Copse of cypresses, Val d'Orcia

Photographing Tuscany: The Val d’Orcia

Tuscany is, without doubt, one of my favorite Italian regions to photograph, with its mix of gorgeous natural and man-made landscapes. These landscapes range from the coast and its islands to the mountain forests; medieval towns and cities rich in art and history.

Copse of cypresses, Val d'Orcia

Copse of cypresses

For those who don’t know Tuscany very well, its variety can be surprising. The region contains a number of smaller areas, each with its own character and distinct visual appeal. Out of all those, the part of central Tuscany that lies just south of Siena and that extends to the slopes of Mount Amiata, called Val d’Orcia, is famous with tourists and photographers worldwide, and with good reason.

Since 2004, the Val d’Orcia has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites under these criteria:

  • Criterion (iv): The Val d’Orcia is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing pictures.
  • Criterion (vi): The landscape of the Val d’Orcia was celebrated by painters from the Scuola Senese, which flourished during the Renaissance. Images of the Val d’Orcia, and particularly depictions of landscapes where people are depicted as living in harmony with nature, have come to be seen as icons of the Renaissance and have profoundly influenced the development of landscape thinking.

It’s easy to verify this truth with one’s own eyes just by witnessing an autumn sunrise, when the early morning fog that still lingers at the bottom of the valleys glows under the rays of the rising sun.

Podere Belvedere, San Quirico d'Orcia

Podere Belvedere, San Quirico d’Orcia

The beauty of the Val d’Orcia has made it one of the favorite locations for shooting movies. Among the most recent flicks that were at least partially filmed there, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator deserves a mention. The vision of Heaven that Maximus experiences at the time of his death, with his wife and child walking along a country road lined with cypress trees, was shot exactly from where I took the picture below, just outside the city of Pienza.

  • The countryside outside Pienza, Tuscany

    The countryside outside Pienza

  • A corner of Pienza

    A corner of Pienza

For me, as a travel and not just a landscape photographer, people–and especially people at work in their environment–are one of the subjects I cannot afford missing. Before the advent of mass tourism, most inhabitants of the Val d’Orcia were employed in agriculture. While farmers still make up a lot of the workforce, the hospitality industry now employs a large number of workers, like these two waiters of a restaurant in Pienza.

Waiters at a restaurant in Pienza, Tuscany

Waiters at a restaurant in Pienza

Photographic Advice

Consider the Season
Most of the land in Val d’Orcia is cultivated. This means that seasonal changes are much more accentuated and rapid thanks to the hand of man. The field that was golden with ripe grains a week ago could have now turned brown after the wheat has been harvested and the ground ploughed. While there is something to be said for rolling hills of lush green in spring, the stark beauty of naked fields in winter, interrupted only by lone trees or rows of cypresses lends very well to simple, graphical images.

  • Podere Belvedere, San Quirico d'Orcia

    Podere Belvedere, San Quirico d’Orcia

  • Lone tree, Val d'Orcia

    Lone tree

The winter landscape there lends itself very well to being photographed in color when the sky is a crispy blue, or in black and white in all conditions.

  • Ploughed fields, Val d'Orcia

    Ploughed fields

  • Asciano, Tuscany

    Asciano

As there are no big cities nearby, this is also a great location for photographing the night skies, especially if you can add some foreground interest to your pictures.

Vitaleta Chapel at night, Pienza

Vitaleta Chapel at night, Pienza

Bring a Telephoto

A telephoto lens is something you should definitely carry if you plan to photograph the Val d’Orcia. Many times you will be shooting a distant farmhouse, a small church, or a line of trees from the side of the road.

Vitaleta Chapel, Pienza

Vitaleta Chapel, Pienza

Bring Wellies

Spring and autumn are some of the best seasons to photograph these lands, but they are also the rainiest ones. Make sure you have a pair of wellies in the trunk of your car, for when you have to walk across the fields after a rain storm.

Plan Your Visit (or Don’t)

The Val d’Orcia is a pretty compact region and you can see almost all of it, with stops for photography, in a short day. Those country roads are perfect for aimless driving and stopping whenever you see something interesting.

Map of Val d'Orcia best photo spots

However, if your time is short and you want to bring home some of those unmissable postcard shots, I suggest making a list of the places you absolutely want to shoot. I have my own map which includes all of the spots pictured in the photos above and I will gladly share it with you. Just leave a comment here or use the contact form on my website.

 

About Author Ugo Cei

Ugo Cei is a fine-art travel and landscape photographer from Italy. If you were to ask him what he does, he would say that he is an educator who helps photography enthusiasts sharpen their skills, so that they can take amazing pictures.

He does this in various ways. First of all, by providing a wealth of free content here on Visual Wilderness and on his own website.

He leads photography tours and workshop to some cool destinations, including Oman and Venice.

He co-hosts and publishes a weekly podcast about travel photography, The Traveling Image Makers. Every week, they pick the brains of famous and not-so-famous travel photographers to learn what it means to travel for the love of photography and photograph for the love of travel.