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  • Writer's pictureJefferson Graham

Flying over San Francisco

You probably remember that I got robbed during a video shoot in San Francisco back in May.

And that I still love San Francisco anyway. How can you not? It’s arguably the most beautiful city in the United States. (I share the same sentiments for New York, L.A., Seattle—you get the idea, but there’s only one City by the Bay.)

The video—”A Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco” went live this week on the website. If you’re new to K1, it’s an education website (starting at $9.99 monthly) for people to sharpen their Photoshop and photography skills, offering lighting and posing tips and answers to how to do complicated things easily with software.

In the class, I take you all over San Francisco, showing you where to go to get memorable shots of the city, from Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach to the Embarcadero and Twin peaks and then some. We visit the five main photo spots for capturing the Golden Gate Bridge, each more awesome than the previous one as we climb up the hills.

But speaking of amazing views, today I want to tell you about my takeaway from the visit and the most memorable way to see both the Bridge and the city. If you have an extra $200 or so to spare, it’s hard to top the epic view from a seaplane. Up there in the skies, it truly supports my argument that no U.S. city shines like San Francisco.

Flying a drone anywhere near the Golden Gate Bridge is illegal and besides, the best you could do legally, if you were indeed allowed, is to fly the drone 400 feet off the ground. In a seaplane, you get the view from 1,000 feet above.

Seaplane Adventures is a little outfit in Mill Valley, just across the bay from the city, and so immediately next door to Sausalito that it’s surrounded by houseboats. They’ve been at it for over 70 years. They take off from Richardson Bay, near Tiburon, and you fly over Marin, including Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate, Baker Beach in San Francisco, Alcatraz Island and a sneek peek at the East Bay, including Richmond and Oakland. There’s another tour of the city that will take you over the Transamerica Building, AT&T Park and other landmarks, some of which you’ll also see on the Golden Gate tour.

The planes are small, with room for six passengers and you get about 30 minutes up in the air. As cool as everything looks, as a photographer you have to contend with lots of distractions up there. The windows have lots of reflections and it’s hard to get a clean shot without pieces of the airplane in your way. Luckily, I’ve taken Kelby classes, and was able to wipe the reflections away in Photoshop, and cropped the photos in Lightroom.

Would you feel safe riding in a plane that dates back to World War II? It didn’t bother me, but I’m sure it might give many people pause. Before you Google “Are seaplanes safe?” I can confirm that there are seaplane crashes, but this company tells me they’ve never had one.

Seaplane Adventures has been flying since 1946. Would there be engine issues in the sky, the company says it could just glide right down to the bay and take it from there.

Postscript: That camera equipment theft while my cameras were rolling happened on May 20th. A nice samaritan snapped a photo of the thieves driving away in their getaway car, complete with a shot of the license plate.

The police finally got back to me this week with an update about tracking the license plate and apprehending my young hoodlums. The upshot? “They were driving with a stolen license plate,” the officer told me. “So we weren’t able to catch them.”

Since the $6,500 worth of Sony A7RIV, 70-200mm lens, Rode Wireless Go II microphones and my Manfrotto tripod got nabbed, I’ve been reading way too many articles about similar thefts in San Francisco. In 2021 alone there was the photo team who were being followed, and had their gear taken from the car while waiting for the light to change, and the photographer who saw all his gear taken from his SUV while parked and taking a gander at the Golden Gate Bridge (on the Marin side.)

It sucks, but again, when in San Francisco, at least for now, use common sense. Don’t flash your gear or leave it in the car un-attended.

Otherwise, did you know that you could get incredible shots with a non-flashy and not as desirable smartphone?


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