Catherine Karnow San Francisco photography
The top of the Lyon St. steps is one of National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow's favorite places to shoot because you never know who you're going to meet! Photo © Catherine Karnow.

5 Bay Area Spots Just Waiting for You To Come Photograph

No big travel plans for the holiday weekend? No problem! We asked National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow for her top five picks for stay-cation shooting.

Catherine Karnow has shot for National Geographic Traveler in plenty of far-flung places around the globe, but she loves shooting at home in San Francisco and Marin. She says one of the reasons she lives in Mill Valley is because of how photogenic the Bay Area is. She gave The Image Flow the inside scoop on her five favorite places to shoot.

Mt. Tamalpais photography Matt Davis trailMarin Headlands: Hike the Matt Davis trail

Catherine’s favorite hike starts at Stinson Beach. Brave the fog and head over in the afternoon to avoid the traffic. The Matt Davis trail winds up through the thick Pacific forest along a running stream. This is a great trail for macro photography. “I love to move slowly, stopping to take pictures of the leaves, the flowers; it’s very meditative,” says Catherine. The trail opens out onto the face of Mt. Tamalpais. You’ll likely find yourself above the fog and the golden grasses are spectacular in the evening light. You can keep on going to the top, or if you bring a picnic, there are plenty of great spots to watch the sun set over the ocean.

Insider’s Tip: Keep your equipment light. Catherine often hikes with her Sony RX100III point and shoot, and she’s even shot photographs on this trail for National Geographic Traveler on her iPhone!

Catherine Karnow San Francisco Farmers Market AppleMarkCatch a ferry to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

Saturday morning at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco may seem like a madhouse, but if you go early—Catherine suggests between 8–10AM—it’s a great place to shoot. Take the ferry from Sausalito for some great morning-light shots of Alcatraz and Angel Island on the way. Once there, one of Catherine’s first stops is Frog Hollow Farms for a breakfast mushroom and leek empanada. “You’ll find that your favorite places to shoot will also be the places you want to shop. Jesse at Marin Roots Farm has beautiful greens. The light inside the Ferry Building is wonderful in the morning and I always stop by the mushroom vendor. Everyone is very happy to let you take pictures, just make sure to ask permission and don’t get in the way of business,” she says.

Insider’s Tip: Make sure to head to the second floor inside the Ferry Building to shoot the activity below. And—that’s where the restroom with no line is!

Real Chinatown San Francisco photography Catherine Karnow

Discover the real Chinatown

There is no shortage of great photographs to be made walking down the touristy section of Grant St. on a weekend, but you’ll find the “real” Chinatown above Grant and in the neighborhood’s back alleys. “Next to New York, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the most interesting in the U.S. because it’s so authentic. Walking through the alleys you can hear the sound of mahjong tiles being pushed across tables,” says Catherine. Getting into those private places without an invitation is unlikely, but there are a few spots where you can get a glimpse and a photograph. The Great China Herb Co. on Washington is about as authentic as it gets (they still use an abacus to calculate your order!) and its huge wall of wooden drawers just begs to have its picture taken. The Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross St. is touristy but fun, and the barber next door loves playing music and having his picture taken. The butchers on Stockton St. will let you take pictures if you buy a snack.

Insider’s Tip: Catherine’s favorite spot for Cantonese food is Yuet Lee. She orders the Hong Kong-style pan fried noodles, and if you’re lucky you may get there when they are making won tons for soup—a very photogenic activity!

Catherine Karnow Mission murals San Francisco photographyMurals & lunch in the Mission

Catherine loves the Mission for the restaurants as much as she loves photographing the neighborhood’s famous murals. She says she’s likely to pop into several places for a small snack in the course of a few hours of shooting. On her list: Tartine Bakery (if there’s no line); Craftsmen & Wolves for little tasty treats; and Pancho Villa Taqueria where the food is cooked in front of you. Back on the street, she’s looking for interesting scenes of local culture with the murals as a backdrop.

Insider’s Tip: Make friends with the folks at the Radio Habana Social Club (open after 5PM) and shoot away—the Cuban bar is known for its eclectic interior and offbeat art.

Lyon St. steps Catherine Karnow San Francisco photographyClimb the Lyon Street steps in Pacific Heights

The top of the Lyon St. steps is a great place to take out-of-town guests for the sweeping views of the Golden Gate, sailboats on the Bay, the Marina, and historic mansions. But it’s also a great place to be a tourist in your own town. Catherine once came across a group of ballerinas from the San Francisco Ballet School doing a photoshoot, and she got in on the action. “I don’t like to just shoot the views, I always want to have something interesting in the foreground. But if not the ballerinas, then there will be someone else interesting, there are always people out. You never know whom you’re going to meet!” says Catherine.

Insider’s Tip: Don’t go too early or too late or the steps will be in the shade.

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