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24.07.2020. Le Sirenuse
A photograph of Le Sirenuse posted recently on Instagram made us sit up and take notice. It showed the hotel from an angle we’ve rarely seen, and it brought home a side of our home, and Positano, that is still not well enough known. Positano – we never tire of saying – is a mountain village that happens to be on the sea. Its feet are in the water, but its head is in the clouds, up there with the goatherds and those who cultivate terraced vineyards and olive groves in a dramatic landscape of sheer rock and fragrant maquis. This photo, by US travel influencer Jeremy Austin, made the point eloquently, showing the family home we love to share with guests from all over the world as a marvellous wine-red architectural fantasy clinging to a steep hillside below what looks like a mountain village (actually this is Positano’s ‘Liparlati’ district). It could be, we like to think, an eccentric maharajah’s palace in some distant Himalayan kingdom (see below for the uncropped version of the photo).
We had to talk to Jeremy, to find out the secret behind the shot – and some of the other dazzling photos and videos that he and Angie Villa, his partner in life, work and travel, post on their much-followed Instagram feed. We caught up with them both early one morning by the pool terrace, just before they were due to head off to Capri. What began as an admiring chat turned into a fascinating tutorial on how to make that photo pop.
Jeremy and Angie met by chance in Miami five years ago, when he was working as a personal trainer and she was doing modelling gigs. Romance blossomed as the couple discovered their mutual love of travel. Soon enough, they were toying with what at first seemed an impossible dream: making a life on the road, travelling from extraordinary place to extraordinary place, documenting their trips in eye-catching images, alighting back home only to take off again a few days later. At first, says Angie, after they hit the road, they would splash out on a luxury hotel “maybe once every couple of weeks”, when they could afford it, “and go crazy taking photos”. In those early days, they took photos and videos with just an iPhone and GoPro: “You really don’t need any more than that to start off”, Angie advises. More important than equipment, Jeremy adds, is “having an eye for the location”.
On arrival in a new place, Jeremy reveals, “sometimes the shot is already made up in our minds, and sometimes it just happens organically”. In the case of the shot of Le Sirenuse framed by its mountain backdrop, it was a question, he says of “not wanting to take the same shot everyone takes”. For Angie, their work is all about striking a balance between “opening up new perspectives” and “getting that simple shot that everyone recognises”. Just because Positano’s pyramid of houses and church dome, as seen from Le Sirenuse, has been taken a million times, doesn’t mean it’s not a great shot, they both stress. Here, though, they wanted to explore a new angle.
This shot was done using a drone, but the couple also make frequent use of tripods and a timer, especially when both of them plan to be in the frame. One piece of advice both have for budding Instagram stars is not to rush things: however much state-of-the-art technology you invest in, getting that killer shot takes time.
During our talk, Jeremy and Angie kindly agreed to reveal the backstory and a few of the secrets behind three of their most incredible shots, beginning with another that they had taken at Le Sirenuse just the day before.
Angie: “Here we’re using a waterproof camera housing with a glass dome at the front that allows you to take pictures or shoot video half in and half out of the water. So I’m standing in the pool while Jeremy’s swimming back and forth”.
Jeremy: “It’s not too difficult to do a shot like this if you’re in a pool, though it can be tricky to find the perfect line of balance between underwater and above – here it’s around three-fifths above and the rest below. The real problem comes when you’re using the dome casing in the sea, the waves can make things really challenging! We did this shot around 2pm, with the sun high in the sky – that way my shadow is right underneath, which makes the whole thing more three-dimensional”.
Angie: “Everyone says that sunrise and sunset are the magic hours for photography, but it really depends on the shot. If we’d waited until sunset for this shot there would have been long shadows over the pool from the lemon trees”.
Jeremy: “We have an app that gives us information about the sun’s angle and light intensity at different times a day. As soon as we get to a property, we check that”.
Jeremy: “This is an early one… that was our first ever trip to Greece. You see the boat? We didn’t arrange it, it’s not as if we were telling the skipper where to manoeuvre it or anything. In fact, when I was taking the photo I thought I might have to remove it afterwards, because there’s this aspect of having this amazing place all to yourself… but then I figured that the boat was part of the story”.
Angie: “Back then we didn’t have the camera we have today. But really if you’re just posting on Instagram, with photos of around 2MB, you don’t need all the resolution that the really top-end cameras give you. A good one costing 700 or 800 dollars will do just fine”.
Jeremy: “Some of our best content was shot just with an iPhone. Videos too! Everyone always thinks I have some sort of expensive gimbal or stabiliser, but mostly I’ve just learned to keep a really steady hand”.
Angie: “We always aim to make our photos ‘pop’, so the colours are vibrant and there’s a lot of contrast”.
Jeremy: “A lot of people on Instagram like to change their colours a lot, they’ll change a green to orange for example. but we like to try and reproduce the way we saw it. The camera can never capture the exact way you see with your eyes, but you can get close. We have a range of presets that we’ve developed over the years, photo editing settings that our followers can buy, that aim to make photos ‘pop’.
Angie. “One other thing that I think has helped us grow a lot is that we’re not the main focus of most of our shots, the property or the landscape is the focus. When we started, people didn’t even know what our faces looked like. And that means it’s much easier for people who look at our photos to put themselves in the picture: “Oh, that’s me!”
Angie: “This is an experience you get to do in Bora Bora. Everybody should do it. The sharks are considered vegetarian, though I wouldn’t advise putting your hand in their mouths!”
Jeremy: “It was just us and the boat captain. He took us to this shallow lagoon – that water’s probably nine feet deep at most. The photo was taken with a drone we have that we put on automatic mode, circling us, on a timer. It was fitted with a polarising filter to reduce the glare of the sun off the water – otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see the sharks clearly. First Angie got into position, so we could get the composition right, then I set off the drone and jumped in. They were circling us at that moment because the boat captain had just thrown some food out. It’s not just sharks, there are stingrays too, three of them. We were in the water maybe five minutes, then we got out and checked the shot – and it was perfect first time! Honestly it looks too good to be true, most people assume that’s done with Photoshop. But it’s all real, there’s no fakery!”
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