You plan a trip to Venice, you want to combine photography and vacation, won’t have all day time for checking locations and light? Want to bring home impressive images though?
The following information will put you in the right place at the right time, carrying the right lens. You will discover the following to be written mainly by a photographer’s perspective. But since travel photographers have to be in the most beautiful places during the most favorable light conditions this might not be a bad guide for others, too.
Before starting, let me note a few general things for your trip. Travelling to Venice will always end up in a wonderful journey. Anyhow, there are some specialties to this town.
The most obvious and important first: No roads means no cars means lots of walking. Public services suspended due to strike is rather normal than an exception. Travel light, don’t bring all of your equipment. Also wear a good pair of walking shoes and take care at canal sides, steps are often slippery. Your camera would be in good company deep aground.
On the positive side: Don’t worry too much about safety and theft. Parts of Italy have a bad record of crime, but Venice is not Italyl. Certainly I would not leave my camera unattended in St. Mark’s Square while heading for dinner. But I’d worry much more in any other major western city. Attacks or rape in the streets are – thank god – not known here.
Send and upload images: The city offers a WiFi connection along Grand Canal and in touristic hotpots like St. Mark’s Square. The service can have a slightly weak signal, sometimes it’s also a bit slow. But in general it works fine for basic needs. More and more coffee places also offer a free wifi.
Do It Yourself or Hire Expertise
Venice is pure beauty. But capturing it properly can be challenging. Discovering the best photography spots and shooting a broad variety of pictures is near to impossible moving around on your own. On top light in Venice is extremely tricky. Therefore if you just shoot some “I’ve been here” pictures don’t worry. For memorable photos I highly recommend guidance.
If you are photography keen check out my Private Photo Walk Tours in Venice in which you will not only improve your photography but also shoot great Venice photos while being guided on and off the beaten track. From a quick three hour workshop tour, to a 6 hour tour workshop to a full day Master Class everything can be arranged best suiting your personal interests and needs.
Travel Seasons – The photographic approach
In short: plan your trip whenever you like, but try to avoid summer. Any season this lovely town will show you a different face – always fascinating for sure. During autumn and winter you will often find Venice dumped in a veil of mystery when dense fog covers town. On other days acqua alta (flooding) enables great captures between October and March. Spring offers blue skies, and people enjoying first warm sun beams, Venice showing its most relaxed and positive face. In summer the traditional festivals of Redentore and Regatta Storica are an opportunity to fig deeper into Venice’s history and daily life in town with your camera. And then there is carnival in February or March. Not more to say than: totally over-crowded but heaven for photographers.
Jan-Mar: Generally the city is less crowded compared to summer months – except during Venice Carnival, one of the top events in town with about a million visitors within ten days. Winter sun will give you wonderful light nearly all day. But be prepared, it can be rainy and freezing cold especially in January. Wonderful glowing sunrise light with clear sky, very relaxed inhabitants in the beginning of the year. Acqua alta possible.
Apr-Jun: Days last longer, means more time for available light photography, but also increasing contrasts around noon. This time of the year I personally already split my days in morning and evening shooting, and doing editing, cooking or whatsoever else in between. Temperatures mostly have risen to short-sleeve weather while sun is up, evenings might still be a bit shady in April. Sky can show up with fantastic deep blues Apr and May, best time for a Venice trip as is October. In June hot summer will have taken over in town, giving the opportunity of wonderful sunset shots.
Jul-Sep: Not the best time for photographers. Peak season in Venice’s visitors statistics are July and August. Don’t ask me why. High temperatures and insane humidity make you not want to move anywhere except to the beach on Lido. Not even a slight breeze will lighten your suffers. Often I hop on a vaporetto (water bus) just to get five minutes of moving air. Carrying lots of equipment in summer is not a smart idea. Photographing will be kind of fight. On the other hand you’ll have a sun guarantee in summer. Prepare for far too high contrasts besides mornings and evenings.
Oct-Dec: Venice slowly begins to recover from summer’s visitor masses pushing through the alleys. Inhabitants get far more relaxed if you ask for taking a portrait. October probably is the best travel time for Venice as is spring for having both photography adventure and vacation. Also fascinating: acqua alta can flood parts of town already. November and December days can be foggy, giving this morbid medieval town an even more charming mood. During the not so rare rainy days you will be able to capture a very special look of Venice.
Where to shoot with sun, rain, snow
This section is a bit tricky due to different preferences of each photographer. So don’t generalize my comments here. It is just a rough guide for what I discovered to be kind of easy but impressive to capture places, dependent on weather conditions. Of course any spot in town gives you the opportunity for wonderful captures with any weather given. But if you have only like one day in town, why not stick to the more likely options.
Clear Sky: During daytime head wherever you prefer around town. Between about 11am and 3pm contrasts might be too strong for capturing sunny and shadowy parts in one image, in summer consider this to happen between 10am and 4pm at least. Keep an eye on dancing lights, reflections in the canals. You won’t ever find more colorful reflections than in Venice. If you found reflections but no dancing is going on, wait for a boat to pass. In the afternoon some people hang out around Zattere in the sestiere Dorsoduro. Late afternoon wonderful warm late evening sun will hit the facades all over town. For sunset you might head to the waterfront near St. Mark’s Square. Turning around you should find enough subjects for an emotional against-the-sun-shot. Watch out for the moon. Sometimes it rises superbly over the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.
Cloud Covered: Usually I head for some black and whites those days. I might only change back to color for blue hour in the mornings and evenings. If you are happy to have the clouds moving quickly, long-term exposures can create interesting patterns in the sky. Consider hopping on a vaporetto to the island of Murano to shoot some images of the famous glass blowers. All of them work inside. If the sun might have a possibility to shine through the clouds at sunset head for the waterfront at St. Mark’s Square again. If it peeks through you’ll have the possibility of nice silhouette captures.
Rain: Did you say damn, a rainy day? Not in Venice! Grab your camera and head out quickly. Rainy days are perfect for shooting in Venice. The wet pavement will allow for wonderful reflections. Dripping and dropping is going on everywhere. Also rain and umbrellas seem to add perfectly to the morbid charm of Venice. Keep away from Canal Grande since you most probably will not capture anything close to interesting. At night the strong contrast of lantern lighting, reflections and high contrasts can lead to fantastic images.
Snow: If you are lucky to experience snow in Venice, just wander around and shoot, shoot, shoot. Venice hidden under white powder is not an every year’s event. Lots of opportunities for street photography then, as well as travel and fine art captures. Let your inspiration fly.
Fog: For my personal taste every day could be a foggy one here. Venice seems to be made for fog. The atmosphere, I just love it! If fog doesn’t seem dense enough in the alleys head for the waterfront in Dorsoduro, San Marco, Castello and S. Elena. On foggy days you can begin with fantastic blue hour light in the morning already, maybe at St. Mark’s Square or at the waterfront with the gondolas close by. During daytime stroll around and be inspired by town. In front of “punta della dogana” at the peak of sestiere Dorsoduro cormorants might sit on the pillars. (Check whether you have to correct metering by +1 in fog!!). Finished capturing blue hour in the evening – too dark now? No, if fog is really dense head out into the dark again. Spot lightened buildings such as Doge’s Palace and Santa Maria della Salute offer great photo options in foggy nights.
Visibility: With best visibility you can sometimes see the Alps from Venice, to be more precise the Dolomites. Head for Fondamenta Nove in the sestiere Cannaregio in the morning to see them glowing in the background while still having sunlight in the foreground. Or catch a vaporetto to the stop Celestia and walk the long metal bridge along to the backside of Arsenale for placing the Alps behind Cimitero and Murano. Taking a ride to Lido will put Venice between you and the Alps (but pack a very long telephoto lens for capturing this).
Famous Photographic Hotspots in Venice
This town is beautiful – but light is really tricky! Some narrow alleys don’t ever let sun in, others do so at noon with far too high contrasts. Sounds horrible for us photographers, but in terms of city planning it is perfect. During summer months you will welcome the shade. Anyhow, besides the following hotspots make sure to wander around through all the different sestiere of Venice. By the way, most visitors hardly ever make it out of the city center. Most one day visitors just rush to St Mark’s Square and Rialto Bridge, having an overpriced and tasteless lunch in one of the many crappy restaurants in between. If you have the time, take a vaporetto ride to at least one of the islands in the lagoon – each with its very own character.
St.Mark’s Square: This place is a hassle to shoot. Most time contrasts are far to strong or light is simply ugly. Not to speak about all the restoration going on regularly. Best time for shooting is blue hour or – if you are lucky – during foggy days. In the morning before sunrise the place will be kind of abandoned, after sunset in the evening consider to have lots of people running around, possibly messing up your pictures. Daytime images of the basilica work well with reflections in acqua alta puddles on the ground. Acqua alta with all these people fooling around is a good time for this place anyway. To bring home a “wow, I’ve never seen” perspective from St. Mark’s Square quite a lot of creativity will be necessary. In wintertime also be aware of all these staples of walkways for flooding standing around. Step up the bell tower or campanile (church tower) to get a view from top.
Waterfront, Riva degli Schiavoni: Easier to shoot than the famous square are the gondolas at the nearby waterfront, at blue hour, sunrise, sunset, even around noon – nearly anytime. The island of San Giorgio Maggiore with its own campanile and the churches of Santa Maria della Salute and Redentore always serve as a nice background. It is nearly impossible not to return with your own stunning image. Carry a tele and a wide angel. In the evenings some of the selling painters hang around in their chairs next to their stands, being quite picturesque.
Rialto Bridge: In winter and spring around sunset the famous bridge will be hit by nice light. After sunset you can step on the bridge, make your way through the couples in love and hope for something going on in the sky with Canal Grande as foreground. Blue hour also is a nice time for Rialto bridge, since it will be illuminated in the upcoming dark. If you are heading for a top-down view of a gondolas or other boats you are in the right place here. Walking once around the building directly next to the bridge on your way to the fish market can give you a different perspective than most shooters have if you have a wide angle lens with you.
Pescheria, Fish and Vegetable Market: Well, markets are shot best during their opening hours. In case of Venice’s famous market near Rialto this is from Monday to Saturday for vegetable and fruit. The fish market next to it is open from Tuesday to Saturday. Both will sell between 8am and noon. To find the stalls with the stapled food most picturesque show up early, also the merchants will be more willing to let you block the stalls while photographing when fewer customers are around. Around 9am to 11am are the busiest hours.
San Giorgio Maggiore: The silhouette of San Giorgio Maggiore is an important part of Venice’s skyline. While there is not much to shoot on the island itself you find the best places of capturing San Giorgio Maggiore from anywhere close to the vaporetto stop San Marco Vallaresso down all the waterfront to Giardini, from Punta della Dogana on the edge of sestiere Dorsoduro as well as from Fondamenta San Giacomo on Giudecca island. Best time again is sunrise, sunset, blue hour and moonrise.
Santa Maria della Salute: This beautiful church is worth to be captured from the outside and the inside. Be sure to have a wide angle lens attached if you plan to step in or if you shoot the facade from standing/lying directly in front of the impressive building. A great spot to get the church’s top framed by trees is around the vaporetto stop San Marco Vallaresso. During winter the sun might set directly behind the church. From Accademia bridge you will see Salute together with Grand Canal at best after sunset, or around sunrise.
Canal Grande: How to describe the best place of photographing a nearly 4km long S-wound water street packed with one beautiful Palazzo facade after another. Let’s begin at the city entrance. The huge new bridge between Piazzale Roma and the train station is a great place to overview the beginning of the grand canal if you carry a lens with about 80mm (full frame) or more. About one to two hours before sunset the facades will glow all over this part of the canal. Another really beautiful part of the canal you can oversee from vaporetto stop San Toma. Another, this time more classic view, is climbing Accademia bridge and shooting in the direction of Santa Maria della Salute church. Here optimal timing will be after sunset up to blue hour. Of course, there are hundreds of more nice spots along the canal to capture its beauty like from Rialto bridge on either side.
Burano: The colorful houses of Burano are a photographer’s dream. It is impossible to leave this island with at least a dozen of impressive shots to show at home. Watch out for reflections in the canals and old people enjoying the sun on benches in front of their beautiful houses. But please always ask people before photographing them by raising the camera and questioning nodding at least. When you captured a nice one, why not break out of the mass and be the nice stranger who sent them a copy or print.
Murano: Capture the famous glass blowers at their work. The tradition is hundreds of years old, many glass blowing techniques are unique to Venice. Just step into the fabric halls, you will be guided through if wanted. Not much else on this island from a photographers point.
Cimitero: The cemetery island I highly recommend for a short trip into the lagoon. As most cemeteries in Italy this one is really picturesque, too. Hop on a vaporetto at Fondamenta Nove, first stop is Cimitero. Most of the stones are marble, many bright white. Therefore try to avoid noon hours for shooting. Though it isn’t too big, I could walk around days and weeks in there. So many little details going on.
Waterfront, Zattere: Looking for daily life leisure in Venice? The boulevard at Zattere along the Giudecca Canal will be the right place for you. Students hanging out in front of a university building, Italians and visitors sipping coffee in the “road”side cafes. It is a lovely place for street photography. Best light you will have in the evenings, an hour or two before sunset.
Alleys: The alleys and squares in between will drive you crazy during sunny days. Problem is, that the sun often has to rise quite high to fall into them. Then contrasts are simply impossible to control. If sky is included in the shot (and you don’t want it blown out) you will have to be out early and late in the day. During winter the chance of getting acceptable results is higher. If you want to shoot a detail within an alley excluding sky in the image, completely in the shadow, hours around noon are often best, since even the shadowy alleys will have enough light for handheld shots then.
Where to stroll around
One of the best things you can do in Venice to be sure to bring home staples of great travel images is strolling around randomly. At least near to randomly. For more details on the districts please check my Venice Travel Tips.
Cannaregio: For photographers this wonderful sestiere has wide canals and small bridges. If you make it to the remote areas Cannaregio is a paradise for capturing Venetian life.
San Marco: The heart of the district, St. Mark’s Square is a must, but don’t waste all day around. Early morning by the way is a good time for this district, when the other visitors still sleep. Head for the back alleys when it begins to fill up.
Castello: You will will find real Venetian life in the alleys of Castello, picturesque laundry flapping in the wind above your head, children playing football, the green gardens of Giardini, and a wonderful waterfront.
San Croce: Nothing really notable on the to do list for this sestiere, but that serves to the charm of this district.
San Polo: With Rialto Bridge and the main fish, fruit and vegetable market you have some of the most photographed subjects of Venice in this district. Try to find a new or at least unusual approach to shoot these often captured sights
Dorsoduro: This district has many faces, all of them worth exploring for photographers. There are the narrow alleys in the center with lots of Venetian life going on. On the south side you have the water shore shere people hang out in the evening sun. In the west you will find the docks and at the eastern end, between Accademia Bridge, Santa Maria della Salute church and the peak of Dorsoduro, Punta della Dogana, are scenic places to visit.
When photographing acqua alta make sure to have all your equipment with you safe. Streets might be a bit slippery. Carrying one camera around each shoulder, a backpack, a shoulder bag and in one hand a tripod will bring you into trouble for sure, when you decide to shoot: where to put the tripod while picking up the camera? But since you wanted to travel light anyway you shouldn’t face any trouble. All flooded parts of town will turn into paradise for you. Visitors fooling around, photographers who shoot photographers photographing photographers, locals meeting in bars like every day, ignoring standing in water up to the knees. Life is just so unreal these hours.
Hours? Yes, acqua alta mostly occurs just few hours a day. If you’re not out at the right time you’ll miss it. Or with other words. If you are afraid of dropping your equipment, lean back and enjoy a coffee. The mess will disappear soon. There is a very reliable official website with acqua alta forecast. Oh my god, high tides of 85 centimeters? Keep cool. Measure point is sea level. At a level of 85cm first larger puddles in St. Mark’s Square wil appear, since it is the lowest place in town. Rising to about 1m St. Mark’s Square is completely flooded, as neighboring alleys will be. With 110cm and more acqua alta spreads through town. Where to find the best images depends on the forecast. If water will be not too high, stick to St. Mark’s Square and around. Otherwise, follow the water, wherever, throughout all town.
Generally I don’t like pointing out specific equipment to use. Any camera you know to use is better than a more sophisticated you don’t get ready in time. But since you want to travel light, some suggestions might help.
Tripod: Me recommending a light tripod is not a big surprise. But if you are here one week or only a night, you will regret not having packed one. Due to strong contrasts in daytime you will very often best lighting conditions in Venice around sunrise and sunset. Can you really hold your camera steady for 10 seconds?
Lenses: This is a really difficult paragraph. Of course, any lens in this town has its raison d’être, but unless you screw a 15mm-400mm lens you will have to make decisions – as long as you want to travel light. Let’s make up some situations.
Walking along an alley you spotted something interesting at the facade right besides you. The alleys are often not more than a few meters wide, your subjects therefore are quite close. Usually you would step back even on the street to capture your finding in one frame, if you don’t have a wide angel at hand. Stepping back in Venice is either not possible (wall) or not recommended (canal). This simple and not so rare case indicates having anything like a wide angle with you. You can sometimes try to work around with stitching if you are used to.
Then the opposite, you’ve seen a nice detail on a boat at the other canal side. One possibility was to head for the next bridge – or to be honest, it might be wasted time. Whatever you had discovered, it will be seen from the backside over there. Stepping closer without taking a bath again is impossible. Be smart and pack a tele lens. Canals and narrow alleys often make walking around your subjects for best perspective more difficult than in other places. Quite often you will have to take things as they are in Venice.
Special events, special preparation. Around carnival you will most probably find may attractive masks wandering around, perfect portrait shots each. This time of the year you might be very glad having a portrait lens with you, too.
Tilt shift lenses will work very well here. All of these towers and facades, limited space to step back. If you are lucky to own a tilt shift lens, after a Venice trip you will know why you bought it.
400mm, 600mm, 800mm – within town you won’t find many places to ever use them. And you have to be quite ambitious to bring those monsters with you for one or two moon shots. If you’re not a pro planning a once in a life shot better leave those toys at home.
Cameras: This paragraph is far easier again. Venice is a lovely place for large format cameras. Just kidding. Well, due to its beauty and slow speed Venice indeed is a nice place for large format, but I guess you can also use your small format cameras, as I do. DSLR’s are favorable of course, if you know how to handle. They will allow you to better handle the difficult lighting conditions in town, give you more opportunities in this town of creativity. Mirrorless compact system cameras work as well, of course. If you are the one using a point-and-shoot you might not have read until here, but with those also you can do wonderful captures. But that’s a different story.
Flash: Personally I am not a big fan of flashing unless really necessary. Especially with nowadays high ISO capabilities there will not be much of use of your flash in Venice. But if you tend to use it regularly then pack it. There are many beautiful things in the alleys never hit by daylight.
Repairs/Equipment: There are several photo stores in town. But don’t expect to find the latest photo voodoo stuff. One is located directly in St. Mark’s Square in the arcades next to the clock tower (not to be mixed up with the large bell tower). He is stuffed very well and not too expensive for the perfect location. Also he is prepared to urgent needs. Batteries for example he sells charged and ready to use! Another option is Marco Missiaja’s store in pretty close to St. Mark’s Square (Calle Fuseri, San Marco 4463). The biggest store with photo equipment (big for Venice) is Centro Photo Video (San Giovanni Grisostomo, Cannaregio 5895). Location is in a main alley quite close to Rialto. At best you walk to Rialto bridge, ask for the Coin warehouse which everybody in town should know. From there it’s just a few meters further in the same alley on the right hand side. When closed the shutters are down and you can’t see it’s a photo store! UPDATE: April 2017, Centro Photo video is presently closed. Looks like it might be for longer.
Carnival: Not much to say, lots of people with beautiful masks walking around and posing for photographers. Think about also carrying a portrait lens.
Biennale: Modern Art in town wherever you step, often also very photogenic. Visit the Biennale area of Arsenale, the former wharf buildings are a photographers dream.
Redentore: Religious feast with tremendous fireworks in the night. a large ponton bridge is built over Giudecca Canal to be able to make the way to the church Redentore by foot. Check how to shoot fireworks prior to your trip!
Regatta Storica: Wonderful historical boat parade on Canal Grande, followed by rowing races. Make sure to be at your desired photographing spot early, since all Venice will be heading to the canal. A tele lens will be your friend.
New Year: Large party in St. Mark’s Square and unforgettable fireworks at midnight seen from the nearby waterfront. Be early, you will not feel very lonely there.
Again: If you want to read some more information prior to your trip please check my Venice Travel Tips.