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The story behind the picture: Villa Vignamaggio

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 an image that has frequently appeared in books and magazines, including the front cover of one property guide, and is also one of the most popular photographs on LodgePhoto.com:

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, agricultural building, ancient, architectural, architecture, building, dark green, deep green, edifice, edifices, farm house, farmhouse, haze, horizontal, horizontals, landscape, mist, old, scenic, structures, travel, tuscany, weather
Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy

First of all, an answer to a frequently asked question: Yes, it's a true photograph and 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 Brannagh'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, the daughter of a wealthy Tuscan merchant. 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 accomodation. 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.

How do I take vivid, colorful landscape photographs?

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.

What kind of power adapter do I need in Europe?

Figuring out how to power cameras and other gadgets in Europe can seem tricky, but it's easy enough once you know how.

Florence streets lit by 220 volts
Florence streets lit by 220 volts

Lytro Light Field Camera Review

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:

Lytro light field camera
Lytro light field camera
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.  

Buying a digital camera: when megapixels don’t matter

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:

  • For a full-frame (35mm) SLR camera, 25 megapixels is about as good as it gets.
  • For a smaller "APS" digital SLR camera, about 20% smaller than 35mm, 10 megapixels is the point of diminishing returns, and 15 megapixels is on the edge (and has noticeably more noise)
  • For a pocket camera where the sensor is about 1/5th the size of 35mm, 4-5 megapixels is the point of diminishing returns, 10 megapixels is pushing it even at very wide apertures, and 12 megapixel or greater pocket cameras will take disappointingly fuzzy pictures at aperture f/2.8 or greater.

Traveling with photo gear & equipment

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?

1 Lodge Photo, France, architecture, blue, butress, cathedral, church, dame, east, eastern, flying, french, gothic, notre, paris, sunny, towers, verticals
Paris Notre Dame: Flying buttresses, not flying problems.

How to photograph fireworks

Photographing fireworks can be straightforward if you follow a few basic steps: 1) You need a camera where you can control the shutter speed. Digital SLR owners will be fine -- use manual or Shutter Priority modes, but also more and more "point and shoot" cameras now offer this kind of control. Very slow shutter speeds work the best because they offer the biggest chance of the shutter being open when the fireworks explode. 2) No flash required! Turn off any automatic flash or select a mode where the flash won't pop up. 3) Find a good spot for composition where you can set up a tripod or put the camera on a stable surface. This photo was taken with the camera sitting on a concrete parapet. Ideally, have something in the composition that you can use for focus lock and metering. In the photo, the focus point and metering was taken from the bridge. 4) Avoid camera shake from pushing the shutter release. If you have a remote release cable, use it. If not, make do by using the automatic timer (designed for self-portraits) -- push the release and then step away from the camera so it is completely stable when the timer expires and the shutter opens. 5) Select the lowest ISO you have on your camera. You want a long exposure, and at night low ISO means the shutter has to be open at least a second or two to collect enough light from the scene. Because the shutter will be open for a long time, the camera will be susceptible to noise. This means light noise (unwanted light from street lights, headlight reflections etc) and thermal noise (heat in the sensor that causes a film grain effect). The fireworks will be relatively bright, and so although they are short in duration they will be visible in the photo. This photo was taken at ISO 100. 6) Unless you are shooting directly up into the sky with no background, meter the scene where you'll take the photograph to set exposure. This goes back to composition -- choose a spot where you have something else for focus and to take a light reading. You can set focus and exposure, then move the camera to the final position for the shot -- this is what I did with the bridge in the photo. If in doubt, err on the side of over-exposure. With so little light in the scene it is unlikely to be catastrophic. Take a few test shots before the fireworks start to check exposure. 7) Once the firworks start, take lots and lots of photos! You never know what you will catch. Keep on clicking! If you have time, use image review to check shutter duration. If you see "streaky" fireworks, consider shortening the exposure (you can use Shutter Priority mode to ensure you get the same exposure at a faster shutter speed), or dial up the ISO.

Story behind the picture: Tuscan Plain from Volterra

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.

View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.
View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.

Links golf travel section

Links Best Of Golf magazine features a Lodge Photo image to head up its travel section in the Summer 2010 issue (page 65):

View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra
View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra

Better flash photography — when no flash is the right answer

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. San Francisco embaradero night skyline from Treasure Island 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.

Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches photo

Cadogan's guide to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches, 10th edition, features a Lodge Photo image on page 9, at the bottom. This is image IT-B-0111 from Tuscany.

The Myth Of More Megapixels

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.

Clos de Vougeot: Story Behind The Picture

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).

Clos de Vougeot

The story behind the picture: Fireworks over the Bay Bridge

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!

Fireworks burst near San Francisco Bay Bridge to celebrate Barry Bonds' 661st home run at SBC Park. California, USA

I drove to Yerba Buena island to take pictures of the city at night. I had just set up my camera to take photos of the bridge and San Francisco when fireworks started going off over SBC Park (as it was called at the time -- now AT&T Park). I turned my camera to the left, exposed for 5 seconds and carried on taking pictures until the fireworks were over. Perhaps the best photo of the lot is the one shown. The "cause celebre" for the fireworks was the 661st home run of Barry Bonds -- the most ever home runs in Major League baseball.

The story behind the picture: Joust Of The Saracens

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:

Joust of the Saracens, Arezzo

This is the Giostra del Saracino - Joust of the Saracens - held twice a year in Arezzo, Tuscany.

An afternoon in San Gimignano, Tuscany

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.

San Gimignano and two of its famous towers
San Gimignano towers
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.

Using Canon 50D and 5D MkII with older Photoshop and Lightroom versions

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.