Touring Spain’s Most Photogenic Locations

Flamenco show at El Palacio Andaluz
Flamenco show at El Palacio Andaluz.

Spain – Capturing Your Best Shots

By Donnie Sexton

Seeking out the light at the Mezquita.
Seeking out the light at the Mezquita.

I  joined a small group of fellow photographers traveling with the Mentor Series   to Spain earlier this year.   The advantage to traveling with a photography tour is someone else has dialed in the best locations for shooting and made arrangements to get me there.   This leaves me more time to concentrate on shooting, and not logistics. Spain is full of photogenic locations, and I was there to capture them.

What I know about Spain can be summed up in four words: paella, bullfighting and flamenco dancers.   I did my homework, studied the cities on our itinerary and checked out existing photography to get a sense of what I’ll be aiming for.   Here are my suggestions on capturing the best of Spain in just a few days.

Barcelona

Sagrada familia exterior. One of Barcelona's most famous sites gets better every year.
Sagrada familia exterior. One of Barcelona’s most famous sites gets better every year.

The crème de la crème of photo ops has to be the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, designed by Anthony Gaudi. Construction started in 1882 and continues to this day.  Don’t be put off by the cranes and scaffolding on the exterior – make a beeline for inside.

I’m simply overwhelmed with the jaw-dropping intricacy, beauty and architectural creativity I see in all directions, none more so than the ceilings.   I’m going to walk away with 150+ images. You’ll need a ticket to enter which can be purchased on line for a set time of entrance.

Schedule a late afternoon visit when the light from the stained glass windows dances across the walls in a rainbow of colors, and the crowds have thinned out.  Allow yourself a minimum of one hour –two if you’re going to explore the towers.  No tripods are allowed. Tickets here

Gaudi’s visionary work continues at Park Guell, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   Multi-colored mosaic tile work and stonework covers the benches, walls, facades, and exteriors of the two houses at the entrance.   While there is no shortage of photos ops, it becomes a challenge to work around the ever present crowds.

Park Guell's colorful mix of mosaics.
Park Guell’s colorful mix of mosaics.

Patience usually pays off by finding the scene that grabs your attention and waiting for folks to move out of the way.   If you’re big on details and color, Park Guell will not disappoint. From the park you’ll also get sweeping views of Barcelona.   Tickets can be purchased online, and again are for a specific time of entrance.

A bullfight in Madrid, Spain.
A bullfight in Madrid, Spain.

I stayed at the Catalonia Barcelona Plaza and discovered it has a very inviting rooftop bar/restaurant with a beautiful view of the city.   You can access this terrace even if you’re not a hotel guest.  

Not only are there great city views, but at dusk, you can focus on the city lights and the Magic Fountains in front of Palau Nacional, which put on a royal display and can be captured with a zoom lens.

I prefer hanging out in this casual area versus trying to fight the crowds that are shoulder to shoulder near the fountains.     

Bullfighting

Then we went to Madrid, the capital of Spain, via high speed train from Barcelona in just under three hours.   We had tickets to see the bullfighting, which frankly, isn’t for everyone.   That said, it is a significant part of Spain’s culture. The matadors, in their exquisite costumes, are much exaggerated in their movements as they enter the ring, and engage in the bullfight.

The mosque cathedral in Cordoba, Spain.
The mosque cathedral in Cordoba.

For me, the trick was to get the movement of the bull and matador with his cape swirling in the fight prior to any of the suffering or blood that eventually takes place.   There is good viewing from all seats. It’s always an option to leave if the fighting becomes too uncomfortable.   Tickets can be purchased on line or at the ring.

View a photo gallery of Donnie’s photos from Spain

A short drive from Madrid is the city of Toledo, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Spain’s favorite tourist destinations. The heart of the city is characterized by a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, ideal for capturing that old world charm that Europe is known for.   It’s almost a given that you’ll have people in your shot – work with it!    

At dusk, head a short distance out of town, across the Tagus River and up the hill for breathtaking views of Toledo.   Taxi drivers know this spot, especially if you have googled Toledo photos on your phone and can show them the view you’re going for.

Man of La Mancha

Rowers glide across the Guadalquivir river.
Rowers glide across the Guadalquivir river.

La Mancha is the home of the Don Quixote, the main character in a fictional novel by Miguel de Cervantes, first published in 1605.   It’s about an hour’s drive from Toledo to La Mancha.  

The attraction here are 12 windmills perched on Calderico hill, along with an ancient fortress.   This setting makes for a stunning sunrise; it’s definitely worth getting up and out to be on site before dawn.

From the hill, there are sweeping views of the valley floor and the little village of La Mancha, whose claim to fame comes from both the movie and plays, “The Man of La Mancha” based on Cervantes novel. There is a small fee to visit the windmills, payable at the Visitor Center on the hill.

On day four of this journey, I’m felt blessed with the good company of my fellow travelers, all of whom have bonded quickly.   We’re shared filters, lenses, tips about shooting, snacks on the bus rides, and of course, sangria and tapas after a successful day of shooting.   And, we watched each other’s backs as we wandered the country (Barcelona and Madrid are notorious for pickpockets). If I had done this journey solo, it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

The magic fountains in front of Palau Nacional.
The magic fountains in front of Palau Nacional.

On to Cordoba

Cordoba is another Spanish gem of a city and a good three hour’s drive from Toledo.   Top of my list to explore here was the Mezquita, one of the greatest and largest Islamic mosques, started in 784 AD.   Due to the addition of a Cathedral in its interior structure, this amazing place is now known as the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba.   Like the Sagrada, the interior is jaw-dropping with a seemingly endless array of arches.

Serendipitous moments happened as tiny pockets of light moved across the floors from the stained glass windows. Visitors tend to jump into these little jewels of light to have a photo taken.   I’m taking advantage of this situation by unobtrusively shooting a few shots as well.   Allow yourself a minimum of one hour to explore.   Tickets can be purchased on sight.   

Cap the day with a visit to the ancient Roman Bridge at twilight.   Position yourself on the south side of the bridge, where you’ll get splendid views of the lit arches with the city lights in the illuminating the background.

Fabulous Flamenco

Seville, the birthplace of flamenco, hugs the Guadalquivir River.   Driving time from Cordoba is a little under two hours.   Treat yourself to an hour cruise on the River to get a feel for the city and a glimpse of the local life on the water.   Ask the hotel concierge to help with cruise tickets, as there are several providers.   The dinner/dance flamenco show is worth the price of admission at El Palacio Andaluz.   

Proudly parading matadors in Madrid.
Proudly parading matadors in Madrid.

Photographing can be a challenge depending on where you’re sitting, so grab a few shots at a high shutter speed then sit back and enjoy the whirl of color amid some serious athleticism.   If you’re keen on photographing a dancer up close, check in with one of the local dance studios to see if you can arrange a visit and shoot.

Street Photography

I am highlighting photo tips for the not-to-miss shots in these Spanish cities, but the street scenes can’t be ignored to round out my portfolio of Spain.   The best advice I can give is to take time to wander with eyes wide open.   Look for the flower and vegetable markets, butcher shops, quaint parks, flower box windows, and locals being locals.  

If your photos are for your personal use, there is no need to worry about model releases; common courtesy always dictates asking an individual if you can photograph them. However, if you plan on selling the images, be sure and get a model release.   I always offer to send anyone who allows me to take their photo a copy of the image as a thank you for their cooperation.

It turned out I was spot on in my notions of Spain. I sampled paella a few times, saw the bullfight and tapped my toes to the flamenco dancers.   But I felt like I just touched the tip of the iceberg with these monumental cities; I want to go back and wander, shoot, soak up the Spanish ambiance and sip more sangria.

View a photo gallery of Donnie’s photos from Spain

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Donnie Sexton
Donnie Sexton has moved on from a very long stint as staff photographer and media relations manager for the Montana Office of Tourism. Her path is now focused on feeding her addiction to travel and sharing her journeys in both words and photography. www.donniesexton.com