My adventurous and landmark packed photo travel week in Italy last September started in Rome. I then had a taster of the rugged Cinque Terre spiced up with powerful thunderstorms. The last leg of the journey culminated in Venice - the historic sea port built on the islands, the capital of the once mighty marine military power, the merchant empire and a major European cultural centre. Since the unification of Italy, Venice is now known as a prime tourist attraction. The city is very well preserved, authentic, unique and full of surprises.
It is no secret that there are no conventional roads apart from pedestrian walkways and bridges. The extensive canal network is at the heart of the infrastructure - all deliveries, taxi, ambulance and municipal services must still use the medieval waterways. Early in the morning all hotels, shops and restaurants receive their deliveries by cargo boats. Later on taxi boats and gondolas ferry people up and down the canals until late in the evening. While they can make and an interesting subject, this unfortunately means there are NO reflections to photograph at almost any part of the day. The flood-lighting both in the morning and the evening is very subtle and fairly minimal so that must be taken into account before planning the day and picking the locations. As a first time visitor I had to quickly learn the limitations, geographical constraints and adjust to the spirit of Venice. It was a challenging but very rewarding experience.
I stayed in small hotel on the main island which is the heart of Venice. I could reach any major landmark on the island in less than 30-40min on foot, which was very helpful in the mornings. Travellers coming to Venice by car should instead consider booking a hotel in Mestre and commuting in by a train; this could be also considered as a budget option, however it may add another half an hour or more to the sunrise journey time. I wouldn't advise staying on other islands mainly because the boat transport options are very limited early in the morning.
The Grand Canal drew in and inspired master painters through the centuries hence it is no surprise the location offers plenty of exciting photography opportunities. It is still full of charm today: the architecture has changed little since the old days. The luxurious shops and restaurants blend to the scene very elegantly. There are sadly no sail boats to be seen on an ordinary day, while the water traffic is now dominated by the humble diesel boats. As already mentioned any hopes of the reflections were quickly dashed, so instead I had to compose the images like ordinary cityscapes with water feature.
The morning and evening blue hour is a great time for cityscapes and Venice is not an exception. The Grand Canal snakes through the island; there are just four bridges across that also provide some of the best vantage points.
The photograph below was made from the Ponte di Rialto during the morning blue hour. Getting up very early helped me miss all the crowds that could be easily one thousand men strong. The cool deep blue tones in the sky and water contrasted beautifully with the street lights and the pastel building hues. The sky was featureless, which I know isn't ideal but on the positive side it helps to focus all the attention to the architecture.
Ponte dell'Accademia reveals an instantly recognisable classic view towards Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. I picked the location for the evening golden hour and the sunset. The natural light was perfect and easy to work with. I was however again faced with heavy boat traffic, no reflections and mundane sky. Fortunately, the architecture redeems it all. My favourite images were made during the early blue hour while the glow in the sky still provided enough illumination and the street lights accented the waterway. Longer exposures also helped to smooth out the water and also transformed the boats into subtle light streaks leading the viewer through the image.
It was also very rewarding to work in the late evening golden hour. The dome of the basilica and the top of the building facades were lit by the fading golden and pink hues. It looked like a painting already and I could imagine the majestic sight of the regatta boats sailing past in the parade formation. Only if! In a real life these were just the ordinary people carrier power boats filled with inquisitive tourists. I tried to embrace it and managed to get a few interesting formations as seen below. The sky is clearly very plain and it wouldn't be unreasonable nor difficult to borrow some clouds from a similarly lit donor image. I am strongly considering this option and it might just replace the original one shortly.
Several interesting views open up across the Grand Canal from near Palazzo Ducale. One example is a church of San Giorgio Maggiore with a prominent bell tower on its own tiny island. Gondolas are synonymous with Venice and make a great subject and a perfect foreground interest. Early morning blue hour and sunrise is the ideal time for the photography here, but evening may work just as well. The end of the day was surprisingly windy and overcast. The heavy sky was a blessing for the late blue hour photography, but sadly there was no sunset to be had. The gondolas were rocking back and forth on the water resulting in a very dramatic blur effect. I felt it was a little bit too strong hence I made some exposures at higher ISO and faster shutter speed to reduce the motion until I was happy with the end result. Canon 5D mark III conveniently provides excellent image quality with little sacrifice even at these settings. The photograph below was made using the 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens at its long end. The church was prominently placed in the centre and wrapped around with the blue sheets of cloud and the water. Golden spot lights helped to bring it out even further; the forward facing gondolas reinforced the feeling without detracting from the architecture.
The following example was shot at a considerably wider setting; the angle was also changed to focus all the attention to the boats.
Finally, I would like to share a couple of slightly less well known Grand Canal locations. The view towards the Markets was particularly striking thanks to the rich colours in the architecture and the boats. Daytime sun helped to bring out the vibrance in the scene and there was even a hint of reflection of the gondolas for the foreground interest.
A view from the Rialto bridge to the North East reveals an interesting bend of the Grand Canal. A late afternoon sun lighting was well suited to the scene and there was finally a very agreeable amount of clouds in the sky. The picture really came together as a result of a speedboat cruising through; it splashed and carved out its track in the water and emphasised the curve of the bend. Even further there was momentarily a patch of broken reflection right in the middle. There were only gondolas and pedestrians left in the scene, yet the feeling of something far more dynamic, powerful and mysterious is certainly still present.
The Duke's palace is undoubtedly very special and has a lot going for it in the eyes of travel photographer. In the afternoon and the evening the place is bustling with people making it very challenging to photograph the whole exterior. Detail shots is one way around it. I found the archways and richly decorated columns to be very photogenic and considerably quieter. The evening blue hour provided rich blue hue sin the sky as a backdrop against the golden coloured street illumination. The pavement is a very strong feature that helps framing the path and keeping the focus in line towards San Marco.
The same location was revisited next morning with the expectation of a few San Marco square images. The plan unfortunately failed spectacularly. There was only minimal lighting in the main square, making it impossible to record a well and uniformly lit image without excessive colour casts. Worse still the street lights were switched off before I could get anything worth keeping. This is always the risk with new locations.
The sky was clear overhead with a heavy cloud cover at the horizon level. In my books these are the worst conditions possible, except obviously the uniform grey skies and rain...Anyway, the sun however emerged through a gap in the clouds shortly and I was conveniently setup around the archway. It was a welcome opportunity for a different take at the same image this time facing the opposite way. I was also happy to explore further compositions and apply a black and white treatment to emphasise the geometric shapes, the perspective and intricate detail in the scene.
San Marco square receives the best light in the afternoon. I managed to get a reasonable daytime shot in the end and was rather surprised to see a wet pavement and a few larger puddles, however it didn't rain earlier that day. The secret is the flooding of the square that may occur during the high tide in conjunction with windy conditions. This not only clears out the square from the crowds but may also create a very welcome reflection. Sadly I have missed out on this occasion but will certainly keep such option open for my next visit.
The following images are unlikely to win any competitions, however, I believe they are great examples of the hidden treasures and unexpected subjects in Venice. Further away from the Grand Canal featured in hundreds and thousands of classical paintings, millions of photographs and known across the planet, there is a different city to be explored and admired. Admittedly, it may be less than picture perfect, less polished and often may have some rough edges, even graffiti or crumbling walls. But it is unique, and features a strong character and identity. There are lots of historic places, quirky bridges, rustic courtyards, and of course the people. The locals. I am not known for street photography, however, I absolutely couldn't resist photographing this character in the backdrop of colourful but quiet plaza.
I already mentioned the crumbling wall plaster and the narrow canal network running like the spider web all across Venice. This following image also features a Venice own leaning tower; the angle appears to be quite extreme. I could only conclude that Pisa tower is certainly not unique, only much better known.
Even the Grand Canal and its surroundings hide lots of intricate detail and decorations just like this one. It is well worth spending the time and looking both wide and focusing on the world of macro.
In conclusion, my short stay in Venice was a great introduction to this unique historic city. I am overall pleased with the selection of images made during this time considering the weather conditions. It will be undoubtedly great to come back and work the now familiar location further hoping for colourful sunsets and sunrises as well as venturing further off the beaten track and into the other islands.