Painted Ladies

The infamous "Painted Ladies" near Alamo Square in San Francisco, California.

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The Painted Ladies are located at the bottom of Alamo park which sits on the top of one of San Francisco’s many hills. These famous victorian row houses have been photographed many times (and make a cameo during the opening of the 80’s TV sitcom Full House.) I’ve seen many daytime shots of these Ladies where the sun really pops the colors of the houses, but also washes out the city rising up behind them. Likewise, there are shots at night with a vibrant city backdrop, but the street lights wash out the color of the houses.

Painted Ladies
The infamous “Painted Ladies” near Alamo Square in San Francisco, California.

Knowing this, I set out to capture the Ladies at dusk during those few minutes when the ambient light in the foreground and background are balanced. When preparing for the shot, I had to scout the location and then set-up before the sun began to drop. I got to the park two hours early and was reminded of Mark Twain’s infamous quip: “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” The truth is no one really knows who coined this phrase, but if you’ve ever been to San Francisco in the summer you know it’s the truth. Driving up to the city from the peninsula, the temperature will customarily drop a full ten to fifteen degrees. I was ready for that. What I wasn’t ready for was an additional 15 degree drop caused by the wind whipping through Alamo Park. My hands were numb by the time the sun set.

Shooting at dusk is a bit frantic as you’re racing against time to find the right exposure before the light disappears. I like to use a 3 or 4 stop graduated neutral density filter in these situations to help balance the foreground and background exposures. Typically, I’ll just hand hold the filter in place so I can easily adjust the level of graduation as the light changes. Hand holding doesn’t usually introduce camera shake, but between the wind and my numb hands that filter was all over the place.

Despite the shake, I managed to get a few sharp shots of the magic moment just after the lights in the office buildings flicked on, but before the florescent street lights (and car lights) washed out the color of the Ladies.

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