Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon 24-85mm
Focal length: 58mm
Filters: 0.6 ND Grad (soft)
Camera was mounted on a tripod with ball head and triggered by a cable release. Mirror was locked up to reduce vibration and the viewfinder blind was in place.
Santa Maria della Salute, Venice
This particular image was taken during a second attempt to capture the famous church at the mouth of the eastern end of the Grand Canal. The previous evening I had tried from a spot only 50 yards to the right but had failed to get a clear shot through all the mooring poles and hotel awnings, plus the sky had been particularly flat that night. So I treated my first go a sighting trip and made a mental note to keep an eye on the sky for the following evening.
Fortunately the next night proved to be much more interesting so I left my ever patient wife people watching in St. Mark's Square, about 20 minutes walk away, and hot-footed back to the canal side for another go. This time I 'borrowed' a small pier from one of the hotels and set up at the end to give myself a clean view.
My initial idea had been to break out the 10 stop ND filter and go for an extreme long exposure but it quickly became apparent that I wouldn't get what I wanted in terms of a relatively uncluttered image. The reason being that just out of shot to the left is the 'Salute' vaporetto stop on the main route into town. The combination of low light, long exposure time and regular water-buses, plus all manner of other water traffic, would result in multiple light trails across the foreground. So instead I went with just an ND grad to balance the sky with the foreground and a slightly smaller aperture than I would normally go with to give a relatively short exposure of just a few seconds. Long enough to smooth the choppy water but short enough to squeeze in between the traffic on the canal.
I let the sun to slip below the horizon, out of shot to the right, to give me some colour to the sky but without too much contrast and waited for the lights in front of the church to come on. At this time of year, which was mid-November by the way, sunset is around half past four so the canal is still busy with tourists and locals making their way around the city. It also gets dark really quickly once the sun has set so I only had about 15 minutes to get the shot. That may sound like plenty but when you are trying to catch a gap in the traffic, which is coming from both left and right, you don't get too many chances. In the end I managed just six exposures before it got too dark and this was the most pleasing balance of light and cloud position, to my eye anyway.
Other things to photograph
To be honest there are more things to point a lens at in Venice than I could possibly list here but if you are only in town for the day I would suggest starting at St.Marks Square. Bear in mind though that at any time of day you are going to have to work around throngs of tourists. From there it is literally just a couple of hundred yards to the grand canal where you can try something with the moored gondolas or walk about 5 minutes and have a go at the Bridge of Sighs. Its a bit of a cliche but it would be rude not to.
I do have to smile looking at my most recent attempt at this iconic Venetian view as, while the camera doesn't lie and there is no photoshopping (other than a bit of levels correction and a touch of sharpening), what you can't see in this quiet, misty scene are the literally hundreds of tourists inches away on my left, right and behind me wielding selfie sticks like some new form of combat sport.
Away from St. Marks Square you quickly start to encounter the canals that define Venice in so many ways and offer up a wealth of potential images. You could contrast the ornate gondolas against the distressed brick of the buildings. Suggest mystery with a small bridge leading into the unknown. Look for patterns in relections on the water. Play light against dark.
Bear in mind that when I say dark, I mean 'dark'. The nature of Venice is such that the streets can sometimes be only 10 or 12 feet wide but the buildings can be 4 or 5 storeys high, so you you are often walking around at the bottom of a man made canyon. For the casual tourist this is not a problem. For the photographer it can be a total nightmare. Go prepared. Take a monopod, or a tripod, but of course be careful where you use the latter in such confined spaces. If all else fails, be prepared to crank up the ISO rating of your film or digital camera.
Finally, be prepared to walk. A lot. Venice certainly isn't the biggest city in the world but because it is basically one huge pedestrian only zone carved up by canals, there is no such thing as a 'straight' A to B route. You may be able to see where you want to be just 50 feet away on the other side of a canal, but you could end up walking a quarter of a mile to find the nearest bridge to then double back on yourself.
Oh, and you will get lost at some point. There is no shame in this, I have been three times now and got lost every time, so get a map and get it before you go. Trust me, you don't want to get off the water-bus at 5 o'clock in the afternoon when it has gone dark, because it's the middle of November, with all your luggage in tow and then try to find your hotel which you have been assured is 'just off St.Mark's Square' using only your wits and a rapidly diminishing sense of self confidence. That 2 hours ranks quite high on my list of 'Things I don't want to do again'.
When to go
November is statistically the wettest month in Venice. So of course I just had to go in November! I seem to have an almost shaman like ability to choose the worst moment to visit a location. However, this can work to your advantage as the wet weather can often result in fog. Venice in the fog is fantastic. Venice in the evening in the fog is magical. The warm glow of the streetlights and the softened outlines of the buildings are pure theatre.
So, if you don't go in November when should you go? To be honest, anytime you like as Venice has something to offer regardless of the weather. I would caution against February though as this is when the famous carnival takes place. The streets will be wedged and you will be hard pressed to get accommodation. Of course if you are actually going for the carnival itself then fair enough and good luck to you. I would also suggest you avoid July and August as you will get an uncomfortable combination of high visitor numbers and even higher temperatures. I believe Venetians themselves head for the hills in August so perhaps we should follow their example.
Most airlines fly into Marco Polo airport, roughly 7km north of Venice on the edge of the lagoon, and this is where I have always landed. I believe that some carriers use Treviso airport which is about 30km away.
Part of the attraction of Marco Polo, apart from being that bit closer, is that it has a dedicated waterbus terminal so you can transfer by boat right into the heart of the city. There are a variety of options from public water-buses to private water-taxis, with transfer times and costs varying accordingly, but to my mind nothing beats arriving in Venice by boat. Be aware though that the water-bus is just that, a bus, so it will make a number of stops on the way and if you are unlucky enough to need the last stop you could be in for a journey time of 1hr 30min. For more detailed information on routes, timetables and fares have a look at www.alilaguna.it.
It is of course possible to get from either airport to Venice by road. I haven't done it myself but I believe the bus transfer from Marco Polo takes about 25mins while Treviso is about 45mins away. Have a look at www.atvo.it for timetables and fares. All road transfers will drop you off at Piazzale Roma and from there you are either on foot or local water-bus.
About the author: David Stanley is a freelance photographer concentrating on landscape images. For more articles, along with a selection of his work available as prints, please visit his website at www.davidstanleyphotography.com.
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