Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

San Diego Henge

If you are a landscape photographer, you’ve probably heard of Manhattanhenge where the sunrise or sunset aligns with the streets of Manhattan. It’s an incredibly beautiful sight to witness with the warm light spilling all over the scene. However this isn’t just something limited to New York, and you’ll be glad to know we have this same effect in San Diego although it occurs on different dates.

San Diego Henge The sunrise aligned with the streets in Downtown San Diego

The term henge is a reference to Stonehenge. This is a prehistoric monument located in England which is comprised of a ring of giant standing stones. On the summer solstice (the longest day of the year), the sun rises directly behind the Heel Stone, located several hundred feet northeast outside the main ring, and shines into the center of the circle.

Nowadays people often use the term henge generically to refer to a sunrise or sunset alignment with man made structures. Particularly when the sun sets or rises between skyscrapers in a downtown area. So you will hear of Chicago Henge, Toronto Henge, San Diego Henge, etc.

Where and when does the Henge effect happen in San Diego?

There are several Henge or alignment effects in San Diego.

During the equinox the sun rises due east and sets due west. So all of the streets located in Downtown San Diego and in the surrounding neighborhoods which are laid out in a grid align with the sun. The equinox happens twice a year around March 20th and September 23rd.

The sunset aligns with El Prado on the equinox The sunset aligns with El Prado, the main street running into Balboa Park.

In addition to the downtown street grid, there is an alignment at the Salk Institute with the River of Life.

Finally, the most popular and well known henge effect in San Diego is with Scripps Pier and this tends to get all the attention. It is almost a rite of passage for San Diego photographers to photograph the setting sun in the opening between the pylons under the deck of the pier. Scripps Henge occurs twice a year, around the beginning of May and again in August.

How to plan an alignment shot

The first step is to figure out the date of the alignment. For an east-west feature such as the streets downtown and the Salk Institute it is the equinox. For aligments in other directions, e.g. Scripps Pier which runs to the northwest, you can use a website like suncalc.org or an app such as PlanIt Photo to figure out the alignment

Suncalc Suncalc is a free website that helps you plan alignment photos involving the sun.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • The marine layer often blocks the sun so check for clear skies at the horizon.
  • Sometimes the streets aren’t perfectly aligned east-west and this may push the best alignment a day or two earlier/later.
  • There may be some obstacles blocking the sun that changes the alignment date such as man-made structures or even just a hillside.
  • If you are at the coast, a high tide may push you back and make the planned shot impossible.

Dates to watch

Here are some future dates to watch:

  • March 20, 2021 – Downtown and Salk alignment (spring equinox)
  • May 2-4, 2021 – Scripps Pier
  • August 6-8, 2021 – Scripps Pier
  • September 22, 2021 – Downtown and Salk alignment (autumn equinox)

Tips for photographing

Scripps Henge and the equinox at the Salk Institute are very popular so plan for heavy for crowds where you are shoulder to shoulder. Personally, I will probably never shoot either of these events because I don’t like photographing in the middle of a big crowd. Furthermore there are limited composition opportunities and I currently don’t see how I can make a picture that is my own.

But if you are willing to brave the crowds, arrive early to get your spot. For Scripps Pier and the Salk Institute you probably want to show up several hours early at a minimum to claim your spot. If somebody is already setup when you arrive, respect their space and don’t try to butt in front of them. Talk and communicate with other photographers so you don’t get in each other’s way

Here are a few additional tips:

  • Try to go the day before the alignment as a practice run.
  • It’s very important to position your camera in the dead center of the opening. Sometimes being even a foot or two to the side can make your composition noticeably off.
  • Put your camera in full manual mode and set your focus and exposure ahead of time. You don’t want to be playing with your settings as the sun comes into alignment because it will only be centered for a few seconds.
  • Keep your lens immaculately clean and remove all filters. This will help minimize flare from shooting directly into the sun.
  • Learn the thumb trick for shooting into the sun. This is where you hold your thumb in front of the camera to block the sun to get a clean shot without flare. You can then blend that frame with another shot without your thumb to control flare.

Moon Henge

In addition to having fun with photographing sun alignments, you can do the same type of shot except with the moon:

Moon alignment at Scripps Pier The moon setting at Scripps Pier

Moon alignment Downtown San Diego The full moon setting between buildings in Downtown San Diego

Last words

Have fun and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get the shot. It’s easy to stress because the alignment only happens once or twice a year. But know that the alignment will come around again. I guarantee that you will make mistakes (because everyone does) and you will likely have to try a few times before getting it right.