Many cities are built on seven hills. Rome is regarded to be the original, but a quick look on Wikipedia suggests there are nearly 90 others around the World. One that truly fits the moniker is Lisbon, Portugal.
As a frequent visitor to Lisbon over the last two and a half decades, I can confirm the quantity and steepness of its hills. Those hills, however, are a small part of what makes Lisbon somewhat of a photographer’s paradise. Indeed a couple of years ago, I wrote a photographer’s guide to the city.
In May 2019, I revisited this beautiful city with the sole purpose of shooting stock stills and video. I had the pleasure of spending nearly two weeks traipsing not only the hills but the centre, the backstreets and outer parts of the city. Today I am going to share my experiences of that time.
An Unconventional Arrival
While it’s pretty easy to fly into Lisbon, my wife and I took a different approach. We had spent a few days shooting in Paris, and rather than fly direct to Lisbon; we took the train. This involved a the ultra-fast TGV train from Paris to Hendaye on the French/Spanish border. There we took a few hours for a leisurely lunch before boarding an overnight sleeper train to Lisbon.
In the first few hours before sunset, you roll through some stunning scenery. Difficult to photograph from a moving train but a visual feast.
Unpredictable Weather But Beautiful Light
Lisbon sits on the western edge of the Iberian Peninsular. To the west are several thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean complete with the smorgasbord of weather fronts that brings. For our first three days, the weather did not play ball. Low cloud, drizzle and surprisingly cold for the time of year, shooting was not really worth it from a professional point of view.
However, we both have decent smartphones, and so we spent those three days familiarising ourselves with the city, shooting iPhone shots not only for ourselves but as a record of places to return to. Shooting with the smartphones rekindled creativity in me. The freedom to move and shoot at will opened my eyes to lots of new shots. I wrote about the experience here.
The light in Lisbon has always been exceptional. That same unpredictable Atlantic seems to blow away the smog and dust that other major cities suffer from. The result is a crystal clear, beautiful light, even on cloudy days.
So Many Places To Shoot
Having been to Lisbon on many occasions before, I thought I knew most of the great locations. Turns out, that wandering with a smartphone opened up even more places that I was completely unaware of.
The tightly packed, steep streets of the Alfama district are a classic example. While there is a main street where tourists roam (more on them later), head of the beaten track and there is a labyrinth of old roads, with endless photogenic scenes. In many cities, sunlight would cause harsh shadows in such narrow streets, but in Lisbon, the light seems to reflect, softening the shadows and bringing detail into the dark.
Another labyrinth of photographic possibilities was found on the hill opposite Alfama, the Barrio Alta. This area has a different feel to Alfama, more bars, cafes and many more tourists.
Obsession With Trams
One of the icons of Lisbon is its old trams. While much of the tram route has been modernised, there are two tourist routes that maintain these beautiful old machines. Transport shots often sell well, and so I pursued getting a good shot of them, to the point where I became a little obsessed with it.
A little research revealed an iconic location to shoot trams, but to get the “shot” needed an early start. By 8 am, Lisbon is bustling with locals driving and walking to work, making getting an isolated tram shot tricky. To counter this, I shot at sunrise, in this case, 6.20am.
Although there are fewer trams at this time, there is also much less traffic. The low light is reflected from the canyon-like streets to give a really beautiful scene. A little tip to know when a tram is coming is to use the transport schedule section on Google maps. A quick look at the nearest stops would reveal when a tram was coming and from what direction.
The shot below came after 90 minutes of shooting. I was about to pack up when a tram trundled into view. As luck would have it, another tram approached from the opposite direction, and their paths crossed at the perfect point. Well worth the wait.
No trip to Lisbon is complete without a visit to Belem. This suburb of the city lies on the Tagus river toward the Atlantic. It features several impressive locations such as the Monument to the Navigators, the Belem Tower and the beautiful Jeronimos Monastery.
We spent a whole evening capturing the Monument to the Navigators. The light was perfect, and although busy, there were some great angles to shoot both video and stills. Ironically as soon as the sun set, the vast majority of people left, leaving us to shoot more deserted shots.
We visited the Monastery on another day, late morning. By this time it was hellishly crowded with tourists and some remarkably ignorant tour guides. Having visited the location before, I would say early morning is a much better time to visit. The light is still on the facade, but there are next to no people.
The trip was not all roses. Lisbon, like many other destinations, has become a place of choice for cheap short breaks. My memories of it were that at the height of daytime, there was plenty of space for relaxed shooting. The Barrio Alto was a lovely quiet place to shoot at any time.
This has changed drastically. After 9 am, the city becomes clogged with tourists. Cheap flights and 5,000 passenger cruise ships conspire to make some places in the city absolute hell.
As a photographer shooting video, I was using a tripod 90% of the time. This can be incredibly frustrating. Tourists kicking the legs, standing in front of my shots, and more annoyingly trying to copy my shots by standing behind me with an iPhone, ignoring the fact that I was shooting with a 300mm lens. On more than on occasion, a tourist attempted to take a picture directly from the screen of my Atomos field monitor. Strong words were delivered, mainly about using their own imagination.
Tourists aside, Lisbon remains one of the most beautiful locations to shoot in the world. This is in part due to the aforementioned seven hills. Most of these hills have spectacular viewpoints over the city, often for free. My favourite, however, is paid, the Castle San Jorge on the highest hill of Alfama.
Because it’s paid and has plenty of shooting locations, it was much quieter than others. It faces west and is a perfect place to capture the sun setting over the city. Except on the day we went, it clouded over 15 minutes before sunset. However, the beautiful Lisbon light remained and after it had set the city lights provided more spectacular shots. It costs €10 per person to access the castle, but it’s well worth it.
We also went to another stunning paid viewpoint, the Elevador San Juste. This is an elevator that lifts people from the city centre to the Barrio Alto. Atop it, it has a viewing platform with fantastic vistas looking east over the city. Although not open in time for the rising sun, it remains open for sunset and affords excellent views of the San Jorge castle and the lights of the city.
Finally, for my shoots in Lisbon, I took a Fuji X-T2, Fuji 14mm, 18-55mm 55-300mm lenses, a Manfrotto Befree Live travel video tripod, an Atomos Shinobi field monitor, a variable neutral density filter and a set of Hitech-Formatt square filters. All performed admirably, with the highlight being the Atomos Shinobi. I wrote about that here.
Overall we had an exceptional photographic experience in Lisbon. As we had plenty of time there, we were able to overcome the problems with weather and overcrowding to get a lot of shots done. Hopefully, one or two will return a profit.