[Guest Blogger Michael Esslinger]
Photography Tips and Exploring the Visual Treasures of Alcatraz Island
By Michael Esslinger, Alcatraz Historian and Author
I’ve been writing and researching the history of Alcatraz for more than three decades. “The Rock” has brewed some of San Francisco’s richest history and I never tire looking at photos from both the past and present. With architecturally rich historical landscapes paired against the soft textures of nature, it’s a National Park like no other.
You don’t necessarily need a high-end camera to come away from Alcatraz with visually stunning images. Point-and-shoot cameras and even smartphones can yield amazing results with a little ingenuity. While many smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras don’t always allow control of settings like the aperture, zoom and shutter speed, all you need on Alcatraz is a good eye for subject selection, lighting and composition.
I’ve included a small sample of photos that are all reasonably achievable depending on your experience and skill level. All the photos were taken during normal tour hours, without breaking any rules of the National Park Service. This article is not intended to provide any formal advice on basic photography, like lens types, ISO, aperture or shutter speed settings. Instead they are glanced over and mostly absent in this article.
This was written to offer a few good tips on how to compose interesting images while working around crowds of people, which tends to be the greatest obstacle. In all cases, you can still come away with amazing images, even in the most extremes of bad lighting and weather. If you’re planning to use a smartphone to take photographs during your visit, check out the Alcatraz Cruises and AlcatrazHistory.com’s Facebook Pages to see additional samples. There are some excellent photo and filter ideas using only basic digital photography techniques.
Things to Consider for Your Visit:
Experiment with your camera and have a good idea of both its capabilities and limitations prior to your trip. It’s never a good idea to buy a new camera and attempt to learn how to use it while on vacation. Understanding its capabilities will help take some of the guesswork out and save valuable time during your tour. Most people visit Alcatraz with the primary intent of getting the perfect shot of the Cellhouse only to walk away frustrated since navigating large crowds makes that option impossible. It’s parallel of attempting to get a clean shot of Snow White’s Castle at Disneyland in the early afternoon. It’s not a reasonable goal unless you are willing to be on the first boat of the day and in the Cellhouse before the crowds slowly filter in.
While the Cellhouse is central to the Island, there are many other gems worthy and interesting to explore during your visit. The layers of history offer photo opportunities of historical structures dating back to the Civil War era and spreads to beautiful garden landscapes of present. If you know where to look, you’ll come away with some amazing images.
The National Park Service has carry on restrictions to the Island and visitors are not permitted with anything larger than a standard size backpack. A standard size camera bag and portable carry type tripod or monopod is acceptable. Regardless of your camera type, it’s advisable to bring a large or an additional memory card and battery back-up. You can take an extensive series of images and then pair them down on the return boat or later at your hotel. It’s time (and battery) consuming taking a photo then reviewing each one after. Shooting freely and abundantly will only increase your chances of taking that iconic image worthy of being your desktop wallpaper.
If you’re using a smartphone, bring a battery pack and set your phone to airplane mode while on the Island. There’s nothing worse than having your battery die and missing an incredible photo op.
If you’re using an SLR camera or simple point and shoot that has a mount feature, using a tripod or even more so, a monopod is highly recommended. In the Cellhouse and other areas of the prison, you’ll mostly be working in soft and ambient light conditions. A portable tripod will go a long way in helping you capture crisp shots that you can’t achieve as easily using a handheld camera. Using a monopod is a great compromise as it allows more stability with less camera shake and unlike a tripod, there is no real need for set-up and trying to fold and unfold in the middle of crowds. If you’re trying to decide which is best to bring, I would go for the monopod. I will offer more reasons below, but for use on the Island, it’s a better option all-around.
As a general rule of thumb, selecting a higher ISO setting to accommodate faster shutter speeds works well both indoors and outdoors. Wind is common at Alcatraz and even a sturdy tripod is no match to the bay driven wind conditions. While the image graininess may be more prevalent, it can actually work in your favor to creating a dark ambience, especially when shooting in black and white.
Best Visit Times for Serious Photographers:
Although there is no absolute rule, generally the prime time for serious photographers is the first tour of the day or one the night tours to capture images of the Island after dark. There are many different themes to Alcatraz and all create visually interesting opportunities. The natural lighting, landscape, color hues, rusting architecture, shadows, dull reflections from the aging cement, mist and fog conditions are all elements that you can use in your own visual adventure. You can capture beautiful images whether you visit during the day or night. For those planning a day tour, the optimal time for photos is in the late morning and late afternoon with the first tour being the best time to capture images of the Cellhouse before visitors begin to flow in.
In my own experience, understanding the elements of lighting and how the sun sheens onto the Island is vital to getting the most out of your visit. The sun sweeps in higher angles during summer and lower angles in winter. As the sun comes up rising from the east, it creates smooth edged shadows with soft warm lighting. In the late afternoon when the sun is setting from the west, long foreboding shadows yield stunning images and offer a dark mood to the abandoned prison. The soft light and long shadows just as the sun is setting in the west will provide depth and ambiance to your photos. Fog is always the unknown on “The Rock” and can create the biggest challenge for even the most experienced photographer, but it can also create unique opportunities. Dense fog conditions are generally more prevalent throughout the summer months. Photographing building exteriors against the fog can provide an ominous and forbidding atmosphere, especially at dusk. At mid-day, the fog can produce a washed-out gray hue that may saturate the concrete and create a challenge as the concrete loses depth with the loss of shadow. Depth of field is about the handling of space, so try taking multiple exposures of the same subject and vary your angles. Be mindful of how the light falls and casts shadows around the subject. In certain areas of the prison, the light can become the subject as it casts shade and vintage hues through the barred glass windows.
Using a Flash:
Mid-afternoon is the least favored time of time to take photos. This time of day is subject to harsh light and voids detail. If you can’t book a visit on the first or last boat, a flash can be especially helpful during the afternoon time frame when dealing with harsh shadows. If you own an adjustable (or preferably) detachable or infrared remote flash, stay away from pointing the flash directly at your subject. When photographing the historical architecture, the cement walls yield amazing results when bouncing light off side, ceiling or other indirect surfaces. When shooting in darker spaces (especially at dusk) try pointing your flash behind you. Sometimes using this method will light the space, but still allow deep shadows to maintain the dark mood of Alcatraz. Learn to use a fill and bounce flash. Use the fill flash outdoors to wash out shadows and a bounce flash to softly light your foreground and background subjects.
If you are using a tri or monopod, consider shooting the same fixed subject in layers at various exposures and flash angles. Using editing software, you can layer or stitch the images fashioning the best elements from each photo.
If you find yourself amidst large crowds on Alcatraz, don’t fret. You can still capture amazing photographs using a few different approaches. Consider using angles against negative spaces to mask people. Try shooting at subjects using upward and side angles in tight frame fields. Alcatraz is filled with symmetrical patterns, barred windows and other objects. Using your aperture to blur out people can be useful as they create motion when the focal point is a fixed object.
If you’re using an SLR camera or anything with an adjustable lens, try using Marco settings for extreme close-ups of objects such as rusting bars and chain links. Shooting a central subject with a large aperture or a portrait mode can mask or blur backgrounds. On Alcatraz, this is especially effective when shooting inside the Cellhouse or foliage in the gardens.
Using a monopod or selfie stick also works well when paired with a timer for taking high angle photos above eye level to filter out crowds. This is especially useful for capturing images of second tier cells along the various cellblocks or even the escape cells when attempting to frame out unwanted subjects. Using a monopod to peer floor level on the second tier gives the illusion of an empty prison. It is not permissible to touch or rest the monopod on any part of the structure. Be respectful of visitors when using this technique as well as following the rules of the National Park Service.
One trick I use when attempting to take a photo of a specific subject, but need to edit out people, is by taking multiple exposures using a tripod and later stitching together select images. Masking out people in your photo without disturbing the flow of the tour path can be easy using digital software. Using a tri or monopod, carefully take sequential exposures as people flow through the Cellhouse. You can digitally layer and stitch the images to reveal an unobstructed view by cleverly using only select parts of each image. This will require some balancing to make it look natural, but it can be an especially useful technique if you’re attempting to capture a specific location for things like a school project without disturbing other visitors. It’s time consuming and requires a lot of patience, but the results can be very rewarding.
If visiting during a potential period of inclement weather, it’s advisable to carry a few large Ziploc type bags to protect your camera and keep it dry and safe. The gift store on Alcatraz typically sells waterproof ponchos at very reasonable prices and they can be folded and kept in your bag. High winds can also render some challenges, so in these cases tripods are not recommended. Gusting winds on the Island are no match for even the heaviest tripod and can generate enough force to blow over your gear. Safe use of a monopod can help you keep a tight grip on your camera, allows for photos in tighter spaces and helps eliminate the setup time.
Photos looking through the barred glass with the reflective surfaces generated by rain can render amazing images. The framing of the dock tower, the lighthouse and even the entrance can make for a stunning image with the mirrored reflections from the wet ground surfaces framed as part of the subject.
Explore the History:
The best images to capture will be what you discover first from the front of the lens, rather than behind it. Take time to explore the Island to reveal the subtleties that hundreds that will pass and go unnoticed. Be clever and follow the paths that will take you through centuries of history and you’ll escape with great photographs.
SERIES ONE: Wide angle lenses and shooting the historical structures through rusting fences or against corroding backgrounds are effective in shooting in tight spaces. Even on the busiest days, you can still walk away will stunning images of the abandoned prison. Using nature, both birds and gardens are also excellent contrasts to the aging structures. Using the unique angles of the architecture can be really effective. Photos by GeoAventures, Rolf 52, Giorgio Fochesato and David Boon.
SERIES TWO: Using a high end Canon EOS 5D (digital SLR camera) and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom software, Dan Henderson shot a series of images then using a noir style digital filter and lighting enhancement effects, created stunning black & white images. These photos were all taken during normal park hours and working around visitors. He effectively used ambient lighting and varied angles to capture the essence of the forbidding prison structures.
SERIES THREE: Using a smartphone and commercial digital filters, you can take hundreds of unique and quality images to help share your Alcatraz adventure. Visit the Facebook pages for Alcatraz Cruises to see more samples of visitor photographs and to garner some ideas for your next visit!
Visiting Alcatraz is seeing San Francisco’s best in history. From the Civil War to Al Capone, the Island is a visual treasure that remains frozen in time. It is a destination you’ll want to explore again and again.
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