How To Get Enviable Photos of the Santa Monica Pier
Over the years that I’ve been publishing Totally LA, I’ve realized that a great many of my visitors are travel bloggers themselves. Our interests expand to include not only where to go, but when, where and how to get the best photos of the attractions and how to make money off of them as well!
One of the most photogenic spots in Los Angeles is the Santa Monica Pier. Getting great photographs of it depends a lot on the time of day and the time of year. There are also a number of best vantage points from which to photograph the Santa Monica Pier.
Time of year:
Los Angeles isn’t known for clear skies. Quite the opposite. Smog is worst in the summer months. The hotter it is, the worse the air quality and the worse the photos will be. During the month of February it rains quite often. Sometimes for days at a stretch. However, the rains clear away the smog and you can get amazing photos. June is known for “June Gloom.” Don’t ask me why but the skies tend to just be constantly overcast.
I’ve found the best picture taking times in Los Angeles run from mid-September through January. But don’t shy away from the pier if your vacation plans are another time of year. You will still get beautiful photos.
The sun follows a rather weird path in Los Angeles… or at least it seems that way to me. It is never where I think it should be when it sets based on where it was earlier in the day. I use a website called The Photographer’s Ephemeris to track where the sun will be at any given time of day. It can help you plan when you want to arrive at the pier.
Time of Day
This really depends on your objective. I like to arrive when the sun hasn’t moved too far to the west so I won’t have harsh shadows for shots actually taken on the pier. Then I move to land to shoot the sunset over the pier.
If you want a shot of the iconic Santa Monica Pier entrance sign then arrive before noon. It faces east and will be too backlit to show well in the afternoon… or shoot it after dark when it’s lit up.
You’ll want to use a good camera, professional level or close to it. While iPhone shots might be okay for shooting shots of friends on the pier itself, they simply won’t cut it for the shots of the pier from land across the ocean!
I use a Nikon D750. It’s a 24 mp full frame DSLR and it’s my workhorse. I love it more than any camera I’ve owned. I have a Nikkor 24 – 120 VR lens mounted to it most of the time. It gives me the most versatile range. I can get the close up shots and also the distant. I also have a Nikon 70 – 200 VR lens that I love, but it limits me on the close up shots. While the Nikon D750 will shoot HD video, I use a video camera for my video, not my DSLR. I believe in using the right camera for the job. When I’m hiking around with my gear I don’t want to be packing more than I have to and DSLRs require a lot of extra rigging to use them well as a video camera.
Another reason I don’t use it on the pier is to remain inconspicuous. Throughout Los Angeles the permit police are constantly on the lookout for anyone they think is shooting professionally, demanding permits and handing out fines. It used to be even a DSLR would get you in trouble on the pier, but the current camera craze has changed that. It would anger all the tourists too much. The next camera on my list to get is the DJI Osmo. This is a small video camera complete with a gimbal stabilizing rig capable of shooting 4k video that is completely inconspicuous.
However, don’t even think about taking a tripod out on the pier with you! The same with stabilizers for a video camera. It will get you busted for the crime of taking pictures. Likewise with long lenses. These seem to be the two factors they use to identify a “professional” and demand permits. A backpack for your camera gear can both help you look a lot less conspicuous and make it easier to lug your gear around than with a traditional camera bag.
When you are off of the pier you’ll have less trouble with that. You could perhaps run into some trouble on the beach right around it, but when you get up to the more distant vantage points you should be fine using a tripod or a stabilizer. The main thing is just try not to look too professional!
Oh, and before I forget, if you’re hoping to earn money from your travel photos you might want to try licensing your images through Shutterstock or Dreamstime. They don’t pay much when your photos are licensed as a rule but they can sell in a large volume and earn a significant income over time. I have photos that at less than 50 cents per download have earned well over $1000 over a period of time, but I also have some that have never sold at all! You can also get extended license sales where you could earn up to $120.00. These are rare but it sure feels good when you get one. Also, if you are considering starting a travel blog, I recommend Siteground for your hosting. It’s what I use after many previous hosting companies didn’t work out. Their servers are fast, rates very reasonable and they provide incredible support for WordPress sites (and others).
Best Vantage Points to Photograph the Santa Monica Pier
The geography around the pier is unique. If you go beneath the pier on the south side the terrain is level. There is a wide sandy beach and lots of attractions from the original muscle beach, the international chess park, the aquarium and more. This is the best vantage point to get sunset or night photos of the pier that include the amusement park. Usually the sun will set behind the ferris wheel.
To the north of the pier there is still a sandy beach, but then there are massive parking lots, the Pacific Coast Highway and steep bluffs. The area on top of the bluffs is called Palisades Park. It offers breathtaking views of the pier from a high vantage point and also the park itself is very photogenic in parts. Beautiful night photos of the Pacific Park amusement park can be taken from here… but this is a place where I would use my 70 – 200 lens and of course a tripod on all night shots. You get to Palisades Park simply by going to your north right at the entrance to the pier.
The pier itself is quite wide during the first half where all the shops and amusements are. Then it narrows and continues on to the structure at the very end. At the point where it changes, you’re able to get stunning shots of the second half of the pier looking across the water from here. This is a great place for late afternoon and sunset shots. The photo at the top of this post was taken from here using my 24 – 120 lens.
A must have shot for your Instagram page is at the historic Route 66 End of the Trail sign located in the early portion of the pier.
I hope I’ve made it a bit easier for you to figure out where to be at what times to get the best shots of the Santa Monica Pier. As a note, there is no shortage of photo ops around here including the nearby Venice Beach Boardwalk area, the Venice Fishing Pier and all that is around there too. Take some time to explore our LA Travel Guides and LA Landmarks category to find more to feast your eyes on and point your lens at.
A final word. If you are looking for affordable hotels near the Santa Monica Pier check this post.
More Santa Monica Pier photos after the break…
This site does contain some affiliate ad links from various companies including Amazon and I do earn a small commission from qualifying purchases. I try to only recommend products and services I believe are of good value.