Austin’s Pennybacker Bridge on Loop 360 is often noted as one of the best shooting locations around Austin for landscape photography. Landscape photography isn’t my primary graphical interest, but I’ve wanted to shoot this location for some time now and plugged that into my schedule around the 3rd week of September. This post if particularly oriented for those who have never shot it before and it contains a bit about what I learned in the process. Hopefully, you’ll find it helpful.
Why You Want to Shoot It
The 360 Bridge is an architectural achievement, suspended totally by the two points on land on either side. There are no bridge columns that extend down into the Colorado River along its entire span. It was built in 1979 and about 50,000 vehicles a day cross it. It’s almost 1,200 feet long and has a great view on either side of it, as well as the view along its length. It’s literally one of the most romantic spots in all of Austin and very comparable to Mount Bonnell and one of the most well known icons of Austin.
The Pennybacker Bridge is located on the Colorado River about halfway between Highway 183 to the North and its eventual crossing of MOPAC Expressway to the Southeast. This makes it a convenient for travel for most people who live in the Austin area. If you’re looking for it in Google Maps, it’s sometimes just labeled as the “360 Bridge.” It’s easy to find.
Parking can be a bit of an issue, so it’s usually best to arrive in the area well prior to your scheduled shooting time. There are really no parking lots of any sort…just pull off on the side of Loop 360 just before the bridge and you’ll see parking signs along the side of the road. All gravel, few improvements of any kind. These are pull-in slots, so there’s no telling what will be available when you arrive. Just know that the earlier you get there and the more time you give yourself, the better off you’ll be. Parking is free, so no worries there.
Access & Terrain
I read somewhere in m research that the only way to access the vantage points for betting shooting is to climb a hiking trail to your shooting location(s) and that for a moderately athletic person, it would take about 5 minutes. This is true. While the trail is not treacherous, you don’t want to haul more than you have to up these trails and be prepared for a pretty steep climb. While you may think that it’ll be a lot like other hiking trails in Austin, it’s probably a bit steeper than you think. Here are some views of the trail I took.
Yes, it’s that steep. Seriously.
Orientation & Vantage Points
Being my first time out, I didn’t know where I would set up before I arrived. I ended up covering the north side of the bridge, perched up on the highest point I could find on the northwest side. Let me clear this up a bit here. On the north side of the bridge, there are at least 4 vantage points, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. As best I could tell, there are two perches on either side of Loop 360, two on each side. And, on each side, there is an upper and lower “deck.” If this is your first time shooting it, I would recommend the northwest side and the highest vantage point. From there, you can see where you’d like to shoot from next time or where you’d like to move to before the sun sets.
For example, below is a shot I took with my phone showing the upper and lower decks on the east side of of Loop 360. Click on the photo and you’ll be able to see another crew setup on the hilltop just this side of the treeline. About 1/4 of the way up, you can also see another rock outcropping that provides another vantage point.
There are many other vantage points of this bridge up and down the Colorado River. This is just a partial analysis of some of the area along the north side. There are also many buildings located on both sides of the river that might offer good vantage points with entirely different perspectives, so feel free to investigate those at your convenience.
There may be room for two photo setups in each of these locations and possibly more, but one crew crowds each of these areas in a big way, making it difficult to swing your rig left or right to catch other views aside from the bridge. As you can see, from the location across from me, they’re not really able to shoot a lot downriver from their location because of trees and other obstacles. Their vantage point is, however, great for shooting upriver and shooting the east side of the bridge. I consider this an inferior location and greatly prefer the west side for shooting (where I’m located while taking this photo).
For sunset photos, I’d recommend the area in the photo above, located on the northeast side of the bridge. The sun sets in the west and you’ll be able to shoot across the bridge to catch the sunset if you’re there. That area doesn’t appear to be very well developed, but it’d probably be worth the time it takes to crawl up there.
For sunrise photos, I’d recommend the northwest side of the bridge — the area from which I took the photo above. You might also try another area on the southwest side of the bridge if you can find a location to shoot from.
Most are familiar with the concept of Golden and Blue Hours, and that’s what I’d recommend shooting your first time out. The photos are naturally more dramatic and you’ll have many, many opportunities to shoot varied looks and feels while you’re there. Golden and Blue Hours are an hour each, with an additional 2 hours on either side of that to shoot daylight and nightfall imagery. That’s 4 hours. Add an hour to scout and setup and 30 minutes for teardown and egress, and you’re looking at a 6-hour shoot, less any travel time you need to get back and forth to the Pennybacker.
People LOVE LOVE LOVE this location, so don’t think you’ll be there alone. Weekdays will generally offer fewer people, but it’s always a popular place to be and people everywhere. That’s why I recommend going early, so that you’ll have your pick of spots. Where I was personally located during this shoot, there were really only 2 exact spots I would even consider shooting from. People were already in both of them when I arrived, but moved with an hour.
What to Bring With You
Each person has their own preferences for gear and we all have limitations. Bring a lightweight tripod and the widest angle lens in your inventory. You can bring other lenses if you’re taking other kinds of shots, but the wide angles are particularly useful at this location. So much to take in. I took almost 100% of my shots with a Tamron 15-30mm for Canon. Although I brought other lenses, I didn’t use any of them. I’ll add that there’s a lot of Colorado River boat traffic almost every day of the week, so if you’d like to take some closeups of the parties going on with those, bring a 70-200+ and you’ll be able to do that. It’s a popular destination for river cruises, so you’ll see a little bit of everything, trust me. Oh, and don’t forget water!
Safety. Safety. Safety. Be safe out there folks, and consider where you’re going and what you’re doing. Don’t forget that if you’re staying for the long haul, especially in the evening, you’re going to be coming down that same treacherous trail that got you there in the first place. Bring a flashlight or plan on using the flashlight on your phone. It’s just as dangerous coming down as it is going up, and you’re doing it in the dark. Go slow. Take your time.
If you’re shooting this in the evening, keep in mind that there will be others up there with you and you have no idea who these people are or what they’re capable of. Once things go dark and you’re sitting there with $10,000 worth of camera equipment, you’ll start to care about who’s around you. Don’t go alone. Always take someone with you, especially if you plan on staying until dark. The parking area along Loop 360 isn’t lit. At all. Just be conscious of what and who is around you when you’re coming back to the parking area. You’re on your own. Plan accordingly.
There are no guard rails or anything of the sort to prevent you from falling down any of the vantage points while shooting the Pennybacker. It’s a long, long way down.
Yes, it’s just as far down as it seems. Plan accordingly.
That’s it! I hope you find this information useful and you have a great time while you’re out there. It’s a great place to be and simply beautiful. I found the people with me were friendly and one even shared his pizza and beer with us, walking all the way down with us in the dark when we left. I enjoyed the experience and plan on shooting it from other vantage points later on this year. If you have any questions, you can always contact me.
I’m glad to help.