Thursday, June 11, 2015

One week in Italy (Part 1: Rome)

We just got back from a weeklong vacation Italy, my first visit to this beautiful country. In this three-part post, I will discuss the places we visited, beginning with Rome, then Florence, and finally Venice. I will also discuss the cameras and lenses I used, and how well they each performed.


Streets of Rome
Olympus Stylus 1


Kids: Our kids are very young but generally well-behaved.  While we were planning this trip, we were debating on whether to take them with us.  We considered the fact that this kind of trip would probably not appeal to them.  We therefore decided that they should stay home with my mother-in-law, who was with us and whom they are fond of.  It was a tough decision for us because we had not yet left our kids with anyone - even for a day.  And on some days when my wife had to go to school before our kids were awake, our daughter would cry and look for her.  How much more if we were gone for a whole week?  However, we figured that they would ultimately be ok.  We told the kids about the trip around a week before, and gave them a couple of toys to "keep them company" while mom and dad were on a trip.  There was an initial look of consternation, but they seemed to shrug it off.  Our son even sort of looked forward to it as a week where he would have more freedom.  We found out later on how this arrangement turned out.

Olympus Stylus 1
Organized tour versus going on our own: The second choice we had to make was whether to buy a package that was part of an organized tour group, or to buy an air-and-hotel package only, where we would explore by ourselves.  We're not experienced travelers, although I have traveled to Japan by myself and was able to see and do a lot of things with the help of a travel guidebook, and basic fluency in Japanese.  At the same time, I had been on organized tours and I know the hectic and sometimes stressful pace.  On the other hand, since we would only be there for a week, and the airfare is expensive, we decided that using an organized tour would be more efficient, and would minimize serious problems that could ruin a vacation.

For the tour group, we went with the company recommended by Costco (I'm a huge fan of Costco because I believe they generally offer very good value), which was Trafalgar,  I originally wanted the Italian Holiday package, but the booking agent screwed up our reservation, and we missed out on it.  Intsead, we went on the Jewels of Italy package.

[Reading the description of both packages in retrospect, I think Jewels of Italy is the more efficient package, because it involves less travel time on the road, fewer hotel transfers, and doesn't retrace back to Rome.  As long as you get all the Optional Experiences, you will surely fill all the time with activities.]

The travel director was Romeo Melone, who was outstanding.  He was very friendly, funny and an amazing speaker.  He was also highly organized, and constantly looked for ways to save time for us and make us more comfortable.  I could not imagine a better guide.

So, was the group tour worth it?  Ask Amy Clark of!  (Amy is a well-known blogger, who just happened to be in the same tour group as well!)

Equipment: I posted about the equipment I brought here.  In addition, I would recommend synchronizing the clocks of your cameras and selecting the correct time zone.

Olympus Stylus 1
We arrived in Rome just in time for lunch. Pizza is one of my favorite dishes, and everyone keeps telling me how good the pizza is in Italy, even at hole-in-the-wall restaurants. So for our first meal in Italy, we went to just such a random small restaurant near the hotel and I had pizza napolitana (mozzarella, tomatoes and anchovies).

Although it was simple, it was very tasty. The biggest difference to me was the sauce, which was savory and seemed to have a more complex flavor (not simply sour), yet it was mild (as opposed to sharp), with a delectable umami aftertaste. I have tried many kinds of pizza but I have not tasted pizza like it, and indeed I would say the sauce is better than that of any pizza I've tried.

Later that night, our tour group drove around for sightseeing with our guide Romeo. Rome is very beautiful, with a mixture of buildings from different eras from ancient to contemporary, sometimes within the same building. Buildings of various architectures stand next to ancient ruins along meandering streets. I took photos using the Olympus Stylus 1, which worked very well, although the bus window reduced contrast and added reflections.

Olympus Stylus 1

That night, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant near the Colosseum at a restaurant called Ristorante Hostaria Al Gladiatore, where we were served prosecco, red wine, various types of ham, a simple but delicious penne pasta, pizza, and tiramisu, as our group was serenaded by a tenor and accordionista.  The hams were delectable and their saltiness was balanced with the sweet prosecco. The penne had nothing but tomato sauce and the margherita pizza was also simple but they tasted like they had the magical sauce of the pizza I had for lunch and were delicious.

Sony a6000 + 16 2.8 with ultrawide converter

The room at the restaurant was cozy and was charmingly decorated, so I wanted to use a lens with a wide angle. The room was also romantically lit, which meant I needed a camera with good high-ISO capability. I used the Sony a6000 with the 16 2.8 and ultrawide converter. This combination worked pretty well and I alternated between using the 16 by itself and with the converter. The ultrawide converter wasn't absolutely necessary but it provided some unique perspectives.

Sony a6000 + 16 2.8 with ultrawide converter

The next day, we went to see the Vatican museum. Our visit began with the famous spiral staircase. It has been photographed so many times that it has become a photographic cliché. Nonetheless, it is such a juicy subject that it seems irresistible to photographers, although strangely enough, I didn't see other photographers at that time. The obvious lens choice for the staircase was an ultrawide angle (or a fisheye). I again used the a6000 and 16 2.8 with ultrawide converter. Having a camera with a flip down LCD screen helped me to frame the composition while holding the camera precariously over the staircase.

Sony a6000 + 16 2.8 with ultrawide converter

The Vatican museum tour continued with seemingly endless halls full of magnificent tapestries, paintings, mosaics, and sculptures. I could have spent days marveling at the art but unfortunately we had to move at a hurried pace to remain on schedule.

Samsung NX500 + 16-50 kit lens

detail from ceiling
Samsung NX500 + 16-50 kit lens
room dedicated to the Immaculate Conception
Samsung NX500 + kit lens
With classical art displayed in museums, I think there is not a lot of room for interpretation so I didn't try to take photos of the art per se. Instead, to remind ourselves of our experience, I just took some shots of me and my wife. Yes, dreaded selfies.

ancient selfie device?
Samsung NX500 + 16-50 kit lens
As an aside, I agree selfies have very little artistic value by themselves but I also think that we ought to take them as mementos. In that sense, these "documentary" shots don't need to be shown to the world yet they still have value to us, who will look upon them to remember fonder days. So, I make no apologies for shamelessly taking selfies (posting tons of them is another matter :-) ).

The No-Look Selfie
For selfies and shots around the museum, I used the Samsung NX500 and 16-50 kit lens. The NX500's 180-degree flip screen was very useful for selfies. However, with backlit shots, it often took the NX500 a long time to acquire focus - sometimes, more than 5 seconds, which was annoying.

The piece de resistance of the Vatican Museum is the Sistine Chapel. Although we have all seen images of it, it is still awesome to behold. The Sistine Chapel is an actual chapel (used for annual baptisms, and for conclaves to elect the pope, among other purposes). To show respect, visitors must be silent and photos and videos are prohibited. It would have been nice to be able to shoot it with an ultrawide to capture the scale, and perhaps a telephoto for details.

It's just a short walk from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter's Basilica.
Samsung NX500 + kit lens
After the Sistine Chapel, we went to St. Peter's Basilica. The Basilica is immense -- even an airplane hangar feels small in comparison. It is yet another place where you could spend hours captivated in awe.

The soaring ceilings of marble, decorated with frescoes and mosaics are themselves amazing in their beauty but even they have to compete for attention with the powerful and majestic sculptures of holy figures.

Crop from the shot above, illustrating the scale of the person to the statue.
The most important sculpture is of course the incomparable Pieta. Unfortunately, in 1972, a deranged man vandalized the Pieta therefore it is now isolated in a room, protected with glass. I wanted to gaze at the Pieta and contemplate the incomprehensible sorrow of a mother who has lost her son to such a painful death. But there were too many people, and the Pieta was a little too far away to see all its details. I also would have wanted to go to Mass at the Basilica but the schedule wouldn't allow for it.

Samsung NX500 + kit lens
As with the museum, I didn't try to take photos of the sculptures themselves but tried to capture the feeling of the scale of the basilica and its sculptures using an ultrawide lens. In retrospect, I could also have taken shots with a longer focal length (even a telephoto) from afar to show the scale of the sculptures.  On the other hand, it would have been harder to use a telephoto lens to show the scale of architecture because of the distance required.


On our third day, we went to the Colosseum. Thanks to our brilliant travel director Romeo, we skipped the lines and were able to enter the Colosseum right away. The Colosseum is small. Just kidding. It is of course huge.  I was amazed at the Romans' engineering that made such a structure possible before the invention of modern machinery.

After the Colosseum fell into disuse, stone from its exterior was recycled to build structures such as St. Peter's Basilica.
Samsung NX500 + kit lens

For a shot showing the size of the Colosseum, I used an ultrawide - the a6000 with 16 2.8. I also took a panoramic shot. For shots around the stadium, including selfies, I used the samsung NX500 with 16-50 lens. I also took some shots with the Fuji W3.

Sony a6000 + 16 2.8 with ultrawide converter

panorama combined using Lightroom 6
Outside the Colosseum, there are many street actors wearing Roman soldier costumes to pose with tourists.

Later that day, we took a walking tour through the backstreets of Rome. I was looking forward to this part of the tour to get a better sense of Rome itself, and not just its famous attractions. We walked through several churches and plazas, including the Spanish steps. The Trevi fountain was unfortunately under renovation, so it had scaffoldings around it.

the Spanish Steps
Samsung NX500 + kit lens
This part of the tour had many photographic possibilities - a veritable street photographer's paradise. First, because there are so many tourists, most people seem to ignore photographers.  Second, the buildings were close to each other, shielding the streets from direct sunlight.  Yet the buildings were still short enough to allow sunlight caught by the tops of the buildings to reflect into the streets as natural reflectors.  However, at the hurried pace of our tour, we were continually in motion, making it difficult to stake out a spot to wait for a suitable photographic opportunity. I used the NX500 with 16-50 kit lens, although several other lenses could have also been used.

Trajan's Column

The buildings of Rome acted as natural reflectors.
Samsung NX500 + kit lens
As part of the tour, we visited the Pantheon, a well-preserved temple from the first century AD that was converted to a church. To capture the scale of the Pantheon's dome, I used the a6000 with 16 2.8 and ultrawide converter. Due to the circular shape of the interior, a fisheye could have been better, although I didn't bring mine with me on this trip. In retrospect, I didn't anticipate that the fisheye could have been so useful even for places with classical architecture.

Samsung NX500 + kit lens

the bronze doors of the Pantheon
Sony a6000 + 16 2.8 with ultrawide

the Pantheon's dome and oculus
Sony a6000 
+ 16 2.8 with ultrawide

Sony a6000 + 16 2.8 with ultrawide
Our walking tour ended at Plaza Navona, which is famous for its Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini and Obelisk of Domitian (taken from Egypt).

Piazza Navona is great for people-watching.
Samsung NX500 + kit lens
My wife and I had a romantic dinner at a restaurant called Tre Scalini, while watching people at the plaza. She had a simple meal of prosciutto and mozzarella while I had pasta with truffles. It had generous shavings of truffle and it is probably one of the best, if not the best, pastas I've had.

Samsung NX500 + kit lens

fettuccine with truffles
Samsung NX500 
+ kit lens
In summary, we had a great time in Rome and I was very impressed with its beauty in the short time we stayed there. For photographers, it is an amazing city with inexhaustible photographic opportunities. If you were keeping track, the lenses I used most often were the Samsung NX500 with kit lens, and the Sony a6000 with 16 2.8 and ultrawide converter. The Stylus 1 was useful for photos from the bus. I used the Fuji w3 a bit, although it was not necessary. The only lens I didn't use was the Sony 18-105 f/4, although I could have used it the same way I used the Stylus 1.

Samsung NX500 + kit lens

newsstand at Piazza Navona
Samsung NX500 + kit lens
Although we really enjoyed Rome, little did we know that we had even better experiences in store for us. But that will be for another post. :)

toy shop from Piazza Navona
Samsung NX500 + kit lens
P.S.  What happened to our kids?  The first night of our trip, we set up a Viber video chat.  Marcus and Sophia looked happy, and they showed us the new toys grandma gave them.  Then, abruptly, they said, "Bye! Bye!"  Stella and I were bemused.  It kind of reminded me of that scene from Charlotte's Web with the little spiders floating away.  So, yes, they were fine!

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