TRAVELLING LIGHT- A trip to Italy with minimal gear.

The nights draw in early. It’s cold outside and as we hunker down in front of a flickering log fire, it’s traditional at this time of year to look forward to a summer break and hopefully affording a trip somewhere.

As a Manfrotto Ambassador it should be no surprise that one of my favourite countries to visit is Italy.
Last summer my family and I were lucky enough to embark on a two week trip to Tuscany and Northern Italy.
Only one snag- we travelled via a budget airline so baggage restrictions meant a lot of heavy photographic equipment would be out of the question.
This ruled out heavy DSLR’s and their associated lenses.
My Manfrotto 303SPH and it’s 058B tripod legs would have to stay at home!

Even on foreign assignments as a newspaper photographer, I have to pare down the amount of gear I carry. I remember lugging around neg scanners and other equipment as we made the transition from film to digital.

As a family break was the main motivation for this trip, so travelling light was the order of the day.
I decided to take just one main camera- a Fuji X-Pro which is very light, small, unobtrusive and yet produces nice files.
I only possess wide angle lenses for this camera, so an old and lightweight Nikon P-series compact bridge series camera provided the long lens reach. For quick snaps and videos along the way- an Apple iPhone 5s with it’s surprisingly good built in camera.

I packed all of this plus a trusty Manfrotto Pixi mini-tripod and lots of SD cards, an IPad Air and a Lightning to SD card reader into a Manfrotto Stile bag. I had a vague idea in my head of using the tripod for some night time shots and the bag would double for carrying water, suncream, etc as well as the cameras, lenses and spare batteries. These bags provide a lot of protection for the gear and are stylish without drawing attention to themselves, an all-around win!

First week was spent in a lovely mountainside villa near Lucca, surrounded by its own vineyard. An idylic setting and as you can probably imagine, not too much photography from here!

Mountainside villa in a vineyard near Lucca, Tuscany, Italy.
Photo © John Robertson, 2017.

A trip out to La Spezia and then the boat ride out to the Cinque Terres proved more fruitful however. This World Heritage Site gets very crowded in the summer season but is well worth a visit and makes great photographs. We arrived in the heat of July and there were a lot of sights to see, another good reason to be travelling light. I was very grateful not to be schlepping around with a big heavy rucksack full of cameras and lenses.

Riomaggiore, one of the cinque terre in Liguaria, Italy.
Photo © John Robertson, 2017.

As a photojournalist I’m always on the lookout for a story, even when ‘off duty’.
I found an interesting one in the Tuscan town of Barga, which has a curious connection to Scotland. Several inhabitants of the hilltop town emigrated to Scotland in the late 19th century following the demise of their local silk industry. Which explains the Telephone box, the Celtic Supporters Club, the celebration of Burn’s Night and the Barga annual fish and chip festival!

UK phonebox ‘Wee Library’ in Barga, Tuscany, Italy. Photo © John Robertson, 2017.

Next port of call for us was the gorgeous city of Firenze or Florence as we Brits call it.
Here the weather changed the night we arrived- but fortunately I was able to use the thunder and lightning to my advantage. A photo of the Palazzo Vecchio caught one of ‘God’s flashguns’ during the slow exposure of 1 second using the Pixi tripod.
Pixi Evo proved it’s worth here- lightweight, quick to set up and very effective used in this situation on the pavement. I’m not sure a big and heavy camera would work as well on such a small tripod. But it saved the day on this shot and if you look carefully there is a blue streak on the left hand side of the photo. This is an illuminated jelly toy thrown into the air by one of the hawkers in the Piazza della Signoria!

Lightning over the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze. Photo © John Robertson, 2017.

A visit to Florence wouldn’t be complete without seeing the famous Ponte Vecchio. We arrived just as it was getting dark and what a superb location it is! This has to be one of the most famous, most photographed locations in Italy, in fact in the world.
It is such a beautiful and romantic place and to prove that we watched a bride and groom walk over the bridge to their wedding reception. I’ve photographed many weddings over the years but I can’t imagine a more perfect landmark to have as a backdrop.

Darkness falls over the Ponte Vecchio in Firenze. Photo © John Robertson, 2017.
A mobile phone pic of the X-Pro on it’s Pixi Evo tripod being set up before the sunset. Photo © John Robertson, 2017.

Perhaps the biggest compromise for me on our visit to Italy was not taking any flash gear. It’s something I rely on a lot in my job and not having it there with a wireless trigger was definitely something I missed on a few occasions. The same goes for my Manfrotto light modifiers like the Trifill reflector. Next time I’d definitely take one along as they fold small, weigh next to nothing and would have helped reflect back the natural light on some of my photos.

I also had no portrait lens for the little Fuji camera and again that is something I wished I hadn’t omitted.On reflection, just one small zoom lens like the 18-55 might have given more opportunities but also kept the weight down.
Switching to another camera like the Nikon with it’s amazing zoom lens takes time, so you end up missing pics!
For me the beauty of the little Fuji is using it with prime lenses, but the 18-55 isn’t much bigger than a prime, is solidly built and produces lovely sharp results by all accounts.

The finale of our trip was driving up to stay in Venice for a few days. I had never been there before and I have to say that for a photographer the city is so full of visual opportunities that it made me feel like a kid in a candy store!
It really does seem to me like being on the set of a Hollywood film. Sure there are lots of cliches like all the gondolas and if you stand on the Ponte della Paglia for long enough you are sure to be on the receiving end of somebody’s selfie stick at some point with everybody taking THAT photo of the Bridge of Sighs.

Iphone photo from the Bridge of Sighs looking out over the Ponte della Paglia and San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy.
Photo © John Robertson, 2017.
One of the Bocca del Leone truth boxes in the Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy. Photo © John Robertson, 2017.

With it’s bustling canals and busy streets, Venice is an absolute treasure. I would love to have spent longer there, but sadly all good things have to end eventually. I hope to return, probably travelling light again, but this time putting into practise the things I learned.

Tall ship and gondolas at night by the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, Italy. Photo © John Robertson, 2017.
John RobertsonOther articles by author

John Robertson is a Manfrotto Ambassador and freelance photographer with the UK National and International press. He also works for commercial clients and produces both editorial and commercial videos.

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