Anatomy of a photo #4: Golden Gate at Sunrise

I often feel silly taking pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge… It’s been photographed so many times, by so many people (likely it is one of the most photographed object in the bay area), at so many different times of the day in so many different conditions. I imagine that there are days when tens of thousands of pictures of it are taken, especially now that everyone has a camera in their phone or on their person. It’s hard to imagine taking a shot that hasn’t been taken before… Yet I too am caught up by it, and always seem to end up taking a picture or two of it whenever I am in the area and the light seems nice. I suppose that is what you would call photographic charisma, and would be the reason why it is a Bay Area icon known around the world.

In my mind, the key to capturing a memorable picture of something that is over photographed is to capture it in a way that others might not. How do you do this? Take the picture at times when others aren’t normally out, use an unexpected angle, focus on some part that others wouldn’t, use a wide angle when others would use a telephoto (or the opposite), get closer (or farther) than everyone else. These are just a few ideas. Photoshop is not one of those ideas for me. There was no processing of this image, other than adding the watermark to it. I did not add saturation or extra colors to the picture. There was no need.

One of the reasons I love getting up early to take pictures, is that no one else is up and about. There aren’t crowds. You can go where you want, take the pictures you want. It feels more private, the whole world feels closer. This picture of San Francisco’s most famous landmark was taken early one morning, when I was the only one around to witness a beautiful sunrise. I also wanted a sunrise picture, because I wanted pictures of the sun coming up over the bridge with San Francisco in the background. That can only happen in the morning.

I did not however know the exact picture I wanted to take. I had to see how the fog and the light were playing out together. I drove up and down the road a little, glancing constantly to the side. I when I saw something close to what I wanted, I stopped the car and parked (safely). I then hiked a ways from the road to get the perspective that I really wanted. (I didn’t want to be too high up, looking down on everything. Rarely can you get the exact shot you want from right on the road, and it can often pay off to move around just a little to find your angle.)

I set up my tripod- it would have been impossible to take a picture at this time of day without one- and set my cameras ISO to its lowest setting of 100. I wanted this to be a portrait with very little noise. I put my aperture at f10-so I would have a decent depth of field, but not have to shoot with too long of a shutter speed. There was a slight breeze, and the longer the image capture took, the more the tripod was prone to vibrate. I did some test shots and arrived at a shutter speed of 1 second. This kept some color in the sky, while not making the bridge and the city too dark.

I knew the sun would be coming up in the east, on the other side of San Francisco and a little to its left. Once the sun rose, I also knew that the bridge would become just a silhouette, that no color and little detail would be possible, because all of the light would be coming from the other side. (I did also take several pictures with the bridge silhouetted.) I played around with the composition a little more, switching from a wide angle to my 70-200 zoom. I wanted a tighter image than my wider lenses could give me. I wanted to be focused in on just the north tower, without the rest of the bridge. (I find that my 70-200 is actually one of my favorite landscape lenses… perhaps because not everyone uses it for that.) Vertical orientation helped to complement the shape of the tower, and it included many of the elements I was looking for.

And I took the picture.

All the set up, and then it is as simple as that- “I took the picture.”

Anyways, happy shooting,


About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a photo, landscapes, Location, nature photography, photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Anatomy of a photo #4: Golden Gate at Sunrise

  1. animalartist says:

    Thanks for telling the story.

  2. jantimmons says:

    Beautiful, even to those who do know and love the scene. First light and the fog make this a stellar shot.

  3. I love the picture, particularly the layers of ground, fog, bridge, city.

  4. Mark Goodwin says:

    Excellent pic Galen.

    Please excuse my ignorance, but I thought the Sun always rose in the West? Yet you said it was about to rise in the East? Am I right or wrong.

    • The sun definitely rises in the east (think sunrise over the North Sea) and sets in the west (think sunset over the Irish Sea, Celtic Sea, or Atlantic). Sunrise will actually shift somewhat to be a little more northeast in the summer and a little more to the southeast in the winter because of the tilt of the earth. Sunset does the same except a little to northwest or southwest.

      Glad you enjoyed the photograph


      • Mark Goodwin says:

        Galen, When I posted my comment it was quite late at night/morning and it had been a heavy day. OK, that’s my excuse for my stupidity. Not sure what I was thinking but of course the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, my god I have taken enough sunsets, plus I live in the west!!! My apologies for being such a schmuck and thank you for your patience and the courtesy of a reply.

      • I was pretty sure you were just having a brain fart when you wrote that. I must admit that I was surprised at that comment coming from you, but was happy as it gave me an excuse to study the bodies of water lying around the UK, something that we never really studied in US geography classes. It makes me want to explore your water ways and shorelines. Happy shooting.

      • Mark Goodwin says:

        Thanks Galen, you are a Star!

  5. Cee Neuner says:

    Beautiful Galen!!!

  6. StrangeLittleGirl Photography says:

    Great shot, going vertical was a great choice! I agree that part of the fun of photography for me is getting out before the crowds (or staying late)…It how we separate ourselves from the iPhone crowds LOL

  7. Sigh. Such a lovely image; I’ve spent most of my life in SF, and this comes at a time when my husband and I are being priced out of the city we love. Very bittersweet; although I know we’ll probably end up loving wherever we move, and hopefully it won’t be too far away to visit regularly.

  8. I very much liked the backstory to this beautiful image. I have not seen an image such as yours and really like the mood it conveys.

  9. janechese says:

    Waiting for that moment is the difference between good and spectacular.

  10. babso2you says:

    Great shot Galen! I wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog and for the like on my post!

  11. madsiers says:

    I love the opening to your story. I know exactly the silly feeling you’re talking about and, yet, I also can’t help but shoot the bridge anytime it’s in view and my camera’s in hand. I haven’t achieved anything that rivals what you’ve posted here, though. Great shot.

    • My early images (and many of my later images) haven’t been up to what I captured on this day. Sometimes it is all about putting yourself in the right place, and sometimes it is trying enough times that you luck into the right timing. I know I’ll keep stopping to take photographs of this bridge.

  12. Ameya says:

    What a shot … Amazing composition … I like the different layers … The dark foreground and then the cityline framed withing the cables of the bridge …. I am headed out there this weekend … Inspiring!

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