Urban
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San Diego

Balboa Park

Do you get tired of sunsets and palm trees in San Diego? If so, head over to photograph Balboa Park, an unusual park in the heart of San Diego’s downtown area.

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.

Nitty Gritty

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

Shooting Tall Buildings the Right Way

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.

The Bell Tower below is located at the Museum of Man. It definitely had some distortion which I fixed easily in Lightroom.

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
1463939124

Below is the Casa Del Prado Theater, 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!

Photograph Balboa Park

Exposure
1/200s ƒ/4 @ ISO 160
Focal Length
14.976mm
Camera
Canon PowerShot S90
Date & Time
1325525767

Look for details

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 Architecture Detail

Exposure
1/50s ƒ/4 @ ISO 100
Focal Length
27mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1463939124

Balboa Park Architecture Detail

Exposure
1/250s ƒ/7.1 @ ISO 200
Focal Length
78mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
1267409963

Explore the 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
1284931381

Have Fun with Fountains

Nature not your thing – how about fountains?

Everyone loves a good fountain and Balboa park has scores of them scattered among the gardens and squares.

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

Balboa Park Fountain Photography

Exposure
1/60s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
96mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
1267407863

One of my favorites is located in the Alcazar Garden, a little hard to find unless you know to look for it. Which you do!

It’s in the courtyard behind the Art Institute and Mingei Museum and the fountain is paved with beautiful blue and yellow moorish tiles, and the garden is all around gorgeous.

Alcazar Garden Fountain

Exposure
1/15s ƒ/16 @ ISO 200
Focal Length
31mm
Camera
Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi
Date & Time
1267409116

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.

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
1336756127

Balboa Park Maternity Shoot

Exposure
1/50s ƒ/4 @ ISO 100
Focal Length
27mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1463939124

I hope you enjoyed this post and will get a chance to check out all that Balboa Park has to offer. If the post was useful to you, please share below!

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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24hr
architecture
kid-friendly
macro
nature
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Shimona Carvalho
Photographer, Engineer, Traveler who wants to help you take incredible photographs on your next trip.