Visiting Italy
Extraordinary Light, Great Landscapes, And Fantastic Food

As you climb the Apennines you see whole villages spread out beneath you. We used a polarizing filter to enhance the blue of the sky.
Photos © 1998, Mike Matzkin, All Rights Reserved

Italy has to be one of the greatest places I know for a photo vacation. It is virtually impossible to take a really bad photograph there.

The light, even in the middle of the day, is something special. You'll find yourself shooting even on those rare days when it rains. Take as much film as you can manage. I rarely use flash when I travel, so I usually carry ISO 100 print film or Kodachrome 64 for shooting during the day and ISO 400 print and slide film for photographing late in the day or in the evening. Also, for me some things just work better in black and white--especially landscapes and people images. I don't have any rules that say shoot color or black and white. It happens. So I always have a roll or two of ISO 400 black and white in my bag.

I keep equipment fairly simple when I travel--two 35mm camera bodies, and I shoot most of my images with a 28-70mm zoom. I do take other lenses--a 35-135mm zoom and a 24mm f/2.8 wide angle. In poor daylight or available light, I depend on a 50mm f/1.4 to bail me out of tough exposure situations. My cameras let me rewind in mid roll when I suddenly need a different speed film with some of the leader sticking out of the cartridge. It's a lifesaver when I have only one camera body. I mark the number of exposures with a magic marker and when it goes back in the camera I add one more frame for insurance.

Venice can be rainy in the spring, but a gondola ride (which can be expensive) has great image making possibilities. If nothing else, the gondolier makes a great subject.

Italy is steeped in time. You walk streets whose buildings may be hundreds of years old and whose stones are bathed in soft sunlight. You shoot because the scene is something you want to keep forever. It might be the people congregating on the Spanish Steps in Rome or the courtyard of a medieval palace turned into a museum in a small city in the mountains. Walk the streets of Florence and you'll see image after image. Some of them will be familiar, but you bring your own point of view to every photograph. You'll certainly photograph the Ponte Vecchio in soft, late afternoon light, the people along the Arno River, and dozens of other subjects. Cross the Ponte Vecchio and wander the streets away from usual tourist places.

Smaller villages, especially in the mountains, offer a chance to create unique images since they may see very few tourists. It may be a prejudiced personal opinion but I think Italians are among the warmest, friendliest, most outgoing people in the world, so that photographing people presents few of the problems you find in other countries.

The culture of Italy's major cities is mind-boggling. The museums have so much great art that it is frustrating. You know you will never have enough time to see it all. I have been to museums in Venice where paintings are literally displayed from floor to ceiling and in alcoves where light barely penetrates.

In most places when it rains you put the cameras away, but Venice's Piazza San Marco offers great color and interesting images even in wet weather. Image was shot on Kodachrome 64. A 50mm f/1.4 lens at around f/4.5 helped, too. Even relatively slow films work much of the time.

Speaking of Venice, simply sitting at a table in an outdoor cafe on the Piazza San Marco is a great way to shoot people pictures. Just sit there and watch. There are times when I set the camera with a wide angle focal length on the table and aimed at the general area in front of me. When I see an image I press the shutter release. People feed pigeons, gossip, flirt, and youngsters play. Tired of the tourist centers? The side canals have their own special light. Just wander around, letting the images find you. You may even get lost, but finding your way back to your hotel in Venice never seems to be a problem.

You might also journey into the Apennines and discover a world of small villages that transport you back to medieval times.

My most recent trip to Italy involved a bike tour that started in Fano on the Adriatic coast, a place off the usual tourist itinerary. It's a seaside resort frequented mostly by Italians. Fall is a great time to be there. The season is over but there are still people vacationing. It may be because of a very special feeling in the air that you find only on the Italian seaside. People walk, ride bicycles, and eat. Eating may be one of the most important things you do in Italy. I am convinced that it is impossible to find a bad meal anywhere in this country.

The Grand Canal is impressive but it's the side canals and away from the tourist areas that may be most interesting from an image making point of view.

Getting to Fano is relatively easy to reach even without a car. We took the train from Rome and arrived in about three hours. Be sure to know when your station is coming up well in advance and get to the door. You may have to take the offensive in getting off since the train doesn't stop very long and people are in a hurry to board. Our first night there we hunted around for a place to have dinner and chose the dining room at the Hotel Grace by chance. While seafood in Fano is outstanding, try the pasta with truffles at the Hotel Grace. The pasta is brought to the table and the truffles ceremoniously scraped on to the pasta. Truffles may be as important as gold in Europe. They have a culture all their own that involves a sometimes clandestine market and a taste that defies description.

We photographed around the beach area the next morning, but finally spent a few hours in the hills behind the city and photographed landscapes in the light just before and just after sunset. While the magic hour is no secret, in Italy it is something very special and may not last very long. The sunset is magnificent but in October it ends quickly. As soon as you react to a scene, shoot. A tripod is a good idea so that you can use slow shutter speeds and small apertures for good depth of field.

Momma Sandra, the proprietor of Sandra's Cafe, may make the best sandwiches in Italy or maybe the world. Stop off, plan on picnicking in the first Piazza you come to, photograph people, and mangia benissimo.

We rode out of Fano the next morning heading for Urbino, an old city with roots in medieval Italy. You pass miles and miles of farms, tiny villages, and magnificent cypress trees. The landscapes, even in early afternoon sunlight, are fantastic. It's pretentious to advise shooting only early in the morning or late in the afternoon. It's rare when you travel that the image and the right light happen at the same time. A polarizing filter is a good idea. The polarizer helps cut reflections and enhances the blue in the sky. You might want to try a warming filter--an 81A for example to add depth to the color. The vista from the high point of the road as you approach Urbino is breathtaking, but actually getting to Urbino involves an uphill climb. Don't miss the Palazzo Ducale, which has great views of the town. Through the windows of the Palazzo, you can see a wonderful, col-umned courtyard and beautiful medieval art treasures. Take the guided tour or do it on your own. The view from the main piazza--Piazza Della Republica--is not to be missed.

We stopped off at the Bar Sandra, in the town of Furlo, because we heard that it was the best sandwich shop in Italy. Actually, Sandra herself may be a living legend. Her sandwiches are indeed magnificent and just the thing for a picnic. If you find her, try the prosciuto and provolone. We photographed the young woman who assists her and who has a face out of a Renaissance painting. This is all a way of saying that finding images in Italy takes no planning at all. We dropped in at a local bar in a small village on the way to Gubio and found a group of men playing cards. They were not at all self-conscious about being photographed. In fact, you can casually photograph people in the Piazza in towns like Cagli and spend a whole day at it. Actually, things get pretty quiet in the afternoon. The shops and restaurants are closed. Best time for people shooting is in the late morning or evening. If you do plan to be in a town like Cagli after 1pm plan on picnicking in the Piazza or you may go hungry.

We stopped at a bar in a small village late in the afternoon and found these men in their daily card game. With ISO 100 color film in the camera we used a wall to steady the camera for slow exposure.

On the road from Fabriano to Gubio is one of the world's most unique grottos. You aren't allowed to photograph in the Grotto Di Frassani, but it's one of the most important geological sites in Italy and worth visiting. Shining white and pink stalagmites and stalactites in fantastic shapes make it an experience. From a photographic point of view you'll be surrounded by the Apennines, one of the most magnificent mountain ranges in the world. You may be sorry you didn't carry a larger format camera. Next trip I plan on taking an old twin lens Rolleiflex that still produces great images.

You might want to visit Gubbio not far from Assisi. Take the chairlift for a great view of the town. There's a Roman amphitheater on the way out of Gubbio.

The Spanish steps in Rome are a great place to photograph people anytime of the day.

Every small town and village has its photographic potential, but if you plan to go to Assisi it might be a good idea to stay in Spello. Hilltop hotels are away from the usual tourist crowds and close enough to Assisi to make it an easy trip by cab.

No matter how much time I spend in small villages and out of the way places I find myself drawn back to the cities. Wander around Rome, Florence, Venice, or Naples and you will find new, unexpected images. No matter how you visit Italy or where you go, you'll come back with a tremendous number of wonderful images. The trick is not to think too much but to let your emotions direct your camera.