The Palace of Fine Arts is an exhibition hall constructed in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition. More importantly, it’s surrounded by a lagoon home to a number of birds, most notably Black-Crowned Night Herons.
Although the lagoon is shaded by nearby houses at dawn, the morning light illuminates the rotunda and colonnades. The buildings are reflected in the water of the lagoon, creating a unique and stunning backdrop.
In the evening, the setting sun is blocked by the monument.
The Palace of Fine Arts is a popular wedding photograph spot, and thieves have taken note. There have been multiple brazen mid-day armed robberies of photographers at this site (news coverage). I feel relatively safe here early in the morning in a perhaps misguided belief that thieves are unlikely to wake up that early. Please consider your own comfort level before visiting with conspicuous and expensive photography gear.
Black-Crowned Night Heron
The Palace of Fine Arts is the best place in San Francisco to photograph Black-Crowned Night Herons. The herons are very active shortly after dawn, before settling down to roost on the island at the south end of the lagoon and on trees near the rotunda.
True to their name, the Black-Crowned Night Herons are also active after dark. The area has sufficient lighting that they can be photographed given a sufficiently low shutter speed and sufficiently high ISO. A wider-angle lens can help provide a wide enough aperture to further lower ISO.