Photographing San Francisco: Creative Urban Abstracts

Colorful interpretation of the Jewish Contemporary Museum

In addition to a rich assortment of iconic San Francisco shots, there are abundant opportunities to create interesting and unique abstracts using the architecture.  I lived in San Francisco for a few years and visit there often for work.  It wasn’t until I found my passion for photography, that I began to see what I would have typically characterized as “just buildings” in a different light.  Here are some tips for developing an eye for urban abstracts.

Tip 1:  Get high AND look down

Typically I climb heights to take in the sweeping panoramic view; now I climb with an eye to looking to see what’s below me.  I have walked the Embarcadero center for years with a mixture of anger and fear.  The intricately tiled pattern on the floor is nerve-wracking in high heels, and especially after a rain.  During my last visit I began to appreciate the pattern in the tiles, and for the first time climbed to the second floor and looked down a few of the staircases.  These photographs of abstract circular patterns created by the stairs are some of my favorites.  The next time I go, I plan to play around with a “worm’s eye” view of the floor.

Abstract of circular staircase
Circular staircase at the Embarcadero Center

Tip 2:  Focus on a portion of the building…..not trying to capture the whole thing

These abstract photographs of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, have provided me with endless creative possibilities.  I shot this building from many angles, and found the ones that focused on the lines and geometric shapes of the building were my favorite.  I used the film effects in Alien Exposure 3 to create different color tones and abstracts of this building.

Colorful interpretation of the Jewish Contemporary Museum
Close-up architectural abstract
Colorful architectural abstract

Tip 3:  Look for interesting shapes and lines

This black and white photograph of a San Francisco office building was a complete surprise.  I have stood on this corner waiting for the light to change hundreds of times, and never really appreciate the building’s wavy curves.  On my way into the office one morning, waiting at the light, I decided to kill some time and pulled out my camera.  Although the building was already “color-free” converting to a true black and white helped me to highlight and accentuate the curves.

Tip 4:  Look for interesting architectural ……. in the most unlikely places

This photograph of the dome in a San Francisco mall, was a first for me.  I had never been into a mall with the express purpose of taking a photograph (instead of shopping).  I had seen some pictures of this dome, invested 20 minutes trying to find it (once I was inside the mall), and managed not to get sidetracked when wandering through Nordstrom trying to get to the right place.

Dome at San Francisco shopping mall

This image of the Transamerica Building is the best one of this subject I shot during my trip…’s typical and boring.  It is a complete mystery to me why I didn’t try to create an abstract of this iconic building.  For some reason I forgot my second tip.

Iconic Photograph of the Transamerica Building

My suggestion, take the iconic shots, the full-building shots, the documentation shots, and then spend some extra time honing in on the unique qualities of your subject to create a unique abstract.  To see more of our photographs, go to

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