I admit it: the magical city of Venice is not normally associated with documentary photography. It’s a place thousands of photographers visit every year to learn landscape photography; they shoot the blue skies, the green waters, the reflections, the sunsets and the bridges. But rarely the streets.
I’ve been visiting Venice as a photographer for a number of years – and it’s strictly documentary and street. Once you get away from San Marco, Rialto and the tourist ‘yellow routes’, it’s a street photography wonderland. Night or day, monochrome or colour, winter or summer – Venice has it all. Whether it’s the amazing light, the characters, the architecture, the quirkiness or the characters, Venice delivers.
The city is made up of a number of districts – sestiere – each of which has its own character and style. For street photography, head for Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro and San Polo (in order of my preference) and dig deep. Get into the heart of those areas, into the alleyways and the dark corners. Don’t be afraid to explore and get lost (as even the locals do). It’s a very safe city and, if you do get lost, it’s so compact you can’t go far wrong.
Travel photography in Venice – my top tips
- Travel light: I take one camera and one lens (35mm) and that’s all. Maybe a tiny travel tripod but nothing else. You’ll do a lot of walking and having just a small shoulder bag (or no bag) will make life easier.
- Shoot at dawn, just as the city is waking up. There’s bags of atmosphere, moisture in the air, few tourists about and wonderful light. After an hour or so, find a bar and enjoy your first cappuccino and brioche (croissant) of the day. Live like a local!
- Shoot RAW: Venice is a terrific place to shoot in both monochrome and colour and you’ll want to keep your options open.
- Relish bad weather: out of the long summer season you can expect rain, fog and even snow. I’ve taken some of my best photographs of Venice in adverse weather conditions. See it as an opportunity!
- Chase the light: Venice is all about the light, which is as good as it gets. Watch the light as it shimmers on the water and appears at the end of dark alleys; look for the intense shadows and the rich colours of the Venetian landscape. Good light is easy to find in Venice: seek it out and build your shots around it.
- Avoid the tourist areas: they are overcrowded and it’s difficult to get a clean shot of anything.
- It’s a good place to overcome your fears of street shooting: everyone has a camera and people don’t think twice about being photographed.
- Venice waterways open up a whole new world of unique photographic possibilities you won’t find anywhere else on the planet.
- A little under-exposure will work wonders. If the sun is mostly behind me, my default setting is 1-2 stops of under-exposure. This will saturate the colours, keep the highlights in check and give a rIch intensity to shadow areas. Make your exposure compensation dial your friend.
- Make sure you venture away from the main island. Chioggia, for example, which is actually on the mainland, is a working fishing town which offers good opportunities for street photography – and it’s an interesting journey in itself. All of the smaller islands are easily accessible by waterbus and the sea breeze is a great antidote to the stuffy city.
- Try to think of a couple of projects before you go. Your shooting time in Venice will be more focused and meaningful if you have a vision to work towards. If you’re short of ideas, try something like ‘Working Venice’, focusing on the local people who make the city tick.