The much-anticipated highlight of day 17 of my Paris photography adventure was the visit to the Catacombes. I got there at 8:30 for a 10 am opening, and I was glad I did. By the time the Catacombes opened, the line had literally wrapped around the block and then some. Those who arrived late on the day before had a 4 hour wait.
I highly recommend the audio tour. There is so much history to the Catacombes that the narration will significantly enhance your experience. There are guided tours as well, but as a photographer, you will want the freedom to explore at your own pace.
I’m glad they only let in 200 people at a time, because it was surprisingly uncrowded once I got inside. There was plenty of time to set up shots and wait for others to move out of my field of view.
A fast lens is really crucial for this shoot because flashes and tripods are forbidden inside. My aperture was wide open at f/1.2, but I still had to use high ISOs of 6400 and even 12,800.
The descent into the Catacombes starts with a deep foreboding descent down a spiral staircase, followed by long hallways of ancient limestone dripping with moisture. Be sure to bring a jacket. Then you will enter the crypts themselves, and it is truly a sight to behold.
Seemingly endless rows of stacks of skulls and bones extend as far as the eye can see. It is estimated that the remains of approximately 6 million bodies are buried here, including many who died around the time of the French Revolution.
The dim lighting in the crypts creates some interesting shadows. Due to the limited depth-of-field of a wide open aperture, my compositions had to be framed accordingly, such as focusing on one skull at an acute angle and leaving everything else blurred out.
The next thing on my agenda was a photographic quest for a dawn shot of the Sacre Coeur Basilica. I used my Helios app to try and identify a location where I would be able to see the sun rising over the cathedral. The only problem was that while I could identify a location on the map, I couldn’t be sure if the view would be obscured by trees or buildings. The ideal location for this particular week would have been atop the Arc de Triomphe, but as with the other tall structures in Paris, the Eiffel Tower and the Montparnasse Tower, access is closed in the early morning. I ended up at the Monceau Park, a beautiful park, where Parisians were relaxing during their lunch hour.
An unobtrusive way of snapping these shots was to sit inside and aim my camera through the window at unsuspecting subjects outside.
I eventually went up to the Sacre Coeur Basilica itself to see if I could find the line-of-sight location I was looking for. The only location I could find were in the hills on the outskirts of Paris. I decided to leave that shot for another trip, but I did get a few more shots at Monmartre. Caricature artists were in full swing.
Unlike the Sacre Coeur Basilica, photography is allowed in the adjacent Church of St Pierre de Montmartre, and there are some excellent photographic subjects here. I am always attracted to light sources, and there are some beautiful candle arrangements here.
There are a number of statues, including one of St. Denis, the headless clergyman I had spotted in front of Notre Dame over a week ago. Denis was the Bishop of Paris in the 3rd century who was martyred during the Christian persecution of that time. As legend would have it, he picked his head up after being decapitated and subsequently walked six miles, preaching the entire way!
There are also some beautiful stained glass windows. I positioned myself so the sun was shining like a halo above this angel’s head. If you’re ever going to try a stunt like this, be sure to use the direct view feature on the back of the camera. You can cause some serious blindness staring directly at the sun through your viewfinder, which won’t help your photography career.
I have only 2 days left in Paris, and tomorrow I will explore downtown.