Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay is a popular tourist destination and a great photographic destination. Here are some things to do know in order to make the best possible photographs of your time on The Rock.
When to Go
Alcatraz Cruises (the only boat to Alcatraz) offers trips to the island that fall into three groupings:
- a daily “early bird” trip which is the first boat of the day (around 9am)
- “night” trips which leave around sunset
- several daytime trips throughout the day, with all visitors leaving the island prior to the night tours
If you want the best photos, ignore the mid-day trips. In addition to the light being less than optimal, the island is most crowded mid-day and you’ll be dealing with lots of people that potentially interfere with your photos.
The early bird trip works well if you’d like to beat the crowds and have full access to all areas of the island currently open to the public. The night trip boat makes a loop around the island rather than going directly to the dock. This loop around the west and north sides of Alcatraz provides some viewpoints not seen by those who take a daytime tour; the daytime tour boats simply travel directly between Pier 33 and the Alcatraz dock on the southeast corner of the island.
Note that on the night tours, some areas of the island are not accessible. The last time I visited Alcatraz in October 2011, night tours were only able to access the path from the dock up to the cellhouse, the cellhouse, and the small courtyard area adjacent to the cellhouse on the south side of the island. The model industries buildings, recreation yard, agave trail, and powerhouse were not accessible during the night tour.
Regardless of whether you choose the early bird trip or the night trip, see the next section about being first.
On Being First
If you’d like to replicate this scene, you need one key ingredient which is hard to obtain: a lack of people in the corridor. If you visit Alcatraz during the daytime, the corridors will be filled with people and this photo will be impossible. Even without a special private tour, there are two times each day which this image is made possible: the first tour of the morning and the first tour at night. In both cases, the cellhouse will be empty of visitors, and you’ll have the opportunity to try to make a photo without visitors. Note that I said “try.”
As your tour boat docks at Alcatraz, position yourself downstairs on the boat so that you can be amongst the first people onto the island. Once you move onto the island, stay to the front of the crowd as it moves towards the open area at the dock towards the road. Everyone is required to listen to an orientation talk before heading up to the cellhouse; you’ll want to be part of the first group receiving the orientation. For the night tour, the group is split into smaller groups and led up to the cellhouse. During the day, the group is released to explore the island on their own. Either way, ensure that you’re at the front of the pack.
As you reach the cellhouse, you’ll see the main entrance. The usual operation is that you’ll enter the shower room for a brief spiel, then be given the headphones for the audio tour. If you want to be first, skip the headphones and head upstairs to the main cellhouse level. You’ll now have a minute (or two, but likely not more) before everyone else behind you dons their headphones, walks up the stairs, and ends up in your photo.
Light, and the Lack of It
Even during the daytime, it’s not very light inside the Alcatraz cellhouse. Tripods are okay but you’ll want to ensure you’re not obstructing other visitors. Thankfully most newer DSLRs have good performance at high ISO settings; plan on cranking yours up for interior photos. If you want some stability but don’t feel like carrying around a set of sticks, the Gorillapod is always a good option.
Buy your tickets to Alcatraz Island through Alcatraz Cruises .
Can’t make the trip soon? I’ve published an Alcatraz Photo Book offering my take on the island.