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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Erik Valind
For commercial photographer Erik Valind, a sabbatical out of the studio is just what he needs to break out of his usual routine. "It's therapeutic," he says. "On a commercial set, you like to think you have control of everything, with perfect lighting, perfect conditions, the perfect cast and crew. Then you do travel photography, and while you can scout ahead of time and know what type of image you might want to capture, you can't control the weather or how other things are going to play out in a faraway destination. It takes all the control away and humbles you, allowing you to just sit back and receive the imagery instead of having to force it."
He recently took a 12-day tour of Northern Italy, where he took in the breathtaking cliffside villages of Cinque Terre; the ancient architecture of Bergamo, a two-tiered city in Lombardy; and the mazelike canals and roadways of Venice. With him was the SP 45mm VC, Tamron's new prime lens whose fast maximum F/1.8 aperture, Vibration Compensation (VC) image-stabilization feature, and shorter minimum object distance allowed him to capture the images he needed for his travel pictorial. "For Venice especially, walking around with the 45mm was terrific," he says. "It was superfast, and with the VC, I could handhold even after sunset, when the blue hour hit, and even a little after that, when the streetlights would turn on."
Erik approaches his travel photography from an assignment standpoint. "Whether I'm photographing people or places, I want broad establishing shots that show where we are," he says. "Then I want the obvious, easily identifiable shots—like gondolas in Venice—so when a photo needs to speak to the whole location, you've got those in your back pocket. Then I look for the little idiosyncrasies that a region might be known for or that have an interesting story behind them."
Cinque Terre, a set of five fishing villages dating from medieval times, was one of Erik's first stops. One of the area's most notable features: steep cliffs carved over hundreds of years by the locals into an agricultural Eden of vineyards, gardens, and fields. "This was my personal favorite of the entire trip," Erik explains. "I grew up on the water and have a special affinity for sleepy fishing communities, and when you add in the hundreds of years of agriculture cut into these terraces through sweat, blood, and tears, it's incredible. There are no cars there—you have to take a train or boat to get in—and you can spend all day walking miles up the coast going from town to town."
Here's where Erik first started seeing the control he could wield with the 45mm. "Most people think when they see a landscape that they need the widest lens possible to get everything into the photo," he says. "But you don't want to do that, because a) it pushes everything apart in the scene, and b) you'll miniaturize everything in the photo. You'll get this massive, overwhelming scene that becomes even smaller and more disjointed."
The 45mm lens was still wide enough so that Erik could include a lot of the Cinque Terre landscape, but not too wide. "You want to selectively photograph to get a sense of scale, tell a story, and then crop in," he says. "Had I cropped a little higher and not shown the people and the rocks and the swimming below, you wouldn't really get a sense of scale as to how massive that cliff is. And those elements were also important to show in the image: This area is known for its cliff-jumping and its harbors, so I wanted to show all of those elements, as well as its architecture and landscape."
The city of Bergamo, nestled between Venice and Milan, is a two-tiered city that features a lower, more modern city, as well as Città Alta, the elevated part of the city surrounded by Venetian walls built in the 16th century. "I really wanted to show that elevation, so I went up the clock tower next to this church that's about 700 years old," Erik says. "One of the church's unique architectural features are these giant stone slabs on the rooftop that look like reptile scales. They're really heavy, but also extremely durable."
Erik's first vantage point in the clock tower was shooting up at the church as he ascended, but he couldn't see any of the city behind it. Then he got up to a higher perspective, but more of the church's roof was in focus. He finally settled at the sweet spot shown here. "The perspective of this composition really speaks to the area," he says. "You get the unusual architecture of the church, but you can also see the lower city spreading into the distance below."
Part of the appeal of photographing a particular destination is seeking out those elements that show that location's true essence. While in Bergamo, Erik took a funicular (an inclined cable railway) up to the older, higher part of the city. "In the lower part of town, there are small schools and universities, and on the weekends they all venture up to the elevated part of the city," he says. "There's an especially scenic part at the very top, and it was so serene and clean up there. But because there are also a lot of college kids, you occasionally see something like this graffiti on the back wall of a bar. You wonder what the story is behind that moped leaning against that wall: Did someone go for a hike? Did a student have too much to drink and left it there overnight? You can interpret that scene so many ways."
Strolling through Piazza San Marco, Venice's giant public square (aka the "drawing room of Europe"), Erik was able to capture a slice of early-evening Venetian life. "There are all of these famous restaurants that spill out into the plaza, and they'll often have orchestras set up to serenade the diners," he says. "Outside this restaurant, the orchestra was set up underneath a little awning, with all of that beautiful warm light spilling out. The color palette of that golden light combined with the after-sunset light of the blue hour really drew me in, and I wanted to show it off."
Erik didn't just want to take a snapshot of the plaza, however: He wanted to incorporate people into his photo to make it more relatable. "Most of the patrons at the café were older men in dark suits, though, which didn't give me much to work with in terms of a compelling foreground element," he says. "So I hung out for a little bit, hoping that the one man I was focusing on would lift his glass to drink. When he did, it was perfect. As he brought the drink up to his lips, it caught the reflection and warmth of the light before him, which gives the viewer's eye something to lock onto. With the 45mm, I was able to shoot wide open at F/1.8 and use the VC feature to capture that after-dusk photo. I wouldn't have been able to get the image otherwise."
Capturing a woman in front of Venice's famous gondolas gave Erik another chance to put the 45mm lens through its paces. "There's actually a lot going on in this picture," he says. "The boats have these shiny blades on the front, there are a million pylons, and there's this parliament building with a huge dome—it's such an incredible photo on its own behind her."
If he had shot the photo in Program mode or with an aperture of F/5.6 or F/8, he explains, the viewer would have been distracted by all of the busyness going on in the rest of the image. "But I wanted to concentrate on her, while still giving the photo that placement that shows she's in Venice," he says. "I put my camera in Aperture Priority mode, dropped my aperture to F/1.8, and called out to her to look over for the photo. It was just after sunset, so there was no direct lighting on her—it was just the soft glow of light peeping through the clouds and off the sky back over her."
What Erik calls a "happy accident" gave him an evening photo of the gondolas tied up for the night. "The sun had completely set to camera right, and on camera left it was dark already, which is where you can see that blue light," he says. "But there was still just enough light from the sunset reflecting off the clouds that it served as a spectral highlight on the blades in the front of each gondola. It was like someone had swung a giant softbox through the sky so I could get that neat reflection."
He captured this photo at ISO 2200, F/2.0, at 1/50th of a second. "The 45mm's VC feature helped me handhold for this photo, and with the higher ISO, I was still able to get the proper exposure," he says. "It turned out to be the perfect color balance. Once again, I had that blue light as the evening's color temperature dropped thousands of degrees Kelvin, and everyone was also turning on their warm lights."
While wandering through Venice's streets after dark, Erik came across a tiny shop filled with colorful masks. "Venice is famous for its creepy masks," he says. "They were what inspired Stanley Kubrick for the masks he used in Eyes Wide Shut." It was long after sunset when Erik stumbled across this closed mask store. "It looks really bright, but it was actually quite dim," he says. "The only light coming into the window and illuminating the masks was from an overhead street lamp. I took the picture through the window at ISO 1600, F/1.8, and was able to capture all the details in the masks. The 45mm's close minimum object distance of 11.4 inches also came in handy: I was pretty much smooshed up against the window taking this picture, and I was able to focus really quickly. It was a compelling visual to end the evening."
To see more of Erik Valind's work, go to www.erikvalind.com.