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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.

  1. You can either choose a different time of day or a different Mission than originally planned, or

  2. 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.


(4) The Seasonal Affects


Aside from what flowers may be in bloom and sun positions, the other things to consider about sessions that take place midday are the weather and crowds.


Remember, if you choose to have your photos during the summer you are going to sweat. There's no getting around it in Texas. But you're likely going to sweat less during the mornings.


Our winters may not be extremely harsh, but it still gets cold here. We have a lot of mornings in the 30s, with January and February being our coldest months. So consider evening sessions in the winter when its likely going to closer to 60 degrees.


Last thing to consider is how the time of year affects the crowds. Being a World Heritage Site, its a popular tourist attraction. Some of the Missions (like the one pictured here) are more popular than the others. During high tourist seasons like Spring Break, Fiesta, and December, be prepared to work around visitors or needing to choose a different Mission.


There are Four Missions


Choosing which of the four Missions to use as your backdrop may be an easy choice based on aesthetics, but I recommend discussing your options with your photographer. The right choice may depend on time of day, what's nearby, type of images you want, or access to a restroom.


(1) Mission San José

This is the mission pictured in this blog. It is by far the most popular because of its grand scale, beautiful doors, and stained glass window. The main office for the parks is located at this Church, too.

2022

(2) Mission Concepción

The next most popular may be this one due to its size and location. Across the street from Concepcion Park, a stretch of the San Antonio River, and near Confluence Park, its perfect for longer sessions that want to incorporate more than one location. I recommend this Mission for morning sessions only since the front of the mission faces the West (all afternoon sessions with have you looking into the sun).


2016


(3) Mission San Francisco De La Espada

This smaller church is often overlooked, but it's beautiful. The doors to the church are stunning. It's also less crowded than most and is better for afternoon sessions when the sun is behind the church. You can also drive to the Mission Reach Trail and see the Árbol de la Vida: Memorias y Voces de la Tierra before walking along the river.


2016


(4) Mission San Juan

Lastly is the quaint and less ornate Mission San Juan. Its all white façade and smaller structures makes it one of the lesser visited missions. It is, however, surrounded by trails for those looking to add more nature into their session.



2016

Is a photo session at the Missions on

your bucket list?



 

Laura Tannenbaum is a lifestyle family and portrait photographer in San Antonio, Texas. She loves capturing real life, loving moments between loved ones and showcasing personalities. To learn more about Laura visit her About Page.


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