Through Lenses: The Best Place to Shoot Portraits in San Francisco



Photographing my friends and myself is my favorite past time. This small collection is all my personal favorite places to make portraits around the city of San Francisco.

When crafting a portrait, the background is always key. I like to make sure that the environments I shoot in are simple enough to not distract from the subject and complicated enough to compliment the subject.

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I often end up with portraits that are a little bit dull because I try too hard to keep the background plain.

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Luckily, living in San Francisco gives me access to large natural areas which are perfect to feature in portraits and check all the boxes on my list. I prefer shooting in natural areas because the surroundings are often darker than the clothes the person is wearing. Your eyes naturally go the brightest part of a photo and having blurry green around your subject makes this easier to achieve than in artificial environments. Buildings are often painted in bright colors and I do not feel that compliments people as easily as nature can. The same goes for the hard lines that most of San Franciscan architecture is composed of.

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To help my fellow San Franciscan portrait-makers, I will talk about some beautiful areas where you can photograph. If you have prom coming up or a friend’s engagement, are yearning for a photographic adventure or just need to spruce up your profile pictures, these destinations are always a safe bet. I will also include how to get there via public transport (save the planet, y’all!) and what types of portraits are best to shoot there.

My favorite spots in SF for portraits

Stern Grove

In West Portal, south of the Sunset District.

Easy to get to via the 28, 28L, 17 and 23 bus lines as well as the K and M Muni lines.

Close to the restaurants and shops on West Portal Avenue, if you ever need a break from your hard work. – Stern Grove is a large area of trees (mostly Eucalyptus) with several areas of grass, a small play area and a calm, reflective pond. There is also granite amphitheater seating and an outdoor stage, so it is perfect for exercising your God complex and taking portraits of the stars in your life. Stern Grove is frequented by dog walkers and picnickers who are usually quiet and not  willing to interrupt a shoot. If you want to accentuate height you can photograph your subject near the Eucalyptus trees or find delicate captures by Pine Lake.

Stern Grove

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Grand View Park (Turtle Hill)

In the Inner Sunset, south of Golden Gate Park.

Easily accessible via the 66, 6, 28, 28L, 16X, 36, 43, and 44 bus lines as well as the N Muni line.

Close to the bubble milk tea, restaurants and shops of Irving and Judah Street. – This one is definitely for the San Francisco lovers. After the hike up the Moraga Steps (which will make you sweat and lose all of your breath and dignity… oh, just me?) you are graced with a view of downtown SF, the Sunset District and the Golden Gate Park and Bridge. This view serves as a gorgeous backdrop for portraits that show some SF love. While it is almost an entire guarantee that the wind will play havoc on your hair, that can be a blessing – there’s a reason professional photographers always bring along a huge fan. If you want to take portraits that showcase SF and make it look like you are on top of the world, head to Grand View Park.


Ocean Beach

Stretches from Sutro Baths to Lake Merced, all along the Outer Sunset.

Depending upon what part of the beach you want to shoot in, you can cut out some of these routes, but the beach is accessible by the 18, 31, 5, 71, 71L, 16X, 48, 23, and 29 bus lines as well as the N and L Muni lines.

Shooting at Ocean Beach can produce many types of photos. From the graffitied, grimy, concrete walls by Golden Gate Park to the luscious, green dunes toward the south, you can produce many types of shots. Get your subject to play in the shallows or run down sandy slopes and capture the freedom in movement. Do a swimsuit shoot on a blistering day. Lay down in the succulents on the dunes and find serenity. If you want your portraits to feel adventurous and summer-y, or gloomy and winter-y, head to the beach.

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Golden Gate Park

Three and a half miles long and filled with opportunity, GGP lies between the Sunset and the Richmond District.

As I said with Ocean Beach, you are going to want to be selective with your chosen route, unless you want to explore the whole park, then choose any. GGP can be accessed via the 21, 33, 5, 71, 71L, 44, 16X, 29 and 18 bus lines as well as the N Muni line.

As this is my favorite spot to shoot, and the largest, I find it hard to start describing it. I cannot really explain to you the wealth of gorgeous settings for portraits that the Park provides. As a whole the park is mostly filled with Eucalyptus trees, similar to Stern Grove. There are large open spaces where you can get beautiful, angled shots and full-body portraits. There are many whimsical areas with flowers and plants that can be used to your advantage (mostly in spring), including the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden (with the windmill), the Rose Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Botanical Gardens and the Conservatory of Flowers. The areas of water, including Stow Lake and Spreckels Lake, can be romantic enough for a couples shoot and compliment beautiful gowns. On a grey day the Music Concourse between the de Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences has interesting light and the repetitive pattern of the trees can make for a beautiful frame. These are only the start of the numerous areas of Golden Gate Park. I advise you explore with your subject or by yourself to discover little Wonderlands in this big city of ours.


Second last note: I recommend you visit the horses at the old Golden Gate Equestrian Center and the buffalo nearby in their paddock. Unless you have a deep fear of these animals, it is wonderful to observe their calm wisdom after you have prettied yourself up, been a little object-oriented and Vogue-d for the camera.



Last note: Every portrait in this post is taken in the area it is under. I hope these can give you some ideas of what to find in my chosen destinations. Thank you for reading, hope this was helpful. It’s now or never, portrait-makers! Seize the day and explore these locations!!

Words and photographs by Miranda Hollingswood

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