#360. Travel photography lessons from Vaison la Romaine. 6 hours under a baking sun.

By pascaljappy | How-To

Jun 04

Here’s a location most visitors to Provence will want to add to their must-see list.

Vaison la Romaine has it all: some of the best ruins in the old Roman empire, a medieval village on a hill, a river, stunning views over the Mont Ventoux and surrounding vineyards (it’s only a few miles away from Chateauneuf du Pape), cafés, exotic cars, you name it. And yet, during my very brief visit last week-end, it was quite challenging to photograph well.

Poppies ont he roadside in Vaison la omaine, Provence. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Dream poppies

Since my quick walk-about in between appointments closely mirrors the experience of tourists on a schedule, it’s worth talking about how I approach travel-photography in such conditions.

First, let’s repeat my personal definition of travel photography: available light, available sight, available time. Your definition may be a lot more purist. Some lucky people travel specifically for photography. That doesn’t count. What I’m referring to is making the most of what is available when you happen to be around.

A fountain in the shade. Vaison la Romaine, Provence. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

A fountain in the shade. Vaison la Romaine.

To me, there are two keys to success in such conditions:

(1) Striking a correct balance between visually pleasing images and memory shots that capture the essence of a place you might never return to
(2) Dealing with the lighting conditions


Striking a suitable art – souvenir balance

The following two photographs were made within meters of one another in the Maison du Dauphin site. Both are valid travel photographs: one a postcard, one a free interpretation on the idea of a plant struggling to survive in the cracks of a stone wall under a fierce sun.

A dature plant growing in the cracks in the wall of Maison du Dauphin, Vaison la Romaine. Sony A7r & OTUS 85/1.4

Maison du Dauphin, Vaison la Romaine

The first is less likely to help recollect the moment. The second will, but may not satisfy your creative drive. A combination of both on your memory card is the best approach, and lets you place the keeper-slider where you want it between the Tourist and Artist extremes, after the shoot, once you have returned home.

A provençal villa built on the grounds of Maison du Dauphin, Vaison la Romaine. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Maison du Dauphin, Vaison la Romaine II

Ditto here, in a single picture. Should I frame the whole church or only an interesting detail ?

I’d get bored with identity photographs of churches of Provence, since I live there. So I will focus on what makes each different from the other. But someone traveling to Southern France for the first time might feel differently and might be more interested in the general architecture.

It’s best to give this some thought before you visit. Returning with too many photographs does very little to help you find the best. Know what you are looking for before you arrive and be open to unplanned surprises.

Strange stairs outside a church in Vaison la Romaine. Sony Ar & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Stairway to Heaven

Let’s deal with the thorny issue of including family members or friends in the frame. While the desire to picture your loved ones in your travels is understandable, it’s hard to think something more unbearably boring that having to wade through 300 photographs of a place you don’t know with someone else’s family / friends occupying center place. If you make photographs like these, don’t plan on sharing them. And even you will eventually tire of them. So, nothing wrong with family snapping, but the operative word, here, is “include”. Not “dominate”.

Human beings bring life to a picture. Photograph your friends and family in the context of the location rather than overlay them in a rigid smily pose. Best of both worlds, right ?

Family member in the cloisters of Vaison la romaine. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Cloister portrait, Vaison la Romaine

Museums, attractions and other cultural locations can also provide opportunities for interesting photographs as well as many traps for needless card-filling. Try to look beyond the subject. This statuette seemed pretty at first glance, but would have had little lasting value if the lighting hadn’t drawn wings around it. Unless something is a particular importance to you for what it is, always try to focus only on objects set in visually interesting contexts, beyond their appearance. Look for meaning outside the object itself.

A branze statuette of Mercury with wings of light in the archeology museum in Vaison la Romaine. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Hermetic or Mercurial ?


Dealing with available light

There’s no such thing as bad light. Authors selling pre-packaged recipe books and forum-stars will do their best to inflict upon you their rules of conduct for good photography. Laughing is your best option. Laughing and a high dynamic-range camera.

Today, there are very few bad cameras on the market (except compacts, of which 99% are terrible and can safely be replaced with modern smartphones). Forget tests from biased reviewers and publications living on advertising. Today, there is ONE thing you want in a travel camera: dynamic range. HDR isn’t a substitute. A good native dynamic range lets you decide how to process your images in the quiet of your home and offers you multiple interpretation opportunities in the future.

DSC09527-ModifierLens choice comes a distant second, followed by ergonomics.

Given this brief, I chose the Sony A7r in spite of its maddening shortcomings. The sensor in this camera can deal with almost anything you can throw at it, and that is immensely precious when traveling fast. Since it can use Canon, Nikon, Leica, Sony, Olympus, Jupiter, Zeiss, Minolta, Voigtlander (…) glass, it also has the best lens range on the planet. And its ergonomics are, … err, well let’s just move on. Any camera with good DR will do.

DSC09507DSC09506-Modifier-2N°2 take-away: Dynamic range rules for travel photography.

N°1 take-away: There’s no such thing as bad light. But not because of N°2. Not because modern technology enables us to tame any light and bend it any which way.

There’s no such thing as bad light because light is an essential part of the location’s atmosphère. The light of Northern Italy is nothing like the light of nearby Provence, of Scotland, of Southern Texas or of Bali. Capturing light as it is is the essence of travel photography. The sun-drenched balconies above are nothing but old facades if you capture them in warm morning light.

Of course, some taming of the light is essential. The ability to capture every detail and post process later, as your memory of the place guides you to, rather than as your predetermined photographic rules dictate is what will make your photographs your own. Working from memory is even better than working on the spot. Memory exaggerates, filters, layers your psyche onto the original photon shower. It’s called creativity. If misty mornings are your thing, go capture and enhance misty mornings. Harsh midday sun emphasizing shape and texture ? Ditto.

The fortified walls of medieval Vaison la Romaine on a promontary. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4.

Medieval Vaison la Romaine

How you process the photographs depends on your goals.

None of the photographs on this page will ever trickle up to the top of Digg or receive accolades on Flickr. But my hair’s too grey for me to worry about such social fame, and 20 very acceptable photographs in a fun day with my family is a very satisfying result, given the initial brief (available everything).

More importantly, one of two of these I really like. The fountain in the shadow is one I would print and hang, were I not too lazy for words. The spontaneous portrait of my wife would please me in a family album, had I the moral decency to maintain one. The green parasols below really please my eye as well. That photo screams “Provence village” more than any pre-dawn tripod shot of nearby Mont-Ventoux. Not that I’m claiming superiority to that more deliberate approach, only equal rights 😉

Lenses also play a big role. Bright lenses such as the FE 55/1.8 are marvelous to breathe life into dull lighting but will make life that much more difficult in harsh sunlight. Softer lenses, such as the Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4 used on this page and Mandler-era Leicas, on the contrary, prove to be a great help, holding back highlights and retaining colour in areas that others would turn to white.

Oh, and use manual lenses. With little time on your hands you don’t want to waste any on an incoherent AF system (ahem)

A tourist couple in the shade of green parasols, in Vaison la Romaine. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Green Peace. Vaison la Romaine.

Colour or B&w ?

Both are appropriate. If you just bought a Leica Monochrom, you’re wrong. Please send it to me immediately.

A red Morgan car in Vaison la Romaine. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Morgan Free, man.

I can’t think of hard rules that can guide your choice. Some subjects just look good in colour, others seems better in black & white (see here and here for an illustration in the streets of Marseilles). If you have stronger vision than mine, your choice will be made already.

Photographs that work well in colour often take colour as the subject itself. Or, at least, use colour as a strong support for emotion or WOW effect. While black and white is better suited to conveying light, contrasts, textures and shapes.

Inside the Roman theater, Vaison la Romaine. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4.

Roman theater, Vaison la Romaine.

Black and white also gives you much more processing leeway. Over-processed colour photographs lose their subtlety and can look ghastly (think excessive tone mapping in HDR). Whereas B&W encourages you to play with tone a lot more.

The ceiling inside the Roman theater of Vaison la Romaine. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4.

2000 year-old ceiling and lightsabers.

If colour is your preferred avenue, it’s probably wise to take your time at the restaurant and wait for the sun to start projecting more oblique rays than at noon. In spite of my There is no such thing as bad light mantra, leaves at midday reflect too many highlights for a peaceful rendition, even with significant massaging in C1 or LightRoom. Some subjects will work and B&W loves contrasts, but trees, roofs and any other reflective surface will compete for attention with the true subject,  and particularly so in colour.

Pyumin, Vaison la Romaine. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4.

Pyumin, Vaison la Romaine.

The Jardin des 9 demoiselles in Vaison la romaine. B&W photograph with the Sony Aèr and Zeiss OTUS 85

Jardin des 9 demoiselles, Vaison la Romaine.

The Jardin des 9 demoiselles in Vaison la romaine. B&W photograph with the Sony Aèr and Zeiss OTUS 85

Jardin des 9 demoiselles, Vaison la Romaine.

The Jardin des 9 demoiselles in Vaison la romaine. B&W photograph with the Sony Aèr and Zeiss OTUS 85

Jardin des 9 demoiselles, Vaison la Romaine

At the end of the day, how you deal with rushed conditions and the concept of availability vs planning really reflects how you deal with life itself.

My very wise co-authors Paul and Philippe both focus a lot more on the good pictures they made rather than the opportunities they missed. This makes shooting with them a glorious and relaxed experience. But that doesn’t stop them traveling the world for the sole purpose of photographing a pre-determined place in pre-hoped-for conditions. And we all should from time to time. I think regular commentators / contributors (Keith, Luca, Leonard, Philip, Stephen, …) probably feel the same.

There’s a time for both approaches, but I hope the concept of grabbing what comes up finds some little credit with you, after reading this. What say you? Please share (your thoughs, and this article in those social spaces where discussions spread faster)


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  • Ron Scheffler says:

    I completely agree with “available light, available sight, available time” and will have to borrow it from you from time to time. 🙂

    Maybe things change as one ages and, dare I say, matures? 20+ years ago I would have been disappointed to miss key sites during a trip. Now my preference is to build a very loose, flexible framework of *possible* landmarks to visit, but will throw it out the window if I stumble across something else along the way.

    I also agree about the balance between art images and documentation of the places visited. That said, I tend to shy away from postcard scenes in favour of exploring side streets, back alleys, and generally any areas where those on a regimented tour bus schedule have no time to explore.

    I’m usually traveling with my girlfriend, which means off the beaten path explorations have to be done with a combination of expediency and negotiation. She has gracefully endured endless ‘just a few more minutes’ requests when off in some boring nook, (for a non-photographer), or waiting for a cloud to pass, with nary a café or shoe store in sight. When I find myself traveling alone, I can easily swing the pendulum too far to the other extreme of time (mis)management, spending what will feel like forever within 100 square metres, losing track of time and other possible obligations. The tradeoff of course is visiting fewer sites, but if something is good, and it’s sitting there in front of me, I will give it priority over the potential of something that remains an unknown quantity at that point.

    So like many things in life, some compromise (and a second opinion) is often a good thing. And this is the case when traveling with an understanding partner. Maybe I won’t always get the best light for a given location because I wasn’t able to wait there another two hours, but then, we might not stumble across something else equally interesting, or make it to a mutually desired location on that day’s itinerary. Over the years, our compromise has evolved to me accepting extended lunch and café breaks with the understanding that ‘prime light’ periods, such as late afternoon until sunset, are photographically sacred.

    As for equipment, here I think our philosophies diverge. I am as much a gear junkie as anyone else, and love sharp lenses, high MP wide DR sensors, fast electronics, etc., but I’m not after ultimate technical quality at all costs to creature comfort. My ideal balance places a great deal of priority on aspects that make the process of photography enjoyable for me, while achieving sufficiently good technical results. This means ergonomics and overall UI design are near the top while DR and MP take a slight hit (13 stops and 24MP vs. 14 stops and 36MP). I value equipment that becomes second nature and invisible to me when I snag a photographic groove. From my perspective, most camera systems available today will perform to high technical standards. How they get to the final image seems to be the biggest difference. It’s great to have choices, which hopefully will continue to be the case.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Ron, thanks for the very well put comment. The more we’ve seen and photographed, the more we are drawn to off-the-beaten-track subjects, leaving the big name sites to others. But we photographers are accountable to others. We have to justify the considerable family time and income we spend, so there need to be some shots that appeal to all. That plant growing in the wall, for example: my wife told me it was rubbish and could have been made in any old village wall from the 1950s crumbling for lack of maintenance … ouch 😉 So, as you say, it’s always good to travel with someone else that can provide an opinion.

      As for equipement, if the lowly, miserly, 24Mp 13bit camera you mention is the one I think (the one you use on your website to compare with Sony A7x cameras with rangefinder lenses …) I certainly understand your choice and feel not a little jealous 😉


  • Yeahhh says:

    Thank you for this article, Pascal. It very much fits my perspective on travel photography. I personally had to add kids as well: I have a 3-year-old, and this is definitely another constrain. The whole life is a compromise, so is travel photography. I maybe miss something but I may gain something else. That’s life. (If it was all about the greatest photography of all time, you wouldn’t be in the Provence, right. But we can’t always be in Central Africa, Australia, South-West US, the Caribbean, the Andes … you name it. Sometimes it’s just a trip to the zoo or a walk in the woods or a weekend some 100 km away. Fine. I’m also scuba-diving. The first thing I learned: Don’t compare dive spots. Otherwise you will stop diving after you visited the Red Sea or Great Barrier Reef. There’s beauty and uniqueness in every spot (at least should be).)

    So, what I really like about your images, or mine, or other similar ones, is their down-to-earthness and intimacy. They’re not overblown arty, not over-done, not a thousand time seen, more grounded, more me. And they are connected to my memories and my feelings when I was there. Much easier than those abstract artistic ones. What I mean is that these constrains can also be a chance for better photography. And my take on travel photography is not to have that single large-print photo but to gather the moments and emotions. And that’s plural. And totally private. Maybe I can share some, maybe I won’t.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Quite right! Creative work is always better when faced with constrains. Faced with a blank canvas and no constraints, very few people are capable of producing anyting worthy of interest. A chose type of photography dictates a path, gear choices, habits …

      I’d never thought of “grounded” to describe photographs, but that’s a very interesting idea. You’ve got me started on a long thinking session, now 😉

      Also, the collection vs single image is also a very cleaving concept. There’s probably a lot more recognition to be gained through impressive single shots, but I’m always much more interested in collections, travelogues, multiple facets.

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