Urban
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San Diego

Balboa Park, San Diego

Do you get tired of sunsets and palm trees in San Diego? Head downtown for some Balboa park photography and capture a different side of San Diego.

Tiring of sunsets and palm trees in San Diego? Head downtown for some Balboa park photography and capture a different and beautiful side of San Diego.

Balboa Park was originally just a city park, creatively named City Park!

It was spruced up for a Panama-California exposition in 1915. Those expositions were a big deal back in the day, so the city – always staying classy – built a series of Spanish Baroque style buildings in anticipation of all the visitors.

The buildings were only meant to last a year or two – but San Diego loved Balboa Park so much, the city decided to restore the buildings and keep the park.

Lucky for us! It now holds several museums, gardens, fountains and other cool and beautiful things to photograph.

Balboa Park Photography

Best time of dayAnytime! Grounds are open 24 hours and there's a variety of subjects.
Museums and other services vary, you can get full details here.
I hope to do a separate post for Balboa Park at night.
Best versatile gearVersatile is key, the variety of scenes means a flexible zoom is perfect.
Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens
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Specialty gear
Because there's so much to see, you could try focusing on macro shots only.
Tamron AF 90mm f/2.8 1:1 Macro Lens
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Optional accessoriesYou can also use these Neutral Density Filters to slow down the fountains for some interesting effects.
Tiffen 77mm Digital Neutral Density Filter Kit
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Balboa Park Map

The architecture at Balboa Park transports you to another country. The buildings are both grand and ornate, so you can experiment with capturing both aspects.

There’s also a lot of them mostly concentrated in a central area of the park. Very walkable, with lots of museums if you are travelling with friends or family.

Map of central Balboa Park

Balboa Park Attractions

Balboa Park Bell Tower

The Bell Tower, probably the most recognizable sight at Balboa Park, is located at the Museum of Man.

Local tip: You can actually take a tour up inside the bell tower for beautiful 360 views!

Balboa Park Bell Tower

Exposure
1/50s ƒ/4 @ ISO 100
Focal Length
27mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
May 22, 2016, 5:45 pm

When you shoot tall buildings you will run into the perspective distortion effect.

Sometimes this really enhances the height of the building but sometimes it’s better to aim for parallel lines.

The trick to getting parallel lines is to try not to tilt your camera up. You can achieve this by standing somewhere further and higher, on a hill or a different floor, but this is often not possible.

Another trick I use is to take the photo without tilting, even though I end up with the building mostly in the top half of my image. Then I crop out the boring bottom later!

You can also fix perspective in post-process in Lightroom, Photoshop or even on your phone using apps like SKRWT.

Casa Del Prado Theater

The Casa Del Prado Theater is another gorgeous building, quite close to the Bell Tower. Here it is, taken at 5pm in the golden hour. The warm sunset light adds to the dimension, color and tones in the architecture.

You can see the Bell Tower in the background, lit up in a hazy glow!

Balboa Park Photography

Exposure
1/200s ƒ/4 @ ISO 160
Focal Length
14.976mm
Camera
Canon PowerShot S90
Date & Time
January 2, 2012, 5:36 pm

Spreckels Organ Pavilion

Spreckels Organ Pavilion is an open air auditorium style area with the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ.

While you are gazing at the buildings, don’t forget to take in the little details. There are beasts and human figures carved into every facade, as well as lines and curves in every corner.

There’s a lot of flourish everywhere you look. It’s a great way to come home with some unique shots, rather than the standard postcard shots that are overdone.

Balboa Park Spreckels Pavilion

Exposure
1/50s ƒ/4 @ ISO 100
Focal Length
27mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
May 22, 2016, 5:45 pm

Balboa Park Architecture Detail

Exposure
1/250s ƒ/7.1 @ ISO 200
Focal Length
78mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
March 1, 2010, 2:19 am

Balboa Park Botanical Gardens

Along with the buildings, Balboa Park is full of beautiful gardens perfect for photography. The Botanical Garden contains thousands of flowers and plants and is a great spot to try your macro skills. The building itself and lily pond out front are also very photo-worthy.

I haven’t gone down the macro route much myself, but I play around with the gear I have on me and see how close I can get.

You never know when you might find a tiny tiger hiding in an orchid.

Orchid at Balboa Park Botanical Garden

Exposure
1/320s ƒ/2 @ ISO 80
Focal Length
6mm
Camera
Canon PowerShot S90
Date & Time
September 19, 2010, 9:23 pm

Alcazar Gardens

The Alcazar Gardens are small but extremely pretty – accented with Portuguese/Moorish style tiling.

The garden is a little hard to find unless you know to look for it (which you do now). It’s in the courtyard behind the Art Institute and Mingei Museum.

There’s a lovely little fountain paved with beautiful blue and yellow moorish tiles, and the garden is all around gorgeous.

If you bring an ND filter, you can use a longer exposure to blur the water in the fountains for a more interesting result.

Consider trying a shutter speed of 1/10s or longer. See the water, a little slower would have smoothed it nicely.

Alcazar Garden Fountain

Exposure
1/15s ƒ/16 @ ISO 200
Focal Length
31mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
March 1, 2010, 2:05 am

Balboa Park at Night

Note that while you can visit Balboa Park at night, some attractions do close.

Most of the Museums close (or at least have a last admission) at 4.30pm.

The Botanical Gardens close at 4pm.

However, the grounds, gardens, and Spreckels Pavilion are open, and a lot of the museums might be closed but you can walk around them and photograph from the outside.

Balboa Park at night brings out a whole different world as the buildings are gently lit up. It’s a great opportunity to try some blue hour or night lights shots.

Balboa Park at Night

Exposure
1/50s ƒ/4 @ ISO 100
Focal Length
27mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
May 22, 2016, 5:45 pm

Go Pro – Have a Photo Shoot!

One final tip – Balboa Park is a great place to do a photo shoot if you have friends or family that want some special photos to share.

It’s also a great spot for romantic photos, so definitely consider it if you’re looking for romantic daytrips in socal.

There are lots of trees with great shade for well-exposed, non-squinty photos. And lots of nooks that can help you evade photo bombs even when the place is busy.

I’ve done family shoots here, as well as maternity shoots. It’s always a success.

Family Photo Shoot at Balboa Park

Exposure
1/80s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
21mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
May 11, 2012, 5:08 pm

Balboa Park Maternity Shoot

Exposure
1/50s ƒ/4 @ ISO 100
Focal Length
27mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
May 22, 2016, 5:45 pm

I hope you enjoyed this post and will get a chance to check out all that Balboa Park has to offer.

This post has affiliate links. If you use the link, you don’t pay anything extra but Sidecar Photo gets money for another glass of wine!
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Shimona Carvalho
Photographer, Engineer, Traveler who wants to help you take incredible photographs on your next trip.