Alcatraz is an island in San Francisco Bay that is famously known for the former federal prison on its grounds. It is a major tourist destination in the U.S. and is visually very impressive. No first timer's visit to San Francisco is complete without a tour of the facility.
Getting to Alcatraz
The only access to Alcatraz Island is through Alcatraz Cruises, whose ferry boats leave from Pier 33 in Fisherman's Wharf. You can get to the pier on The Embarcadero's F line street car.
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Most tours to Alcatraz begin in the morning and continue throughout the day, but there is also a night tour on Fridays which is said to be particularly impressive because the island is illuminated, and you have a beautiful view of the San Francisco skyline. You absolutely need to plan ahead and buy your tickets weeks in advance because tours sell out very quickly. I managed to get Friday Night Tour tickets two weeks in advance, and my guess is that I cut it close.
There will be an introductory speech by a park ranger when you depart the boat onto Alcatraz Island, but aside from that tours are self-guided. You'll walk up the hill, enter the prison, grab a headset and let the recording's narrator guide you around the facility. You can pause the audio tour in order to spend more time exploring, or backtrack after it finishes. Since you are not led by a guide, you can stick around as long as there are ferry boats to get you back to the city.
The photo opportunities start before you even arrive on the island. Get to the pier early so you can be one of the first people onto the ferry -- head to the front of the boat on either the first or second level. If it is a clear day you will have views of the areas of the city surrounding the pier, and the island from afar. And if it's a foggy day, you will be sailing out into the mist and the island will eerily emerge from the gray right in front of you.
Since most tours are during the day, your tour won't be terribly dark. There are tall windows on most walls and skylights in the high ceilings. Of course this is a prison and there are dank, dark areas in corners, cells, the cafeteria, etc... Fast lenses and IS are helpful. That said, the night tour is a completely different story. I have not been there at that time, so I leave it up to you to decide what gear is best for Alcatraz at night.
I saw many DSLRs, but no tripods. There are a lot of people walking in every direction -- I think a tripod would be more trouble than it is worth. As far as the rules go, I do not know if tripods are officially permitted. I could not find any mention of tripods on either the National Parks Service site nor on the Alcatraz Cruises site. Furthermore, the only mention of photography that I was able to find was about special permits for commercial shoots.
Aside from the prison itself, make sure to check out the San Francisco skyline from Alcatraz Island. When your audio tour brings you to the warden's office, pause the recording and head outside into the courtyard for spectacular views.