Every great photograph tells a story, but I often find it interesting to read the story behind the photograph -- and hence this occasional series of posts. This time it is the turn of Villa Vignamaggio that has frequently appeared in books and magazines. It has starred on the front cover of one property guide, and it's also one of the most popular photographs on LodgePhoto.com:
First of all, an answer to a frequently asked question: No, the haze behind the farmhouse has not been "photoshopped" into the image! Vignamaggio is a charming Tuscan renaissance villa clinging to the hillside above the town of Greve in Chianti. We first found it while renting a villa a short distance away, further up the road. We saw it was a winery and that was enough by itself for us to stop -- but we also knew that Vignamaggio was the location for Kenneth Branagh's joyous 1993 Shakespeare film adaptation, Much Ado About Nothing.
Today, the villa is an upscale B&B and winery and had billed itself as "The Birthplace Of Mona Lisa" until just a few years ago. This leads to second most frequently asked question: is it really, truly the birthplace of Mona Lisa, sitter for perhaps the most famous portrait ever? Well... no, sorry. The literature at the villa claims Lisa Gherardini, the subject of Mona Lisa, was born at Vignamaggio in 1479. There's just one problem with this: the Gherardinis had sold Vignamaggio 50 years before Lisa was born, and the baptistry records in Florence are clear: she was born and baptised there.
There has been intense speculation over the "actual" identity of the model for Leonardo Da Vinci's painting. Renaissance art historian Vasari states that it was Lisa Giocondo (nee Gherardini) in his "Lives of the artists". The only problem was that Vasari was writing 30 years after Leonardo's death, which was enough wiggle room for some to suggest that Vasari was mistaken and that the sitter was Leonardo himself, or Isabella of Aragon, or Leonardo's mother, or... you get the picture.
In 2005, an academic at the University of Heidelberg discovered a note scribbled in the margin of a book that is contemporary with the time of the painting. It positively identifies the sitter as Lisa Giocondo. Lisa was married to a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, and this gave rise to the other name of the painting: La Gioconda -- also a pun on the jovial expression Leonardo painted.
But no matter: today, a visit to Villa Vignamaggio is primarily about wine and/or olive oil, or to stay in its Bed & Breakfast accommodation. The villa's Mona Lisa Chianti Classico Riserva is excellent, and they also make a range of "Super Tuscans" -- wines grown locally that don't meet the technical criteria to qualify as Chianti Classico. Don't let that put you off: only wines made almost entirely from Sangiovese can be Chiantis, so a really good Tuscan cabernet has to be called something else!
The picture was taken with a long lens late on a summer afternoon looking down from the villa itself. One of the things that makes this picture is the quality of light, a natural gift in that part of the world, which is largely responsible for the saturated color of the tile and stone. The atmospheric conditions common at that time of year (September) cause the haze, making for a pleasing contrast between the foreground and the background. Quality of light is one of the most important ingredients in "available light" photography, and is one reason why waiting for the right light can make a huge difference to a picture. That's also my excuse for enjoying a leisurely Italian lunch with a glass or two of wine: the light's too strong! Finally, the long lens is important because it helps to blur the background, improving the contrast and composition.
Vignamaggio is a magical place to visit or stay, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
I've been asked how to take colorful landscape photographs a couple of different times, and ended up writing an answer on Quora and republishing it here. It's always best to get the shot right in the camera versus focusing on post-processing. While I always shoot RAW as that gives me the most leeway to fix anything later and add artistic effects, it's a bad habit to rely on later RAW processing to fix things you can get right in the camera. The good news? There are two common reasons for washed out, low contrast images, and only one extra trick that's worth knowing to get vivid, colorful photographs.
Figuring out how to power cameras and other gadgets in Europe can seem tricky, but it's easy enough once you know how.
Photography began with the concept of capturing light in a single plane -- the idea of what's in and out of focus in an image has been central to photographic composition for more than 100 years. The photographer's job has been to direct the viewer's attention by deciding which subjects are in focus, while ensuring that the background (and less frequently, the foreground) are appropriately blurred. The Lytro camera turns that entire concept on its head by delivering a "living image" where the viewer can change the point of focus to explore the image. When my Lytro arrived, I couldn't wait to try it out. What follows is my review of the 1.0.0 version of the Lytro camera and 1.0.0 software following my attempts to take good photographs. I'd love to embed some Lytro photos in this post, but that doesn't seem to work. So, instead, here's a link to my Lytro gallery (opens in a new window): Lytro example The Lytro camera "out of box" experience is very well done and will be very familiar to anyone who owns an iPod or iPhone. It comes in a white box, with the camera held firmly in place with plastic inserts. Underneath the camera is a white cardboard box containing the paperwork, lens cap, cleaning cloth, wrist strap and USB cable. The camera itself is small -- just 4.4 inches long -- and arrives with some charge in the battery so you can start shooting immediately. It's shaped like a square tube, with the lens at one end and a small viewing screen at the other: A small power button on the bottom turns on the camera, and the shutter button is on the top. Zooming is accomplished by dragging a finger left and right on the rear top edge of the camera. It's a little clunky, as it can be hard to set just the right composition, but it works. The camera is fully automatic: it sets shutter speed and ISO automatically with a fixed f2 aperture. You can tap on the rear screen to tell the camera the exposure metering point and it will do its best. The Lytro needs a wide aperture to capture the best light field -- the direction of the light as well as its intensity and color. There's a little clicking sound when you point the camera at a very bright object like the sky on a sunny day, and exposure is reduced. I suspect it's inserting a neutral density filter inside the lens barrel to reduce the light intensity. In "Everyday mode" (the default), the Lytro takes photos instantaneously when you press the shutter button. Lytro makes much of this "instant capture" capability in its marketing, because a light field camera doesn't have to focus. In theory, yes. In practice, not so much, which is why there's "Creative mode", accessed by swiping a finger upwards on the rear screen and tapping a small icon, allowing you to focus the camera. The physics of optics has crashed the "focus free" light field party here: the camera has to focus the lens so that the captured light field has a useful range of potential focus planes. The net? The Lytro camera requires very careful framing and composition of subjects to give the viewer an interesting set of subjects separated by distance. While the camera might be point and shoot, the composition work is anything but instantaneous! Creative mode offers more flexibility in composing the subjects by distance (handy if they are inanimate) and careful control of the camera to ensure it is properly "focused". The square (1:1) aspect ratio of the image doesn't help with composition, making it hard to get everything into the frame. The camera would be easier to use if it had a wide aspect ratio, as there would be more room in the frame for the subjects. This is really the crux of the challenge presented by the Lytro: how to use it to produce an effective photograph that is interesting and aesthetically pleasing for the viewer. Many of the examples on the Lytro website are contrived compositions with near and far elements to show off the novelty of being able to re-focus after the fact. If that is all there is for light field images, then its impact on photography has been dramatically over-hyped. Plugging the camera into your Mac (Windows support just shipped) allows you to install the Lytro Desktop software -- a nice touch. Once installed, you unplug and replug the camera to download images. You can then view the images -- though not at full size -- and change the focus point. You can also share images on Facebook and Lytro's own website, and export JPEGs (so I'm told -- I have never managed to find this function in the software). The only effective way to show an image is through the flash file stored on the Lytro website, which is severely limiting. Lytro touts the camera's low-light capabilities, but I think that's a mistake. There is significant noise, banding, lines and other odd artefacts in low light. Shutter speeds are low, even at f2, so camera shake is a real problem, and there's no flash integration. Overall, the Lytro camera is intriguing more for future possibilities than what it can do today. Version 1.0.0 is pretty basic and effective composition is extremely time-consuming and requires full cooperation of your subjects. With light field photography, we ought to be able to produce 3D photographs, change the viewers position, tilt and shift the plane of focus to our liking... there are many more possibilities than capabilities in the current software. Today, I find myself leaving the Lytro at home more often than I take it out, and that's a shame.
Thinking about buying a new digital camera? The best advice I can give you is to avoid maxing out megapixels and you'll get sharper photographs with less grain (noise). This seems counter-intuitive, but is the effect of camera technology running into physical limitations of lenses and light itself. David Goldstein has written a full-length paper that explains the physics, but here are the key take-aways on megapixels:
Traveling with photo gear is much harder than it used to be. Airport security is becoming more and more restrictive. US airport security now has a ban on carrying rechargeable batteries without a container: they must be in a case and not loose in your bag. Multiply this with airport security staff of little understanding and the full authority of Homeland Security, and life can be difficult. So what can you do to minimize traveling friction and get yourself and your gear to your destination safely?
This photo recently featured as the travel section lead in Links Best Of Golf magazine, and was taken from a ruined monastery on the edge of Volterra, Tuscany. The town itself is at the top of a rocky outcrop west of San Gimignano, and the north-western side has been eroding for hundreds of years. Many buildings are already at the base of the cliffs, and this Pisan-style monastery was abandoned years ago. It was late in the day, and as the sun set from the West it lit up the rolling Tuscan plain, framed by the old stone window.
Links Best Of Golf magazine features a Lodge Photo image to head up its travel section in the Summer 2010 issue (page 65):
If you stand at night on the Northern edge of San Francisco, just along from the Bay Bridge on the Embarcadero, and look towards the island that anchors one end of the suspension bridge, you will see a flicker of tiny flashes of light by the water line. This is not some strange atmospheric phenomena, but camera flashes from visitors taking pictures of the San Francisco skyline at night. The sad part about this is that it can be seen pretty much every night and all of those pictures are not going to come out as expected -- but it does illustrate the trouble many have with controlling camera flash. At the other extreme, there are those who have sworn never to use flash, ever. While I don't agree with that, you can take a first step to improving the quality of photos taken with a compact camera by turning off the flash function. If you don't know how to do it (and boy, do some manufacturers make it hard to figure out) then now is the time to look up flash in the manual and start reading.
On a recent trip to Asia, I was browsing an electronics duty free store in Tokyo airport, chock full of the latest cameras. Not being able to read Japanese, the only recognizable characters in the displays were the numbers -- the number of megapixels, for the most part.
And that made me think, because this figure has become so important to digital camera sales. More megapixels sounds like a great idea, because it means more resolution for your pictures -- they’re clearer and can be made into larger prints – right? Well, not quite. It's possible an older camera with fewer megapixels actually produces cleaner, more detailed pictures.
The chateau of Clos de Vougeot is nestled in the vineyards of Burgundy, the area of Eastern France close to Dijon that brings us delightful red wine. Lighter than the more famous Bordeaux, I like Burgundies because of their delicacy and the way they complement and flatter food. The photograph you see here is of the original 12th century monastery building, built by Cistercian monks from nearby Citeaux (Da Vinci Code fans note: the abbot of Citeaux is supposedly the person who convinced the Pope to create the Templar order to protect the Priory of Scion, thus beginning a huge conspiracy to bring down the Catholic church).
The Bay Bridge over San Francisco Bay, and fireworks bursting in the distance. Who could have planned it better? Well, not me, that's for sure!
On the front page of Lodge Photo is a crop from a photo showing a man on a horse with a lance, tilting at a strange target. It's one of a sequence of four:
I uploaded some new photographs of San Gimignano recently, a small town between Florence and Siena (on the road to Volterra) that has become famous for its medieval towers -- "The Manhattan Of Tuscany", as some tours call it. It's certainly on the tourist map these days, so here's my recommendation for a half day in San Gimignano that allows you both to enjoy the town and what it offers and take some great photographs.
Judging by the comments on photography sites, many people have yet to upgrade Adobe Photoshop CS3 to CS4, or Lightroom 1.x to 2.x. Adobe doesn't update the Camera Raw plug-in for older versions of Photoshop, which is a problem because updates are the only way to get support for new camera models. The same problem exists for Lightroom, where a new version of the program is required. The Canon 50D isn't supported in Lightroom 1.4 -- only version 2.x. While the 50D is supported in Camera Raw 4.6, which means you can use it with Photoshop CS3, owners of the 5D Mark II are not so lucky: no support in Lightroom 1.4 and no support in Photoshop CS3 either; it's supported in Camera Raw 5.2 which only works with Photoshop CS4. To solve this problem, use the latest version of Adobe's free DNG (Digital NeGative) converter to translate the RAW files from newer cameras into .DNG files. Lightroom 1.4 and Photoshop CS3 can open any DNG file, regardless of the original camera type. The DNG converter can be found here, and there are PC and Mac variants. It is updated at the same time as the Camera Raw plug-in for Photoshop when new camera support is added. It works in batch mode -- you point it at a directory (folder) full of RAW files and it grinds away creating DNGs in another directory. Taking the long view, DNG is probably a better file format for archiving images because it is open, unlike the proprietary camera-makers' RAW file formats.