12 Best Photography Locations in the San Francisco Bay Area

I am always on the quest for stunning locations! From flower fields to interesting buildings, I try to keep my eyes peeled for the scene of my next shoot. With portraits, locations aren't the focus of the photo, but they can aid your efforts to make the subject stand out. In this post, I'd like to share my top 12 photoshoot locations in the Bay Area!

Note: This post is intended for hobbyist photographers who are not shooting commercially. Please check on permitting and photography requirements for each location before shooting there!

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1. UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, Berkeley (above)
This is one of my favorite botanical gardens in the area! My favorite spots are the greenhouses, the cactus garden, and the redwood grove. One thing to be aware of is their hours - if you’re looking to shoot at golden hour during the summer, you’ll be out of luck; they tend to close at 5:00pm. There is a $10 entrance fee, which I have no problem with because it helps fund this beautiful place!

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2. James Turrell Skyspace, de Young Museum, San Francisco
Everyone loves the de Young for its sharp angles, the cool steam garden nearby, and, of course, the art! But all the way to the left as you look at the entrance is a unique permanent installation by James Turrell, an artist who focuses on how light and space interact. Past the friendly security guards and the museum cafe, you'll see a mound in the distance covered in grasses. Follow the signs to enter the Skyspace, and you'll be enchanted by its circular echoes and angular lightplay. Admission is free, and they don't have a problem with you taking photos.

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3. Del Valle Regional Park, Livermore
This is a beautiful, versatile park with rolling hills, oak trees, and, of course, a reservoir. From the Arroyo Road Staging Area, take the East Shore Trail to the top of the hill, where you'll overlook the reservoir and perhaps interact with some cows grazing nearby. On the way up, you'll notice a giant sandstone formation to your left. Be warned - it's a hike!

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4. Dublin Hills Regional Park, Dublin (See the lupines here, plus more shots here)
I probably never would have found this place if I didn't live in Dublin at one point, but it's a great spot if you're looking for rolling green (or gold, in the summer) hills with great views. Toward the end of March/beginning of April, there are beautiful clusters of lupine and a bit of mustard at the bottom of the hill! With some clever angles and subject placement, you can make the lupines look more expansive than they are. I suggest going up there at sunrise for the best light on the flowers! There are also lots of cows wandering around, and their patties - watch out!

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5. Bean Hollow State Beach/Pebble Beach, Pescadero
This beach is one of my favorites. Its unique feature? It has pebbles instead of sand! The one confusing part about it is that Pebble Beach is actually a "sub-beach" of Bean Hollow State Beach. If you're coming from Santa Cruz, drive slightly past Bean Hollow and you'll see the sign and parking lot for Pebble Beach. There is a lovely sandstone outcropping that protrudes into the ocean, perfect for posing someone on for a wide landscape shot. Plus, plenty of pebbles!

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6. Western Railway Museum, Suisun City
The Western Railway Museum, located about 45 minutes from Napa, is perfect for anyone looking for a "vintage" setting to transport their viewers into another time period. The cost of admission is $10 each, but you don't need a permit to take photos, and everyone there is so friendly. They have scheduled train rides that take you out toward the marsh at various times during the day, and it's usually not crowded, so it's easy to get photos. They rotate different trains in and out on different days, so stop by again even after you've been there once! It's also a good spot for "middle of nowhere" or windmill shots, since you're kind of out in the boonies.

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7. The Presidio, San Francisco
Visit the Presidio at sunrise or sunset to witness golden light pouring through symmetrical trees - the perfect backdrop for a portrait session. The entirety of the Presidio is beautiful, but I especially love the areas that surround Andy Goldsworthy's installations, Spire (near the golf course) and Woodline (near Lovers Lane).


8. Carmelite Monastery, Santa Clara

PLEASE NOTE: The kind people at the monastery recently contacted me and specified that they have changed their policy on allowing photographers to shoot there. No photography is allowed anymore. Sadly this is a reminder for all that one person treating a location with disrespect can ruin it for everyone. Please be respectful of every location you shoot at! This location is simple but elegant. The nature of the setting makes it perfect for shooting at nearly any time of day, and the olive trees provide that perfect muted color palette. I can just imagine a bridal editorial taking place here! So dreamy.

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9. Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz
Wilder Ranch has it all - from an urban-looking tunnel, to abandoned farm buildings with white horses, to sweeping ocean views and beach caves with ferns. There's so much to see! I recommend this location primarily due to its versatility and sheer beauty.

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10. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton
Looking for redwoods? Rather than fight the crowds at Muir Woods, head toward Santa Cruz for a jaw-dropping forest setting. It’s very accessible, with the main loop trail right next to the parking lot, plus plenty of less-frequented trails that veer off of the main area. The San Lorenzo River runs through the park, which is yet another element that makes this setting so gorgeous. $10 entrance fee per car, or park on the side of Highway 9 and walk in.

These last two locations are not exactly in the Bay Area, but they’re within driving distance. Two totally different biomes!

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11. Natural Bridges, Sonora
I can’t say enough good things about this place - it’s a hidden gem of Calaveras County, about 3 hours away from San Francisco. You’ll need to park at the Natural Bridges Trailhead and walk a little less than 2 miles downhill to find the caves. There are two entrances to the cave, which is technically more of a tunnel, both of which provide equally stunning views. In the summer on weekends, it can be pretty packed with swimmers and picnickers, but catch it in the off-season or on a weekday when it’s less busy. It is a substantial hike with tricky trails at the bottom, so don’t bring tons of gear - it’s best for a small-scale shoot.

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12. Red Rock Canyon State Park, Cantil
This spot is quite a bit farther from the Bay Area - it’s more like Southern California - but it’s so worth the drive. It takes 5-6 hours to get there, and when you do, you’ll be in awe of its southwestern-looking landscapes. The park itself isn’t that big - the red rock portion is quite contained, so you can easily check out the whole thing within a few hours. You can park in the gravel lot right off the highway.

All photos edited with Pop! Presets.

Questions? Feel free to email me.

Want more? Check out my extended list of favorites in the Bay Area Backdrops, Volume 1 ebook.