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JOURNEY: Favourite Places In Italy (Part I) [Article]

LANDSCAPE MASTERCLASS:04 | LOCATION SURVEY

Tuscany & Umbria

 

La Gataia Farmhouse, near Volterra


There's much to love about Italy. I think first and foremost is the food. Or is it the wine? The coffee? The atmosphere? The zest for life? The sense of history?

As an Australian whose country dates back just a little over two centuries, visiting countries in Europe whose towns and buildings go back thousands of years is an extraordinary thrill. The landscape cannot hide the marks of civilisation and I really enjoy including 'the mark of man' in my compositions. In some ways the landscape becomes an 'urban landscape', so the classical landscape composition with a mountain and sky is complimented by a building or a road.

It is interesting how we as 21st century people gravitate to the past, whether photographers or just tourists. We want to see the old, the authentic, but we still want the modern conveniences. Italy gives you this, as do other countries in Europe, but only as the Italians can.

Logisitics

I've travelled through Italy by train and by car, but for photography I think car is the only way (or perhaps a guided photography tour as long as you're guaranteed an understanding driver). There are so many small country roads that weave in and out of valleys, farms and hill towns that you risk missing out on most of the best destinations if you rely on the trains.

The vineyards around San Gimignano are a delight in the early morning mist.

There are plenty of hotels to stay in and this is probably the most sensible approach for a quick tour of Tuscany or Umbria. However, in summer you would be prudent to map out your trip before you leave and book the accommodation in advance. Out of season it's a different matter, assuming the hotels remain open (many close for winter).

The downside of tripping from one hotel to the next without a booking is that you can be looking for a bed when you should be out looking for the light. And because everything is so close, I find it good to stay in a hotel or apartment for several days and use it as a base. As long the area I want to shoot isn't more than an hour away, I find this easier than picking up stumps every morning. And if you’re there in winter, then sunrise and sunset are at very civilised hours. After all, many Italian restaurants don't get going until 10 pm at night, so there's plenty of time for driving back for dinner.

Sometimes there's only one or two power points in the room (they can be old hotels, after all), so a power board can be useful if you have a laptop and a battery charger to use.

Locations

North of Orvieto, south of Florence, east to Perugia, west to Pisa. Tuscany and Umbria are probably the most popular parts of Italy for photography, although not the only areas of course.

Twin farm houses near Villamagna, an hour's drive from San Gimignano.

I spent three weeks in San Gimignano, a walled hill-town with some serious towers which from which they poured boiling oil onto their attackers. While this is undoubtedly true, the town had dozens of these towers and it seemed to be more a matter of 'keeping up with the Joneses' with each family outdoing the last with a taller tower. Today fewer than a dozen towers remain but they give San Gimignano a distinctive character.

Immediately around San Gimignano are lots of narrow roads winding through vineyards and the town itself makes a great feature for landscapes. Early autumn mornings can be misty, late afternoon sunlight is wonderful.

Further a field small towns like Volterra punctuate the horizon, while further a field still you'll find Lucca, Sienna and Florence. Larger and not as quaint as San Gimignano, they are great for a visit but a challenge to include in the landscape. I find the roads to and from these places more interesting, where smaller towns, trees or even crypts make more interesting composition. Of course, when you visit Italy you'll probably photograph subjects other than landscapes as well.

South of San Gimignano towards Rome is Orvieto. If you're looking for a tax deductible reason to go to Italy, there's an annual photography convention held in a wonderful old palace. Add in lots of exhibitions and seminars for a great few days, and the town and surrounds are yet another sensational destination.

Early morning light on a trip to somewhere else. Val de Este.

I think part of my attraction to Orvieto and its surrounds is the architecture and many of my images were taken inside the walls as well as out.

On one trip to Italy, there were two photos that had really caught my attention. One was of a small shrine on a hillside, the other of a group of trees.

Cappella di Vitaleta

I found the shrine at Cappella di Vitaleta. I'd worked this much out from a guide book, so it was just a matter of driving around looking for it. Funnily enough I found the shrine before I realised it, tucked away on a little back road. The angle that I settled on was from a major highway that passed the shrine on the other side.

I returned to this shrine three times. It took me about an hour and a quarter driving each way to reach it, plus extra time because invariably I found something else to shoot as well. Unfortunately, on all three occasions the light was atrocious. To create the photo you see here, I was sitting in the back seat of the car with the window half down, my lens pointing towards the shrine. The wind was so strong it was hard enough to stand up straight, let alone set up a tripod. I sat in the car and when the wind relented a tad, fired the shutter and hoped for the best. Later a little Photoshop helped resurrect the wonderful colours that were there when the sun shone, if only it did!

The other photo was of a group of trees. This photo was everywhere in airports and tourist shops, on billboards and in calendars. The trees were surrounded by some wonderfully undulating hills, with nothing else behind. Simple and elegant, yet no one I asked really knew where the trees were.

I continued asking around and after about three weeks I found someone who gave me a clue. It took me half a day to drive there and when I did, I found the trees on one side of a four lane highway cutting through the undulating hills and the photography vantage point on the other side. I was so disappointed I didn't even take a photo – to have done so wouldn’t have been re-interpreting something, rather just copying the only angle that was really there.

The funny thing is that ever since chasing these trees, I have been on the lookout for a similar clump wherever I travel in the world – from Australia and New Zealand to America and Europe. I'm still looking.

One of the trees I did like on the way to Cappella di Vitaleta. Nothing like the clump of trees I was searching for, however.

This trip to Italy was also the first time I shot digitally for travel. Using Canon's EOS 1Ds with its 11-megapixel sensor, I would return each evening to review my work, and sometimes I would go out again the next day to improve on what I had achieved. A brand new 6x9cm Arca Swiss outfit was used but twice in three months, so smitten was I with the digital experience.

I guess I have had a lot of fun in Italy, especially Tuscany and Umbria. And now I've been looking through my files, I must talk a bit more about the north of Italy – but that will have to wait for another MasterClass.

A popular landscape image. It could almost be anywhere in Tuscany - San Gimignano afternoon.
 

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