Behind the Image:  Manarola at Sunrise (Cinque Terre, Italy)

Behind the Image: Manarola at Sunrise (Cinque Terre, Italy)

In the Cinque Terre region of Italy there are these five coastal villages; not too long ago they were only accessible by boat. Cinque Terre means “five lands” in Italian, and the region received this name because it was very much like five separate land-locked islands with five separate villages separated by very rugged terrain and sea.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

While many people have heard of Cinque Terre, very few have heard the name of the village of Manarola, one of those five “lands,” the one depicted in this photograph.

I had been aware of Manarola for quite some time.  Because of my Italian heritage, it was on my list of places to visit even before I was a photographer.  But becoming a photographer caused this village to move from my “places I’d like to see” list, to my “places I must see as soon as possible” list.

Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before

When you look at the photo above you will realize this an iconic (and idyllic) scene.  The villagers paint their houses in a rainbow of colors so individuals could easily pick out their own home from a distance while at sea.  Although many of the villagers still make their living on and from the sea, as you can imagine, tourism has been added to their sources of income.

When I arrived I expected to be greeted by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “hungry” photographers (read my earlier Yosemite post).  Much to my delight, that didn’t happen.  There were tourists taking the occasional snap, but the first morning I was there, as I got up before sunrise (leaving my wife and son to sleep) to trudge down the long series of staircases to the outcropping where I could take this photo (Cinque Terre could be more aptly named “Mille Scale” or “a thousand staircases”), I was greeted by a photographer’s paradise.

When I got to the outlook (with my friend and guide Paolo), absolutely nobody was there.  No teeming busloads of tourists, no platoons of photographers tripping over themselves to get the perfect composition, no squadrons of selfie-snappers leaning over the rail for the best narcissistic image, nothing!   This was anti-Yosemite!  Not only was it stunningly beautiful, here was the solitude I was hoping for.

The Capture

Making the image was perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had in photography.  I could set up, move around, take my time, change lens filters, go for a longer exposure to get the water effect I wanted, move again, try different exposures, try different compositions, whatever I needed to get my shot.

It’s been almost three years since I made that image and I’ve never had the kind of time and conditions I had on that morning in Italy.  And the image remains one of my most popular.

Golfers keep going because the game teases them into believing that their next game might be their best.  In some ways, photography does the same thing.  As I go around and find places to shoot, I’m always hoping I’m “that close” to another Manarola.


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Behind the Image: Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite

Behind the Image: Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite

Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite:  Image made April 8th, 2013

I was pleased to award William Toti the first place award for Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite in Feb. 2017. There have been countless photos taken of Tunnel View in Yosemite, but William’s transcends the rest by it’s exceptional quality of light, mood and strong composition.

Carla Steckley

Judge, ArtSpace Fine Art Photography Contest

Yosemite had been on my “places to shoot” list for a while because every photographer covets perfect, elusive Yosemite National Park photos, particularly a Tunnel View shot, made famous by Ansel Adams’ “A Clearing Winter Storm.”

I had scheduled a trip there to do a shoot, then had to reschedule, then reschedule again, until I began to wonder if I would ever get there.  I decided to nail the trip down by hiring a guide.  (I often hire a guide since, logistically, that is the most efficient way to get to as many photo locations as possible in the least amount of time.)

When I did finally go (April, 2013), I brought both my wife and my brand new Nikon D800.  This would be the first trip with that incredible 36 megapixel camera.

Breathtaking Boredom

Initially, Yosemite was, well Yosemite.  Overwhelming beauty, matched by overwhelming crowds.  Part of the appeal of landscape photography is, for me, the opportunity to spend some time with nature, just me, my wife, and maybe one more person.  That is not Yosemite.  Yosemite is busloads of tourists from all over the world who are rushed from site to site without the real opportunity to enjoy any of it, taking snapshots with their iPads that will look nothing like what they remember.  Yosemite is what happens when you allow unregulated and un-metered access to fragile and pristine places.  As long as this continues, Yosemite will continue to be endangered.

Bustling Boredom?

But from the photography point of view, those masses of people meant there were very few locations I could shoot that didn’t include several dozen human beings in the shot.  Add to that the fact that my Hawaii-raised wife frequently expressed her innate fear of bears, which was all the more amusing since no sane bear would come anywhere near this mass of humanity.  Her fear of bears did at one point prompt me to purchase a stuffed black bear and set it on our bed (“Don’t go in there– there’s a bear in our room!”), which I worried would be the most exciting thing to happen to us on the trip.

Beautiful, bustling, capital-beltway-like Yosemite

And Then the Surprise!

Then on the morning that we were scheduled to leave, we woke to an incredible sight: snow!

Calling an audible (as is often necessary), we decided to skip breakfast and head up to the famous spot known as “Tunnel View,” made famous by Ansel Adams’ “Clearing Winter Storm” photograph.

Here we had a spring storm, one that was sure to clear even quicker than Ansel’s.  We had no time to waste; we hurried to the Tunnel View parking lot, found absolutely nobody there (a first for this trip!), save for a lone coyote.  Having never encountered a coyote on one of my shoots before, I took a couple of snaps of that guy (I considered it a good omen), then headed over to the overlook.

This was one of the most amazing scenes I had ever encountered.  My wife heard me scream when I saw this– very out of character for this old Navy man.  But I knew this was a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Serpentine Vapors

As I expected, the spring day warmed and the snow quickly  began sublimating from solid to vapor.  The vapor began creating this serpentine, meandering form in the valley, something like a white smoke monster from the TV show “Lost.”  To the right of the valley, an updraft from Bridalveil Falls was causing the vapor to lift into the sky, then swirl around in an airborne eddy current.  The sun was just coming up behind Half Dome, creating a nearly horizontal “God’s Ray” into the valley, lighting up the vapor in a remarkable fashion.

The only thing left to do was to not screw it up as I captured the image on my new D800.

The shot at the top of this page was the result.  My most popular image, and my most awarded.  This image resulted in the great David Muench giving me the best compliment I have ever received as a photographer (“Better than Ansel’s.) Another great photographer, Carla Steckel said, “There have been countless photos taken of Tunnel View in Yosemite, but William’s transcends the rest by it’s exceptional quality of light, mood and strong composition.”  Perhaps that’s why it’s had over a million views on social media.

And to this day, it’s perhaps the image of which I am most proud.

And of course, it got me this.

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