Santa Cruz is full of amazing photography spots for any subject, whether that be portraits, engagement photos, landscapes, or still-life. There are a ton of places that offer incredible backdrops and interesting subjects, from the urban feel of Pacific Avenue and the Boardwalk, to the quiet calm of Nisene Marks and Wilder Ranch, to the beach vibes of Rio del Mar. A short drive can take you from 0 ft above sea level at the beach to over 3,200 feet in the mountains. With so many incredible spots, the question of when to photograph is just as important as where to photograph, so I’ll cover both in this post. Throughout the post are Google Maps links with these locations.
Water: Since Santa Cruz actually sits on the Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean, there are a ton of options for getting the perfect combination of sunlight and ocean views. Locations like Aptos or Coast Dairies area have west-facing views of the water, great for morning portraits and beautiful sunset colors in the evening. Midtown beaches and high-points like UCSC have south facing views of the Monterey Bay, with cool bright light in the morning or soft, warm light in the evening.
My favorite way to get the perfect water backdrop for photographs is to hop on a boat! Santa Cruz has a number of different options for getting out on the water including public charters through Chardonnay Sailing, O'Neil Sailing, and Sea Spirit Ocean Safari or private charters through Pacific Sail and Lighthall Yacht Charters. You can also book ocean Kayak tours through companies like Kayak Connection if you want to be even closer to the waves! Just note that boats move with the motion of the ocean, so they may not be the best option for fashion shoots (high-heels) or those with motion sickness.
Forest: Santa Cruz has an incredible range of forest ecosystems to choose from, with different types of trees, animal life, and light characteristics. My favorite forest spot for photographs is Wilder Ranch State Park because of the large variety of scenes available. You can access Wilder Ranch from a few different areas, starting from the beaches on Highway 1 just north of Santa Cruz, all the way up into the mountains near UCSC. A great starting point is just off Empire Grade Road, about 2 miles north of the west entrance to UC Santa Cruz. You can park on the side of the road, and from there take a quick and easy hike to reach open grasslands with beautiful oak trees, old farmhouse foundations and fences, towering redwood forests, ravines with seasonal streams, and even some small caves. In just a few minutes, you can go from shaded forests with beams of sunlight streaming through, to open spaces bathed in warm light.
Urban: Santa Cruz county has several towns, all with different styles. Pacific Avenue is a great spot when you want a more urban feel to your photographs, with the Catalyst and the metro station offering a less sterile, more grungy feeling backdrop. Capitola Village is full of colorful buildings and small streets that lend an almost European vibe to photographs. The Swift & Delaware street area has a great mix of old and new industrial buildings made from steel, cement and wood which create amazing textured backgrounds, as well as railroad tracks.
There is also the iconic Beach Boardwalk, great for evening photographs set against the colorful blinking lights of the rides and arcade. For portraits, check out the area just in front of the Sea Swings ride. From there, you can capture a great variety of colorful lights all in one frame, with the long main part of the boardwalk behind your subject. It allows for compositions with incredible depth of field, interesting shapes and colors on all sides.
Santa Cruz has so many incredible places to photograph, no matter your subject. The most important thing to remember is to plan ahead, and think about what lighting will work best for your project. Do you want soft, muted and diffused light? Then it’s best to start in the morning, preferably on a foggy day. Want warm and vibrant colors for a portrait session? Photograph facing north or south just after sunrise or just before sunset. If your preference is for sharp, searingly bright light, head to the beach at noon, just don’t forget your sunglasses. If you're not sure how to get that perfect shot, call an expert, you know where to find me!