Sacred Places – Peace, Redemption, Transcendence and the Eternal
Whether houses of worship or places of spiritual refuge, churches are sacred sites where one can find solace and a deep connection with the divine, in whatever form one chooses to believe. These hallowed churches are often filled with magnificent art – to me the utmost manifestation of the sacred.
By nature art is a human expression of the infinite beauty of the divine. Religious art, in particular, is extremely powerful and moving, and emotes a transcendent feeling. One of my favorite places to reflect and connect is historic Mission San Miguel Arcángel, a majestic old adobe church filled with original paintings and frescoes, whose foundations were laid down over 200 years ago.
Located just off Highway 101 (the original El Camino Real) on Mission Street in the rural town of San Miguel, this mission church is one of the original 21 historic California missions, the 16th in order. Founded in 1797 by Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuén, Mission San Miguel Arcángel is a National Historical Landmark and cultural treasure that’s been an important part of California Central Coast history for over 200 years.
It was named for Saint Michael the Archangel and built on a river bluff to close the gap between Mission San Antonio to the north and Mission San Luis Obispo to the south. It is a miracle that so many of the original decorations and paintings in the mission have survived until today. In fact, Mission San Miguel is the only mission in the United States with the original fresco paintings.
The church’s appearance today is much the same as when it was built. The inside of the church has never been repainted and the statues are original, although they have been repaired. The “All-Seeing Eye of God” hovers above the altar, the largest and most impressive in all the California missions. The interior hand painted walls have many pastel-like colors, and the changing window light creates colorful variations throughout the day.
In 1797, a temporary church was built but was lost to fire in 1806. At that time, more than 1,000 Salinan Indians were living and working at the mission. Preparations for a new permanent church began, with tiles and adobe blocks constructed prior to the laying of the foundation in 1816. By 1821 the church building was complete, along with the glorious interior frescoes designed by Don Esteban Munras of Monterey, painted with assistance from Salinan artists.
Following Mexico’s move to independence, Mission San Miguel was secularized in 1834 and put under the control of a civilian administrator. With the exile of the Spanish Franciscans, the Salinan people left the mission for their ancestral homelands. In 1846, Petronillo Rios and William Reed took possession of the Mission and the Reed family occupied the recently abandoned buildings.
Tragically, in 1848, the Reed family members and their household staff were murdered by overnight guests, certain that gold was buried on the property. Stories of ghostly hauntings continue to this day. The mission rooms were then converted to commercial stores.
President Buchanan returned the mission buildings and surrounding property to the Catholic Church in 1859. In 1878, a diocesan priest was assigned and the Parish of San Miguel was established. In 1928, Mission San Miguel was again occupied and administered by Franciscan Friars of the Province of Saint Barbara and continues so to this day. These friars cultivate grapes and produce wine with the assistance of nearby Locatelli Vineyards, which is sold under a special label to raise funds for the Mission.
The church was severely damaged in the mighty December 2003 San Simeon earthquake and forced to close its doors. It reopened in September 2009 after very extensive and costly repairs. Restoration fundraising continues to this day. Visiting Mission San Miguel is like taking a trip back in time. If you are visiting the Paso Robles wine region, I highly recommend you take the short drive north on Highway 101 and discover all this splendid mission has to offer.
I have so many photographs of this glorious mission it is impossible to post all of them here. But I will create another post in the future and include them. As you can see above, I also enjoy photographing the grounds at night. In the future, I hope to shoot the historic bell tower at night, but create circular star trails instead of star points. Since it is pointed nearly straight north towards Polaris, the bell tower is in the perfect location to capture circular trails. Of course it takes a clear dark night without much traffic, which has been difficult to achieve.
One of my favorite nearby places to photograph is a special locale known as Chapel Hill in Shandon, California, about 15 miles east of Paso Robles off Highway 46 East. Chapel Hill is a lovely, private Catholic chapel perched high on a beautiful vineyard-studded hill built by the late famous Shandon resident (Judge) William P. Clark, Jr., former Deputy Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and United States Secretary of the Interior, who worked with former President Ronald Reagan, his close friend and confidant. Chapel Hill has spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and is located amongst the hills of Clark’s massive private ranch off McMillan Canyon Road. Anyone can make the journey up the hill from the dirt parking lot below. Getting to the top of Chapel Hill is another matter, however, with a very steep climb. The incredible views from the top are well worth the climb with or without your camera equipment. There are beautiful grapevines along the path to the hilltop.
During this outing I wanted to capture star trails in the night sky over the chapel, as it is pointed nearly straight north at Polaris and therefore perfect for producing concentric star trails using star stacking software. The image was shot with my Nikon D800 using an intervalometer (and tripod, of course), and is comprised of 30 individual Camera RAW shots at 150 seconds each (with one second in between each shot), at f4.0, ISO 200 and 24mm. A bit of light painting was used on the chapel due to the foreground darkness (although it could have used more, especially on the chapel’s cross). Not bad for a first attempt at using new star stacking software; however, I hope to return and reshoot the scene with my ultra-wide angle Tokina AT-X 16-28mm f2.8 Pro FX lens in the future. I had mistakenly grabbed my 80-200mm Nikkor lens instead in my rush for the door.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with shooting star trails in photography, the earth’s rotation turns star points into star trails when camera exposure times roughly exceed 30 seconds (sometimes less depending on the focal length of the lens). If the camera is pointed towards the North Star (Polaris) and multiple consecutive exposures are taken – then blended together using star stacking software – gorgeous concentric star trails result that revolve around Polaris. For this composite, I used Lightroom and Photoshop for post-processing, and did the star stacking using Markus Enzweiler’s awesome StarStaX software. StarStaX is not only excellent but is freeware; however, donations are requested and well-deserved.
If you instead wish to capture sharp crisp stars (star points) or the Milky Way in the night sky, you will need to shoot at a very high ISO and wide aperture for less than 20–30 seconds, depending on the focal length of your lens. Unfortunately, the higher the ISO the more the camera noise. So there is a definite tradeoff. The general rule of thumb in determining the maximum length of exposure time to render star points versus trails is 600/lens focal length in mm. This means if you are shooting with a 20mm lens, your exposure time needs to be 30 seconds or less to obtain star points. Above 30 seconds exposure time you will begin to see movement in the stars.
If you are shooting with a 50 mm lens, the maximum exposure time would be around 12 seconds, not nearly enough to shoot at a lower ISO to avoid noise. Or enough time to do adequate light painting. Obviously the shorter (wider) the lens focal length, the more exposure time is available to shoot star points which is helpful to avoid noise at higher ISOs. In addition, you will capture more stars in the sky with an ultra-wide angle fast lens. Note that with some full frame (FX) DSLR cameras such as my Nikon D800, a more conservative formula to use is 500/lens focal length. Using this more conservative formula, a 16mm lens would allow for around 31 seconds of exposure time before rendering star streaks.
Below is a short (14 sec) timelapse video I made from the individual, unprocessed still images used to create the star trails in StarStaX. Since each of the 30 shots were 2.5 minute exposures, you will see the sky, foreground and chapel darken over time as the night progressed. This demonstrates the movement of the earth as it rotates and how the star points appear to move from one location to another in the night sky, morphing into streaks or trails. Of course that is because the stars are being viewed from the ground, which is actually in motion. Note that this timelapse has been purposefully slowed down for demonstration purposes.
If you look closely around the 8 second mark, you will see a big challenge to night sky photographers: a plane streaking across the sky, which needed to be cloned out in post-processing. Minimizing this challenge is one of many advantages to shooting multiple exposures and then stacking them, as opposed to shooting one very long exposure. In addition, noise becomes an issue with long exposures as the camera sensor heats up. For more information on and images of Chapel Hill, see my other posts Starry Starry Night, Photo Excursion to Chapel Hill and Chapel Hill.
If you are interested in learning how to photograph the night sky, I highly recommend the wonderful eBook Shooting Stars: How to Photograph the Moon and Stars with your DSLR by Phil Hart, winner of the 2012 David Malin Astrophotography Award. Shooting Stars, a 129-page eBook with a printable field guide, will show you how to shoot your own stunning images of the moon and the stars with just your digital SLR and a tripod. Another excellent book written by James Martin and elite Canon Explorer of Light Jennifer Wu is Photography Night Sky: A Field Guide for Shooting After Dark.