Photographing Florence by night

My Photography Workshop, prides itself in creating flexible bespoke workshop itineraries based on all individual requirements, proposed holiday dates, personal requests and other essentials details.

Under the Tuscan moon, Florence shot throughout the night was a great idea and an inspiring challenge.

The extract below is from an exciting general enquiry email which arrived, via our website, during the first week of September requesting a night street photo workshop in Florence.

I am interested in shooting Florence by night - are you interested in this type of a “day” itinerary? Everything I have seen shows that Florence can be amazing to shoot at night.

Christopher is an amateur shooter with experience in landscape photography and has experimented with some architectural shooting at times. He was interested in working with MPW because of my broad perspective based on shooting commercial, landscape and portrait photography. While this is my experience, I have enjoyed teaching and being a mentor for a fair few years.

Before we met, we worked closely together refining the itinerary to meet all of Chris needs and I was delighted when we received his positive response and confirmation. I would enjoy observing his method in the early stages of the evening. Learning more about his approaches to a scene or situation and then providing any required guidance based on a common 'starting point'.

Additionally, we also made time to have very productive discussions covering our approaches, techniques, experiences and workflows. Chris wanted great vistas to create unique pictures and wished to follow my direction of how I would shoot Florence.

Fast forward, the 14th of September 2017 was a warm end of summer, Thursday in Florence, traffic was building into evening rush hour earlier than normal. At MPW we always plan to arrive early, and as such managed to park right in front of Santa Maria Novella train station, drop off my mornings’ Lightroom CC student and wait for keen American photographer Christopher.

The whole evening was to be enjoyed together, capturing images, during his one on one, MPW night photography Florence Street Workshop.

After arrival by train and initial introductions, we left Christopher’s bag in the car and went to do our visual Reece of the station which always provides a plethora of street images.

The station is not vast and after ten minutes we had completed our task, chosen interesting angles and evaluated the possibilities of returning to make captures later in the evening. By now it was late afternoon and traffic was moving at a very reduced pace, golden hour was rapidly approaching and we still had to arrive on location and park.

Our first port of call was to capture the most well-known and probably finest panorama of the birthplace of the Renaissance, from the multiple south-eastern vantage points offered in Piazzale Michelangelo.

We left the station car park and within five minutes crossed Ponte alla Carraia, travelled south along Via dei Serragli arriving directly to Porta Romana, the southernmost gate in the 13th-century walls of the Oltrano section of Florence.

As this was Chris’s first trip to Italy, his initial, introductory glimpses of the vistas appearing below on the North side of the Arno were taken from the Vialle Machiavelli which becomes Viale Galileo and finally Viale Michelangelo. This beautiful pine lined avenue winds past the magnificent Medici Boboli Gardens, onto the splendid Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte where it descends in the west through its array of picturesque curves that take you down to the river Arno at Ponte San Niccolò.

Arrival in the Piazzale Michelangelo was sweet, having turned in we were immediately escorted into the fifth parking bay, by an unofficial attendant, (tip paid for this service), and were organising equipment within minutes of purchasing a valid ticket. Time concerns evaporated, having only taken twenty minutes to transfer locations, leaving half an hour before the start of Golden Hour.

Florence Cathedral and 
Palazzo Vecchio captured from Piazzale Michelangelo by our student Chris
Florence Cathedral and Palazzo Vecchio captured from Piazzale Michelangelo by our student Chris

A sturdy Gitzo G1548GT tripod fitted with an RRS BH-55 Ballhead was selected by Chris as his Fuji XT-1 had an Arca-Swiss camera bracket fitted. We walked through the vast open space, past Michelangelo’s imposing bronze cast of David in the centre of this Florentine piazza and arrived at the closest ornamental balustrades that contain the north, east and western perimeters of the square.

It was fairly apparent that a fired up Chris was now experiencing what so many would agree is photographers delight;

Piazzale Michelangelo

A breathtaking panorama which captures the heart of Florence from Forte Belvedere to Santa Croce, across the lungarni and the bridges crossing the Arno. Including the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, the Bargello, the octagonal bell tower of the Badia Fiorentina and beyond the city onto the hills of Settignano and Fiesole.

Even though it was nearly the third week of September, the magnetic attraction of this elevated hillside square had not failed to attract a plentiful swarm of sunset gazers. We moved west along the piazza and concurred that the lower western platform would be the optimal vantage point.

The generous stone stairway was packed with vast quantities of picnickers, photographers with their future Brides and Grooms, selfie photo pros, numerous foreign language students and tourists, all sporting the obligatory drop jaw.

Chris selected his vantage point carefully along the railings, in one of the few gaps between the growing crowd. I managed to occupy the space to his right side which, together with extended tripod legs, guaranteed a working space that would clear any temporary obstructions, whilst creating panoramas or selected city details from one of Tuscany’s seven UNESCO heritage sites.

‘I would like to be at the best place at the right time’ was one of the most important requests Chris made and with just ten minutes to go before Golden hour arrived, Chris was in his preferred position at Florence’s finest photo vantage point. The forming clouds were a welcome addition to the sky in the panoramas Chris was creating with Florence radiating in the warm early evening light.

Chris was thrilled to see the arrival of the incoming clouds as they put on a show of incredible formations reflecting the vibrant colours of the sinking sun.

Breath taking view from Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence
Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence

Little did we know that the Tuscan summers first week of nebula formations would block the welcome direct rays of the days finest light and eliminate a memorable sunset. However, as you can see in the panorama above, the manner in which the clouds closed in a circle above the magnificent Brunelleschi Dome of the Duomo, created changing light conditions which allowed for a wide variety of images to be captured.

Concentration was high as we worked through blue hour when the street lights began to sparkle, providing a diverse light on our city canvas. Through Nautical and Astronomical twilight Chris continued to make plates for panorama stitching, including the required bracketed series to make sure that images could be blended before constructing the final panorama output images.

The whole experience was amplified by the camaraderie shown by all present. We enjoyed the cheerful banter of the numerous groups of students, filling the lower platform for that essential end of summer course group photo.

Whilst Chris worked the scene it was a pleasure not only to offer any required advice but to share what little space we had with folk wanting a precious memory to take home in the form of a selfie. We happily ducked down on many occasions, responding positively to every request, thereby not to spoiling the background for any others.

Capturing the scene through variations of colour and light, Chris zoomed in to create close up shots of the iconic sites followed by making plates for the panoramas. This procedure was repeated on a number of occasions, throughout a number of excellent lighting conditions. Chris and I left happy, once we had exhausted our capture opportunities.

It was obvious that Chris understood how to operate his XT1 with confidence, we had discussed required equipment and filters but with the fear of Filter to Lens reflection and the wish to travel light we had one tripod, one body - the Fuji XT1, a Fujinon XF 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 LM OIS lens, and as an alternative a Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 NCS CS lens.

Completing this session, we wished well to our new friends, returned to the car and headed down to the Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci an area where embassies and hotels provide ample safe street parking.

Walking along the northern banks of the Arno we discussed the other photo possibilities ahead of us. We were still experiencing dense partial cloud cover negating any possibility of creating Milky Way images. Unfortunately for Chris, who had experience shooting the milky way in remote locations and was looking forward to applying new techniques, in a city location with light pollution. Upon arrival at the Ponte Vecchio, we headed north into Piazza della Signoria and took the medieval street Via dei Calzaiuoli directly to Piazza del Duomo.

1/250, f 6.3, iso100 with a {lens type} at 35 mm on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III.  Photo: Cymon Taylor

Florence Street Photography

Sitting for a moment after arrival in the square Chris emphasised that he wished to make images of know places and this was one of them. At the same time, I made Chris aware that this was probably one of the best places where street images would be available throughout the evening.

Time was marching on towards eleven o’clock and we were in need of energy and refreshments. Nearby Trattoria Le Mossacce, one of our selected restaurants, had closed by now but very fortunately, we found a reasonable table in a trattoria in one of the neighbouring streets. After our meal, we returned to the cathedral square and continued to work there for a considerable time.

Chris had sufficient time to create captures considering composition, using various techniques, whilst we discussed equipment and shared opinions. The square is lit all night and Chris was able to move around the entire area selecting his angles for overall imposing architectural captures, graphic details and as importantly considering his optimum positions for impressive night street images. Mr Pizza a late night snack bar, attracting and feeding the late night folk who frequent the area in surprising numbers allowed a variety of unusual street scenarios for Chris to contemplate.

Refuge and a slice of pizza were taken in Mr Pizza, just as we circumnavigated the square, due to the insistent light drizzle, predicted in the early hours. At four o'clock we moved on as the bar closed and the rain ceased.

Night photography in Florence
Night street photography in Florence, Piazza del Duomo, by our student Chris

Chris had let us know that he is working on a series of reflections and he was interested in developing this photo series during the night. During 2007 Architect Maurizio Barabesi set out to recover a chaotic and dilapidated Piazza di Santa Maria Novella. His design set out to recover the square, aiming to make it another Florentine place of encounter and communication. In the centre, between the lawns and perpendicular to the two 16th –century obelisks, he installed seven benches made of different materials and colours namely cor-ten, wood, glass, stainless steel.

A play of transparency and opacity thanks to the presence of external and internal lights, reflective and rough surfaces and monitors that project images, attract, intrigue, stimulate communication and encounter among the people.

We arrived at this reference point of daily life, to the noise of early morning deliveries but effectively we were the only souls in the square. Chris confidently composed his first preferred shot from above one of the benches, creating the required reflections. We dried away the unwanted rain from the horizontal surfaces and a series of images were taken. Time was available to walk the whole square considering, capturing and refining images from many alternative angles whilst exploring the shapes and shadows formed by various lighting reflecting on the Albarese limestone surface of the Piazza.

As the noisy street cleaning vehicles arrived, we made our penultimate journey south to the Ponte alla Carraia where diverse captures of dawn ascent above the Ponte Vecchio are made. Chris took his first position on the northern side of the bridge and was able to make a series of captures, crossing the entire bridge before the street light went out.

Just like the evening, the cloud formations provided an interesting sky and subsequent variable lighting conditions. It was these breaks in the clouds at sunset and dawn which had us hoping for a burst of crepuscular rays that take image making to another level. However, it was Seven o’clock when Chris let on for the first time, that an ankle he twisted two days earlier was becoming uncomfortable. We waited and prayed for that special light moment for another ten or so minutes before finally calling a wrap as the clouds joined forces.

Through the night we bonded around our interest and love of photography not only accomplishing our unique adventure but ending the shoot as friends.

I collected the car and picked Chris up, luckily we were only a short distance from the station where we said our goodbyes and arranged how and when we would complete his MPW workshop debrief in the forthcoming weeks. It was a challenging and memorable night, the only pity, no opportunities to shoot under the Tuscan moon.

Street image 'Messengers' by our student Chris
Street image 'Messengers' by our student Chris

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