Recently I spent a weekend doing an activity I love, in an area that I knew I’d love, and it’s kicked off something of an obsession. The activity is photography – a long-time hobby of mine – and the location is the Kronplatz area of the Dolomites, in South Tyrol. Two years ago, Tommaso and I already found out that these mountains are fantastic in the summer, both from the point of view of a cooler-weather experience and as a place that is fun to capture in photos.
So when I was invited by a company called Master Photo Tour and by the tourist board of Kronplatz to return for an intense weekend photographing in the mountains, I jumped for joy. My joy was, however, soon replaced by a feeling of total inadequacy when I saw what great photographers were included in the tour. Luckily, when we got there, rather than making me feel like I knew nothing, this community of photographers proved truly welcoming and the experience has garnered a personal dedication to improving the photos I take. Here are a few things I learned through this experience.
I have to start waking up really early
The thing that makes me happiest in life, bar none, is sleep. I have always been someone who needs more hours of sleep than your average bear. I’m crabby and dysfunctional if I don’t get it. So it turns out that photographers have a habit of getting up before the sun rises in order to get into position and wait for optimal light. In Italy in the summer that means 4:30am, which for me is the exact time I turn over after 6 hours of shut-eye, go pee, and head in for another 3-4 hours. Sunset is another favourite photo-op, of course, which means being out at 9:30pm, an ideal time for having put the dishwasher on after dinner and settled in for a night of Netflix. I’m not going to be able to incorporate shooting at these times into my daily life, but maybe I can do it occasionally on the weekend. In the winter.
On our weekend in the Dolomites, our group had a 5am wake-up call for a drive up the service road that gives access to a hut some 2000 meters up. We were privileged that we didn’t have to walk two hours uphill, normally the only way to get there. Here, we met the sun just rising over this mountain peak, where it danced on streams with mossy rocks and made a mirror out of a high-altitude lake. And it was worth waking up early.
Creativity is infinite so we can all share
You’d think that a group of nine photographers let loose in the landscape might produce at least a few of the “same” photos. And yes, most of us did one shot of water and a hut, but they are all totally different. Why?
1/ For one, we all had different equipment, and different abilities to use it. In my case, I felt like my cameras were insufficient to achieve what I wanted in this challenging light, so I got some help and got a few okay photos. Ability is part fact, part perception.
2/ Second, we all have a different eye for composition. We spread out and got into different positions. Some, like super Instagrammer Laura Masi, like to be in the picture, and will sacrifice everything to get the right shot (in her case, wet boots for the rest of the day). Alessia likes to be alone in nature and tends to set up with a tripod and filters for a very lengthy, technical approach. Loic immediately spotted something far away from the group so featured a different part of the landscape than the others.
3/ Third, results differ because we all edit differently. Both Loic and Gianluca edit for very crisp image that has a distinct colour profile and light that you’ll notice is consistent throughout their profiles. Others may opt for a different kind of light, colour or saturation, or no colour at all, like street-photographer Nico Gooden’s fantastic black and white interpretations of the mountain.
Photography requires investment; I need to start
I have been taking photos my whole life. In my house, there were always good cameras around, and also a darkroom. In high school I got a Nikon SRL and enjoyed using the school darkroom, a habit I continued 1-2 days a week throughout university, where I took experimental photography alongside my art history and humanities double major. In retrospect, I realize how much the focus (sorry for the pun) back then was on darkroom technique. We learned the basic theories of ISO, F-stop and shutter speed but we never went out shooting as a class. With digital photography, Photoshop (or Lightroom) is our darkroom, and that’s a skill you can easily learn; meanwhile cameras have evolved so much and I haven’t really learned how to use them any differently than I used my Nikon more than 25 years ago.
Photography takes a double investment, in time and in equipment. The equipment is the easier part: I have a long list of things I want, and eventually I will save up and buy them. But then there’s the personal part. I was blown away by Alessia’s story (see the embedded Instagram photo above and follow her!). She said she only started taking pictures two years ago. She bought a Canon DSLR and a beginner photography course for her husband, who took one class and said it was boring. So she went in his place, thinking she didn’t have a creative bone in her body. Turns out her mathematical brain (she works in accounting) matches with a great eye and she’s a natural. But she’s also super dedicated. She’s taken tons of weekend workshops but often gets up for early morning shots in the mountains (luckily she lives in Trent) before going in to work. And she does most of this alone, carrying a huge, heavy bag. I wish I could take pictures like Alessia’s, but I don’t think my lifestyle and priorities allow for that kind of dedication. Maybe one day, maybe not. I’ll have to come to terms with that.
Photographers are generous and kind
A good photographer, I think, is one who is happy to share his or her tips with you. I will never forget how Antonio Cinotti, an early-rising photographer who merits tons of credit, once gave me a cool tip about photographing puddles during an Instawalk in Florence. He’s someone who doesn’t keep secrets and loves to share his passion. Master Photo Tour picked a fantastic, generous group, which was guided by Nikon Ambassador Mattia Bonavida. As this group’s local expert, he was the first person I turned to for technical tips, and he gave me some good ones.
But everyone that weekend contributed to how I feel about photography in some way. Barcelona-based Sam Zucker’s awesome honesty, insights and encouragement made me realize the struggle I feel about my visual abilities (and other stuff) is totally normal and can be overcome. Photog couple Nico and Chrystal’s sharing of cameras and techniques make me realize I should more generously encourage my husband’s (photo and other) aspirations. Both Alessia and Mattia gave me some tips about shooting with flowers in the foreground that resulted in me producing a picture I am really happy with; and you know, if you do something once, chances are you can do it again. Gianluca and Laura generously shared some social media tips. And the extra time I got to spend with my good friend Georgette was better than any therapy you can pay for.
This is a very concrete example of personal growth, and my frequent readers will know that I don’t normally write about these things. But I wanted to for two reasons. First, as a kind of public declaration that I promise to try to take better pictures from now on, and that I hope it will show on my instagram. I’d love to get your feedback on this.
And second, to talk about what could happen with a good leader and group on a photo tour. Master Photo Tour is a new Trent-based start-up that offers photographic experiences with experts in major Italian and European cities. Just as they picked the super crowd for this trip, they’ve scouted some great photographers in each location. These are people that are willing to share their secret spots and technical tips with you. Even if you use a point and shoot or your iPhone, if you enjoy taking and sharing good pictures, maybe consider a photo tour on your next vacation. I hope to try some of their city tours soon and will let you know how it goes!
About the destination: Kronplatz is a mountain area in the South Tyrol area of the Dolomites. Its peak, accessible by gondola, is at 2225m. A popular ski and snowboard destination, in the summertime the area offers a variety of outdoors experiences. Also, at the top of the mountain is a beautiful museum designed by Zaha Hadid. The area is rich in landscape, traditions and… rich food! With the ever-increasing global temperature, I’d seriously consider moving there.
Disclaimer: I spent the weekend in San Vigilio di Marebbe hosted by the Kronplatz tourist board on a trip organized by Master Photo Tour. We were asked to share the experience through photos and writing, but all evaluations are my own.