ADP Photography | Florence: How to photograph a city of icons?

Florence: How to photograph a city of icons?

January 25, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Florence, what a beautiful city!  Small and easy to walk around, and full of interesting history in every street and on every street corner.  A living museum!  Maybe not the awesome grandeur of Rome, but Florence is remarkable.  Birthplace of the Renaissance!

With only a few days in a city, during a summer holiday, how do you photograph a city that has been photographed about a centillion times (I think that's 303 0s!) and find a unique shot?

Giotto's Bell Tower by sunset with some careful positioning, and lucky timing, and the back streets near the Uffizi Gallery

Well, as all good photo tips mags and sites say, preparation is a good start.  Using apps like Photopills, The Photographer's Ephemeris, Google Earth and of course weather apps.  Understanding the times and positions of the sun in relation to the sights in the city is important, as is the likely weather.  However, there is a big elephant sized BUT that seems to always be missed!  When you arrive...what if the conditions, or the skyline, or the restoration projects, don't behave?

I had the restoration issue in Rome in 2015, first stop The Trevi Fountain, close to my hotel.  Completely under renovation, no tourists, no water, almost no fountain!  The same at the Spanish Steps.  Two important landmarks crossed off my photography list without a single shot being fired!

Anyway, back to Florence!

The same story.  The skyline was littered with cranes due to the the many renovation projects that seemed to be necessary.  Well, it is an old city.  This instantly put pay to the quality of possible skyline shots from the high vantage point of the Piazzale Michelangelo. There's always cloning, true, but the cranes were everywhere, cutting across domes and towers...what to do?  Prep all you wish, but you still have to think on your feet when you arrive, at least planning makes you aware of other options.

I, like most of us, combine holidays with photo ops.  No special missions to wonderful cities just to take photos.  We have to deal with the conditions we find, as we find them.  Sure there may be websites that tell you all the planned civic works, really?  Good luck with that!  

So, what do I do?

First day! Walk! I am lucky that my wife believes as I do; the best way to experience a city is on foot.  Sure, subways and buses can be used later, but to get the feeling of the place, and to SEE it.  Walk!  On your last days in the city, when you have to get to one or two last important places quickly, use transport, but in the beginning, put in the leg work!

A tip to include in your preparation; join the dots...  

Sights that are close together, routes you can complete easily in day or so.  Remember that it's not a race, so add lots of contingency for sitting, eating, and taking it easy to enjoy the place!  Enjoying the trip is perhaps MORE important than the photograph.  A great photo is great, but if you leave and can't really say what the city was really like, then you haven't made the best use of the trip.  Purists would also say that you need to get the feel of a city to really capture it, right? 

When you have these routes in your pocket, when you arrive and understand the local weather, you can set off.  But as you walk, SEE!  Remember what areas are near to each and roughly how long it takes.  Look for opportunities to come back to, where the light will be later.  This will serve you well as the days pass and other opportunities spring up.

There's no point running for a grand view when the light will be gone by the time you get there.  Get what you can!  Be wise with your choices!

I am blessed with a fairly decent sense of direction.  Usually, I can find my way in most places, even if I have never been there before.  Cities with rivers are the easiest.  How many times did you cross it? Is it on your left, right, behind or infront of you?  Easy really.  it also helps that I've normally been gazing at maps for a week or so before the visit.

I also recommend making sure your hotel is central; as close to the good stuff as possible.  Don't waste time travelling just to save a few €uros!  We stayed at the wonderful Residenza Vespucci, on the banks of the Arno.  Perfect location, wonderful decoration, and very nice hosts (and polite dog) too!

It was the height of summer, in a bit of a heat wave, 38º in the shade.  Usually, too tired to get up for sunsets, (and they were behind the hills until mid morning anyway), sunsets: time and position - noted!  By walking around the city for the first two days, drifting in and out of some sights, I had worked out directions.  Il Duomo by sunset, many visitors will have that shot I guess, but also we were close by after a thunderstorm for a more radiant sunset.  

Two shots of the Cathdral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Il Duomo, and Giotto's Bell Tower, glowing with a post-thunderstorm sunset.

We had sat in the square by Il Duomo eating a marvellous pizza as the brief, but violent, thunderstorm raged and scattered tourists back to their hotels.  We emerged and wandered around after the storm to witness some gorgeous light.  Framing Il Duomo in the cobblestone puddles, taking my time, checking the images, trying another.  I turned.  There were a dozen female far eastern tourists doing exactly what I was doing.  I never realised I was a trendsetter!  

But light and weather and locations are not the only things we need to do to get a worthwhile image, more than just a snapshot momento.  We have to try and see something different, a unique composition or perspective.  Well, if not unique, (a centillion images means there's probably very few unique shots left), at least interesting.  Think also about possible mono, you may see something in the wrong light, but you can still use it, see the shot of Il Duomo and part of the Palazzo Pitti below. 

Il Duomo against a deep blue sky, turned mono and detail of the Palazzo Pitti.  Different treatments giving very different effects 

By night? Add some light stars to make a more interesting shot!

San Frediano in Cestello, on the banks of the Arno by night, complete with a low moon and light stars

Think about unique angles and ways of framing the normal sights in unusual ways.

Il Duomo seen from a window of the Palazzo Vecchio

I may not have captured the most unique compositions, and there were no gorgeous cloud formations lit by the setting sun (with or without a skyline full of cranes), but I think I came away with some shots that show the city in ways that are not seen too often!

Do you have any city visit tips?  Please add your comment!  

Best wishes

The Frustrated Photog.




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