Palm Springs, California is the perfect vacation destination for photographers. With an average of 350 days of sunshine, it boasts plenty of opportunities for outdoor exploration. But, if you want to shoot great photos in Palm Springs, it pays to plan ahead. I was fortunate to join a group of friends on a visit in October and I’m already planning to return.
A very brief modern history of Palm Springs
In the 1930s, Palm Springs became the favored get-away of the Hollywood stars. It was close enough to Hollywood that the actors could return to the movie sets easily. But that’s not the only reason. It was also far enough away that the gossip columnists wouldn’t be reimbursed for their travel expenses. That kept them away.
Fortunately for us, many of these stars built homes in the valley, hiring architects who could match the homes to the desert environment. What resulted is a city that features an exciting combination of color and contrast, the perfect place to pull out your camera and capture photos you’ll love.
Where to stay
This is a place to forget about earning hotel points. Instead, contact Palm Springs Preferred Small Hotels for the perfect base for your explorations as you set out to shoot great photos in Palm Springs. (link below) Their website offers a glimpse into the almost 80 small hotels that dot the valley.
Lines like these beg to be photographed! This is a view of the Del Marcos Hotel.
The pool at the Alcazar Hotel offers a view of the mountains if you’re looking forward to a swim after a day out shooting. Their fire wall is also a peaceful place to sit and relax and make plans for the next day.
Palm Springs Mod Squad
To get you into the mood for desert history and drama, a tour with Kurt Cyr is where you should start. He is your Palm Springs Mod Squad tour leader and an expert on mid-century modern architecture and history. Be sure to book ahead. (Link below)
Your tour may include stops outside of the homes of the Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra, where Kurt will entertain you with stories of the actors’ lives in Palm Springs and details about their houses. In some cases, you may be able to tour the houses.
Be sure to mention that you are a photographer. Kurt will know which hotels and homes will make perfect subjects so you can come away with great photos of Palm Springs.
I would love to return and get shots of these sculptures by Kenny Erwin in low light.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Another not-to-be-missed experience for photographers is a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Again, it’s important to book ahead. (Link below) This tramway was opened in 1963 and modernized in 2000. The ride to the Mountain Station at the top (8516’ elevation) takes 10 minutes and rises over 2.5 miles. The tramcars rotate during the ride, so your view keeps changing.
Do you own a GoPro? It’s the perfect camera to capture a video of your ride, so be sure to carry it. Have it out of your bag and turned on before you enter the tramcar. I held my GoPro Hero9 Black above my head for some exciting video as our tramcar climbed the mountain.
For capturing great photos of your tramway adventure in Palm Springs, a good DSLR or up-to-date iPhone will also come in handy. The valley below is well-worth shooting.
If you time your ride well, you’ll arrive in time for lunch at Peaks Restaurant. (Book ahead-link below.) Our group enjoyed a delicious gourmet meal with wine and fabulous views.
This photo was taken with my iPhone 12 Pro, the perfect camera to hand to a waiter for a group shot. The newer iPhones can also take HDR photos automatically. This helped expose for the bright light outside and the lower light at the table.
This is also a good place to use your 360-degree camera if you have one. I set my Theta Z1 up in the middle of the table and was able to capture my friends, the restaurant and the valley below. I shared in on my Facebook page.
Getting around Palm Springs
When you’re heading out to get great photos of Palm Springs, a fun way to get around town is on the bicycles offered at hotels. If you think you’ll try this, be sure to bring a small and lightweight backpack for your camera gear. Riding a bike will help you see more details and easily stop and get shots that you might have missed in a car.
Lyft and Uber rides are also available and there’s plenty of available parking if you have a car.
Don’t forget to keep your iPhone charged. You’ll want it with you when you head out for an evening of dining and entertainment at PS Underground. (Book ahead. Link below.)
Chef Dave Horgen will entice you with food that matches the entertainment. The intimate dinner theater is the perfect place to completely unwind and relax at the end of a busy day. Check their website for a list of the upcoming shows but be sure to do this and make your reservation before your trip.
Your iPhone is the perfect camera for this venue.
Rancho Mirage Observatory
Finally, there’s one final place you should include on your trip. If you like shooting photos of the night sky, be sure to plan a visit to the Rancho Mirage Observatory. The photos you’ll capture depend on the phase of the moon, so you may want to plan your visit with that in mind.
You can contact Eric McLaughlin, the City Astronomer in Rancho Mirage, for advice. (link below) On our visit, I was able to view the rings of Saturn through one of the telescopes.
Your DSLR/mirrorless camera is your best bet for shots outdoors on the viewing deck. You may want to bring a tripod, but don’t forget that you can hand-hold a shot of the moon. You’ll be sure to return home with unusual and great photos of Palm Springs!
Here are some links to help you plan.
Palm Springs Preferred Small Hotels: https://www.palmspringspreferredsmallhotels.com/
I stayed at Alcazar and can highly recommend it. To check availability, get in touch with Robert Hunt, the Hotel Director. Robert@AlcazarPalmSprings.com or 760-318-9850. https://alcazarpalmsprings.com/
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: To find out about tickets and learn more about the Tramway, click here: https://pstramway.com/tickets/
Peaks Restaurant: Get reservations by calling 760-325-4537 or by visiting OpenTable (https://www.opentable.com/peaks-restaurant)
PS Underground: https://www.psunderground.com/
Rancho Mirage Observatory: Eric McLaughlin, City Astronomer: 760-341-7323, ext. 702. https://www.ranchomiragelibrary.org/
My post about how to set your camera to shoot a full moon: https://www.carolinemaryan.com/exposure-for-a-moon-shot-its-not-what-you-think/
Wondering what camera gear I recommend? Click here to learn more!