Una Mattinata Frustrante a Roma

Dealing with photographic frustration in Rome, from unexpectedly closed vantage points to run-ins with Italian military.

I’ve recently returned from a trip abroad, vacationing with family in France and Italy. Although most of our activities were together, I made a point of getting up early and photographing a few sunrises on my own. This wasn’t a photographic trip, aside from what I could capture while we were walking around and visiting locations, but of course I wanted to take advantage of being in magnificent and unusual locations. So the times when I could steal away before the sun came up were precious.

And, in the case of one morning, highly frustrating (hence the title above, A Frustrating Morning in Rome).

The sun rises early in Rome in the summer, which meant I was up at 4 AM. I quietly put on the clothes I’d set aside, grabbed my packed photo bag and tripod, and exited our room. I had scheduled an Uber to pick me up at 4:30, but right on time received a message: “No drivers available.” Although not my first choice, being in an unfamiliar metropolis in the middle of the night, I decided to walk the 1 mile to the Colosseum. That, of course, turned into a swift walk because already the light was coming up.

Here’s where I ran into my first problem, which is something I also encountered when shooting the Eiffel Tower in Paris a few mornings earlier: not doing enough research. I have to reiterate that this was a family vacation, so I didn’t take the opportunity to scout the location in advance. I did look up some advice on shooting locations, but when I arrived, the Colle Oppio, a popular vantage point, was closed for unspecified reasons. That meant a quick reconnoiter to see what I could come up with (keep in mind that the Colosseum isn’t quickly circumnavigated). And that light was quickly rising.

I stepped up onto a wall by the sidewalk for some elevation to see the structure better, which was next to a paved viewing area. Instead of walking down the street to the entrance of that area, I hopped over the short fence and set up to take some photos while the Colosseum’s lights were still on. A few brackets captured later, I realized the composition wasn’t great. I saw some joggers in an open area on the north side, so I headed down the path in that direction.

That’s when I noticed that the entrance to my walkway was fenced off and guarded by two heavily armed Italian military guards. It was my only exit, unless I wanted to turn around and look even more suspicious, so I casually walked over. They approached, asking (I’m guessing from the tone of his Italian) just what the hell did I think I was doing there. He recognized enough English that I was able to apologize that I didn’t realize the walkway was closed. His partner, a totally badass-looking woman with sunglasses and an imposing machine gun, looked on impassively. I made my apologies again, he asked if I took any photos of them (no, just the Colosseum), and they let me go. I hate to reinforce a bad stereotype, but it was useful to play the part of semi-clueless American tourist.

Then, my heart racing and the sky rapidly getting brighter, I found a better shooting location—just as the Colosseum’s lights turned off. So much for that iconic early-morning look.

A couple of photographers were there working the area: one doing a portrait session with a couple and another with a model (or possibly a social media influencer). I set up my camera and tripod and started shooting, even though the model was posing in my shot—I could Photoshop them out later if needed. That’s also when I discovered a giant smudge of sensor dust in my frame, which I’d need to clone out later anyway.

A few shots of the Colosseum, with bonus models included. (Photos: Jeff Carlson)

By that point, the sun was truly up. I’d hoped that perhaps it would break through the trees and light up one side of the structure, or pop into view for a nice sun-rays effect, but looking at the TPE app revealed it would be at least an hour before the sun moved even close to that position.

It was 6:20 AM, already 75 degrees Fahrenheit (it would exceed 100F later in the day), and I needed to catch the Metro back to the hotel and take a shower before starting my day with the family—which involved a visit to the Colosseum.

The adrenaline of getting up early and making photos was wearing off, so as I wandered a short distance away to photograph sunlight breaking across the Terrazza della Quadrighe (Temple of the Fatherland), I was tired and dispirited. It was like I didn’t know how to do all this stuff that I talk and talk and write about all the time.

Terrazza della Quadrighe at sunrise. (Photo: Jeff Carlson)

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Knowing and doing have always been two separate disciplines that inform one another. You have to be able to improvise when you’re making photos, a lesson reinforced several times during my trip. When the light is changing, and the composition in your head isn’t possible, it’s easy to forget techniques or realize that an ND filter would have been better or… or…. There are unlimited options.

I didn’t come away from that morning at the Colosseum with the photos I set out to capture. Not even close. I’m pretty happy with the one keeper, above in black and white, although it’s not going to change anyone’s world. I decided to keep the model in the corner after all, just to make it somewhat unique. It’s a slice of that morning’s moments, not the end-all photo of one of the most photographed places on the planet.

But walking back to the Metro station, one of a handful of people on streets that would soon be crammed with tourists, I had to remind myself: Was I there for the photo, or for the adventure? We look at the photo as the goal, because it’s the thing we get to share. The adventure is our own, and it’s fleeting. And yet it’s the adventure I’ll remember, the morning’s promise of possibility even when I’d not lived up to my own photographic expectations. And I had to acknowledge that I was strolling empty streets in Rome, not sitting at my desk at home, with an espresso and a cornetto guaranteed before I arrived back at my hotel. And that’s still a good day.

In a few hours this area would be filled with people. (Photo: Jeff Carlson)

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