Being from the east coast, I love our annual getaways to the west. Sort of like how birds migrate to the south for winter, I like to migrate the west and soak up the California sun and surf. Plus any excuse for a fresh acai bowl, amirite?
To be honest though, San Diego is one of my favorite places to be. I love the vibe of the city, everyone is super friendly and there’s no shortage of things to do. You have the beach life but also a fun downtown area if the city is more of your scene. It’s all of that plus a super dog friendly city. Frankie loves taking his morning walks on the beach, you basically have to drag him off the sand.
This was our second year in a row visiting around the start of the new year, but I have visited many times in the past too. This will definietly not be our last time visiting so keep checking back as I update this guide.
So if you’re heading to San Diego, here are the best places to take pictures:
This past trip we stayed at this beautiful airbnb right at the tip of Mission Beach. It was the perfect place for us because we were able to enjoy the beach in a less crowded environment but still have views of the water. (If you’ve never stayed at an airbnb, I highly recommend it. Especially if you’re going somewhere for an extended stay. It’s all the comforts of home while you travel.) Morning runs were peaceful on the boardwalk and Mission Bay was right behind us which made it fun to fly the drone for a satisfying perspective of land and water. But if we wanted to check out some of cool restaurants on Pacific Beach, we were just a 15 minute scooter ride away.
One of my favorite parts about Pacific Beach was standing at the end of Crystal Pier. The pier allowed for unique, overhead shots of the wave riders and definietly provided a lot of great photo opportunities. And you can usually find the bubble man around sunset. I love watching the huge bubbles fly in the air and can’t resist trying to pop some if they float in my direction. The kids love them too!
The main difference between shooting on the east coast and the west coast beaches is having to learn about tides. It’s never a concern in the DC area but in San Diego, it’s essential to at least be mindful of when they happen. I have definitely learned how to read tide charts and planning my day around the water. For example if you asked me about my favorite place to shoot at low tide, I would immediately say Ocean Beach. Low tide is the best to catch reflections on the sand and Newport Ave which is lined with palm trees leads directly into OB.
Reflections like WOAH! Plus dog beach is in Ocean Beach and it is fun to watch Frankie run around and hang out with the other dogs.
But in general, I would have to say La Jolla is my overall favorite place to be in SoCal.
If you ever have to find me while I am in San Diego, 9 times out of 10 you can find me in La Jolla. I don’t know what it is about it but everytime I go back, I just can’t get enough of this little corner of the world. First and foremost, there’s La Jolla Cove and Children’s Pool. Can we talk about how cute the seals and sea lions are? At any given time, you can find at least a few of them sunbathing in the sun and me squealing at them as they crawl their way through the sand. I always have to try my hardest not to run up and hug one of them. I mean, isn’t that one in the middle smiling? *hug*
And if palm trees make you as happy as they make me, you can find some of the best palm trees at La Jolla Shores. There’s nothing particularly special about them, there’s just a whole bunch of them in one concentrated area. There are so many palm trees that they can even make this parking lot look cool.
And just a few steps away from the shores is Scripps beach. Another great place to catch a lot of surfers but Scripps pier is like a magnet to my camera and I can’t stop capturing it. I highly recommend going during high tide and watching the waves crash into the poles. Bring your tripod, take off your shoes and roll up your pants because it can get a little intense but the symmetry of this pier is amazing.
Peter Lik is shaking.
Besides the beach, University of California San Diego is a beautiful campus and located in La Jolla. I can’t even believe that the Salk Institute of Biological Studies is even a real place! It’s an architectural dream. Don’t forget to pay for your donation before visiting though. There is security at the entrance that will need to see your receipt before you enter.
This is the view of the Salk Institute when you first enter. My jaw dropped. Plus the Torrey Pines Gliderport is right next door and it’s so fun watching people fly by on a windy day.
And to top of all that, there’s Mt Soledad. Pun intended. Located on the very top of this mountain is a beautiful 360 view of all of San Diego. The huge cross marks the spot.
Not only does San Diego have beautiful beaches, but the cliffs are something to appreciate as well. They are all along the coast and make for very interesting landscape images. Here are some of my favorite spots to capture them:
I’ve only been to Cabrillo National Monument once and was looking forward to visiting it again this year but with the government shut down, the National Park Service closed it for visitors. Last year when we visited it was close to sunset but was especially foggy. The cliffs are a lot steeper and bigger than the ones outside of this park but I loved making the visitors look so small against the vast landscape.
Don’t forget the tide pools. At low tide, you can see some really cool anemone.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a 1.5 mile stretch of beautiful cliffs. The perfect place to watch the sky at either sunrise or sunset although the most preferred time is sunset. Go a little bit early to find a good parking spot but once you’re there, there are benches and plenty of cliffs to just sit and appreciate the view.
Plus THERE’S A CAVE! While doing my own research of places to photograph in San Diego, I kept on running into these cave images. They seem to be pretty common but not a lot of people want to give up the actual location and how to get to them. Luckily with some research, I found this website. I used that website to plan our adventure to the cave. Going in was a breeze and you sort of feel like an american gladiator climbing along the cliffs LOL. We made sure to go at low tide (see how knowing about tides are super necessary on the west coast) but the longer we stayed in the cliffs, the more the tide was rising. I learned this day that they change almost every minute. The problem with that was the rocks were more wet and the path to get back up was less visible. So coming back to street level was a bit more difficult.
To be completely honest, I fell in the water. I’m 5’5″ and when I fell in the water it waist deep. With all the rocks it was easy to climb back up and not scary if you’re comfortable with ocean waves but the most terrifying thing when you’re wearing your backpack full of camera equipment. Luckily nothing got damaged! It was a good reminder that when I’m anywhere near water, I should just carry rain gear with me in my backpack. Regardless even if I didn’t fall into the water, you’re legs are going to get wet no matter what. There’s no avoiding it even if you’re there during low tide. I noticed that many people were shoeless. I happened to wearing hiking boots and I’m still not sure which is the better decision.
You should also be mindful of the fact that you’ll probably not be alone while visiting the caves. It’s a great spot for photos and everyone knows it, so while I was there I saw plenty of other photoshoots going on. Just be patient and wait for your turn if you want to capture the caves without anyone in your shot. A wide angle lens will be your best friend here.
One of my favorite things about San Diego is that everything is just 15-20 minutes away max (without traffic). You can not get that kind of convience in the Washington DC metro area. But it was the first year that Andrew and I decided we wanted to have an extended stay in San Diego, that we found out just how easy it is to get around San Diego.
If the beach isn’t your scene and you’re all about that suburb life, I’d highly recommend North Park. It is about 15 minutes away from the beach, downtown or anywhere else you may want to go and walkable to many good restaurants and shops. If beer breweries are your thing, than you have come to the right place. The neighborhood itself is super cute and real hipster. From what I’ve heard it’s had a major revamp in the past 20 years.
This image was taken off of Utah Street. I am in love with the streets that have palm trees on both sides. It’s like you’re walking through a dream. This happened to be a particularly foggy morning with very low visibility on New Years day. Luckily, there were barely any cars around and I was able to set up my tripod and timer in the middle of the road for a little solo photoshoot. I can’t say enough how much we enjoyed staying in North Park and would highly recommend it to anyone.
For the best view of the downtown Gaslamp District, you gotta cross the bridge and head over to Coronado Island. The whole island itself feels very different than San Diego and definietly worth the visit. If you’re anything like me, you will spend most of the time just walking along the north side of the island. There are fantastic views no matter what time of day you’re there and for the most part, it’s pretty quiet. I just happened to be there on an evening when the full moon was rising above the skyline so there was a bunch of other photographers with me. Any other time you may see some kids playing in the water, but that’s about it.
Also, I made a youtube video about our trip last year (2018)
But the adventure that started my whole love affair with San Diego was a cross country road trip that I did with my friend, Sue. We drove from Virginia to San Diego and San Diego was definietly one of my favorite places we visited during that whole trip.
Hope you enjoyed my recommendations for San Diego. I think you can tell that I’m in love with this city and all that it offers. It’s much more than fish tacos and farmers markets (both of which I really enjoy) but it is a photographers playground with such a wide variety of things to photograph. However this guide just scratches the surface. So if you have any additional questions, please feel free to drop them in the comments. I’ll try my best to answer them.