Five Tips for Taking Great Photos in Rome

Travel photography tips

Want to take travel photos that make Rome look its best? Then read on!

If you're traveling to Italy, you'll probably be taking (lots of) photographs. 

And, look. Not everyone cares about taking great travel photographs.(Believe me, I get it—I often take photos just to help me remember where I was!).

Even so, having a few tips in mind can help. For one, it means you'll spend less time on your trip fiddling with settings—or frustrated when your photos don't turn out right. For another, better photos mean you can avoid boring your relatives, and Facebook friends, to death with your trip albums. Not to mention that it's pretty rewarding to return from a trip and have some photographs you're actually proud of (and maybe that you even want to print and frame!). 

Here are five top tips for how to take great photos in Rome (or, well, anywhere).

Don't think you need a super-fancy camera or DSLR to take great photos

Photo taken with a point-and-shoot in Rome

I didn't have my DSLR on me when I happened to catch the sun setting over the forum. Instead, this is taken with my Sony Cybershot—which is a fantastic camera, but notably less expensive than a DSLR.

 

Tips for travel photography

I also grabbed a shot with my iPhone 4S, which handled the scene (and lack of light) remarkably well.

Yes, I have a DSLR. (A 3-year-old Nikon D90, to be precise). Now that I've learned how to use it (more on that in a moment), I love it. But some of my favorite photos weren't taken with a "fancy camera"; they were taken with a point-and-shoot or, in some cases, an iPhone.

So, truly. Don't feel like you have to be limited by your equipment. Just learn to use what you've got. And if you don't have the time to learn your camera, don't bother to invest in it. Seriously.

Read the camera manual. Or at least the first few pages.

Colosseum fall autumn

Can you get a shot like this one if you never open your manual? Sure. Is it a whole lot easier if you know your camera? Absolutely.

This is a favorite tip from my friend, and uber-talented travel photographer, Ken Kaminesky. "Read. The. Manual." He couldn't be more correct.

When I first bought my DSLR, the (100-page!) manual overwhelmed me. So, instead, I did what any aspiring photographer busy person would do: I didn't read it. Instead, for the first year, I took almost all of my photographs on the "automatic" setting.

Here's the thing. Because of the high quality of the camera itself, my photos came out crisper and clearer than they would have with a more basic point-and-shoot. But? I still took a lot of crappy photos. The camera would focus on something I didn't want it to. Or the photo would come out blurry, especially when I was taking photos without much light (more on that later).

Frustrated, I finally sat down and, you guessed it, read the manual. And wow. Did my photography get better. There was no way I could possibly remember everything I read, but it at least laid the groundwork. And I make a point of trying to re-skim it every so often. Every time I do, I find some new capability I could be using that I'd forgotten about.

So whether you've invested in a "serious camera" or not, make sure you read at least the start of your manual. There's no excuse for you to not know how to, say, turn your flash on and off. Seriously.

Avoid taking photos at midday

How to take great photos in Italy

In the late afternoon, the light has softened to a lovely glow, with interesting shadows

Good photographers know that the best time for picture-taking tends to be in the early morning or late afternoon. Midday, the sun is directly overhead and at its strongest, casting a harsh, unflattering light on everything (and everyone).

But this is a particularly good tip for sunny Rome, especially in the summer. From about 11am to 3pm, the sun bleaches out everything. Even the Colosseum looks uninteresting. So, instead, and especially if it's a sunny day, try to take your shots as far out of that window as possible. 

The late afternoon, an hour or so before the sun goes down, is when I tend to have the best luck: The light is warm, flattering, and beautiful, but there's still enough of it that you don't have to worry about camera-shake (keep reading if you don't know what that is). 

Travel photography in rain

It pays to take photos in the rain!

(This is also the reason, by the way, that photographs come out so beautifully when the weather is gray or stormy).

Know when there is, and isn't, enough light (hello, Rome churches, restaurants, and sunsets)

Photos without much light in Rome

In a situation like this—the underground of the church of San Crisogono in Trastevere—you'll obviously need some extra strategies to get enough light. But Rome's underground isn't the only place where you'll have to work around the darkness!

Ever taken photos of, say, a church interior, gotten back home, and wondered why they were so fuzzy?

It's probably because there wasn't enough light.

When you're inside, or when the sun is just starting to set, there often isn't enough light for the camera to "see" properly without a flash. That darkness isn't something you always automatically notice yourself, because our eyes naturally adjust in a matter of nanoseconds. But your camera isn't quite as adaptable. You have to tell it to adapt.

So if there's less light, and your camera is doing its automatic thang, then either your flash pops up… or the shutter speed slows down. That lets the camera's shutter stay open, longer, to capture more light. But the longer the shutter is open for, the more the camera is registering not just the light, but also the natural vibrations of your hands—i.e., "camera shake." Result: blurry photos. 

For crisp interior and dusk or nighttime photos, you have a few basic options. You can use a tripod (or rest your camera on a makeshift tripod, like a chair, the floor, or church pew). You can turn on the flash (although please see below first). You can crank up the ISO, which represents your camera's sensitivity to light. (The higher the ISO is, though, the worse-quality, and grainier, the photos tend to be).

High ISO photo of church interior in Rome

To get this shot without a lot of camera shake (my shutter speed was at 1/60, already a little too slow for my liking), I had to crank up the ISO to 1600. Result: it's less fuzzy than it would have been, but is starting to show some graininess.

Or, depending on your comfort with your "manual" setting, you can change the F-stop. The lower the number of the F-stop, the less "depth of field" there is. That means the camera will focus on a narrower and narrower point, blurring whatever's farther away from, or closer than, that particular subject.

How to take great photos in Rome

An example of low depth of field: Instead of the entire cupcake, wrapper, and table being in focus, only the frosting is. (Also, now I'm hungry).

Finally, a trick I use when I have no other option: Take several photos right in a row, just keeping the button pressed down. Often, what causes the most "shake" is the movement of depressing the shutter button. So while the first photo might be blurry, the second or third one might not be. Here are two photos I took, with all of the same settings, right in a row in this Rome restaurant:

 

Photo with camera shake

First photo I took

 

Non-camera-shake-photo-for-web

Second photo: same exact specs, but less camera shake 

Know when flash is and isn't appropriate

Santa Maria Maggiore

A good tourist, like this one, knows to turn off the flash in a church

Especially when photo-takers notice their nighttime or interior shots aren't coming out right, they tend to turn on the flash. 

However. Please keep in mind that, first of all, your flash doesn't go that far. So if you're, say, at the overlook of the Roman forum while the sun is setting, hoping to get that perfect dusk shot of the ruins 50 yards away, the flash is not going to make a difference. 

And, depending on where you are, using your flash can be annoying and even rude. Times you should never use flash include:

  • when you're inside a church and people are praying, or a Mass is going on
  • when you're at an indoor or outdoor performance (the number of flashes going off at the opera at the arena of Verona killed me… especially because, again, everyone was way too far from the stage for the flash to make their photos come out any better—all it did was annoy everyone)
  • when you're taking a photo of delicate artwork, including frescoes or (even more importantly) cloth or tapestries (the Hall of Tapestries in the Vatican, I'm talking about you), since the flash is damaging

Other problems with flash: It can bleach out your subject, and its light is pretty flattening. (Not flattering. Flattening).

As a result, here are the only two times I tend to use flash:

  • when I'm in a hurry and don't have time to fiddle with various settings before the shot slips away, or
  • when I'm taking a photograph of a subject when the light is coming directly from behind them (for example, a friend of mine standing in front of a sunset). This is called being "backlit." The camera might not automatically tell me it wants to use flash, because it thinks there's enough light from behind my subject. But know that, if I let it just go on its automatic way, my friend will be just a silhouette in front of a sunset. That can be cool, but if I want to actually see her face, I have to turn on the flash.
Backlit travel photo

One time to use flash: when you'd be backlit otherwise

 Also: the best museum not on your list, the five most romantic places in Rome and my go-to street for the best shopping.

Want more tips? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

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3 comments

  1. Amanda, I found your blog Via Spanish Steps Apartments. Coincidentally, one of my closest friends last name is Ruggeri. I am also in the television production business and I am crazy for Rome. Would love to talk with you more.
    Is there another way to contact you?
    My email is pennysadler [at]gmail [dot] com

  2. Just got back from Rome for a quick visit.
    The weather was amazing and even if there are some things of Italy
    that dives me crazy I love this city. A quick tip is to don’t drive unless
    you are use to since everyone is becoming crazier.
    Also I noticed how you mentioned about cupcakes and there is a new small
    little places hidden in the quartiere trieste called “Bakery house”. A small corner
    of the US in Rome.
    PS: I love the picture you did with your phone and also nice shot of the cupola and Piazza Venezia.

  3. Amanda, these are really helpful tips you’ve given. Here’s one more: One way I found with my PAS to reduce shake was to set the camera on the shortest time delay. Then when I pushed the button I had a few seconds to hold the camera still before the shutter engaged. You get even better results doing that when you’re able to set the camera on something.

    You can also use this trick to place the camera on the floor facing up to get some cool photos of ceiling interiors. Set it on the floor, push the button and step away.

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