz Cruises (reserve your trip here)
- Alcatraz Gardens (and garden tours)
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