A California coast photography tour is one of those “must-do” road trips for any landscape photographer visiting the United States. Like driving down Route 66 or traveling coast to coast, there’s just so much cultural and photographic history – not to mention romanticism – tied up with these locations, that it’s almost impossible not to get a good shot.
Of course, this can make it quite a challenge to pull off anything truly original. Especially when you consider that you’ll be competing with some of the greatest landscape photographers ever to have lived. But to my mind, if you come at things the right way, this fact can actually be a boon to creativity; pushing you to work even harder to pull off a fresh and original approach to these very well-known landscape locations.
Planning a photographic tour along the California coastline? Here’s a list of my absolute favorite California coast photography locations, moving from North to South.
8 Top California Coast Photography Locations
The location for Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller, The Birds, Bodega Bay is sheltered from the Pacific by Bodega Head, a thin jut of land that creates a secluded harbor and protects the bay’s broad sandy beach.
With its rocky outcrops and numerous islets, Bodega Bay is a fantastic location for shooting the sunset over the pacific. It’s also a popular destination for seals too: depending on the season, scores of them can often be seen lounging about on the beach.
A little further south into Marin Country from Bodega Bay is the Point Reyes National Seashore. A popular place for watching migrating Whales as they pass by on their way to warmer waters, Point Reyes is also one of the best spots to see enormous elephant seals, which are frequently found in deep slumber on the beach (often cordoned off with police tape for both their safety and yours, making the place look like a rather gruesome crime scene).
A network of hiking trails runs all across the Point Reyes Headland, making this a good spot for those who like to trek off with their camera in search of a more original point of view than is afforded by the parking lot behind the beach. The peninsula is frequently cloaked in thick fog though, so it’s best to carefully check weather reports before heading out here or risk disappointment.
As California coast photography spots go, this is undoubtedly one of the best. Just a short hop north of San Francisco, through winding roads lined with picturesque wooden shacks, lies the Muir Woods redwood forest.
Here, in deep valleys beneath towering 800 year-old redwoods, atmospheric shafts of golden light break through the thick canopy to burn away the drifting Pacific fog. Grab a camera, tripod, and a handful of lenses, and set off along the national park’s extensive network of footpaths, and you’ll be rewarded with some truly spectacular scenery.
Golden Gate Bridge
A California coast photography trip would not be complete without stopping off to shoot the Golden Gate Bridge. Whether you choose a point of view in San Francisco itself, or one looking back at the city from the Marin Headland with the suspension bridge in the foreground, this is an eternally enduring subject that every photographer will enjoy shooting in their own particular way.
With its fascinating history as a federal Prison, involving many (failed) escape attempts, and colorful stories (Al Capone was probably the island’s most famous inmate ), Alcatraz makes a great subject for photography. Especially at sunset.
Closed as a prison since 1963, Alcatraz can be visited by boat from Fisherman’s Wharf. For more information about Bay Area photography spots, check out my separate guide to the best San Francisco photography locations.
Featuring stunning beaches and many unusual geological formations, Monterey Bay on the Central California coast offers a wealth of excellent photography locations.
If you’re looking for glassy smooth seas and incredible depth of field, you’ll need a sturdy tripod with some good ballast in order to steady the camera during long exposures when the wind gets up.
Slightly further south of Monterey is the dramatic coastline of Big Sur – all rugged mountains and crashing waves. This is where you’ll find archetypal California coastal landscapes: the golden glow of the setting sun illuminating steep cliffs, contrasting with the dramatic turquoise of the ocean below. And that famous stretch of winding Pacific highway – scene of so many movies – with cool mist drifting inland and breakers hitting the shoreline. Although it’s been photographed a zillion times, the McWay Falls in particular is unmissable.
The ultimate SoCal city, Santa Monica offers archetypal palm-fringed views of the Pacific Ocean, eccentric beach-life, and the iconic Santa Monica Pier.
Santa Monica is a good location for classic California landscapes, for sure. But also a great part of the world for photographing people: from pumped-up beach bums on roller-skates to stoner-surfers and various local characters, nowhere says “California” more than the Santa Monica boardwalk.
A California coast photography trip will be at the top of many landscape photographers’ bucket lists. If you’re considering doing a road trip along the California coast, with a view to capturing some of the stunning scenery on offer in this part of the world, hopefully this short guide will serve as a starting point for planning your route.
Not a photographer yourself, but simply looking for California coast photography for business or personal use? Check out my gallery featuring high resolution photos of the California coastline here.