Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco for Photo Workshop

We drove over the bridge and through The City to a motel near the Palace of Fine Arts on August 3, 2019. It was time for me to take advantage of a discounted workshop that came with my new camera purchase.

Palace of Fine Arts with foggy skies

I tried night photography a few times with no success. My dream of capturing the Milky Way or stars streaking across the sky always ended with a couple of itty-bitty dots on an otherwise black image. Here was my opportunity to learn how it is done.

Seagulls stake their claim on the heads of the weeping ladies

Wearing a T-shirt under a long-sleeve shirt, a jacket, and a knit cap, I arrived at the palace with my gear. Andy and Reza, the instructors from Mike’s Camera, traveled up and down the line of photographers assisting with settings, pointing out images to capture, and encouraging all of us to create the best photos we could.

Decorative panels surround the top of the rotunda

I shoot handheld about 98% of the time. Although I had practiced setting up the tripod the day before, I was not familiar with how to switch it from the landscape position to portrait. I needed assistance and in the process, I was gently advised that my tripod was a piece of junk (my words) and I should buy a better one.

Where did that blue sky come from? (ISO 100 23mm, f/8.0, 13″)

Pointing my camera at the sky above to search out stars was not possible, nor were we able to capture a golden hour sunset. Fog had already rolled in for the night and every once in a while the wind would blast my lens and face with mist.

Yellow lights color the foggy sky (ISO 250, 19mm, f/11.0, 15″)

So what is the Palace of Fine Arts and why was it built? Still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 1906, San Francisco hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in 1915.

Detail of weeping ladies

Architect Bernard R. Maybeck designed the palace for exhibiting art during the exposition. The Beaux-Arts style evokes Roman and Ancient Greek architecture and gives the impression of a Roman ruin with its colonnade, grand rotunda, and pond. The weeping ladies facing into the tops of columns may elicit a feeling of sadness and solemnity.

Colonnade

The Palace is one of 10 such buildings built for the PPIE. None of the temporary buildings were constructed to last beyond the exposition. Citizens of San Francisco thought the Palace too beautiful to meet the fate of a wrecking ball, so it was saved from destruction. After World War II, the building served as a military storage depot, a warehouse for the Parks Department, a telephone book distribution center, and temporary headquarters for the Fire Department.

Rotunda ceiling

In 1959, Assemblyman Caspar Weinberger led an effort to restore the Palace through public and private funding. Philanthropist Walter S. Johnson contributed $2 million to complete the restoration of the building into a permanent structure. In 1962, the Palace of Fine Arts League, a 506( c ) 3 non-profit was established and eight years later, the park, rotunda, and Palace of Fine Arts Theatre opened. Additional renovations of the lagoon, walkways, and a seismic retrofit were completed in early 2009.

One of the angels in the rotunda

Located in the Marina District of San Francisco, the Palace is a favorite location for photographers, marriage proposals, and weddings. Locals come for a stroll around the park, grab a seat on one of the many benches, and watch the sunset on fog-free evenings. With no sunset to view during our visit, we all waited for the lights to illuminate the structure and bath it in soft yellow and orange light.

Don’t harass the swans, they fight back.

I had fun at the workshop and am ready to sign up for another one. Like many photographers, I mostly learned the art form through books, online articles, video courses, and trial and error. The workshop introduced me to other people who are passionate about photography and eager to learn new skills. The major takeaway from the night, besides needing a new tripod, was learning to use the exposure triangle tools in my camera.

Obviously, one workshop does not make a night photographer. These photos are definitely not award-winning specimens. But I’ll experiment with settings and practice what I learned until I’m able to capture the sharpest image possible given the available light.

Safe Travels