US diaries-5: Lost in the dark

Last weekend, I visited the Marin headlands area.

Golden Gate in the night

My plans were simple

  • reach Marin before sunset and click pictures of the Golden Gate bridge at the twilight hour
  • stay in Marin Headlands hostel for the night
  • to reach Point Bonita before sunrise and click pictures of the lighthouse / Golden Gate

But, my planning ended there. I had not thought about transport, food, maps, directions,… blah blah. The minimalistic planning either made for a great trip or screwed things up depending on how you view it.

Renting a cycle

After reaching Embarcardero on Sat noon, I decided to rent a cycle for a day after realizing that public transport to Marin was as scarce as Chicken biriyani in Oakland. Not only that, I now realize how foolish it would have been had I decided to hike the distance! Around 15-18 miles.

I rented the bike from “Bike and roll” at 32$ for 24 hours. I got a 10$ discount as I stayed at the hostel that night. (And at the hostel, I got a 2$ discount because I took a bike. 🙂 ). The bikes are decent and definitely better than those provided by “Blazing saddles” (maybe I will blog about that trip I made on a cycle too).

Cycling from Embarcardero to Golden Gate was fun. The cappucino at the cafe below the bridge was heavenly. Riding across the bridge was fun too, this time the wind being sedate unlike the previous time when it tried to lift you off. Beyond the bridge, its all uphill. That was when I realized my next mistake.

Too much stuff.

A tripod, 3 lenses, camera, filters, chargers, food, blah blah. And…. I had 12$ in quarters adding to the weight. Yes, you read it right. That’s 48 coins!!! (Blame my desperate hunt for the Tennessee state quarter which will complete my 50 state quarters collection). My camera bag even had a torch… which later on turned to be a godsend. The weight on the way up was killing, but my enthusiasm to capture the bridge before dark was strong enough to keep moving.  After a few quick shots at Battery Spencer, I continued onto Conzelman road.

Photographing the bridge

A point on Conzelman road has a very nice view of the Golden Gate. But the road was closed due to construction. However, I took my chance (though a bit scared of being on the wrong side of the law in a lesser known country) and reached the ‘vantage’ point though a board said violators will be fined. Once there, I clicked a lot of pictures, all of them long exposures with shutter speeds from few seconds to even 30. I was not very happy with the results and felt I should have done better. But if you have any plans to go there for night photography, maybe my experience should help you.

Golden Gate in twilight

  1. take a tripod and the remote
  2. take a bubble level (horizon will be hard to identify and level in the dark)
  3. preferably, shoot with f22 or so to get that star-burst on the lights
    UPDATE: Be careful about using small apertures like f-16 or lower as it could cause diffraction and softening of the images!!! Each lens behaves differently and you may want to experiment to figure out what f-stop is best
  4. positioning yourself at 45 degrees to incoming (distant) lights will help create a better lighting of the scene than if you are at 90 degrees to the light (IMHO)
  5. go onto manual mode and use longer shutter speeds than that shown by camera in aperture priority (later you can reduce it if you want in photoshop). Under exposing a predominantly dark scene and trying to recover image in computer by bumping the levels is a bad idea as it makes picture grainy.
  6. watch your histogram
  7. watch out for aeroplanes flying low and causing a blurry red line in your picture
  8. preferably use a faster memory card. My current card wasted a lot of time trying to save pictures
  9. a full moon day should be an awesome time, esp if you can manage to place the moon around just above the bridge. I couldnt.
  10. if you are on tripod, lowest ISO and longest exposure
  11. around 8 is when the sun sets. Around 8.30 is when it starts disappearing. Dont stop after that. Shoot till 9.30 or beyond. Experiment.
  12. take a torch…. it gets pretty dark up there

Lost in the dark

Okay. I got lost in my photographic pursuits and didn’t realize it was 9.20pm. I knew the hostel closed at 10.30pm and I still had plenty of time to reach there. After all, the cycle rental maps showed them to be easy to reach.

It was dark. Pitch dark. So much that even my pretty good cycling torch (see, sometimes carrying all that junk in your bag helps) was not enough and I hardly could make out the edges of the road. I kept cycling and saw a board that read ‘Marin info center / hostel’. Nice.. am on the right path I thought.

A steep downhill kissed by a few sharp curves later, I reached a junction. Left or right? The right seemed obvious as I could see lights at a distance. The time was 9.50. I had no idea how far I had come and where I was. I had no cellphone coverage, adding to my woes. I stopped a car and asked a girl in her mid 20’s for directions. She said I had overshot and had to go all the way up. That was the last thing I wanted to listen to in the middle of the night, at the base of a steep downhill, with a tripod and camera bag on me, with no water and food and no cell coverage. I almost gave up… and thought of going all the way back instead of searching for a hostel in the dark. But thoughts of missing out on the Point Bonita next day was still strong enough to motivate me back on track.

I cycled a bit.. then walked my cycle! Up the hill, puffing and panting!! Only 40mins to go before I could get into the hostel. After a good 15 min push up the hill, I stopped a minute and thought. Hey.. I never saw any lights on the way down. How the heck could a hostel be somewhere up there!!!  I had no sense of distance in the dark and definitely not the altitude. All that appeared in front of me were dark and black shapes that only scared me. I didnt even know how far I had come down. Going up seemed more gamble than going down…. after all I had never seen a single light. Maybe the lady gave me wrong information.

I decided to go downhill again.. and take the left at the junction. Time was 10.20 and nothing in the sight yet. I gave up by then and thought I would cycle for another 15 mins and then return on the same way back to Fisherman’s wharf for the night. What a bummer!

Just then, like a bolt out of the blue, I saw lights. And a board. It said Marin information center. And yes, it also said Youth hostel! Yay!! I cycled hard and fast… just to reach the hostel at exactly 10.33pm. The lady there was at the office closing her door.. and I just made it in time.

What should have been an easy route was made might tough because I had not seen the map properly! Was it bad? Maybe yes, but I did enjoy the experience!! (of course, had I lost my way and returned to SFO, that would have been another story).

The hostel

The Marin headlands hostel is very nice. Just like the Point Reyes hostel, I enjoyed the stay there. After checking in and putting my cycle into the basement and locking it up, I had a late night hot shower. The kitchen was closed by then and I couldn’t make myself some cofffee. This time, there were very few people in the 80 bed hostel. I retired for the day.

At 24$ for the night, clean bed and sheets, hot shower, access to the kitchen, like-minded crowd….. the stay is unmatched elsewhere! If you are a budget traveler, Hostels International is the place to stay at!!! Period!


I woke up at 5am and by 5.15 was out heading towards Point Bonita. It was a mile away. I clicked a few shots of the sunrise. It wasn’t that impressive as I had hoped it to be and the lighthouse is closed for public until 12 as the place is a sensitive area for harbor seals resting early in the morning. I shot the Pacific ocean instead.

Pacific might

I shot a few clicks of the seals, enjoyed myself in the beauty of the location and hit a conversation with the lone gentleman there.

Mr Dick Lingelser, who was a volunteer for the national park and doing his daily counting of the seals. He was a very warm person to speak with and I enjoyed his brief company and his information on the seals of the place. Along with him, I counted the seals too. There were 18 on a small rock, 13 on another, several more on another. He said usually one finds 30-40 there. After a picture, I bid him good bye and started back towards the hostel.

On my way back, I spotted a Mule Deer every now and then. And this unidentified bird too.

ID anyone?

Checked out of the hostel, went to the information center to get a checklist of birds of the area and other info, cycled all the way up and then down the hill, reached Golden gate and later Embarcardero, returned the bike.

Ah.. yes. If you rent a bike and happen to stay in the hostels nearby, don’t forget to show your hostel bill to get that 10$ on your bike rental off!

See you in my next post!

6 thoughts on “US diaries-5: Lost in the dark

  1. Cool adventure Prem.. I read it in one stretch like a thriller 🙂
    Can imagine how frustrating it is to get lost in a foreign country!

  2. Wow, Prem! Great photography; thanks for sharing. You are a courageous young man and it was my pleasure to meet you. I feel badly that I did not offer you a snack; I could have shared an apple.

    I sent your email to Jeff Wilkinson. Jeff is a birder and fellow volunteer. We are winter wildlife docents and tule elk docents. Jeff also is a docent for the plovers at Point Reyes.

    Your new friend, Dick

    1. @ Dick & Linda: Thank you very much for the comments and the wonderful friendship. I am overwhelmed by the love and warmth that you offer. It is very kind of you. Looking forward to meeting you both.

      @ Linda: Thank you very much. It is indeed a Turkey.

      @ Jennifer : Thanks for your comment and friendship!! It is such a nice feeling to receive the love and warmth of wonderful people like you, Dick and Linda.
      Yes, my friend has managed to get a Tennessee quarter for me :-). With that my 50 states collection is now complete! I do have the Northern Mariana territory quarter. But am looking for the Puerto Rico and American Samoa. Do not bother about them… I will hunt for them in my usual style :-).

  3. Hi Prem,

    Although I have not met you yet….I hope to soon. I loved your picture of the bridge at night. I am not a bird expert, but the unknown bird, looks like a wild turkey to me. Thank you for taking the great picture of you and my husband, Dick. Your blog was very amusing, so thank you for some good laughter.

    Linda Lingelser

  4. Hi, Prem –

    My friend Dick Lingelser passed along your blog … what a great read!
    Did you ever find your Tennessee quarter? I’m afraid I can’t help you on that one, but DID find I have a quarter I did not even know existed as part of the collection until now. Do you have the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. quarter? It was minted in 2009. If you’d like it, it’s yours! 🙂

    Your friend via Dick …


  5. Hey Prem,

    Really good!!!!!!!
    Hope i travel with you some time soon…
    Have a nice time there!!!!!

    call me due 🙂

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