Exploring Lisbon? Here's how to make sure you get the best photos.
I have a confession to make.
I am a travel blogger and I don’t really know what I’m doing when it comes to photography. I’m one of those people who has been walking around with a DSLR camera, and using the presets most of the time.
I know I’m not alone.
When I made plans to visit Lisbon, Portugal, I knew I had to up my game. With its lyrical combination of enchanting grandeur and urban decay, Lisbon is a photographer’s dream.
So, based on photos like the one above and his stellar Trip Advisor reviews, I booked a photo tour with Miguel Helfrich, a brilliant local photographer and owner of Lisbon Photo. His evening tour in the Chiado neighbourhood seemed like a perfect opportunity for a solo traveler like me to discover the best vantage points in Lisbon and to learn about night photography — all at the same time.
Upon meeting Miguel in Rossio Square, it was immediately apparent that his home town and photography are two great loves of his life. Anyone who can get me racing up a steep cobblestone street to get this shot must have an innate ability to inspire through sheer enthusiasm. Of course, he happens to know when to catch the moment that these two trolleys pass.
The trolleys have been transporting passengers up the hills into Chiado and Bairro Alto since the 1890s. It’s an iconic Lisbon photo opportunity, not to be missed.
At the top of the hill, we paused at one of Lisbon’s miradouros (viewpoints) with a view of the Moorish castle, Castelo de São Jorge, to capture the blue hour — that fleetingly poetic period after the sun sets when the indirect light casts a blue shade over the city’s seven hills.
This is the first photo I have ever taken in manual mode on my camera. It was a start, but as the blue light faded, Miguel gave me a mini-workshop on how to get the settings for aperture, exposure time and light sensitivity just right. The mysteries of manual shooting were starting to become clear.
It was time to get back to practice. While Miguel showed me some of the iconic photo spots in Lisbon, he also seeks to provide a taste of real life.
Lighting up the night in Lisbon
Chiado is a chic, sophisticated district of theatres, shops and old-style cafes, with wonderful light for night photos. The neighbourhood next door is Bairro Alto, the nighlife hub of Lisbon with countless restaurants and small bars, where the haunting sounds of Fado music can be heard. Miguel suggested that a visit to Lisbon would be incomplete without enjoying fresh seafood in a restaurant in this area. The small venues and mild nights of the city make al fresco dining a charming option, while the day’s laundry flutters overhead.
It never would have occurred to me to take a photo, handheld through a metal railing, of people drinking coffee. But this too is the essence of an evening in social Lisbon.
These Art Nouveau quiosques (kiosks) have been around for over a century and grace many public spaces, serving traditional snacks and drinks. They fell into disrepair when public gatherings were discouraged during the dictatorship, but have been recently restored as the heart of public life in the city.
Some history with your photography
The tour isn’t just about the techniques of photography – – it’s also about getting a sense of the place.
In Carmo Square, we sat outside this entrance to the gothic ruins of the Carmo Convent, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, while Miguel told me about the ‘Carnation Revolution’. I had heard the story once before but, as a photographer, Miguel has a way of painting the picture. It was here in this square that half a century of dictatorship came to an end.
It happened on April 25, 1974. Until then, Portugal had been under a fascist dictatorship for 50 years, the longest in Europe. Culture and expression were controlled by the state. Women were not allowed to vote.
But on that day, a revolt by idealistic young army officers turned into a popular uprising. Armed military officers surrounded the military barracks next to the church where the Prime Minister and several of his Ministers had taken refuge. They surrendered and thousands of people poured into the streets, handing out spring carnations to the soldiers and placing them into the muzzles of their rifles.
It was a near bloodless military coup that led to democracy and it remains a source of immense pride in this country.
I felt compelled to look up the news photos from that day and they do, indeed match the picture in my mind.
My photography lesson continued in the streets just outside Camões square, where I managed to get a shot (handheld) of the classic Tram 28 which passes through the popular tourist areas of Lisbon.
Here, we talked about composition and how to get the architectural lines straight in the camera, a particular challenge for a geometrically challenged individual like me.
Miguel also has a keen eye for detail and it gave me a fresh perspective to the standard postcard style photos I normally pursue for the blog.
The tour ended where it began in Rossio Square.
A tailored tour
Photo by Miguel Helfrich, Lisbon Photo
I enjoy tours because they provide context for what you are seeing. However, most other tours don’t take into account the light, the angles and the time needed to not only to take a good photo, but to capture a sense of place, as Miguel has done in these photos in Alfama, the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon.
With the Lisbon Photo tour, I discovered the city in a unique way – – through a photographer’s lens. Based on my tour, the experience can be highly customized to your needs. In my case, that included plenty of photography coaching. For a more skilled photographer, it could be all about the hidden gems that Miguel can show you. I’ve added his Alfama tour to my future travel list.
Photo by Miguel Helfrich, Lisbon Photo
Beyond the tour
Not only did I fall for Portugal during my visit, this tour has fundamentally changed the way I approach photography. I still have much to learn and practice, but the real value of the tour with Miguel at Lisbon Photo is that the benefits continue long after the tour ends.
Blue hour in Ottawa, Canada
Chateau Laurier, Ottawa, Canada