Riverwalk - San Antonio, Texas

View Gallery of Images from the Riverwalk

The past 30 years have been kind to downtown San Antonio with the emergence of the Riverwalk (listed as "River Walk" on the official website) as the #1 tourist destination in San Antonio (and possibly Texas?). As we see it today, the Riverwalk was created in 1939 by architect Robert H. H. Hugman as a cleanup and beautification project. After several shady years, the Riverwalk was revitalized in the 1960's with the area really taking off in the last 20 years or so. Several festivals are held throughout the year with the most visually event stunning occurring between Thanksgiving and January 4 every year as trees on the banks of the river are decorated with thousands of lights.

Directions (from Austin): Take I-35 South into downtown San Antonio. Parking is scattered around the Riverwalk with a large deck located off of Commerce street at the River Center Mall.

This trip was my first trip in this series that wasn't exclusively photographic. With relatives in town, and a Friday to kill, we set for San Antonio to visit the Alamo and Riverwalk. As such I only had about an hour to shoot the river, and the huge crowds due to a combination of Christmas break and pep rally for the Alamo Bowl made for a very frustrating and somewhat limited adventure photo-wise. However we did enjoy the trip and I was able to get a couple of decent shots.

As night fell, the family went for ice cream (yes, December in San Antonio is ice cream weather), the river lights came on, and the crowd multiplied in size as the football pep rally swung into gear. As the amphitheater was crazy, I headed the opposite direction with camera and 15-30mm lens attached to my tripod. The crowds are a challenge as some points the river paths are very narrow and there is a serious risk of falling into the river. That and the fact that tripods take up significant space means that one has to look hard for the few prime spots while trying to stay out of the way. The key here is patience and be aware of where you step.

The photography itself was fairly straight forward - mirror-lockup tripod shots with +/- 1 2/3 bracketing at ISO 400 and f/8 (or so). The shutter speeds were usually 1-5 seconds long and so as long as people were moving they didn't show up in the images. There were lots of river boats which presents interesting light trails, and occasionally you had the clueless person wander within view and take a flash photo. This of course does two things: 1) generates a poor photo for the person with the flash, and 2) adds an additional light to my image.

The Friday after Christmas on the eve of the Alamo Bowl is probably the WORSE POSSIBLE TIME to take photos, but I had to deal with my conditions. Ideally I'd like to have the river to myself (yup, I'm greedy like that) so to get the shots I really want I have to been down there really late (after 11?) and possibly with someone who can look over my shoulder. The area is "safe", but.... I'd feel safer if I had company that late at night.

About the lights: I got mixed answers when I asked about when they go up (one guide said they are up year-round, the other said they are put up each year over a 3 month period). However I did get consistent answers about when they are turned on. The river is lit from the day after thanksgiving to the annual mud festival on January 4. In case you're wondering the mud festival is when they drain the river and clean it. Apparently people enjoy combing through the river sludge.

One day I'll go back, probably late at night when its cold.

Summary: The Riverwalk is located in the heart of San Antonio and is an extremely popular tourist destination. The river is lit during the Christmas season from Thanksgiving until just after the New Year. Recommended time for photography are during off-peak hours, but you may want to bring a friend if you go really late at night. If you do go at night, shoot tungsten or RAW (most of the lighting is tungsten) and bracket each shot due to the extreme differences between the lit areas and the shadows.

All images and web content © Christopher Rake 2004-5