Tuscany is one of those iconic landscape locations I’d longed to photograph since I first saw pictures of it in the first photography books I ever bought. It was one of the first photography trips I ever made back in 2009 and I immediately fell in love with the area. It’s a beautiful rural landscape, all gentle rolling hills, vineyards and medieval hilltop towns, and so I was excited to be heading back there again this spring with two good friends and fantastic photographers Konstantinos Vasilakis and Kostas Petrakis. We’ll be running a workshop there next year, so our plan for this trip was to finalise all the practicalities and ensure that everything we needed was in place, but of course we also intended to do plenty of photography
We met up at Rome airport and then headed north in a rented car and before long we were starting to notice the lush, sweeping countryside on either side of the road. Sadly, delayed flights meant we didn’t arrive in Val d’Orcia until a little after dark missing the best light and sunset, but we did ensure we found a great trattoria and settled in for some fantastic Tuscan food. We had arranged to stay in a farmhouse a little outside the town of San Quirico in the heart Val d'Orcia, a beautiful valley which really is the essence of Tuscany and are home to some of it’s most iconic landscapes.
May is the ideal time to visit as the grass is still lush and green, and most of the fields have yet to be harvested and are edged by wildflowers. The valleys are often full of mist at dawn while the days are warm and pleasant and everything feels as though it’s bursting with life. We were up at 4am on our first morning to head to the the hill above the famous farmhouse at Belvedere just outside the walls of the town of San Quirico. Belvedere is such a perfectly located farmhouse atop a small hill in the midst of quite a deep part of the valley which almost always fills with mist at sunrise. As the sun rises and the mist flows through the valley, the farmhouse often appears to be on an island on a sea of mist and its wonderfully photogenic.
We set up on an overlooking hill, and as well as photographing it, I also managed to get the drone airborne to give me some interesting aerial perspectives of this famous scene.
Watching the scene unfold from the pre-dawn blue hour to the golden light of sunrise backlighting the mist was a wonderful way to spend our first morning in Tuscany.
After about an hour of shooting the light was starting to get too harsh so we decided to go and get some breakfast in a local cafe on the edge of town which opens early in the morning. It’s a great place for a coffee and pastry! We then headed back to our accommodation, and as it was still early in the morning had a quick nap before decided what to do with the rest of the day. Our first stop was to spend some time walking around san Quirico, which is a relatively quite, attractive town. There’s not much in the way of sights, but the streets and churches are lovely, and it’s a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours.
After lunch we headed to the neighbouring town of Montalcino, famous for the Brunello di Montalcino wine. It’s very much like San Quirico, but the hill it’s located on is quite a bit higher, giving it commanding views of the surrounding area. It has the same charming narrow streets, but the wine connection means it’s considerably more touristed and has a lot more people here. I found a quiet spot outside a small church to launch the drone and get some aerial views of the town across it’s slate rooftops.
By now the afternoon light was getting longer, so we headed back to San Quirico to photograph the iconic stand of Cypress trees that stand alone in the middle of a rolling field. When we arrived the sky was pretty overcast and dark, but a few minutes before the sunset a gap in the clouds opened up and the low sun gave us a blast of storm light bathing the top of the hill and the cypress trees in a warm glow for a brief moment before turning into a beautiful sunset.
We’d been fortunate with great conditions for both of our shoots that day and headed to dinner in high spirits. Once again, dinner was fantastic, food really is a delight everywhere you go in Italy, and Tuscany in particular is a great place to eat. It was almost midnight when we went to bed though, so setting the alarm for another 4am start was tough. Still, I always find once the alarm has gone I’m pretty much wide awake and travelling with two other photographers also increases the motivation to get up and get the most out of the day. On this morning we aimed to shoot the chapel of Cappella di Vitaleta, which like the farmhouse of the previous morning is also located on top of a hill in Val d’Orcia. Driving from the farm where we were staying before dawn was an incredible experience as the countryside is so alive. We saw deer, wild boar, rabbits and a mole on our brief journey to the location, and as soon as the sun came up, hawks, falcons and game birds like pheasants and partridge where everywhere. We arrived across from the church a little before the sunrise, but this time were unlucky with the mist, which had settled in another part of the valley. Still, even without mist the chapel is a beautiful subject to photograph and the sunrise was truly lovely.
After the light became too strong to shoot, we did the same as the previous day and stopped in at our favourite local cafe for a coffee and something to eat before heading back to the farmhouse and getting a little more rest. I spent the rest of the day recording bits and pieces for my review of the Fuji GFX 50S camera, which Fujifilm Portugal had leant to me for the trip, and after that we spent some time in town putting together some of the logistics for the workshop. Later in the afternoon we made the slightly longer trip north for about an hour to the area of Crete Senesi for our sunset shoot. The 45 minute journey there takes you into Val d’Asso, where I wanted to get a quick shot of the small chapel at Lucignano d’Asso. It’s by no means a blockbuster location, but it’s a quirky little building that I’d discovered on a previous trip and wanted to photograph again.
After that, we continued to Agriturismo Baccoleno, which has an incredibly long, curvy cypress tree-lined road leading to it. The road makes for an incredibly graphic leading line through a beautiful landscape which is a little harsher and less lush than the endless greens of Val d’Orcia. We split up and photographed it from different places, and I spent the golden hour and sunset shooting the scene with a wide angle lens on the medium format GFX from the road that leads up to the farm.
After the sun had gone down I moved back to the hill that overlooks the farm and switched to a longer telephoto lens on my X-T2 to shoot a panorama of the dusk colours and use the road in a different want in the composition.
Again, we’d been blessed with great conditions and hoped that our final morning the following day would be equally as good. So once again the alarm was set for 4 am and once again we headed out in pre-dawn half light to the valley. This time we were diving just a little further to the fields below the town of Pienza. The location this time was the rolling fields around the Terrapille farmhouse, made famous by the film Gladiator as the fields of Elysium at the end of the movie. This time we weren’t quite so lucky with the sunrise, as we had neither mist nor an interesting sky, but the light was incredibly clean and standing in waist high fields of wheat as the sun comes up is as good a place as any to start the day. Once again I found myself shooting the scene with the medium format GFX as well as attempted to get some drone images from a slightly higher perspective.
As the sun got higher our final shoot in Tuscany came to an end, but we weren’t heading back to the airport as we’d decided to spend a day in the coastal villages of Cinque Terre a few hours drive to the north. None of us had ever been to this part of Italy and we were amazed at how stunning it was. For most of our journey we had the towering peaks of the Appenines to our right and as we got closer to the town of La Spezia we could see the forested hills of the Cinque Terre National Park to our left. We drove up and into the park, dropping our bags off at the hostel where we were staying in the pretty town of Biassa before heading onto the coast road that sweeps around the cliffs with stunning views across the ocean. Cinque Terre are five colourful fishing villages that nestle at the bottom of these cliffs against the sea, and the road to any of them is a steep winding descent full of hair-pin bends and narrow passes. We visited Vernazza first before stopping at Manarola for an early dinner.
The towns are incredibly beautiful, but after the peace of Tuscany they felt incredibly touristy as there's a train line which runs through each of the villages giving easy access to backpackers and day-trippers making the narrow streets feel very busy and thronging with people. As we only had one night we had to make a decision about which town we’d shoot for sunset and in the end decided on Riomaggiore, which we all agreed was the prettiest and I felt had the most potential for sunset. We settled in on the rocks that line the tiny harbour and looked back across the water to the colourful buildings. I’m not sure how many people still live in these villages, but they really are incredibly pretty with the buildings clinging to the base of the cliffs, one on top of another, and winding alleyways that lead you from the fishing dock to the top of the town.
The sunset wasn’t particularly impressive but it was a lovely place to sit with a bottle of beer, some good friends, and our cameras clicking away as the sun went down and the towns lights came on.
After a final dinner we headed back to our hostel and then the next morning packed up the car for the drive back to Rome. It had been a great trip and we’d crammed so much in that it felt like we’d been here for much longer than four days. We’ll be back here next year for the workshop and I really can’t wait to visit this beautiful part of the world again.
If you’re interested in joining me for a workshop in Tuscany and visiting some of these fantastic locations (and more), subscribe to my newsletter as I’ll be announcing all my 2018 workshops, which I’ll be running together with two other fantastic photographers, sometime later this summer.