Where CAN You Bring Your Camera in San Francisco?

It happened again in San Francisco. A wedding photographer was attacked while shooting portraits at the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts, yet another in a long line of terrible situations playing out in a city that has chosen, for whatever reason, not to crack down on these series of camera crimes.

Because I’m a victim of a camera robbery in San Francisco and have written extensively on the subject, I had several people ask me this week, “What to do? How can you do paid photo gigs in San Francisco under these circumstances? Where can you photograph, without fear?”

Well, on the “stay away” list (backpacks full of gear, multiple $5,000 camera/lens combos hanging off the neck) include:

  • The Palace of Fine Arts. Built in 1910 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to resemble a lovely Roman ruin with a Greco-Roman rotunda and a beautiful lagoon.
  • Twin Peaks. Great overview of the city.
  • Treasure Island. For a killer view of the San Francisco skyline.
  • Marin Headlands. The best overview of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Crissy Field. The big park that leads to the bridge. This is where my $6,500 worth of gear was stolen while the cameras were rolling on a shoot in 2021.
The Palace of Fine Arts.
The recent photographer attack on the grounds of the Palace of Fine Arts.

I’ve been saying for quite some time that it’s time for the city to acknowledge the problem and take action. I’m not alone.

“The photographer told us to tell everyone especially professional photographers to not take pics in San Francisco, especially in scenic locations as thugs are targeting photographers for their expensive equipment,” writes the Instagram account SFStreets415, which originally shared the bystander videos.

“Crime in and around tourist destinations has been on the rise; we see our fair amount of car smash and grabs,” the Palace theater’s managing director, Jason Hoover, told the San Francisco Standard. “It is all our hope that the city begins to take a hard look at effective solutions to prevent this type of crime. It is damaging to our business but, more importantly, sets a negative image and perception of SF.”

With a mirrorless or DSLR camera body selling for $2,000 to $4,000 and a good lens ranging from $1,000 and up, you can understand why pro camera gear has become so attractive to thieves. I never do a pro shoot without at least two bodies and multiple lenses. So for thieves, this is like robbing a bank, without security cameras or police enforcement anywhere nearby. An easy payday.

Plus add this sad stat: anyone can sell stolen gear on sites like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and eBay way too easily. Where are the requirements to type in serial numbers and prove that you’re not selling ripped-off goods and that you are the owner?

But back to the big question: what does a photographer do if he or she gets hired to do wedding or portrait shoots in San Francisco?

Some of my photographer pals have told me they never do shoots anymore without having a security person join along. But that didn’t help the TV crew from KRON-TV, whose guard was shot and killed during an attempted robbery in November 2021.

My solution since my robbery has been to leave the big cameras at home and shoot instead with an iPhone and it’s worked out quite well. The recent iPhone models have an awesome camera, especially for video, and the unit can be turned off remotely, making it worth way less to thieves.

Photo by Christel van der Boom.

This year, sporting just an iPhone and a Selfie Stick, I’ve been all over San Francisco photographing, and have had no issues whatsoever. The key is that I’m not shooting in sparsely populated places like the Palace of Fine Arts and Twin Peaks. I’ve been in:

  • Chinatown
  • North Beach
  • The Ferry Building
  • The Financial District
  • Fisherman’s Wharf
  • Fort Point
  • Nob Hill
  • The Mission District
  • Crissy Field

Lots of people, lots of stores, and heavy traffic, making a fast car getaway more problematic.

Smartphones like the Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, and Google Pixel are all capable of making great portraits and there are enough great spots in the city to have a bride pose without putting yourself at risk. California Street on a cable car, the Piers by the Ferry Building, the roof on top of the Police Station in North Beach against the skyline. And I’d bring my smartphone anywhere in the city—even the Palace of Fine Arts.

If I had to shoot with my Sony in San Francisco, I would leave the camera bag at home, only have one body and a lens, and feel relatively safe shooting in the areas mentioned above, minus, of course, Crissy Field and Fort Point.

The Fort is a very popular tourist area, again, right at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it makes an incredible backdrop for the classic San Francisco shot. But it’s wide open, like Crissy Field, and the potential for a bad encounter there. I’ve yet to see any law enforcement presence there.

I’m still staying clear of Twin Peaks with any kind of camera (too remote, too many thefts of many kinds) but I’m cool on visiting Fisherman’s Wharf and Alamo Square (home to the Painted Ladies Victorian houses) with my iPhone. I just won’t be parking a rented car there, as both have been hit badly by smash and grabs.

And I’m still waiting for San Francisco officials to get serious about the black eye that’s come to their city and do something about it. Police need to be visible and arrest people, the DA needs to prosecute, and the Mayor needs to crack down. Terrible headlines proliferate and they won’t go away until action is finally taken.

P.S. On this week’s edition of the iPhone Photo Show podcast, local San Francisco photographer Christopher Kilkes joins me to discuss the situation in the city with cameras. Please have a listen.

About the author: Jefferson Graham is a Los Angeles area writer/photographer and the host of the travel photography streaming TV series Photowalks. This article was also published here.