The attractive Mission San Juan Bautista and the equally named charming small town surrounding it are easy to miss if you don’t already know its location. San Francisco Bay Area residents therefore consider the town one of their insider secrets, a place to relax, to shop, and to eat.
Art stores, antiquities shops, and restaurants line the narrow streets, each competing for your dollars. Unusual characters and harmless but grim looking bikers mingle at the saloon, just next door to the ice cream parlor filled with the excited noise of children begging their parents for sweet treats. San Juan Bautista’s rich, colorful street scenes seem made for photography.
Most visitors come to see Mission San Juan Bautista, the main attraction of the city. Founded 1797, the mission was the largest of the 21 California Missions. The mission is still active today, continuously serving the parish. Its lush gardens are an oasis of color and its bell tower and St. John statue are well-recognized symbols. The mission and nearby buildings of San Juan Bautista State Park are relics from different periods. An old west hotel, horse stables, Plaza Hall and Castro-Breen Adobe provide a unique insight into the old West and provide a great way to complement your portfolio of photographs.
San Juan Bautista has a lot to offer to the casual visitor. Many of its sights reveal their secrets only at the second glance, providing hours fun for exploration.
How to get there
From Highway 101 take Highway 156 toward San Juan Bautista and Hollister (east). After about 2.5 miles turn left and arrive at San Juan Bautista.
How to photograph San Juan Bautista
The mission is without a doubt the most interesting object for photographers. The view from Second Street showing the long colonnade with the bell in the foreground is one of the most popular mission shots. It also requires the most patience from the photographer, since the mission entrance is along the corridor. People walk in and out and frequently decide to rest in the shade.
I waited long enough for everyone to clear my picture, except for a single person in the distance, at the end of the colonnade. Although hardly visible at this size, it helps to define the focal point in the full-size version of the picture. In processing, I chose to boost contrast levels to add definition and draw attention to the textures.
The colonnade acts like a tunnel, guiding us toward the person and the statue of Father Junipero Serra in the distance. Stepping back to the other side of Second Street would allow you to zoom in and thus compress the distance, bringing the statue closer to the bell.
The tasteful landscaping of the mission garden is a delight to enjoy, but difficult to photograph. The few interesting subjects such as the praying statue and the bench with bell are situated in places that make it difficult to place them in a skillful composition. Photographs easily seem cluttered and viewers start to wonder what the photographer wants to show or why (s)he bothered to take the picture in the first place. Simplifying your composition and keeping the shots interesting will be difficult. Experiment to come up with good shots.
The mission chapel is the highlight of the tour. Use a wide-angle lens to emphasize the size and avoid camera flash to create warm and rich colors.
The most famous view of the mission places the statue of St. John the Baptist in front of the bell tower. I moved to the right to put the statue to the side. This avoids the unpleasant illusion of St. John grabbing the bells of the tower. I also wanted to use the white mission background and did not care to cut St. John in half with the mission roof, which could easily happen if you step too close.
Since the statue stands in front of a small rose garden with fountain and several other statues, you can find a number of compelling compositions. Walking about 100 feet into the distance and using a longer focal length de-emphasizes the size of the statue, which allows you to direct the viewers attention to the mission buildings.
From the small rose garden, you also can view the farmland and the golden rolling hills behind it. A sign marks the location of the El Camino Real, the King’s Highway connecting all 21 California missions. I used a relatively long focal length and a very small aperture for the picture above. The long focal length helped to bring the farmworkers closer, while the long focal range kept the background reasonably sharp.
Photographing the interior of the old state park buildings requires a wide-lens and a good handle on the trade-off between noise, depth, and camera shake. The light shining through the windows creates additional dynamic range problems that can confuse your camera exposure meter. Always check your camera histogram and use exposure compensation where necessary.
Bikers often visit the Saloon near Third Street and Mariposa Street. Use them in your pictures to create an outlaw western town atmosphere unique to San Juan Bautista or keep everyone out of your pictures to create a peaceful small-town atmosphere. You can create many good shots along Third Street. Keep your eyes open for details but avoid cluttering your shots with the tremendous amount of detail you can find here. The fire truck picture that I took on Polk Street is a perfect example of simplification.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
Weekend festivals draw large crowds. Although the festivals themselves can be outstanding photo opportunities, they are not representative of the otherwise prevailing calm atmosphere of this quaint old town.
I like to visit San Juan Bautista during the early and late summer days, but any time of the year can be appealing. Come early for good photographs of the mission. You are looking west when photographing the façade and there will be less people roaming around during the early hours of the day. For photographs of the busy street life and the bikers, the early afternoon hours are best. You can eat lunch in one of the few very pleasant restaurants.
The mission is open between 9:30 and 4:30, except for major holidays. Masses are held Saturdays at 5pm and Sundays at 8:30am and 10am.
You do not need much more than 2 hours for a thorough sweep of the mission and a few shots of the city and you can be off hurrying to one of the nearby locations, but I recommend spending some time here. San Juan Bautista is a very inviting and relaxing place. Take a rest from your busy photographer’s life and stay for lunch. Then take a few shots in the afternoon.
- Wide-angle Lens
- Normal Lens
- Macro lens
- Polarizing Filter
- Pont and Shoot Camera
The entrance fee to the State Historic Park is $3/person.
The mission charges a $4/person entrance fee.
- Carmel Mission
- Carmel Bye The Sea
- Pinnacles National Monument
- Soledad Mission
- Moss Landing
- Pacific Grove
- Point Lobos
- Point Pinos Lighthouse
- Winchester Mystery House
- San Jose Mission
- Santa Clara Mission
- Uvas Canyon
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