Italy getaway 2017: Rome

September 28, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Piazza di Spagna, RomaPiazza di Spagna, Roma Landscape and architectural photography project work in 2017 was mainly focused around Britain until this month. Initially, I had planned to go to the Pyrenees and the Italian Alps in September by car, however the life literally threw a spanned into my wheels. I couldn't drive with a broken wheel bearing, but luckily I managed to book easyJet flights to Italy on a very short notice. I had first visited Rome twelve ago, long before I started my photography business. I was very impressed with the richness of history, culture, the variety of the architecture - all in perfect harmony. I only brought back a few snapshots from a compact camera; I knew I really didn't do the justice the most iconic city in the world back then. I since travelled to most European capitals and major cities and very few if any, perhaps with the exception of Paris, can even remotely match the beauty, the vastness and the vibrance of the historic Rome centre. I had to go back and professionally focus on the cityscape photography. Rome is a very long driving distance away and one doesn't require a car for the work solely based in the city centre, therefore it made perfect sense to fly. EasyJet is reasonably photographer-friendly airline; I could take all the gear with me and overall I had a very positive experience. The hotel was strategically booked in the city centre, very close to Vatican. I was within a walking distance to all landmarks and locations I planned to photograph. Most importantly it made the all-important early morning shooting a breeze. I found Google Maps app the smartphone incredibly useful. I was able to immediately pick the shortest routes, save valuable time and find alternative locations. On a less positive note, the streets in the centre can be very noisy throughout the whole night thanks to moped and bus traffic.

The weather forecasts from the well-known UK and Norwegian sources were less than encouraging, however they all luckily proved to be entirely false. In reality the weather was mostly sunny and warm, but not unpleasantly humid. Mornings felt the most pleasant. As expected the mediterranean afternoon sun was very bright and hot; that is however the perfect time for visiting museums and dining - and there are plenty of great options!

The three days in Rome were jam-packed with shooting from early morning to the sunset. I covered tens of kilometres on foot, some of it running to get from one location to another while the light was still at its best. The shoot list was very extensive and it was truly hectic at times, therefore I will concentrate here on the individual locations instead of following the chronological order.

Vatican and St. Angelo bridge - the classic view of Rome

St. Angelo bridge and Vatican at dawn, Roma, ItalySt. Angelo bridge and Vatican at dawn, Roma, Italy

Some of the best known views in Rome opens from the Umberto I bridge. River Tiber flows towards the Sant Angelo bridge leading the eye towards Vatican and the Papal throne. The sun sets just behind St. Peter's basilica; while colourful sunsets can look stunning in their own right, the city lights remain very dim until much later and the buildings are left in deep shadows. In contrast, mornings in general tends to be more favourable to this location: the pre-dawn glow creates a very pleasing tonal range in the whole scene subtly complemented by the flood flighting; in addition the winds tend to die down over the night making the reflection more likely. Despite making a few very reasonable late evening blue hour photographs at this location I much prefer the morning shot for the reasons laid out above. A short telephoto Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS lens had the perfect focal range to capture both the all-inclusive image (above) while a relatively long exposure helped to smooth out most of the river movement.

Another iconic view of the Vatican is seen across Via della Conciliazione. The locations are just 5min walk apart and were conveniently taken one after the other. Once again early morning proved to be the best time using a telephoto lens. I emphasised the symmetry using the compressed perspective of the street lamps leading to the front entrance of the Basilica. Shooting from the distance also helps reveal the true scale of St. Peter's and keep the obelisk and the street buildings in check.

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican at duskSt. Peter's Basilica, Vatican at dusk

The iconic Sant Angelo castle nearby may be photographed across the Sant Angelo bridge. Light is adequate both in the morning evening but obviously only very early in the day the tourists are still in bed. A variety of different angles may be explored. I settled at the other side of the bridge using Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens. As in the examples above no filters were necessary since the light and dynamic range were fairly evenly balanced across the scene.

Castel di Angelo, RomaCastel di Angelo, Roma

The morning golden hour provides countless further photography opportunities at this iconic location. In the interest of simplicity I have chosen just a single shot to illustrate. Further examples are available in the Italy gallery. I would have loved to see some clouds, but it wasn't meant to be...

Finally, no journey to the Vatican is complete without a visit to the mighty St. Peter's Basilica. At 136m the dome towers high above the city and offers unrivalled views. The light is best in the late afternoon to photograph St. Peter's square. 

Vatican view, RomeVatican view, Rome+2:18 hr time

Piazza di Spagna

The Piazza di Spagna is one of the best known and picturesque squares in Rome. At the bottom of the Spanish steps a beautiful boat shaped fountain called Fontana della Barcaccia was sculpted by Bernini. The streets were largely empty first thing in the morning. I started the session using 24-70mm lens at longer focal lengths. I tried various different compositions and the results were personally all very pleasing to the eye.

Eventually, I swapped the lens for a wide-angle 16-35mm f/4L IS and moved in closer to the fountain. A more dramatic perspective was helpful to bring the attention to the fountain and offered a different viewpoint. I was pleased with images so far; considering the sun going to rise shortly just behind the church resulting in poor lighting conditions for the major part of the day, I decided to move to the next location at that point.

The evening golden hour lights the Trinità dei Monti church with the perfect precision. It is impossible not to notice how busy the Spanish Steps are in daytime and the evening. As a result, the attempts to reproduce the shots executed in the early morning would be extremely challenging.

Fontana di Trevi

Fontana di Trevi, RomaFontana di Trevi, Roma

The world-famous fountain was designed by the architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Pietro Bracci in 1762. It is a true masterpiece like no other and attracts millions of visitors every year. It can get so busy that it practically makes evening photography nearly impossible. Luckily there were far fewer visitors before dawn and standing a tripod in a spot of choice was not an issue. Conveniently, the floodlighting remains constant from the evening to the morning and mainly highlights just the fountain. The rest of the building is subtly basked in the glow of the street lamps and the fountain lights. While I would secretly love to see some additional lighting of the house, the current setup is far preferable to the overkill multi-colour lighting of the kitsch copy of the fountain in Las Vegas.

After a blue hour shoot at the Piazza di Spagna I ran to Trevi fountain. Those five minutes felt like a whole infinity as I watched the sky getting brighter and brighter. I was still happy with the quality of light but I had to get it right at the first attempt. It was absolutely critical to place the tripod and align the camera perfectly square to the fountain. I had to use a wide-angle Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS lens at the widest setting; some tilting of the camera was inevitable, however it was fairly trivial to correct the perspective in post-production. This afforded me a very clean architectural image of Fontana di Trevi in the blue hour. I am actually very pleased with the tonal and colour range in the photograph even if I originally planned for a slightly darker blue sky. Warm sunrise colours in the clouds would have been very welcome, however it remained fairly grey until much later in the morning. As the city lights faded against the glowing sunrise sky, the magic was lost. I was headed to my next morning location to take the advantage of the golden hour light.

A different set of qualities of the fountain are revealed in the daylight. I revisited the location the next day after the early morning shoot. The surrounding buildings cast shadows until much later in the day therefore it is unfortunately impossible to photograph Trevi fountain in golden hour. After around 10-11AM it looks a lot more reasonable. I was however surprised to find a major council clean-up operation underway to recover all the coins from the fountain. Using a specialist equipment a van was loaded full with bags of the treasures. I bet it didn't take long for the "piggy-bank" to fill up again since most tourists throw in coins... Once the money laundering operation was over the fountain water flow was restarted and I was able to make handheld photograph from roughly the same spot. Some perspective and geometric correction was necessary to get the verticals perfectly lined up.

The Roman Forum and Capitol Hill

The Capitol hill and the surrounding area in contrast is better suited for evening photography. Even despite an unfortunate rubbish truck and some people in the Piazza del Campidoglio the result was more pleasing due to far better ambient light. The light was even better just before the sunset, but unfortunately I had a large group of people standing in front of the statue and chatting away. That is just one of the challenges of city photography. On the other hand, in the morning the street lighting is minimal and only resulted in the strong yellow cast on the City Hall buildings in the corresponding morning image. The overall feel, subject matter, quality of light and colour balance are far more important over a few minor distractions. After all, I could probably attempt to clone it out if desired. It may be part of the scene as photographed, but obviously it doesn't need to be.

Originally, Colosseo situated a short distance away featured high on the shoot list. I was rather disappointed to find out the low level scaffolding was still in place some 12 years later and I couldn't work out any clean and dynamic composition. Instead I refocused all my attention to the Roman Forum and decided to incorporate Colosseo as a fragment of the scene. The ruins of the ancient forum are well exposed and visible from around the site. In the evening there is floodlighting used to highlight some of the more prominent buildings and arches. In the morning the site only receives the glow of street level lighting which severely limits the options. As a result, most of the images were made in the evening session.

Roman Forum and Colloseum, RomeRoman Forum and Colloseum, Rome

Roman Forum, RomeRoman Forum, Rome

The final image I would like to share from Rome depicts Pantheon. It was made very early in the morning at the beginning of the blue hour to avoid the thousand-strong crowds, green laser and blue-LED boomerang people as well as to take the full advantage of the street lighting. Pantheon doesn't have any dedicated illumination so the street lamp glow is all there is. The north facing facade hardly receives any sunlight during the day so that was effectively the only opportunity. I shot the scene all the way back at the cafe tables to take advantage of the longer end of my 24-70mm lens (this helps to control verticals and perspective) and cropped the scene to 8x10 ratio to remove the some street scaffolding and hot lights. It was necessary to decrease the saturation of the yellows and oranges in Lightroom to achieve a natural-looking colour balance.

Overall, I am very pleased with the results made in just three days in the city. I've only included a few highlights in this post; lots more examples are available from the the Italy photo gallery. I could have easily spent the rest of the week building the portfolio and focusing on the lesser-known locations in and outside of Rome. I am sure I will do just that another time... Ostia Antica and the hills around Rome are on my to-do list.

The next leg of the journey took me to the picturesque Cinque Terre - the location of golden sunsets and quirky fishing villages built on the Alpine cliffs. A real surprise was awaiting me there. I will share the story in the next few days - stay tuned!

Finally, please consider purchasing prints - your support makes it all possible and most grateful for it. 1-to-1 workshops and tutorials are available throughout the year on request; please get in touch to enquire and book.


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