Photographing the San Jose and Santa Clara Missions

The San Jose facade
The San Jose facade

On our trip to Northern CA a couple of weeks ago, we were able to photograph four more California missions, and now have just one left.  It is easy to visit San Jose and Santa Clara in one day, as they are only about 20 minutes apart.  Here’s how.

Let’s start with the end in mind – lessons learned.  1. San Jose faces west and is best shot in the late afternoon.  Santa Clara faces east and is best shot in the early morning.  We, not knowing any better, did it the opposite way.  2. With our vacation schedules, we have been to quite a few missions during Christmas time.  Expect a lot of decorations, trees, etc in your photos.  3. Check schedules.  Many of these missions are working churches and have mass scheduled, as well as weddings and baptisms.  We have run into a few of these.  Do Santa Clara in the morning. Drive over to San Jose and have lunch, and then shoot the San Jose Mission.

The first thing you have to know about the San Jose Mission is that it is not in San Jose, but in Fremont, about 20 miles north and east.  The grounds are small, but pretty.  The church is a replica built in the 1980s.  The museum has a lot of artifacts and is in one of the original buildings.

We arrived around noon, so we shot most of the outside with our infrared cameras and converted to black and white.  To get a great shot of the facade, you will have to stand in the middle of a busy street, or go to the other side and zoom in.

Try some acute angles to create drama
Try some acute angles to create drama

There was an interesting graveyard.


The church and altar were decorated for Christmas.

It was decorated for Christmas
Processed with a bleach bypass in Nik ColorEffects Pro
Mary is using her 24 mm here
Mary is using her 24 mm here with a shallow depth of field

The garden is small and there is a fountain, but we could not get a good composition.

Detail of Father Serra's robe
Detail of Father Serra’s robe in the garden

The Santa Clara Mission is in the middle of the Santa Clara University Campus.  It can be hard to find and it is busy with student traffic, baptisms, and weddings (as we found out this day). The mission is named after Saint Clare of Assisi, the foundress of the order of the Poor Clares.  It is also the namesake of both the city and county of Santa Clara, as well as the University, which was built around the mission. This is the first California Mission to be named in honor of a woman and the only one located on a university campus.  It has been destroyed and rebuilt six times, the last time in 1929.

The facade with the sun setting behind the church
The facade with the sun setting behind the church
The church ready for a wedding
The church ready for a wedding
1312_MFA_CA Coast_016
Mary, again, using her 24 mm to create a dreamy look

There are several out buildings with nice porches.


Father Serra is in a terrible spot, but Mary made a nice portrait here.

1312_MFA_CA Coast_018-Edit

Here are our two main blogs about the CA missions – CA Missions I and CA Missions II.  You can also search our blog for California Missions.

To see more of our photographs, please go to


  1. Loretta S

    Love your 24mm shots, Mary, especially the chairs. Great seeing. Speaks volumes. Goes above and– way–beyond an “I was there” shot. The NIK color effect shot was lovely, too. How big are those angels hovering over the altar? Are they decorations, too, or permanent? We hope to visit Tucson in the spring. Seeing your mission shots makes me yearn to see the White Dove of the Desert there.

  2. pamphotography

    Hi Loretta – thank you! Those angels were part of their Christmas decorations – and they were large (and interesting). I have the Mission San Xavier del Bac on our list too – I was hoping to get there this spring but it doesn’t look like it will happy. I would love to see your photos if you go….

  3. Anonymous

    Where you able to use a tripod inside mission san jose? i’ve photographed it before and overheard something about them not allowing people to use tripods inside the church when a cashier at the bookstore was asked the question.

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