How to Photograph California’s Missions (Part Two)

Morning at Mission Santa Barbara

In last week’s blog, I proposed an agenda for photographing the California missions.  This week I will add “how to do it better.”  Once again, there are twenty one California missions between San Diego and San Francisco.  They are all about 35-50 miles from each other – “a day’s ride in the late 1700s.”  They were built between 1769 and 1823.  All of them were destroyed at one point or another in their history.  Many have been rebuilt as new parish churches or according to the original plans.  Of the 21 mission, we have been to 8, so far.  Here are some hints for how to make better photographs at the missions.

Photograph the Façade

Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel, CA)

I always suggest you use a tripod (to see why, read this blog).  When we enter the mission, I always ask if they allow tripods.  It is a polite way to suggest that you are a serious photographer, a conscientious person, and someone who understand the sanctity of the site.  I have never been told, “no.”  Try to get there right when the mission opens.  Do a little internet research to get the visiting hours.  Also pay attention to avoid mass for the many working churches.

Santa Ines

For the façade shot, remember to use the rule of thirds and position the bell tower appropriately.  If you can find a foreground subject, even better, but don’t worry about it.  The subject is the mission – its bells, bell tower, front door, and architectural elements.  (I have been known to close the open front door of the mission to get a cleaner shot.  It is easier if you have a photography partner).  After you get a good a face-on shot, move around and create some angles, including getting up close.  Also, look for elements you can isolate – the bells, flags, and other subjects.

San Luis Rey de Francia (Oceanside, CA)

This should be pretty straight forward shooting.  I use f/16, a polarizer, and my 24-105 zoom lens.  If the sky is bright, which it very well may be at the time, I also use a neutral density graduated filter (see camera kit).  Lastly, I try to see in black and white as many of these missions will look better in black and white, than bright color.

Santa Barbara

Photograph the Interior

All of these missions will be very dark inside and they will have bright light streaming in through high windows.  After being outside, it will take a few minutes for your eyes to adjust.  Use this time to spot interesting details inside that you will want to isolate.  The interior shot can be a tough lighting situation.  You have four options – three good and one bad: use a long exposure with a tripod, make a high dynamic range composite, jack up the ISO and open up the aperture to get more light and a faster shutter speed, or lastly, use flash.  Flash is the worst option as most of the missions ask you not to use flash photography.  It is disruptive to the other visitors, disrespectful, and, I think the photos just look bad.  As I say this, you will see MANY people use flash on their point and shoots, even though they are not suppose to.

Santa Barbara Altar

If you have a tripod, the best option is a long exposure with a small or mid-size aperture.  I always try to use f/16, but will open up to f/11, if I have to.  In the photo inside Santa Barbara, I am at f/22 which makes the lights turn into stars.

San Carlos (Carmel, CA)

I always carry my Canon G12 along with my Canon 5D Mark II.  The G12 has a built-in 3 shot HDR function.  After some long exposures with my 5D, I will mount the G12 on the tripod and do some HDRs.  Again, to do this you will need a tripod.  Many point and shoots have this feature now.  Check your menu to see if you have it.  Lastly, in a pinch, I will turn the ISO up to as high as 3200 to get a good exposure with a hand-held camera.  This will create noise that I can remove later with software.  If your camera has a “low light,” “night,” or “party” setting, this may work, but make sure you turn off your flash.

San Carlos processed with a bleach bypass effect

Photograph the Portico

Santa Barbara

This is probably my favorite subject at the missions.  There are so many options.  The Portico is sometimes attached to the side of the mission and sometimes is in the back along the large courtyard.  Many of the missions we have been to have more than one and in the courtyard go all the way around.  This is important as the lighting can be tricky.

San Diego

So, look for a good subject and “soft” lighting if you can.  Depending on the time of day, you may have bright sunshine which will throw dark shadows which could enhance the composition, especially in black and white.  Keep looking until you find good lighting.  Also, find a place with lower foot traffic and a good bench for your foreground.

La Purisima Concepcion

I usually set up with a tripod and a wide angle lens and f/16.  I usually use my 24-105 mm or even my super-wide 17-40 mm.  Do not put the bench or the walkway in the middle of the photograph.  Create an angle by having the bench and walkway emerge from one side or the other; this will create an interesting perspective.  Also, pay attention to the columns.  Try to create a little space between each one.  Having the columns touch will make them look light a solid wall, rather than columns.  The little bit of light between each one makes a huge difference.  And again, think in black and white.

Photograph the El Camino Real Bell

Make a portrait of the bell.  The biggest issue here will be making sure you have a good background that is not cluttered or ugly.  Use an open aperture like f/2.8 or use the “portrait” setting on your point and shoot.  Make sure to get the bell sharp and get the background blurred.  This is one place I might use a flash, even if it is bright out.  Try it with a flash and without.

Photograph Father Junipero Serra

This is the same camera set-up here.  Find Father Serra and make a portrait.  The good news is that he will not move and will not tire from posing.  Mary is particularly good at her Father Serra portraits.  Again, I would try it with and without flash.

San Luis Obispo
Detail from a Rosary on Father Serra's Robe

Photograph the Fountain and Courtyard

Each mission also has a fountain in the front or in the courtyard.  If there is water in it, you will want to use a polarizer to decrease the glare.  If you do not have a polarizer, try to position yourself so that you do not have a bright spot in the water.  Many of the fountains have lilly pads and flowers.  These are also good for close-up shots.  If there is no water, I try to get down low and make a bigger landscape shot.  There are many options in the courtyards.  We have seen fountains, gardens, graveyards, crosses, bells, and other subjects.  Make sure to make big and small shots.


Find the Little Details

The Missions have so many little details that make very nice “small” landscapes and min-set pieces.  Just look for things that catch your eye and then think “portrait.”

Santa Ines
La Purisima
Santa Barbara

A few last comments

We usually spend 2+ hours at the mission.  There is much to look at even if you are not photographing the way we do.  Most of the missions have nice museums and some have historic excavations.

Detail from La Purisima Concepcion

I think our overall favorite so far is La Purisima which is near Lompoc.  They not only have rebuilt the mission, but the entire mission complex as it would have looked in the 1700s.  It is a very large site, but not terribly pretty by our current modern standards.  You will want to spend 2-4 hours here exploring all of the buildings and rooms.

The prettiest is the Queen of the Missions –Santa Barbara.  We have probably shot it at least five times.  The outside is always available as there is no fence or gate.  You can go there early to get sunrise as the sun hits it face on or go for sunset as the sun sinks behind her.  The inside is stunningly beautiful.

The front door of Santa Barbara

I caution you again about the crowds.  The only way around this is to get there early and be patient.  When we were in Carmel last, we arrived just as they opened at 10 AM and left about 1 PM.  When we got there, we might have had about 20 other people around.  By the time we left, there were easily 200 people mulling about including two full buses of tourists.  To learn more about the California Missions, please see this month’s book review.  To see more California Mission photos and all of our other photos, please go to


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