The Lumix Diaries Italy – Final Update June 9th
The Lumix Diaries Italy is my first of what will be an ongoing diary/journal of sorts detailing my travels with the Panasonic Lumix camera system. This first installment will chronicle our Natural Exposures Invitational Photo Tour to Italy. Currenly all of my travel photography is now shot virtually exclusively with the smaller, lighter Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic. My first shoot with nothing but the Lumix system took place in Cuba a few weeks ago and I was thrilled with the results. If you do a search here in the blog for Micro Four Thirds or Lumix you will find many Blog posts detailing my nearly five year affair with the Lumix system that all began with the Lumix GF1. Amazingly, I never thought there would be any system that would replace my beloved Nikons I’ve been shooting for over 30 years, but alas all things change and in the fast paced world of technology, I’ve decided to shoot much of my work with these newer, smaller, easier to carry Lumix cameras.
May 27, 2014
We arrived in Florence, Italy yesterday afternoon, the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany and of the province of Florence. I’m writing this from my hotel room; my wife is out doing some exploring. Jet lag is a constant foreign issue for me, and we always try to get to an overseas destination at least a couple of days early so I’m not dragging my backside for the first several days.
As our jet dropped down through the clouds, the beauty of the surrounding countryside was breathtaking. I was napping on the approach when Tanya gave me a nudge. In my sleepy stupor I looked out the window to see the beautiful rolling hills, the verdant greens of summer and segragated farm lands, fields and vineyards of the magnificent Italian country side. My glazed over eyes, blurry from over a dozen hours of air travel shot open and the brain went into capture mode. “Camera, where’s my camera?”, I thought. “Tanya, where’s your GM1?” I asked. She pulled it from her travel bag, I flipped the switch, deployed the new 12-32mm lens and began pushing the shutter button. I didn’t get as many images as I would have liked but I did get one that saved the memory. This morning at about 4:00am, I Googled “Small Aircraft Rental Florence Italy”. I’m now hoping to hear from the local flying club to see if I can get back in the sky for a better shoot than what I clumsily captured in what seems like a virtual dream. Stay tuned.
May 29, 2014
It’s been a couple of days of R&R which is always the way we plan our trips overseas. Last evening I was able to find a small aircraft for an aerial flight over the beautiful city and countryside of Florence. The weather was perfect. Skies were mostly clear which allowed for the gorgeous late evening light we all hope for.
The magic of the Internet provided me with the name and contact information of a young pilot/flight instructor who was able to help us out. He had available a Cessna 172 which is perfect for aerial photography. We agreed that 6:30pm would be the ultimate time to meet so we could be in the air by 7:00pm. The sun would be setting at 8:45pm and an hour before sunset would be the most optimum time for photography. I made sure to ask if the Cessna’s window opened and he assured me it did. It was all coming together – soon I would be back in the air over this beautiful valley in the heart of Tuscany.
Fredrico is a young man or at least relatively speaking. He stood about five foot eight, had a slight build, wore aviator glasses and a well trimmed beard. “Looks like a pilot to me,” I thought. We walked over to the plane, opened the doors and climbed inside. I took the co-pilot’s chair and buckled in as Fredrico went through his preflight checks. As he studies his gauges for safety, I did my preflight inspection of the window. Yes indeed, it did open, but only 4-5 inches. Attached to the left side was a three inch metal strut, that holds the pane from flipping all the way out. Eight inches out and stuck to the bottom side of the wing was a piece of Velcro. My hopes rose for a wide open shooting hole. We just need to remove that thin, flat, bar. I told Fredrico about my desire to jettison this simple but structurally unimportant piece of the airplane. “Unfortunately, that can only be done by a mechanic”, he said. I figured. Any time something needs to be done to an aircraft, government regs make it more or less impossible unless someone official (aka Mechanic) is around to make it happen. Unless of course you’re in Alaska. Just about anything is possible in Alaska, but that’s a story for another time.
The engine roared to life and we sat waiting for the engine to warm to preflight levels. The airport runway in Florence is short and at one end is a sizable, semi-mountain. (I live in the Rockies so it really wasn’t much more than a descent foothill). However, it’s large enough to explain the difficulties we experienced when landing on our commercial flight from Amsterdam. Our touchdown was rough and the small jet was seriously buffeted by winds as we made our approach. The difficult entry into the Florence valley explained why two of our guests were diverted to the Bologna, Italy airport due to high winds. Fredrico informed me that larger jets can only land in one direction and if the tail winds are strong, it can make getting on the ground with a looming mountain ahead, relatively difficult.
Fredrico headed the small Cessna 172 toward the runway. He spoke to the tower, lined the small plane up and throttled the power. Minutes later we were floating over the beautiful valley of Florence, Italy. As we climbed to around 2,000 feet I checked my gear. For this shoot I had brought two Lumix GH4’s. One was fitted with the new Nocticron 42.5mm F/1.2 and the other with the 35-100mm F/2.8. I normally would have the 12-35mm F/2.8 on one body but with the reduced shooting holes, wide angle views were out of the question. Thankfully, with today’s stabilized lenses, the mid-range to telephoto zooms aren’t a problem. Some of my favorite aerial images have been shot with the new Nikkor 80-400mm which would normally be too much glass when photographing from a moving platform with wings. The higher ISO’s we can now shoot at and the stabilized lenses have given us new perspectives that weren’t possible before the most current lens and camera technology.
May 30, 2014
It’s a quiet morning here in land of Cinque Terre. After yesterday’s lengthy exploration of the the Monterosso, which included the beautiful seaside village of Riomaggiore, most of our guests have taken the morning off to enjoy the tranquility of our surroundings at the Porto Roco Hotel. The morning is cool at 54 degrees. Thunder is rumbling over the the Mediterranean Sea, the coastal cliffs of ebony glisten with freshly fallen rain.
Our excursion to Riomaggiore began with the introduction to our hired photo guide Marco Pacini. Marco is a wonderful Italian photographer who grew up in the little village of Monterosso. Marco leads us to the train for a ride of less than five minutes, our first stop of the day at Riomaggiore. One thing for certain in Italy, you WILL get exercise. We mention in our trip description that Italy can be somewhat physically demanding. There is good reason why overweight Europeans are few and far between. Riomaggiore is either up or down and for whatever reason it felt like mostly up. Exercise is a good thing in a land where the food is some of the best I have ever eaten.
On our three to four hour walk around this enchanting seaside village, we came across an infinite number of photo opportunities. There was the old fisherman painting his storage shed, a local worker using a hand trowel to repair tiles on a sidewalk, a beautiful older Italian lady heading to market, landscapes with boats of all colors as well as interesting faces, the town market and general daily life in an Italian village on the edge of the sea.
For my days shoot I used mostly my GX7 with the 12-35mm F/2.8 as well as one GH4. The GX7 had the 12-35mm attached while the GH4 sported my favorite sleeper lens the 45-175mm. The 45-175 is such an amazing range, so small, so light, I forget it’s even there. Is it as sharp as my 12-35mm F/2.8? Not quite, but it’s not far off. Oh how I dream that Panasonic updates this little gem to the same specs as the razor sharp 12-35mm F/2.8. Keep in mind that in the Micro Four Thirds world all lenses are multiplied X2. Thus, the 45-175 becomes a 90-350mm zoom. The compressed look when shooting at the long end of this lens is superb. I love capturing cityscapes where the telephoto compresses the houses. A good example of this technique is in the image above and below.
The GX7 is my favorite for getting close to locals with interesting faces. Using the back LCD to view my subject is a huge advantage on these mirrorless cameras. Many photographers don’t like looking through anything but the traditional, press your face to the back of the camera viewfinder. I find keeping my eyes, where my subjects can see them, gives me more realistic facial expressions, more honesty, and less intimidation in my images of people I’ve only just met.
Our morning turns into afternoon and we take time for traditional pizza in another little village up the coast in Cornigilia. After too much nourishment we head in to the streets for more photography. There are too many tourists and I make a note to self that mornings are always less crowded.
The day ends back in Monterosso, at Marco’s family’s quaint, Italian eatery known as Tistorante Pasquale Apertivo. Here we met his mother and father, his mom put on a Pesto making demonstration that you normally would only see on the Food Network. It wasn’t only interesting but it was mouth watering tasty.
Our last shoot of the day is from the trail half way up the hill to our hotel of Porto Roca. Here it’s a fabulous vantage point to look down on the little village of Monterosso where the warm, glow of city contrasts beautifully with the blue light of dusk. Blue light happens at the time of the day we most typically refer to as either dawn or dusk. It’s an amazing time to shoot, especially city scapes where the warmth of the village lights contrast beautifully with the tranquil blues of the impending night.
With blue light photography a tripod is essential. It is possible to crank the ISO and shoot hand held but for most optimum images, a sturdy support is the best way to go. To that end, my favorite light, small, but sturdy travel tripod is the the miniature Gitzo GT1542T Series 1. It’s super light, yet plenty sturdy, especially with the smaller Panasonic cameras. The one I’ve linked to above does not come with the very small and very well built Gitzo head, but the head is listed on the same web page.
This miniature ball head has the old fashioned screw in base, minus a quick release. I actually don’t use quick release plates on this tripod since it’s so easy to attach the camera. The small size of the Lumix cameras and their lack of weight makes a quick release unnecessary in my view. Quick release plates are just one more thing to add weight and bulk to a system I want as small and light as possible.
We shoot for about 30 minutes then make our way up to our hotel. It was a grand day capturing the essence of the Italian coast.
May 31, 2014
The day began with rain. Our plan to photograph the sunrise was dashed. Many of our guests took the morning off and enjoyed the beautiful ambiance of our Porto Roca hotel. I spent the morning editing images and catching up with my writing. Our plans for the day included heading down to the little seaside village of Manarola with Marco, our newfound photo friend. He enthusiastically offered to join us, wanting to to share more of his interesting photo locations.
After lunch a small group of us met Marco at the train station. He reminds us to watch for pickpockets. It seems the trains in Italy are full young people just ambitious enough to leave their train seats and dig through your pants or purse, grabbing whatever they find. Any more work than that and it becomes too difficult. It’s been very interesting to experience such extremes in work ethic.
Most of our contacts with the tourism personnel have been very positive, but there have been some less than favorable interactions with those who obviously aren’t enjoying their daily grind. Beware of the only two cabbies in town that service Porto Roca hotel. You can’t miss them. One you would swear was working as a model for McDoanlds when they developed the Ronald McDonald character. He obviously got fired for a bad attitude and is now driving a miniature car in Monterosso. Both he and his buddy are probably in their early 30’s. His cab driving associate wears silver earrings, and they both obviously missed the Italian tourism class on public relations. However, don’t make them mad, which isn’t hard to do, since they’re THE only cabs in town. Got to love lack of competition.
The polar opposite of these two guys is the middle-aged man who drives a miniature white van not much larger than an oversized wheel barrow. He moved our luggage from the hotel to our bus down at city center. Very mice man who laughed, smiled. worked hard, and appreciated when I gave him a hand. The other two, NOT……. Ok, I got that off my chest.
The train station at Manarola is two stops down the tracks. Marco, our photo guide, is between two passenger rail cars, mashed in with a mob of young people who look like the proverbial European backpackers. I’m standing with NE Explorer Sue Roehl just inside the train car, looking out through the doors toward Marco. Marco is a dark haired, handsome, middle-aged man who stands something close to six foot three. He’s relatively fit and definitely larger than most Italian guys I’ve seen. He’s a good two heads above the average young person he’s crushed in next to.
Marco looks up and his eyes catch mine. He mouths the word “pickpockets” as he gently throws his head back, pointing with his chin behind me. I look to my right and sure enough there is a young Italian guy. It’s obvious he’s no tourist. He’s looking around with his eyes at chest and waste level, unlike the wide-eyed youngsters and middle-aged tourists with expressions of excitement and fun on their faces. I’ve got a solid grip on my camera bag. I’m mentally feeling my wallet and passport zipped in my Columbia trousers. All is good but I’m certainly on high alert. These two boys stay close for about five minutes then suddenly they move down the train car and take the seats they had come from when we boarded. Obviously no easy targets. The train stops and we disembark.
We make our way to the top of Manarola – first by foot, and eventually we catch a bus that takes us to the roadway above the city. Here we had great views of this little fishing village, vineyards, and olive plantations in the foreground framing the colorful buildings in the distance. Red poppies are blooming as well as other flowers that remind me of fireweed. We need to rush due to our bus and train schedule. It was a nice view but not great photo opportunities since it was in the bright, white light of middle day.
The day ends with a wonderful boat ride along the coast. It was a beautiful evening with cool winds, a few sprinkles and the added bonus of a rainbow. For three hours we puttered up the coastline with opportunities to photograph all the wonderful villages we had visited earlier in the day by foot.
Our time in Cinque Terre was coming to an end. These little fishing villages are a bit off the beaten track of most tourists route in Italy but the breathtaking view and fabulous coastline was certainly worth the drive. We end the evening with a beautiful view of the gorgeous city of Vernazza.
June 1, 2014
Our group convenes in the lobby of Hotel Porto Roca. I’m heading to the bottom of the hill to shepherd our luggage to the waiting bus. My two favorite taxi drivers are gathering our Explorers and I’ve hitched a ride with my favorite driver in the tiny white van. We’re off to the popular tourist destination of Siena which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its cuisine, art, museums, and medieval cityscape. We wander the village shooting photos and end up in an alluring little cafe for lunch. As usual, the food is superb.
Shooting on the streets is a lot of fun. So many faces, some old, some new, some happy to smile, others not. Explorer Fred Kurtz is a natural at getting people to smile, but there was one beautiful older Italian lady who wasn’t buying his down-home midwestern sales pitch. I stepped in and between the two of us Freddy finally got the wonderful image below. Nice job Freddy.
We leave the hustle and bustle of Siena and make our way to the spectacular Italian villa known as Relais San Bruno. It’s late afternoon when we arrive as the sun is casting its golden light across the landscape. A little exploration finds me on a high spot above the estate looking down on one of the many Tuscan valleys. I’m surrounded by olive trees, and there’s doves cooing in the pines and a cock pheasant is crowing from somewhere further up the hill. Cinque Terre was beautiful, but this is the Italy I was most excited to experience.
We’re the only people here. The entire place is ours for the next two days. A huge, almost Olympic-sized pool awaits anyone interested in cooling down. High on the hill behind the estate is the city of Montepulciano and it looks like it might be a good subject for a “Blue Light” shoot this evening.
Dusk descends, we shoot some pictures of the castle-like structures on the hill and end the evening with a Tuscan barbecue of beef, pork, sausages and lamb. It’s a short evening as we all retire to our villas to rest for an early morning.
June 2, 2014
It’s a short night as we rise at 5:00am. Good light always comes early morning or late evening and though there are a half dozen sleepy faces, everyone’s excited for the day of landscape shooting in Tuscany. Our mini bus pulls away from the gates of Relais San Bruno heading for a dirt road our guide is excited to share. The beauty of Tuscany is hard to describe and though I had seen many striking pictures, like so many visions in your mind, it’s difficult to appreciate until you see it for yourself.
Italy’s topography is much more irregular than I ever imagined. Not really mountains as I experience each day in Montana, at last not here in the Tuscany region. Here the land is rather rounded, large knolls and humps on the land that remind me of the rolling foothills of the Rockies. Equally impressive is Tuscany’s abundance of crop production. It’s obviously a major Italian food producing region that I’m told is deeply involved with what is known as Agritourism.
Agritourism is the production of food and wine with traditional, organic agriculture techniques, prepared in a time-honored manner, under the guidance of a local farmer at his or her estate turned in to a Bed and Breakfast. All of it with long term sustainability of the family farm in mind. I could not describe Relais San Bruno more perfectly.
Exploring the backroads we found many of the iconic images this region is known for. Our hopes to photograph acres and acres of poppies went unmet though we did find a small patch here and there.
Apparently there has been substantial rain recently and the local consensus was that the soupy weather had changed the poppy’s bloom cycle. Even so we had some other glorious red flowering plants, along with another sporting yellows. Jack, our young, enthusiastic bus driver had no issues with pointing our relatively small 20 passenger bus down the narrow, graveled roads that wound throughout the meandering countryside.
There were photos galore including old barbwire fences, sheep grazing with their guard dogs, white puffy clouds hanging in blue above the distant hills, shafts of light streaking across the waving beards of young wheat stalks and yes, the iconic, individual, lonesome Mediterranean Cypress tree – sometimes one, maybe two and potentially more when guarding the lane leading to a Tuscan farmers home.
We shot the golden light of morning, ate lunch at a Tuscan villa, returned to our base and then repeated the same in the afternoon. It was a fabulous day in a land I’ve only seen pictures of, but now we have our own.
As I’m writing this we’re headed for Sorrento with a stop at the famous ruins of Pompei. I’ve been to Pompei once a few years back and though it is truly one hell of a tourist trap, it’s also, without a doubt, simply amazing. Pompei is a land lost in time, an opportunity to visit the past. The light is harsh so I grab the GX7 body and my 12-35mm lens. I don’t plan on doing a lot of photography although there are some wonderful images within the ruins.
June 4, 2014
Sorrento is another beautiful town but my goodness it’s crowded. I sometimes ask myself, “what in the heck are you doing amongst so much humanity?” This is a common question that pops in to my brain the past few years since I’ve decided to do more cultural photography. My photographic life for nearly three decades has been avoiding people, shooting in some of the most remote and distant locations I could find. Sorento’s the equivalent to Pluto when compared to my exclusive days of wildlife and nature. But I love the excitement, the challenge of the photography and I honestly think there is a plan, buried deep, somewhere within my subconscious. I know I’m searching for an answer as to how humans and nature are going to coexist. I’ve come to believe that to find the answer you need to understand the problem and that problem lies within the human psyche.
Our room at the Plaza Hotel has a beautiful balcony and it gives a lovely vantage point for looking down on the street below. I find myself gazing below, at the Italians coming and going. The street is full of bodies but they are cordial and polite. Cars and motor bikes zip in and out of the general traffic. There are no honking horns, no road rage of any sort, nobody flipping the bird, no raised voices, just the sound of a two stroke scooter, a police whistle blows at the intersection in the distance, pigeons cooing from the roof above. These folks are the epitome of civility. So many living amongst each other yet they are polite, caring, and basically accepting of their fellow man. At least that’s the way I see from my balcony.
On our first day, many choose to explore the city. Sorrento is somewhat of a photographic free-for-all. It’s whatever we can find. We have a photo guide that takes us to some of his favorite locations on a late evening shoot. My favorite is the waterfront. I see five young teenagers down on the docks fishing. Two girls and three boys. The guys are catching fish I could only qualify as bait back home. The fish in their bucket are no longer than two inches but Luigi is proud to hold them up.
The sun is just above the horizon on its way to setting over the Mediterranean Sea. I’m shooting one GH4 and one GX7. The GH4 has the 12-35mm attached and the GX7 has the 7-14mm. The quality of light is superb and we’re at the last, remaining minutes of what all photographers consider the golden hour. My white balance is set to Cloudy since Auto removes much of the late evening colors that make a photo sing. I ask the boy baiting his hook if those are his fish in the bright, green bucket. He proudly confirms they are. “Can I make a picture of of you with your fish?”, I ask. His smile explodes and he is more than happy to oblige.
When photographing a boy with a fishing rod, having him hold it up is a nice prop, however, whenever a subject holds their fishing pole aloft, it almost invariably cuts through their face. This was common when I was just starting out in photography as a young boy when shooting the outdoor recreational subjects I started with. I would always forget to look for the fishing pole dissecting the subject’s mug. When Luigi held his fishing pole up it was like I was 20-years old again, shooting for the sporting magazines I started out with. I quickly guided the pole to the side and had him bring the big neon green bucket up under his arm and tilt it forward to see the fish.
I had no idea the Italian word for smile, but that was not an issue. He was beaming from ear to ear as I raised the camera to push the shutter button. The warm glow from the setting sun was on my left creating the sidelight I’m always looking for. Sidelight and backlight are the keys to a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional medium such as film or a digital chip. Whenever you have good light, if possible, place your subject so the light is coming from the side or from the back. Doing so will make your subject separate from the background and give you that feeling of a three-dimensional object.
The next day is calm and quiet. Nothing planned for folks other than to explore the city. I take an hour after lunch and make my way to a place I had seen on the street where small groups of older Italian men were playing cards. I find it not far from the hotel, and there are more men today than yesterday. I quietly stand watching for 15 to 20 minutes. A middle-aged gentleman looks up and I motion to my camera for permission to shoot. He agrees and I quietly start making pictures.
The venue is dark with mostly natural light. I move my ISO between 1000 and 1600. I’m shooting my two GH4’s, one with the 12-35mm and another with the 45-175mm lenses. Now and again I change to my 7-14mm for an overall wider view. As I’m shooting I’m aware of the amount of noise the shutter is making and it occurs to me to try the Silent Mode.
I dig through the menu and find the setting and return to making pictures. What a difference a camera without a click can make to your subjects. With no shutter sound there was a noticable change in their body language and lack of attention of what I was doing . Before it was obvious; they knew I was there. With Silent Mode they seemed to relax. The GH4 is a very quiet camera to begin with, but in silent mode it doesn’t even whisper. Silent Mode adds a powerful new tool for capturing natural looking pictures.
June 6, 2014
After leaving Sorrento we head to the spectacular city by the sea – Positano, Italy. This is one of the most photogenic cities I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. It’s spectacular beyond belief. My first trip to Positano was four or five years ago, and it’s changed a bit since then. Unfortunately, they’ve cleaned up the fishing nets and crab pots from the docks down by the water. Gone are the old wooden fishing boats. These were great photographic subjects when I first visited. Even so, the town is still wonderful.
My favorite time to shoot Positano is during the blue light of dusk. The hillside has so many houses crammed together which makes for beautiful images. To get a better vantage point, I walked down to the next street from our hotel. As I waited for the sun to fade and the sky to darken, I spent at least an hour panning motorbikes zooming by as I sat cross-legged on the sidewalk. To get a good pan with blur, I tried several different shutter speeds. I started with 1/30th, dialed down to 1/20th and finally shot at 1/15th. Overall I was most happy with 1/30th.
One of the best ways to really stop action when panning is to use a strobe. This evening I did not bring my larger external flash so I relied on the one built into the GH4. Using a strobe with the camera set to Second Curtain allows you to get the panning effect but also have a small amount of flash that will stop some of the action. It’s just enough to make the facial feature sharp while the background is completely blurred. I’ve tried panning with and without flash, and though a perfect pan is possible without flash, it’s very, very difficult to really nail a perfectly panned exposure. For this shoot I was using the GH4 set to ISO 200 and had the 12-35mm lens attached. Most of the time the lens was set to its widest range.
The blue light finally arrived and for about an hour I shot the city below. Once again I relied on my Gitzo GT1542T Series 1 to support my GH4. For lenses I used both the 12-35mm F/2.8 and the new Nocticron 42.5mm F/1.2. My ISO was set to 200 and on both lenses I shut the Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) off. I typically don’t do this, but I was noticing some sharpness issues for the really long exposures. Except for a few incidental images, the two lenses produced extraordinarily sharp pictures.
Dusk turned to night, a signal that it was time to make my way back to the upper street and back to our hotel. Along the way I found a few additional photo opportunities. One was a bar that had five striking umbrellas that changed to different colors every few seconds.
They were lined up along the sidewalk, the dark azure sky as a background with a full moon piercing the velvety darkness. I was shooting the GH4 at ISO 1000 with the 7-14mm attached. It was a serene and subtle scene given more interest by the lovely, young Italian couple enjoying the evening beneath the colored shades. I shot several dozen images, and then packed my tripod away for a leisurely stroll to the hotel. What an evening on the streets of Positano.
June 7, 2014
It’s our last day in Italy and to say we had a fabulous time would be an understatement. This morning I went to breakfast at our Eden Roc Hotel and the experience was exactly as we’ve experienced all over this wonderful land. Tony seated us and when I went to explore the immense array of breakfast options he suggests the quiche.
I accept, and then in his wonderful Italian accent he sells me on the idea of allowing him to warm it. He’s proud of his quiche; he made it. Yes, the guy who greeted me at the dining room door, sat me down and served me coffee, was the same guy who made the quiche. Tony is a perfect example of the people we’ve met here in Italy. He was smiling the entire time. he moved fast, was constantly making helpful suggestions, and he cooks. Italy is immersive in so many different ways and Tony’s a shining example of all that is good in Italy.
Want to be a part of The Lumix Diaries? Join Daniel and Tanya on a future Natural Exposures Invitational Photo Tours