Professional Photography sessions at the San Antonio Missions: What You Need to Know
San Antonio is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site. And it's not the Alamo. It's four Missions spread out on the south side of the city. The Alamo was once included among the missions in the area until its primary use became a fort, used in battle during the Texas Revolution. Now the Alamo is separate and a very popular tourist attraction in the heart of downtown. Unless you plan on having a wedding or event (or are a very well known celebrity), you're not going to be able to have professional photos taken at the Alamo. But you CAN have photos taken at any of the four Missions!
Before you plan your professional photo session at one of the Missions, here is what you need to know first!
Photography Permits are Required
The photographer of your choice will be responsible for obtaining the photography permit for your session. Their name and business is listed on the permit and they need to sign the application.
Must Apply for Permit at Least 30 Days in Advance
The Missions are run by the National Parks Service. This agency still does things old school, meaning no credit card payments online. Applications can be emailed or mailed in. Either way the $50 application fee will need to be in cash or check form.
The 30 days is also the minimum requirement. Sending in your application more than 30 days before your desired session date is recommended.
This all affects the booking and planning stages of your photography session. You either have to decide you want this location before you have a date in mind or book your sessions well in advance to keep the Missions as an option.
The Missions are not a last minute decision for your session location.
There are Permit Fees
Your photographer will need to submit an application for your photo permit. This application costs money.
Once your permit is approved, then you will be required to pay for the actual permit.
This means your photographer will need to submit both payments up front when they submit the application. If accepted, everything is great. However, if your application is denied due to a schedule conflict, you are left with two options.
You can either choose a different time of day or a different Mission than originally planned, or
Forfeit the application fee
When I applied for a permit for the session pictured, we had to switch from an afternoon session to a morning one because a wedding was taking place during the time we wanted to be there. Since we had the option and ability to switch to a different time of day, I do not know if the application would be transferrable to a different date or if a new application would need to be submitted.
**Do not find a photographer who is willing to skip this requirement, please. Not only will it be really awkward for you both if you get kicked out of the park during a session, but there may be a fine involved.
Also, it hurts the photography industry. Parks across the country have been dealing with too many crowds and destruction of wildlife. There aren't enough park rangers and staff who can keep up. One way these parks are trying to curb the masses of people visiting parks is to increase fees for all types of photography permits. Some no longer allow any professional photography. And some have even closed to the public completely (Walker Canyon in California popular for its "superbloom" of flowers closed in 2023 to ALL visitors)**
Sessions Must Take Place During Hours of Operation
The San Antonio Missions open at 9 am and close at 5 pm. But Photography is only permitted between 9:30 am and 4:30 pm, year round.
This greatly affects when you should schedule your session at the missions in a couple of ways.
(1) Time of Day & How it Affects Style
When sessions take place in the middle of the day, your images will look different than if they were taken during golden hour. When the sun rises and sets the light is softer, meaning less harsh shadows.
Golden hour gives your photographer a lot more freedom in where to place their subjects without worrying about shadows on their faces, really bright highlights, or squinty eyes. Its also when the tones from the sunlight are warm, creating a golden glow (hence the name).
During the rest of the day, when the sun is higher in the sky, there will be shadows under your eyes and nose and lips. Tones will be richer and have more contrast (depending on how your photographer likes to edit). But it can offer better options for more stylized or editorial images.
Midday sessions are best for older children and adults since they can follow directions better on where to stand and face. Smaller children like to run around and move, which may lead to less flattering images.
(2) Time of Year
During the summer months (April through September here in Texas) you are going to have your session when the sun is at its highest no matter what. Your best bet at avoiding harsh light is to schedule a morning session as soon as the Mission opens.
During the winter months, when the sun sets early, you can catch the very beginning of golden hour, especially during November when the sun sets by 5 pm.
(3) Time of Day & Sun Position
This is something your photographer may care more about than you when picking a location, but if you want their advice on what time of day is preferred (or which Mission), this is a factor they will consider.
Knowing where the sun will be rising or setting in relation to the Mission will determine where your photographer can place you for photos. Sometimes the backdrop you desire isn't where the best light is.
For instance, on a winter morning at this Mission, if you want the side of the Mission behind you in the photos, that means you will be looking directly into the sun, with it shining straight on your face. It may also mean that the background of your image (the Mission) is much brighter than the foreground (you) if you are placed in open shade. These are all things your photographer will work around.
Also knowing where the sun will be means the photographer will know where to get creative shots of the sun behind the Mission and whether certain shots will be achievable.