An blog post on one of the most incredible architectural delights in this world, "The Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family," more commonly known as La Sagrada Familia does not disappoint! If you are a photographer, this is a feast of visual delights, as this location has innumerable things to photograph. You will literally spend hours and hours photographing this famous landmark in the middle of Barcelona!

Known formally as “The Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, “ La Sagrada Familia as it is known commonly, is the creation of the Barcelonan architect Antoni Gaudí. Located in Barcelona (see my previous blog post about Barcelona here), it is a prime landmark for the photographer.

Gaudi, famous for other buildings and projects in and around Barcelona, such as Parque Güell, took over construction and design from Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, who began building the basilica in 1882.

Originally designed as a neo-gothic building, Gaudí changed the design of the church to a more modern design he felt was more monumental and innovative.  At this point in the construction of the basilica, only the crypts had been completed, thus allowing him to undergo a complete redesign that is like no other basilica I have ever visited. Versed in the Modernist movement, the basilica became his canvas upon which he designed his magus opus. 

The basis of Gaudí's design is the Latin cross which forms the basic floor plan complete with soaring towers resenting the apostles, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. The central tower, the tower of Jesus Christ will be 172 meters tall when completed sometime in 2026.

The building was consecrated by Pop Benedict XVI in 2010 and the building was elevated to the status of a basilica. Often referred to as a cathedral, it is not technically as it is not the seat of a bishop.

There are three major facades in the design that Gaudí developed, the Nativity Façade completed during Gaudí’s lifetime, the Passion Façade completed recently, and the Glory Façade currently under construction.

The Nativity Façade

A view of the Nativity Facade of La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain.

The nativity Façade was built first as it is more “traditional” in design than is the Passion Façade. The Nativity Façade is complete with scenes from the Nativity that form the story of Jesus’ birth. The carvings are more traditional, and represent a more pleasant feeling of the basilica. This facade is quite busy, and is replete with Christian symbols of the Nativity of Jesus.

Scenes of the Holy Family and the shepherds and angels flesh out the façade, giving it a joyful and hopeful feeling.

A section of the Nativity Facade showing the Holy Family.

The towers above the façade are caped with the word HOSANNA and EXCELSIS in colored tiles.

The top of one of the many towers at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. Antionio Gaudi enjoyed thinking outside of the box, and so decorated the tops of the towers with colorful tile mosaics.

This façade is replete with detail, and photographing it is difficult as there are a lot of possibilities available to the photographer. Because of the level of detail, it makes sense to take more close-up shots of the scenes presented on the panels. Use of a telephoto lens will be beneficial to this end.

The Passion Façade

A detailed view of the Passion Facade at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The statues are rough hewn suggesting the pain and obvious nature of Christ's Passion.

The Passion Façade, on the other hand, is more stark and “dark” in its feel. The figures are much more angular and lack detail, giving the façade a sense of moodiness and darkness that if diametrically different from the light and joyful feeling of the Nativity façade.

Graphic statue of the scourging of Jesus at the base of the Passion Facade at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The Passion Facade was designed to be purposefully cubistic and rough denoting the pain and the obvious nature of the passion of Jesus.

The scenes of the Passion Façade depict the story of the passion of Christ, from the betrayal in the garden to the scourging and trial to the crucifixion itself.

The scenes on the Passion Façade seemed to me to be easier to photograph as they are simpler in their depiction and are more separated from the other scenes on the façade, making it easier to isolate the various scenes in the frame.

The Crucifixion statuary of the Passion Facade at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

This separation between the scenes lends to the starkness of the façade, which fits the feel of the passion.

Of note are the doors leading into the church from this façade, these doors are a focal point that provide some photograph opportunity. Both the right and left Gospel Door can provide some interest. In this photo, one can see the name Jesus and the acrostic (which adds up 33, the number of years Jesus lived). There are number of vignettes available for the photographer on the doors themselves.

One of the doors at the passion facade entrance with Jesus' name and the number square at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

The Apse

The doors from either the Nativity or the Passion facades leads one to the apse, the central cross section of the Latin Cross, and the location of the high altar, and the canopy or “baldachin.” The canopy is not like others you would find in basilicas such as St Peter’s. The canopy in La Sagrada Familia is free floating, hanging above the high altar.

A view of the central aspe and Canopy above the high altar at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

This canopy is decorated with vines and grapes and stocks of wheat, an allusion to the bread and wine used at the Eucharist. The canopy has lights around the perimeter, which adds to the overall light feeling of the piece. Of course, there is the Latin cross with a crucified Jesus. But the design gives one the sense of a Jesus not long destined to hang on the cross.

The beautiful and inspiring canopy above the high altar at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

This work of art and worship devotional is a great piece to photograph. You can walk around the altar area to get different views of the canopy, and you will be richly rewarded with some great photographs.

As you walk around the high altar area getting a photograph of the canopy, don’t forget to look straight up. You will see a sight that is unique among all basilicas and cathedrals. A design comprised of columns, pillars and ceiling structures that evoke the feeling of being in a forest.

This is the feeling that Gaudi desired to evoke, the feeling of looking up into a forest canopy. His uses of geometric forms provide the ability to create such a unique interior. Gaudí’s use of paraboloids, hyperboloids, helicoids, and ellipsoids provide the unique architectural display before you. I am not a mathematician, nor am I really into geometry, but the results of all that math and geometric shapes are just simply stunning. And fun to photograph!

The top of the area above the high altar at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The columns represent trees and the joining of all the columns represent the forest canopy.

This is a photographer’s dream, especially if you are an architectural photographer, as this design is like no other. Even if you are not an architectural photographer, you will still be able to get some amazing photographs.

The Central and Side Naves

And as you walk down the central nave, continue to look up. You will be rewarded with more of the unique design of the Gaudi as the columns and the vaulting. And the light is unique, as you are getting both sunlight streaming into the sanctuary as well as vault lit light from the light fixtures embedded in the vault.

To get the lights to look like stars, I had to shoot the photograph at f/16, which meant of course shooting wide open and with a high ISO. But it can be done, and the results are fantastic!

Another spectacular view of the intricate stonework of the ceiling along the central nave at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. The ceilings represent the forest canopy, each column represents a tree reaching up toward the heavens.

Along the side naves, there are stained glass windows which are pretty. I didn’t spend much time taking photographs of them as I only had 24mm as my widest focal length, and it wasn’t enough to really capture the stained glass. But as I walked down the nave towards the apse, I found that the structure holding the stained glass was side lit by the stained glass, and provided some beautiful and abstract photographs.

Moving to the side so that the colored glass windows disappear, one is left with the colored light reflecting off the stone support for the windows. The beautiful colors and angle lends for an abstract sense of the light and colors of the interior of the sanctuary at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

If one was to head out of the Nave via the Glory Facade (under construction), one meets a large doorway with words of the "Our Father" prayer of Jesus in multiple languages. This doorway is worth the stop to try to capture. Remember, the basilica is full of visitors, and so one must be patient to find a time to be able to get this shot without people posing before the massive doorway.

The Our Father door at the Nativity Facade at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.


As you walk around the basilica, you will find that there are a number of other photographic interests other than the two completed facades. Around the outside of the apse, for instance, there are a number of interesting creatures – lizards and snails and the like – along the exterior support columns that are fun to photograph. Even with the lack of color (the place is a feast of color), you can get some nice looking black and whites.

In a nod to more gothic sensibilities, a lizard is crawling down the side of the building at the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

Photographic Tips

You can easily spend a full day here. There are just that many possibilities for the photographer! Whether it is photographing a scene from one of the two complete facades, or the caps of the towers, the vaults within, or even the doors, there is plenty to photograph.

I found that I was either at my most wide, at 24mm, or around 100mm. The canopy and the side lights of the stained glass windows, as well as the doors were typically shot using telephoto range of between 100mm and 240mm. And the interior vaults and some of the façade were shot at 24mm.

There were times I wished I had my 16-35mm, as I could have gotten more into the scene, such as the stained glass walls which really demanded a wide angle lens that I didn’t have.

Even with all the light, the interior shots still required wide open aperture and high ISO to get the shot. Due to the height of the vaults, the wide open aperture did not prevent me from getting some excellent photographs.

To learn more about the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

Official Website for the Basilica de La Sagrada Familia: https://www.sagradafamilia.org/en/

Barcelona.de Website (a great source of information on things to do in Barcelona): https://www.barcelona.de/en/barcelona-sagrada-familia.html

Visit Barcelona Website (another great source of information on things to do in Barcelona): https://www.barcelonaturisme.com/wv3/en/page/582/basilica-of-la-sagrada-familia.html

Some of my favorite photographs from La Sagrada Familia

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A little about me . . .

Back in 1982, my Air Force roommate was in desperate need of some cash, and he had a camera. And I was in the market for a camera as I had TDY (Temporary Duty) orders for Cyprus and was looking for a good camera to take with me. So over some beers and some negotiations with my roommate (and a few hundred dollars later), I found that I had become the owner of a brand spanking new Canon AE-1 camera with an assortment of lens, including a Canon 50mm, a 35mm lens, as well as a telephoto lens.

Fast forward to today, and I am now an owner of a Canon 5D Mark II (looking to upgrade, but can't decide on my next camera) and a bunch of Canon glass and I am primarily a landscape and travel photographer. Yea, that means that I get up before the sun rises and am out after the sun sets. Makes for interesting times!

Thank you for joining me on this photographic journey and hope to hear from you!


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