Massimo Vitali’s photographs are a modern-day commentary on man’s presence in nature. His is not a contemplation of the natural world in the northern European Romantic sense – that of the loner at one with the universe – but more a southern European enjoyment of outdoor life: convivial, communal and, above all, celebratory.

Vitali made his name in the 1990s, with a series of large-scale beach photographs taken in Tuscany, near his home. Shot from the edge of the sea looking beachwards, they document one of Italy’s most crowded coastlines, and are either vibrantly hedonistic or disturbingly claustrophobic, depending on whether you share the Italian gene of wanting to lie bumper to bumper on a heaving strip of sand in the height of summer. The beaches themselves are often far from idyllic – backing on to semi-industrial landscapes, here we see the peripheries of the human sprawl, spilling over into the water’s edge.

Some critics have suggested that these works are a comment on the dangers of overpopulation and the threat it poses to the natural world. There is an element of this, Vitali concedes, but his main concern is with social documentary and the ways we behave in public when we are essentially defenceless, stripped down to almost nothing. “I’m more interested in the sociological presence of what happens on the coast,” he says. “It reflects what happens in our society.”

Lately, however, his work has taken a new direction. The human presence has abated in these recent pictures, shot in Italy, Greece and northern Spain last summer. Here, nature is dominant, with holidaymakers often confined to the edges of the picture. In a striking diptych of the chalky cliff face at Firiplaka in Milos, Greece, the two couples on the sand are easy to miss, ant-like at the bottom of the frame. In another, Vitali has left his signature beach setting for the verdant pastures of Asturias, Spain, where a group of nature-lovers gather in and around a natural pool. The perspective is such that the human presence is almost incidental. The photograph that is perhaps closest to his earlier works is an image from Puglia, Italy, of two freestanding rocks close to the shore known as Le Due Sorelle (the two sisters). Here, however, the view is out to sea, rather than towards the beach, and the eye is drawn first to the rocks, and only then to the motorboats anchored around it.

Unusually perhaps, Vitali still shoots on film. The large-scale negatives retain that bleached Mediterranean light that allows his Lilliputians to stand out. This faded palette, accented by tiny dashes of colour, is a strong characteristic of his pictures, whether on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset or in the American Midwest. And as casual as these shots might seem, these are not necessarily places that Vitali has chanced upon. Indeed he has a team of researchers dedicated to seeking out locations that fit his requirements.

“My pictures are not about discovery – they are far from the American tradition of discovering the wilderness,” he explains. “When I leave, I know exactly where I want to be each day, and at what time.” The only thing he can’t control is the ebb and flow of human presence.

Rebecca Rose, "Nature at large" in Financial Times, November 11, 2011.