Photography Workshop in Tuscany with Sam Scicluna

Travelling and photography

We all love to come home with great fun photos of our holidays whether it is a weekend in London or Sicily or a month in New Zealand am I right?

However, for those like me with a passion for travel and photography as well you want to be able to take in all beautiful areas of the place you visit and also take the best shots possible with your equipment. This is when choosing an excellent location and having an experienced landscape photographer taking you to the places with the best light and guiding you is essential. There are many gorgeous places in Europe that you can visit. I can say I have been lucky enough to visit several European countries (check out my Instagram and my blog for my travel pics and travel posts). Out of all these locations, Tuscany is up there with the best.

Winding roads and Cypress trees in Val D’orcia (Iphone photo)

I’ve wanted to take a photography tour/workshop abroad for quite a while, but with the pharmacy, I was never able to just book and go. Approximately four days before I signed the contract of sale for my pharmacy I won the MIPP (Malta Institute of Professional Photography) Photographer of the year award 2018, and that is when I met Sam Scicluna. We added each other on facebook, and the day I signed the sale his advert for this trip to Tuscany popped up on facebook. I thought it was a sign and booked on the spot. When I booked, I had plenty of grand ideas about driving through Tuscany camera in hand taking amazing photos! Those rolling hills went hand in hand with daydreams of myself eating as much pizza and gelato as I could shake a stick at.

Another Iphone capture of the Tuscan countryside

Now I didn’t get to eat nearly as much pizza and gelato as I would have liked (mainly because of food intolerance but that will be another post altogether) – but I did get to see tonnes of the fantastic rolling Tuscan countryside and take in as much of it as I could. We got to enjoy the most amazing spots whilst the sun is rising with light literally painting the scenery for my complete pleasure and I returned home with over 2000 images on my laptop (taking up 90 Gb of space – can you believe that?!)

Photographers have long been enchanted by Tuscany’s traditional, rustic villages steeped in history and culture. The surrounding hills are covered with vineyards producing some of the most fabulous wines in the world. I managed to buy my dad a Brunello wine from 2006 which I am sure he will love as Sam was kind enough to organise a visit at a vineyard as well. The wines in Tuscany are world famous, so if you ever visit Tuscany, I strongly recommend you take the time to do a wine tour and savour their fabulous wines.

Arrival

We were staying in a quaint little city called Montalcino. Sam took care of all the booking arrangements for us. We landed in Rome where he picked us up with a van and drove us to Montalcino. In this workshop, we were four attendees apart from Sam. It was myself and three lovely ladies from Michigan (Colleen, Lori and Shannon). We travelled in a large van so that everyone had a double seat to themselves – so spending five days in this Van was very comfortable. Being a small group had loads of advantages as Sam was able to give us all individual attention and pointers on what we all wanted to work on. So even though this was a workshop, there was still lots of room for personal views and ideas which I was thrilled about.

setting up for the perfect shot

We stayed in a nice small hotel called Hotel Dei Capitani with amazing views. The staff were accommodating and friendly and the breakfast delicious – they even had gluten free bread and muffins available. The room was always very clean, and we all had loads of photo equipment and computers with us and felt safe leaving all our expensive stuff in this hotel.

The first day of shooting was the hardest as we were running on 3 hours of sleep but we all got up to photograph the amazing cypress trees and oh my was it worth it. The sky decided to give us an amazing show of colours and at that moment I forgot all about my lack of sleep and got lost in the surroundings. I bought myself a new camera and this was the perfect place to give it a test run. Sam was really helpful in that he guided us to places for best composition and explained how different settings would help us capture the amazing light better.

our first morning in Tuscany

We then returned to the hotel to get some sleep and later explore the village. Montalcino has an impressive Museum, quaint shops and scenic views from the prime hilltop location.

Montalcino

My equipment

Apart from a few iPhone shots, I shot this entire trip with the new Sony a7riii mirrorless camera. I still have mixed feelings about this camera – I got to discover loads of new features that my other camera did not have and the images are tack sharp and super high quality, but it did have a problem saving some of my pictures. I also tried using Arsenal as a timer and was very disappointed in that only the first six images I took with arsenal saved to my camera the rest were lost entirely. However, overall I am thrilled with the image quality and cannot wait to get editing.

Shooting Twilight with the Arsenal attached to my camera

Sam advised us to bring a wide angle lens, a mid-range lens and a zoom lens with us – It’s a good thing I followed his recommendations as I got to use all of them in different situations.

I was quite annoyed with my heavy tripod as it made carrying it around quite uncomfortable apart from the fact that my tripod was not so flexible to use in all situations. Apart from the fact that it is a metal tripod and it was pretty cold early in the morning my hands were freezing trying to hold on to it. I will be purchasing a newer tripod so if you have not yet bought a tripod but wish to travel with it put in some research so that you are purchasing the right equipment for you. Both Sam and the other ladies were very helpful in recommending an ideal tripod for me to buy next.

The benefit of having good equipment – you can use it to your advantage in every situation.

Twilight

In the evening we got to shoot for the blue hour (twilight) at the Abbey Sant’Antimo, a historic Romanesque abbey in a scenic area with a bookstore open to the public. There’s daily prayer with some prayer times, and it’s interesting to visit while the monks are chanting. However, we were all much more interested in shooting at the right light to think about the monks. We set up our tripods, and Sam demonstrated how to use Haida Filters to get amazing long exposure photographs. If you have never used filters, these are a great way to improve images with moving water or moving clouds/fog. And Sam is an expert in this technique and can guide you on how to make the best use of these filters at a workshop.

It was interesting shooting here as the blue hour has its own charm apart from learning new techniques in how to shoot in very low light.

The following days

We got up early every day to shoot several different sunrise locations such as the Podere Belvedere farmhouse, the famous Capella Madonna di Vitaletta as well as several other cypress tree locations – you will see them all on my Instagram in the coming days. I cannot thank Sam enough for driving us all at that super early hour to the perfect locations in those very narrow winding roads which must not have been easy. We did not need to think about parking; GPS locations and finding the right spot to catch the perfect light as he was there to teach us and guide us even concerning the best composition and settings to use.

Setting up to shoot the famous Capella Madonna di Vitaletta

On one of the nights, we even managed to do some night time shooting to get pictures of the stars and explored the concept of light painting to get the desired outcome out of these images as well.

History and photography come together

We also got to visit San Quirico d’Orcia which sits high on a hill between Pienza and Montalcino. As you come into town, you might recognize the cluster of cypress trees we shot on our first morning that stands like sentinels on the hill. You’ll see many more of these trees as you travel around, but this cluster literally stands alone. 

The town was an essential stop in Medieval times for its location along the Via Francigena, the pilgrimage route which connected northern Europe to Rome. Most of San Quirico’s fortified walls are still standing, and cars are not allowed inside. So leave your car outside the city walls and walk from there. One of the most exciting sites to see is the gardens at the Horti Leonini, which we got to visit during the day.

Sam also took the time to find amazing restaurants for us to eat at that were another highlight on this trip of course – once you are in Italy you must enjoy their food. Tuscany is well known for its great cuts of meat and truffles and I got to indulge in both on this trip.

The steak was amazing – No I did not eat it all alone)

We also managed to visit Siena. Siena, is charming and quiet but still very majestic. Its sleepy, pastel-stoned streets are in medieval contrast to the grandeur of Florence’s Renaissance heart. The Piazza Del Campo is considered as one of Europe’s finest medieval squares, with the fearless ‘Torre del Mangia’ that rises high above it into the sky. It’s hard to avoid the feeling of admiration when you stand on the edge of the Piazza Del Campo.

You’ll want to have the experience of exploring Siena and to find out that you’re located on one of the three hills of the city. And that you’ll see one of the other hills from that point of view.

We got to walk to the Duomo di Siena a.k.a. Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta which serves as one of the top cultural landmarks in town. It was designed and completed between 1215 and 1263.

The Cathedral is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary and story goes that she helped Siena’s famous victory at Montaperti in 1260 against Florence. One of the most typical features of the Cathedral is the dark green and white columns and striking decorations.

There is no better way of having a better experience than when you walk around in Siena in the early evening. Around this time the street lights shimmer and they decorate the streets of Siena with bright golden light.

All of this makes this city a street photographers dream. So this trip satisfied not only my love for photography and good food but also my nerdy love for history. Those who know me know how passionate I am about all three of these subjects.

Editing our photos

Sam also blocked out some time for us to go over basics of photo editing which for someone who has not got much experience is really useful. I myself have done a one to one course about photoshop but I still got to learn something new during these sessions as I had never used Lightroom before.

Last night in Rome

Our last night was spent in Rome and we managed to shoot sunset and Twilight with the Castello Sant Angelo and Vatican as our main protagonists. I must admit that that once I was shooting in Rome I could have easily stayed on a few more days to keep shooting this majestic city. So I am hoping Sam decides to organise a workshop in Rome too as I will be one of the first to book it.

My conclusions

It is no wonder that Tuscany is one of the most visited Italian regions. The fortified villages, castles and photographically perfect small towns display their history, in every stone, winding alley and open plaza.

Many of these places are built on the high points of their locality, and thus offer stunning views in all directions across the lower lands. Choosing to visit this area with an experienced photographer not only meant we get to go to the best locations but also to shoot them at the right time of day and getting to learn more about shooting in different lights.

Tuscany is a land of rich variation full of amazing scenery, two natural park areas, plenty of scenic winding roads leading to medieval villages high on vantage points. And even thermal springs. What more incentive behind the lens do you need?

It is not by accident that many filmmakers have used Tuscany for the backdrop of their movies, including Gladiator with Russell Crowe, Stealing Beauty with Liv Tyler, La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) and The English Patient. Even parts of the Twilight saga used the streets and alleys of the fourteenth-century historical centre of Volterra. So if you are looking to go home with some absolute picture perfect photos then booking a photo tour with an expert like Sam is the way to go.

If Tuscany is good enough for the best filmmakers, then it has to be good enough for photographers – amateur and professional alike.

I cannot recommend these workshops enough. I came home motivated and inspired. With plenty of amazing photos to work on and with four new friends who can understand my love and passion for photography. Sam is down to earth and approachable – it was a pleasure getting to know him on this tour and being guided by him – his advice was invaluable for me to come home with some great shots that will be hanging on my walls for years to come. And Colleen, Lori and Shannon were smart, sweet and funny travel companions. I never met anyone from Michigan before and hope I will manage to make it out to Michigan to shoot all the fantastic scenery they showed me someday soon.

The four participants of this workshop. Myself, Lori next to me, Colleen and Shannon
And the four of us with Sam our teacher for this workshop

Sam is organising another workshop in the Dolomites this summer so if you also want to experience such a workshop book today – I believe he only has a couple of places left. You can visit his website for more details

Almost all the photos on this post were taken with my Iphone please follow me on Instagram and Facebook you can find me as Roadtobelle on both to see all the amazing shots in a few days.