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Ultimate Photography Guide to Tuscany

Ultimate Photography Guide to Tuscany

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Ultimate Photography Guide to Tuscany

Can you imagine yourself enjoying a peaceful sunset from the Pienza balcony in Tuscany, overlooking the 'Gladiator's House' and all the rolling hills of Val d'Orcia? How about sipping a glass of red wine as you stroll through the streets of Montepulciano? Or driving on the winding roads of Montalcino, stopping after every corner to take a few pictures, because.. “wow” –  that is going to be your only explanation if someone happens to ask you why you stopped.



These are some of the amazing experiences that you can have while travelling in Tuscany. While I can continue describing all the fabulous activities that you can do, this guide will instead focus on useful information for landscape photography in Tuscany, so scroll down and get ready to learn everything you need to know before you visit this beautiful part of Italy!



The Definition of Photography in Tuscany

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyWhen most people talk about Tuscany, they mean the Val d'Orcia. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

First of all, let’s define what people mean when they think about Tuscany. When you say “hey, I want to go on a photographic trip in Tuscany”, what you probably mean is “hey, I want to go on a photographic trip to Val d’Orcia”.

Yes, 99% of those amazing pictures of rolling green hills that you have seen pretty much everywhere on the Internet have been made within a 20km area of Tuscany known as Val d’Orcia. 

The word “Val” in italian means “valley”, while "Orcia" is the name of the river that flows through it. This is a valley that lies in between three towns: Pienza, San Quirico d’Orcia and Montalcino.

Pienza, the first town that you will find as you come in from the highway, is the smallest of the three, but arguably the most beautiful one; it has what they call a “balcony”, a footpath with an incredible view of the entire valley.

San Quirico d’Orcia, the town you will find if you keep driving from Pienza after 9km, is famous for having been featured in some scenes of the Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” movie, together with its architecture.

Lastly, if you keep driving for another 15 minutes, you will find Montalcino which is famous for its wine! You will get to try some of the finest wines in the world there, so be sure to have some wine-tasting while exploring the town.

As you drive through this roughly 20km stretch of road, you'll be able to reach many more of the most popular locations for photography in Tuscany. While Val d’Orcia is a highlight within the Siena countryside, it is not the only valley there. There are plenty of other unnamed valleys that are just a 20-30 minutes drive from Pienza, or San Quirico d’Orcia and they are all beautiful!

So take the time to deeply explore the Val d’Orcia, but don’t stop there. Visit the whole Siena countryside, as you will find many other photographic locations as beautiful as the ones you saw in the main valley and with far less people around. 

What to Pack for a Photography Trip to Tuscany

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyTuscany's weather is quite warm so pack accordingly. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Clothing

Tuscany’s weather is exactly what you would expect in Italy: really hot in summer, mild during spring and autumn, then quite cold in winter. Below is what I recommend that you pack in terms of clothing throughout the seasons.

Summer

Nothing will beat a good old shirt with short pants and sneakers. For women, you can even get away with a light summer dress. Temperatures will be really high, mostly around 30-40° Celsius (86-104° Fahrenheit) from late June to late August (and sometimes until early September), so even if you stay up late in the night to shoot the stars or you wake up early in the morning to shoot sunrise, you’ll never have to worry about being cold.

A hat to cover your head from the sunlight is recommended too! 

Spring / Autumn

I decided to put together the two seasons since, weather-wise, they are quite similar. Both in spring and in autumn, you will get some nice sunny days, where temperatures during the day will be up to around 20-25° Celsius (68-77° Fahrenheit); in the mornings and the evenings though, it’s normal to have temperatures around 10-15° Celsius (50-59° Fahrenheit), so be sure to pack some light jackets and some heavier sweaters.

If you dress with light boots, long pants, a t-shirt with a sweater on and a light jacket, you should be fine for most of the time; it will never be really cold, and if it gets warmer then you will be ready to take off some layers.

Rain is quite common here in Tuscany during spring and autumn, so make sure that your clothing is waterproof. 

Winter

Winter is the only season in Tuscany when things can get a little bit… trickier, let’s say.

The Val d’Orcia, being situated inland far from the Mediterranean sea, doesn't have the same mild winter weather of the coastal areas. During the cold season, temperatures can get as low as -5° Celsius (around 20° Fahrenheit), so my tip is to bring all of your heavy clothing equipment, especially if you are planning to stay out until late in the evening or early in the morning.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes temperatures are more than acceptable here during winter, but it’s better to pack something more than less. A good winter jacket should be on your essentials list, as well as some warm winter boots and a heavy sweater. Scarf, gloves and a warm cap should be on that list too! 

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanySometimes it can get cold in Tuscany, so be prepared during winter! Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Camera Equipment

Now, let’s talk a little bit about what kind of equipment you will need and what you will actually use during you photo trip in Tuscany. I’m sure you will have lots of doubts about what is really useful and what will just be extra weight in your (probably already heavy) backpack!

Camera

The weather here doesn’t get as bad as in many other countries that landscape photographers usually visit (e.g. Iceland, Norway, Patagonia). There won't be any gale force winds here and if you get some rain, you will most likely be close to your car or to a building where you can go and stay dry (together with your camera!).

What I’m saying here is that you don’t need a weatherproof camera to visit Tuscany, because most of the times you are going to shoot with acceptable weather conditions; this doesn’t mean that you don’t need a good camera though! 

I’d say, in terms of image quality, that any full-frame camera (DSLR or mirrorless) will be perfect for all the possible situations you might face in Tuscany, but don’t worry if you are used to working with an APS-C or a micro 4/3 camera: they will be more than fine too! 



Lenses

Lenses can make a huge difference when shooting in Tuscany. Most of us landscape photographers are used to working with a lot with ultra wide-angle lenses, generally in the 12mm-24mm range. While in springtime, you can get some nice foregrounds (using flowers) and take a fair amount of pictures with a wide angle lens, in Tuscany you'll be better off having a telephoto lens mounted to your camera. 

My advice is to bring a lens to cover the 70-200mm focal range, possibly another one to cover the standard-tele range (24-70mm) and a super-long telephoto that can arrive up to 400/500mm or even 600mm. In Tuscany, shooting is more about capturing a particular part of the surrounding landscape and less about going wide to include the whole landscape.

While it's a good idea to pack a wide angle lens just in case, I recommend that you bring a good 70-200mm or 70-300mm first, because that lens will most likely be your workhorse for most of your trip. 



Tripod

A good, sturdy tripod is always the first thing you should think about when it comes to going on a photo trip. However, since we don’t have awful weather conditions in Tuscany, you don’t need a huge and heavy tripod. If you want to chop some weight off your back, you can take a lighter tripod. Lighter doesn’t necessarily mean a tripod that is shaky or unstable; you’re going to use it a lot in low light situations, from twilight in the morning to the blue hour in the evening, and maybe at night to shot some stars or cityscapes. So, keep in mind that it still needs to be sturdy! 

Filters

I get a lot of questions about whether or not it is worth it to take a full set of Neutral Density (ND) or Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters when traveling to Tuscany: my answer is that it depends on your shooting style.

Filters are not fundamental in Tuscany, meaning that you will be able to take every possible photo without the use of any kind of filter. This doesn’t mean that they won't come in handy in certain situations. Let’s say that you want to capture light trails from cars going up and down on a twisty road – you'll likely need an ND filter for that.

On the other hand, let's say that there are some beautiful clouds moving in the sky and you want to make your image seem more dynamic. You’ll need an ND filter (and maybe a GND filter) to capture the movement of the clouds.

My point is that if you like to use filters to create particular effects and to play with long exposures, then take all of your filters during a trip to Tuscany. If you never use any kind of filter at all, then don’t bother to take them! 



Other Accessories

If all of the items above (camera, lenses, tripod and filters) are in your backpack, you are almost ready to leave for Tuscany! However, you can also pack some other accessories, such as a remote control to avoid shaking your camera while pressing the shutter button. This is especially important if you will be making long exposures on your tripod.

It's also a good idea to pack a couple of spare batteries, so that you will be sure never to run out of power while you are in the middle of an amazing sunset.

Oh, one last thing: bring a small cloth to clean the dust from your lenses! In Tuscany, especially when it hasn’t rained for a few days and the land is dry, a passing car can move clouds of dust that stay in the air for a long time. Even if you don't notice it at first, your lens will slowly be covered by the dust, so be sure to clean it every once in a while! 

Recommended Camera Settings for Photography in Tuscany

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyGetting the best shot depends a lot on your settings. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Now I'll talk a little bit about how to prepare your camera for photo trip to Tuscany, so that you'll be ready to dial in all of the best settings.

RAW vs JPEG

First things first: are you going to shoot in RAW or JPEG? This will mostly depend upon whether you’re going to post-process your photos later on or not. 

If you don’t have the time or just don’t want to spend hours in front of the computer to review all the shots that you have taken during the trip, then don’t bother to shoot in RAW. That way, no action is required later on except moving them to the computer for storage. 

But, if you are really starting to fall in love with photography and want to take your photos to another level, then you should definitely start working on them with some editing software in post-production and shoot in RAW. It’s going to be quite painful to learn to develop a nice and smooth post-production workflow, but the quality and the look of your photos are going to be improved so much. In the end, you’ll be rewarded with better results than just using the JPEG shot straight from the camera.



Camera Mode

For me, there is only one way to go here: manual mode. I just like to have the complete control of my camera, no one (not even the camera processor or some other chip) should interfere with my camera settings. 

While you're in Tuscany, it's not likely that you'll be shooting any action scenes such as wildlife or sports. As such, there is no need to use AV (aperture priority) or S (shutter priority) modes here. Most of the time, you'll be able to relax and think about your settings in order to achieve the results that you are aiming for. As such, it's best to shoot in Manual mode.

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyShooting in manual allows you full creative control. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Aperture/Exposure Settings

Although I can't give you the exact settings for every possible situation you will encounter during your Tuscany trip, I can give you some guidelines to follow in order to achieve better results.

First, let’s talk about the aperture: one of the first things that I learnt while I was starting to get into landscape photography is that you should never use the widest apertures of your lenses. Unless you’re aiming for some particular bokeh effect, you want everything to be razor-sharp and in focus in your shot, so an aperture of f/8 should be the widest you go for.

If I’m using a tripod or there’s enough light, I prefer to close another stop down to f/11: that’s my preferred aperture at which to shoot Don’t close down too much (more than f/16, let’s say), otherwise you’ll get lens diffraction and the quality of your images is going to be much worse. 

When shooting handheld, aim for a faster exposure time in order to avoid blurring your shots. When shooting on a tripod, you can use a slower shutter speed to ensure the correct exposure.



Metering Modes

When shooting in Tuscany, set your camera to Matrix Metering (Nikon) or Evaluative Metering (Canon). In my experience, these will achieve the most accurate results when it comes to measuring the exposure. 

The truth is that 95% of the time, I don’t even look at the exposure meter; I just take a couple of shots, see the results and adjust the settings accordingly. As I was telling you earlier, you don’t need to be fast in Tuscany. You can take your time. In this way, you will slowly start to remember the parameters you have used in each kind of different lighting situation and with experience, you’ll be able to get your camera settings almost right even before you take the shot, as well as before even taking a look at the exposure meter. 

Focusing Modes

Since you have all the time you need in Tuscany and you are going to shoot a lot on a tripod, my advice is to turn off your autofocus and go manual! 

The only time the autofocus comes in handy is during the day when you are travelling and maybe you want to capture a couple of quick shots here and there, such as from the car. In that case, autofocus is the way to go.

For the times during which you will be shooting on a tripod, such as during sunset and sunrise, switch to manual focus. Most cameras and lenses don’t focus perfectly under low light conditions, so it’s better to manually focus to ensure that you are getting a really sharp shot.

The Best Time for Photography in Tuscany

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyAutumn is a beautiful time in Tuscany. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Tuscany has something to offer photographers during every season, there’s not a time of the year when you won’t go back home with some fantastic shots. 

Having said that, the two best seasons to come to Tuscany are during spring and autumn. In spring, you'll get all the green blooming fields, possibly dotted with flowers or poppies. On the other hand, during autumn, you will have higher chances of catching some nice low fog on the hills and the colourful fall foliage of the trees. In both of these seasons, the weather is mild and sunrise/sunset times are not too early or too late. 

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyFog during spring in Tuscany. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

A lot of photographers still travel to Tuscany during summer though, because there’s the general thinking that it’s the best season to visit Tuscany; let me be clear, it is not.

Sunrise is really early in the morning and sunset is late in the evening during summer. In addition, it will be really hot during the whole day and you’ll barely get to visit all of the towns because of the heat. There will be a lot of tourists pretty much everywhere and because of the good weather, you probably won’t get any interesting skies but just a lot of cloudless sunrises and sunsets. 

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyWinter is a good time to travel to Tuscany. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Winter should be your second choice for travel if you can't make it to Tuscany during spring or autumn. Your chances of photographing some low fog are quite high so if you give yourself a few days in Tuscany, you should be able to capture some really dramatic shots! You will have to deal with the cold and short days, but I think winter is a far better choice compared to summer. 

Points of Interest in Val d'Orcia of Tuscany

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyThere is a lot to shoot in Val d'Orcia. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Now that we have covered in general the best time to come here, let’s explore the most popular photography locations in Tuscany. For obvious reasons, I won’t be able to write down all the locations that you’ll shoot: there are just too many! 

Podere Belvedere

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyPodere Belvedere is a wonderful location for photography in Tuscany. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

It’s hard to go more “Tuscany” than this. The Podere Belvedere is probably the most popular location of the area. It’s located around 500 meters before arriving to San Quirico d’Orcia and you can spot it if you look to your left (coming from Pienza) in between the olive trees. It’s not easy to spot, but if you stop in the area, you should be able to find it quite easily. Oh, be sure to be there for sunrise if you want to get the best possible light! 

Generally, I like to position the house on the lower part to the frame, give space to the hills in the background and finally a little bit of sky too on the upper third. But that’s not the only composition, you can also go wider (trying to keep out not-interesting things as much as possible) or zoom in more and exclude the sky, like in the photo down here. A 70-200mm is the lens to take here, without any doubt! 

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyRays of light in Tuscany. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

The Cypress Trees of San Quirico d’Orcia

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyCypress trees beneath a dramatic sky. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

I don’t think this place needs any introduction, right? It's one of the most popular locations for photography in Tuscany. The cypress trees are located on the freeway that takes you from San Quirico d’Orcia to Montalcino; they are quite easy to spot, but just in case, you’ll find them on the left while driving to Montalcino.

Since it’s a freeway and people are driving quite fast there, be sure to look around well before you cross the road!

The best time of the day to shoot the cypress trees is during sunset, with the last light of the day hitting the hills. If you are here during Milky Way season, the cypress trees work great as a foreground to include in your night shots! Both for night and day photography, I’d go there with a wide angle lens, something like the 16-35mm is perfect here.

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyCypress trees beneath the Milky Way. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Chapel of Madonna di Vitaleta

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyThe Chapel of Madonna di Vitaleta is beautiful at sunrise. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

This small chapel is another spot that you just can’t miss if you come to visit Tuscany. It’s located on the road that goes from Pienza to San Quirico d’Orcia. Coming from Pienza, it’s situated halfway to San Quirico on the left; it’s going to be quite small, since it’s on another hill!

The best time of the day to photograph the chapel is at sunrise, as the sun will be rising just behind it. You’ll need a telephoto lens here, around 300mm to nicely frame the place! 

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyThe first rays of light. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Podere Baccoleno

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyLight trails at Podere Baccoleno. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

The only place on this list that is not technically in Val d’Orcia is Podere Baccoleno. Don’t worry, it’s not far away though! It’s a 45 minutes drive from Pienza, really close to Asciano, another small town of the Siena countryside.

The best time of the day to go there for shooting is at sunset. A standard-zoom lens will be great here, something around 24-120mm or 24-105mm is perfect. The location offers many different perspectives, from the classic one that you can take from the hill above the house (like in the picture above) to the ones where you go down and play with the winding road, like in the picture below.

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyCypress trees line the road. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

A Few Post Processing Tips

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyProcess your photos to make the hills stand out. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

When it comes to post-processing your photos of Tuscany, you'll want to make the bright hills stand out and give a nice contrast to the whole scene.

Be sure to avoid clipping in the hills where they are hit by sunlight and not to make the shadows too dark. Working selectively with each part of the image using tools like curves, brightness/contrast and colour balance will help you achieve the best effects.



Useful Information for Travelling to Tuscany

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyTake note of the information below before you travel to Tuscany. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Language

The main language that is spoken in Tuscany is Italian. Given the level of tourism in Tuscany, you will find some store and restaurant owners who speak at least basic English. Hotel staff will generally speak English too. However, don’t expect to be understood everywhere, since the English language is not generally widely spoken in Tuscany. 

Money / Currency

At the moment, the currency in Italy is the Euro (€). Big stores, restaurants and hotels will accept credit and debit cards, but don’t expect to pay for everything with these. Small expenses like coffee, water and groceries are generally paid for with cash, so be sure to always have some with you. 

WiFi / Internet Coverage

While 4G mobile phone coverage is good pretty much everywhere in Tuscany, if your Internet provider doesn’t allow you to roam with acceptable costs and you want to use the WiFi networks of restaurants and hotels, you’ll probably be very disappointed.

The WiFi connections in Tuscany are really slow most of the time (if they're working at all), making it difficult to download emails, especially in hotels or restaurants. So remember to be really patient when trying to connect to WiFi and perhaps save your uploading of images for later, when you get home.

Ultimate Photography Guide to TuscanyNow you're ready to travel to Tuscany! Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.

Now that I've shared with you a lot of what I know about photographing Tuscany, I sincerely hope you can take this advice to plan your own Tuscany photography trip. Oh, and of course, while you are here, if you see me around in some photographic location (you can’t go wrong, a small guy with a blue jacket 99% of the time), please come by to say hello. I’m always available for a chat!


About the author:  Leonardo Papèra is a landscape photographer based in Italy. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Instagram.


Explore the rolling green hills of Tuscany and capture the golden mists in the morning over Val d'Orcia on this magical Tuscany Photography Tour!