I often hear the question, should that location be photographed in the morning or evening, or why not during the middle of the day? On one of my trips to San Fransico, I happened to spend a lot of time at one of the viewpoints overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, Battery Spencer in the Marin Headlands. I was scouting the area for the flyby of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, so I got photographs from midnight, sunrise, mid-day, and sunset during that 24 hour period. I found it interesting to watch how the light changed over the bridge and city over the course of those hours, so of the images below which time of day do you like best?
The sun rises behind the bridge so it is back lit, somewhat muting the classic red of the towers. When planning a photoshoot, always think about how the light will be hitting your subject. The Photographer's Ephemeris is an excellent tool for this and it allows you to plan shoots and your optimal positioning in advance. To compensate for a high dynamic range scene like this you could also use HDR (high dynamic range) techniques to blend multiple exposures.
With the bright direct sun and possible haze, mid-day is generally the worst time of day to photograph a place like the Golden Gate. The colors tend to be cooler and a polarizer is recommended. When the Space Shuttle Endeavour finally made its fly by on the back of the 747, it was mid-morning and the light was quite bad for photography. Due to delays at Edwards, it was behind schedule so the light was harsher than I had anticipated.
I had planned my location based on NASA's published flight plan so that Endeavour would fly right between the two bridge towers with the city in the background. I felt that the color version did not have the proper impact, so I converted it to black and white to bring out the details and focus attention on the Endeavour. If you have no choice but to photograph mid-day, try thinking about your images in black and white while setting up your compositions.
Sunset is when the Golden Gate really shines from this location. The warm light of the setting sun compliments its red color, and the beautiful city of San Fransisco can be seen in the background. It doesn't hurt when there are beautiful fiery clouds in the sky either...
Most of the time while the best light is in the sky, the city lights are not on. This was the case here, and the lights on the bridge and in San Fransisco in the background are not lit.
Blue hour is the short time after sunset or before sunrise where the sky takes on a brilliant sapphire blue in photographs. During this time period is also when most of the city lights come on, creating a great back drop to create compelling images. The starburst effect seen on the bridge lights is from using a small f-stop, around f/18. You can also stretch exposures longer during this time of day to catch streaking headlights from passing cars. This is an excellent technique to add leading lines and that extra bit of interest to your cityscapes.
Of the images shown here, this is my favorite for the best combination of light and depth. The city looks so great glittering in the back ground. So make sure you don't pack up too soon after sunset; stay and wait for blue hour.
Two hours after sunset begins the best time of night to start photographing stars. When you're in the city however, they tend to be hard to see. You can see that compared to the blue hour shot above, this image has a jet black sky. All of the city and bridge lights are on though, so if you want to photograph at midnight or during blue hour comes down to personal preference and what type of image you are trying to capture.