Photographing the Painted Ladies

Photos ©Paul Cotter Photography

If you know San Francisco, I'm sure you're acquainted with the Painted Ladies – a colorful row of Victorian homes that have a spectacular view of the city as a backdrop. These charming Ladies are a photographer's dream, but they also present an interesting challenge: How can you find a fresh view of an iconic scene that's been photographed more times than a Hollywood starlet?

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If you get down at street level, as I did in the shot above, you get a sweet view of the homes – but you see nothing of the city behind them. If you climb high on the hill in the park facing the homes, you're rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view – but your shot is cluttered with crowds of people stretching out on blankets and shooting selfies in front of the famous scene. In the photo below, you see just one lone soul admiring the Painted Ladies from the bottom of the hill. If I’d shot this from a higher vantage point, you'd see scores of people in the foreground, like ants on an anthill. That could be interesting, but it's not the shot I was looking for.

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I wrestled with the composition for some time, shooting low, shooting high, shooting tight shots of roof lines. I was liking the geometry and the arrangement of the shapes in the shot below-- but it was still feeling like something I'd already seen on dozens of postcards. I didn't want to walk away with a replica of the same photo that had already been created (and created spectacularly in some cases) by other photographers. 

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I was still searching for the right shot when the sun behind me started sinking behind a tall building. Sigh. Game over.  Slowly but surely,  the Ladies were no longer bathed in that warm golden light that precedes sunset, but were being cloaked in a veil of shadow and flat gray light.

I packed up my tripod and camera bag, feeling disappointed that the clock had run out on me. And that's when the Painted Ladies gave me a parting gift. As I was leaving the park, I noticed that a small shaft of golden sunlight had suddenly appeared on one of the Ladies, creating an interesting play of light and shadow. Ahhhhhh. There it is. I remembered reading the words of one photographer (I can't remember the name) who wrote that everything changed the day he figured out that he wasn't shooting objects -- he was shooting LIGHT. And I remembered telling my photography students that light can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

The photos below are not extraordinary, but they're closer to what I was hoping to capture on a beautiful fall Saturday afternoon on a hill in San Francisco. I wanted something that was just a little different. And a brief display of unexpected light provided the ingredient I was looking for.

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Thank you for the parting gift, Ladies. Your moods can change quickly and you can be challenging to work with. But in the end, you are as gracious as you are photogenic.

Want to See More of San Francisco?

If you'd like to see more of my photos of San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, North Beach and other city highlights, click on the gallery below.

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  • Bonnie Cotter

    on January 17, 2016

    Hey Paul. What a great first blog. I really enjoyed this....and I learned alot. Can't wait for the next installment. Nice job!