Despite its convenient location along a well-traveled path, San Miguel Arcangel Mission is an often-overlooked photographic treasure. Due to recent earthquakes, the old mission used to be in a desolate condition. The mission church was long closed with the thread of an immanent collapse looming over it. Today the church has reopened, owing to extensive restoration projects funded through donations.
The decay that threatens the very existence of this mission also makes it one of the most appealing ones to photograph. Crumbling walls, rusting ornaments, and peeling paint give it an authentic old feeling that some other missions lack. While you walk through the old mission remnants, you can feel the age of the buildings.
Simply plan a stop on your next trip along Highway 101, you won’t regret it.
How to get there
San Miguel Mission is located conveniently right next to Highway 101 about eight miles north of Paso Robles.
Heading north on Highway 101, take the Mission Street Exit (239A). You will see the mission from the off ramp. From 101 southbound, take the 10th Street exit (239), then turn left onto 10th Street. Drive about 0.2 miles then turn right onto Mission Street. You will arrive at the mission after another 0.2 miles.
How to photograph Mission San Miguel
The bell tower is the most distinctive element of the mission. It is located at the south side of the mission. The orange-red colored brick stones and blue skies are complementary colors, creating a bold look due to the high color contrast. A circular polarizing filter can help you enhance the colors even more. Use this filter sparingly, as it can easily lead to very unnatural looking images.
Pay attention to the perspective of the clock tower. If you tilt your camera while using a wide-angle lens, the tower will appear to lean backward in your photograph. Either you can use this effect to enhance your picture, or you can strive for accuracy and may want to correct it. In that case, I recommend leaving some cropping space above it, which will make correction easier.
Boosting large and small detail and sharpening are two techniques I use to emphasize the texture of the peeling paint, the crumbling plaster, and mossy stones. It adds character to the photograph and emphasizes the historic aspects of the mission. Pay attention to smaller details. Stop and ask yourself what made you look at a feature and why you recognized it. Can you capture this fleeting spur of attention in a meaningful photograph? Can you isolate this feature?
Show details in a larger context, to add meaningful background information or isolate the detail and leave the viewer puzzled to highlight the graphical properties. The image above uses selective focus to emphasize the bell, while leaving enough detail in the background to avoid the appearance of a bell floating in empty space.
Obviously, there are limits to the depth of field you can accomplish. You can however simulate narrow depth of field on the computer by adding blur to an image. Simulating an infinite depth of field is also possible, but requires proper planning. Photographing multiple pictures with the focus set at varying distances, and combining them on the computer can simulate this effect.
To keep the decay at bay, flash photography is not allowed inside the mission. Natural light often results in better-looking photographs, but presents severe challenges. Eventually, you cannot boost your ISO settings any higher and the image stabilization will reach its limits. A common trick is to take several photographs of the same scene. Since your handshake is random, there will always be a few pictures that turn out sharper than others.
The increased amplification (high ISO) usually means that your camera will not record as much dynamic range as it can in bright light. This means it may become more difficult to brighten dark areas, as they will turn out even noisier. Advanced noise filtering can help. I use Topaz DeNoise filter for these situations.
Spend some extra time walking the grounds of the mission and look for creative angles, different perspectives, and uncommon points of view that enhance the character of the mission. A small shift in the camera position or angle can make a big difference in your photographs.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
The museum is open between 10am and 4:30pm and the church opens from 8am to 5pm. If you are running late or early, it is therefore best to save a visit to the church for last or do it first. The early morning and late afternoon light is best. Due to the opening hours, it is a good destination for an off-season visit, since the sun will be at lower angles during this time.
You should plan a minimum of one hour. It would be best if you can afford to spend two hours here.
- Zoom lens (with IS if possible)
- Wide-angle lens
- CP Filter
- Polarizing Sunglasses
During my last visit, the mission gratefully accepted donations of any kind that were desperately needed to repair recent earthquake damage.
- San Luis Obispo Mission
- San Antonio Mission
- Cambira and Cayucos
- San Simeon Otters and Seals
- Hearst Castle
- Morro Bay
- Montana de Oro State Park
- Avila Beach
- Shell Beach
- Pismo Beach
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