How I got the shot: Francesco Lastrucci on capturing serenity in Rome

The photographer talks about this shot of the Italian capital, which was used as the cover of the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK), and the assignment.

View towards St Peter's Basilica from Ponte Sant'Angelo.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci
By Francesco Lastrucci
Published 20 Apr 2022, 06:09 BST

Tell us about this image. 

It was August, the peak of the Italian summer holidays. This image was taken on St Angelo Bridge, looking west over the Tiber to the Vatican and Janiculum Hill. I’d crossed this pedestrian bridge — one of the capital’s oldest and most beautiful — various times over the previous days. I guessed the sun would nicely backlight St Peter’s dome just before sunset, so I planned to pass by one more time and see if I could find a good composition. I wanted to add some more layers to the scene, a touch of serendipity; I hoped to find a relaxed mood, with people enjoying the vista under the late afternoon’s glowing light.

How did you achieve the shot? 

The image was shot on a Fujifilm X-Pro2, the camera I normally use. I like how discreet it feels and unobtrusive it appears. I find it useful in street scenes, when you have all the time to frame a shot, but an instant to freeze the fleeting mood. I tend to minimise my gear and keep everything simple by focusing on frame and exposure only, keeping my fingers firm on the aperture ring and shutter dial. It surely helps to keep control of such critical light, which changes with each step you take.

I like to use prime luminous and sharp lenses when possible, like a 23mm, 35mm or 50mm. For general shooting, it’s convenient to have a more flexible zoom, which is faster to frame. For this shot, I used a Fuji XF18-55mm 2.8-4, set at 1/800, f4.5 and pulled at a moderately wide angle of 28mm, which allowed me to be at the right distance — not too close, but close enough to emphasise the people and the background.

What did you consider when shooting passers-by?

I want people to be aware of what I’m doing. I have a few ways of revealing myself, depending on the situation. I don’t always have time to interact with them beforehand — I don’t want to miss the moment or manipulate a beautiful scene. Often, I tend to trust my instinct in predicting whether a person or a situation might be photography-sensitive before pressing the shutter. In this case, I approached them afterwards to let them know I’d caught the scene and show them how they were part of it. Luckily, once I double-check, explain my intentions and show the preview, the reaction is always positive.

What were the challenges at play? 

As I was planning to photograph the scene in backlight, I waited for the sunlight to soften and become golden, so that I could have a good dynamic range by simply playing with the exposure settings. Beyond this technical issue, I was sure that the frame was there, waiting for me with its good narrative potential. The challenge was to match everything in an instant: frame, light, passers-by. It was a very dynamic scene — the bridge was busy despite the apparent stillness of the image, and I looked for the right combination of people in the foreground. Everything eventually fell into place, thanks to a good blend of patience and luck.

The vibrant street life in Rome.

The vibrant street life in Rome.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Why do you think it served as a good introduction to the Rome cover story?

I shot several options in search of a sparkle that would introduce readers to the capital’s enchanting mood — something saying ‘Rome’, ‘local’ and ‘intimate’ at once without being over-published, which isn’t easy in a city with so many iconic landmarks. Hopefully, this image, which shows people contemplating a Roman scene away from the crowds, makes you feel like the city is yours, as much as I felt it mine while on that bridge.

What drew you to this story?

I’ve been visiting the Eternal City since I was a teenager, and I’ve photographed it as an adult on multiple assignments. I grew up infatuated by Rome’s ethereal light and with its complex, multilayered identity. It’s an astounding city that never ceases to reveal something different about itself on each visit. I was eager to find out how it would reward me this time. So, when I received the call from the editors, I was thrilled.

Which is your favourite image?

I’ll select two that represent two distinct aspects of Rome. I’ve taken one from above, which to me symbolises Rome’s divinity. You can see Giardino degli Aranci, one of three classic viewpoints of Rome and perhaps my favourite. This garden, on the Aventine Hill overlooking Trastevere’s roofs and the Vatican, is where enchanted locals and visitors hang out, chat and enjoy an improvised aperitivo under the glowing light of the sunset.

The other was taken from street level, representing the unique popular culture of this vibrant city. It was shot on one of the many walks in the neighbourhood of Trastevere, which is filled with interesting characters. The interactions you’re able to observe are direct and amusing.

These were two moments when I really felt what I was photographing. I was immersed in the environment to the point where I forgot about my camera and technique, which is a precious opportunity to get rid of any filters I might have between myself and the subject.

A view from Giardino degli Aranci, overlooking Trastevere and the Vatican.

A view from Giardino degli Aranci, overlooking Trastevere and the Vatican.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

What was the most unexpected thing you discovered while shooting?

I shot this story in two batches in August. There’s a peculiar mood in Italian towns during the peak of the local summer holiday season — everyone is on vacation and everything is put on hold for a few weeks. In the past two decades this has been lost, in part, as the crowds of visitors have grown. It means that tourist activities remain open, so there are more locals keeping busy in the city.

From when I was little, I remember the silence and stillness of the midday heat, when no one was in the street and most of the shutters on the shops were down. Yet for those who remained, it felt like the city was just there for them, like it was ‘theirs’. It was a unique feeling. For the first time in so long, with fewer crowds due to unlucky recent global events, I finally got to relive the timeless mood that accompanied my childhood summers, and I got to rediscover a city comprised of easygoing locals who slow down their city life for a few weeks.

What advice would you give someone starting out in travel photography?

I would suggest not being so obsessed with your equipment, but to focus on your vision and narrative. It might take a while to find your own voice. Photograph your surroundings, learn how to see what’s around you and re-evaluate the obvious. Your technique will grow around this. When travelling, do your research and be flexible and respectful. Wherever in the world you travel, you’ll leave a trace of trust for the photographer who visits after you.

Discover more of Francesco’s photography on his website and follow him on Instagram.

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