Long before the Eiffel Tower dominated the Paris skyline, there was another building synonymous with the City of Love: Notre-Dame de Paris. The Medieval Catholic Cathedral is located in the heart of Paris, literally. The point Zero for all routes leading to and from the capital are measured from a star in the courtyard. It is not only the city's most celebrated and photographed cathedral but one of the most well-known church buildings in the world. Construction started in 1163 during the age of the crusades, before Genghis Khan rose to power and over 300 years before Christopher Columbus set sail. It would take 183 years before the Cathedral was completed where it has stood as a superb example of French Gothic Architecture ever since.
While commonly referred to as just Notre-Dame, its full name is La cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris as not to confuse it with Notre-Dame de Reims where they crowned the Kings of France or the older, but similarly styled Notre-Dame de Chartres or the many other Notre-Dames scattered across the country. The confusion behind the duplication of the name becomes clear when we realise the translation of "Notre-Dame" is simply "Our Lady".
But where is the best place to photograph of Notre-Dame? We've scouted the area to give you the best views from every angle, from the front and the back, and from near and far. With our guidance, you are sure to get the best image of Notre-Dame.
From the Front
From the West, one gets a unobscured view of the front façade of Notre Dame. The setting sun bathes the façade in a golden glow, so late afternoon is the best time to shoot this direction. One can walk next to the Seine on the lower level of Quai Saint-Michel - Quayside and combine the covered walkway into the shot with the river. Otherwise, use the booksellers along the Quai Saint-Michel - Streetside to add interesting foreground to your image. One of my personal favourite spots to shoot the façade without the people crowing in the square getting in your shot would be from the Petite Pont. Otherwise, if the crowds are not too thick, the Parvis Notre-Dame - Place Jean-Paul II will give you the most unobscured view.
From the Back
Notre-Dame was one the first buildings in the world to use flying buttress in their architecture. Because of the large stained glass windows, the walls are thin and fragile. The buttresses support the upper parts of the wall. If you shoot the Cathedral from the East, your image will show off these architectural elements. Come in the morning to get the golden morning light. Otherwise, it looks impressive at twilight, just after the sun has gone down, just after they have turned on the floodlights, but before the sky is completely black.
Pont de l'Archevêché is the bridge directly South-East of Notre-Dame and gives a good view of the cathedral, although in summer a large tree can obscure part of the view. From the Quai d'Orleans on Île-Saint-Louis, one can get a straight on shot from the back, incorporating the surrounding buildings into the shot. My favourite eastern shot is from the Pont de la Tournelle at twilight. Stepping down to the Quai de la Tournelle - Quayside will reward you with trees you can use to frame your image. There is a free observation platform on the 9th floor of the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) that offers unique aerial views. With a long lens settle yourself at Quai Henri IV - Quayside at sunset to catch the cathedral behind the Pont Sully.
From Up Close
The Parvis Notre-Dame - Place Jean-Paul II is the square directly in front of the cathedral. Shoot up close from here and concentrate on capturing all of the splendid scenes depicted in the stonework. In spring the cherry blossom along the Promenade Maurice Caréme that runs between the cathedral and the river are beautiful. It is also a great spot to capture the southern detail of the building. At the rear of the building, the Square Jean XIII offers some beautiful shots of the flying buttresses. Across the Seine on the south side is the Square René Viviani, where one can capture the gothic masterpieces behind the quaint garden. The south side of the building gets great sunset light, so come in the late afternoon to make it pop.
The Cathedral is a prominent fixture on the Paris skyline and thus looks good from afar as well. Try an observation deck such as the Tour Eiffel or Tour Montparnasse for a top down distance shot. Shooting from along the Seine to the west, such as Pont de la Concorde can also show off Notre Dame among other Paris landmarks, such as the Louvre and Institut de France and the Musée d'Orsay
From the side
To capture the breadth of the building, try shooting Notre-Dame from the side. The Quai de Montabello on the south-side offers unobstructed view, whereas Pont Louis-Philippe on the north-side sees the towers and steeple poke above the skyline of the building on Île-de-la-Cité. From the Pont d'Arcole you can look down the street to see the towers and adds that classic Parisian street element into your shot.
From the Belfry
For a small fee, and a long wait, you can climb the 387 steps to play with Quasimodo in the Belfry. You will be rewarded with one of the most impressive views of Paris. This 360˚ panorama is unparalleled for magnificent views not only of the city but for a unique view of the cathedral itself. The classic shot of the gargoyles gazing into the distance can be a little tricky (but not impossible) to capture in one exposure, so I would suggest some bracketing here to cover your bases. The cost is 10€ for adults and free for those under 26 years of age. Expect long queues; I arrived 30min before they opened and still waited over two hours; I dare to think how long those who came after me waited.
A lot of the view is obscured by a light mesh to avoid anything falling off the side. It can be quite a bother for photographers with a lens larger than a 2€ coin. Some places there are holes ripped open, probably by frustrated photographers before you. If you must shoot through it, just remember to have a large aperture to blur out the actual mesh.
From side streets
Last on my list are hidden vantage points. Look along concealed side streets and steal a view of the towers of the Cathedral. These secret views provide a magical element if they are framed correctly. Try Rue des Chantres on the Île-de-la-Cité, and stay to laugh at how cars try to turn into the tightest passage in Paris. The Rue d'Arcole acts as a beautiful leading line, whereas the view down Rue Valette next to the Panthéon, caught with the right light, will leave a lasting impression.
Notre-Dame de Paris never fails to impress, and being over 850 years old; it is hard to fathom what Paris would have looked like when it first opened its doors. Luckily with recent restoration works, it looks better now than it ever has before. Try to play the light to your advantage when shooting the cathedral. Easterly views in the morning, westerly in the afternoon. Remember to combine a mixture of wide grand shots with close up details to truly capture the essence of this magnificent place. If you would like to learn more, why not take a photography tour with Aperture Tours to perfect your skills with a professional photographer.
Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.