It was Christmas Day, brunch was over, presents were opened, and little did I know my best present of the day was still to come.

Earlier in the week, I had decided to spend Christmas afternoon photographing the incredible San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson for the very first time. Although it was still raining as the afternoon approached, thankfully I decided to make the hour drive.  Just as I arrived at the Mission, the rain stopped and skies began to clear. At that moment I realized I was about the get a perfect present: Christmas Day at the San Xavier Mission.

About the San Xavier Mission:

San Xavier Mission is a national historic landmark and the oldest church in Arizona.  It was originally built in 1692 on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation just south of Tucson, Arizona by Father Kino. Although the original church was destroyed, it was rebuilt in 1783. The Mission was named in honor of Francis Xavier who was a cofounder of the Society of Jesus.  


The Mission is nestled in the Southern Arizona mountains on the banks of the Santa Cruz River and is often referred to as the White Dove of the desert. Here it’s beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture stands out from the surrounding desert terrain beckoning all to visit.

Photographing the Mission:

Photographing the San Xavier Mission had been on my bucket list for many years.  In fact I had plans to visit the Mission during the winter of 2019 when RV repairs forced me to alter my route. In hindsight, everything worked out perfectly as I could not have picked a more perfect time to photograph the Mission than on Christmas Day. 

Best Time to Photograph:

Since the mission faces south it is best photographed during winter months when the sun is in southern skies.  During this time, morning and afternoon photography both offer good lighting. However, to avoid the crowds, I recommend photographing just after dawn and just before sunset. In summer months the sun is too far north to light the front of the mission.

For those who have the time, I recommend photographing the Mission both in the morning and afternoons.  I was there only in the afternoon as shown the the following images:

Front Views:

Although the front can also be photographed with a wide angle lens, the amount of people and cars in the foreground did not produce any satisfactory images during my visit.  If you happen to visit on less crowded times, take a few steps back, and use a wide angle lens for a different view of the Mission.

Photographing the Mission from the East:

Although I would have preferred to capture this view in the morning hours, the sun being in the southern sky still made this image work.  I would definitely come back in the morning hours and spend considerable time photographing the mission from the east. 

The Chapel

There is the tiny Chapel on the west side of the Mission.  Since the Chapel faces east, it is best photographed in the early morning hours. Consider including the entrance gate and walkway to add depth to the image.

Photographing the Mission from the West:

Photographing the Mission from the western side in the late afternoon not only provides beautiful light but also a view of the dome.

Interior Views:

Despite Christmas being a perfect time to photograph the exterior of the mission, it is not the best time to photograph the interior of the church. Decorations and tinsel strings were hung everywhere making it impossible to capture any unobstructed views of the mission’s beautiful ceilings or nooks.

Isolating a Tower:


As I mentioned above, it had been raining most of the day and discovered this one remaining puddle.


Despite the Mission’s beauty, I found it challenging to photograph. The following set of images illustrated just one of several issues a photographer will need to consider when photographing the church.

Getting the entire Mission in a photograph is difficult. The first photo was taken standing almost directly in front of the Mission. I felt the image appeared lopsided and heavily weighted to the left due to the long flat building extending from the right side.

Next, I moved to the left (west) side of the church to photograph it with only slightly better results.  


A visit to the San Xavier Mission is well worth it any time of year.  However for photographers and those interested in seeing the Mission with beautiful light shining on it’s entrance, visit during winter months. Arrive at sunrise or dawn to avoid the crowds and photograph the east side of the Mission. Come back later in the day and photograph the Mission from the west side and stay until sunset.  

While in the Tucson area, consider including a trip to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area to view over 20,000 sandhill cranes: The Sandhill Cranes of Whitewater Draw.

Thanks for viewing in my little Christmas Day adventure.  See you next week for another Road Trip Friday destination.


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