I’m sure you’re up on current events in the world and are aware there is a viral outbreak going around the globe. Well, I’m going to share with you some images and stories of my adventure to photograph the Venice Carnival during the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy.
Hang on to your butts! (Bonus points if you know the movie that line is from and who said it!)
Disclaimer: First of all, I’d like to state that I’m not an expert on the virus I just want to share the story of my experience being in Venice and in Italy when it broke there.
But primarily I’m going to share some of my images and tell you about how I made them in order to inspire you to go to and experience the Venice Carnival for yourself. It was a bucket list item for me and it totally lived up to my own expectations and more.
What is the Venice Carnival?
I assumed everyone knew about Carnival in Venice with all of its masked characters. But once I started posting a few photos on social media it became evident to me that was not the case.
All I really knew before I went was that once a year in Venice, the city of gondolas and canals, they hold a big party.
Everyone dresses up in elaborate costumes and fancy masks and parades around the square.
That was enough for me to know I had to see it with my own eyes. As I said before, it did not disappoint.
Venice Carnival is a photographer’s paradise. Amazing subjects are everywhere!
So I had to do some Googling to find out more about the history and why it started and how it evolved over the years.
Carnival started in 1162 (possibly earlier) as a simple victory celebration of Venice’s triumph over a rival enemy, Patriarch of Aquileia. People came together in San Marco (Saint Mark) Square to dance and party.
For hundreds of years, it continued in the streets and squares of Venice.
The masks were created to allow for total anonymity. So one could go as anything they wished, be anyone they wanted – with no judgment or consequences.
A pauper could dress like a king, a man could dress like a woman or vice versa, and so on.
It was then banned in 1797 when Venice came under Roman rule. But in 1979 the Italian government reinstated it as a way to rejuvenate the economy of the city and bring people to Venice.
If you want to read more about the Venice Carnival this is a good article.
Masked characters with over the top elaborate costumes flood the city each year for Carnival and all its festivities. Tourists and many (SO MANY) photographers join the ranks to enjoy the splendor, myself included!
How to attend Venice Carnival
It’s pretty simple to attend. Just book your travel and a room and show up. That’s it.
BUT I highly recommend that the first time you go, you do so with someone who’s been to Carnival before and knows how to work it.
Someone that speaks the language (Italian obviously, but even my limited French came in handy as many of the masked models are from France), and who knows how to get around, where to find the best mask gatherings, and can even organize some private photo sessions with costumed models for the group.
Allow me to introduce my friend Ugo Cei.
He is an Italian photographer and teacher and he runs a photography tour to Venice for Carnival each year. I was honored to be invited as his guest instructor this year.
So thank you, Ugo, for making one of my dreams a reality.
If you want to do this next year, you can join Ugo and follow in my footsteps. Who knows, I may just do it again (did I mention he also knows all the best places to eat, where the locals go not the tourists?!).
What to Photograph in Venice
There are several iconic images that come to my mind when I think of Venice. I wanted to capture all of them with my camera.
Luckily I think I did a pretty good job of getting most of the ones I wanted.
The City of Venice
Let’s take a look at what’s to photograph in Venice besides masks.
It’s unique in the world as there are absolutely no cars, no bicycles, no traffic other than boats. You need to get around everywhere on foot or on the water.
So first off, if you go be prepared to walk – a lot!
Not just flat surfaces either, there are lots of stairs. You’d think because Venice is basically a man-made island it is pretty flat right. Yes, but in order to allow boats to pass through the canals, there are many, many bridges.
Imagine every time you have to cross the road you have to go up and over it instead. It’s like that.
Plan on 8-16 steps up (or more on the bigger ones) and down every canal that you cross. In the course of a day that might be 20 or so. Suffice to say I got my 10,000 steps in daily and then some.
For me, I wanted to shoot one of the smaller side canals at night.
Maybe catch a reflection in the water and a boat or two going through the scene. The first evening there I was able to do just that, practically right outside our hotel.
Then there’s the other iconic shot of the Grand Canal. Ugo took us to the Academia Bridge one day for sunset and blue hour. Here are my favorite images from that shoot.
Use Cloudy or Shade White Balance preset to add more orange/yellow to your sunset images, or do a White Balance shift to add pink.
Read: Guide to Photographing Light Trails at Night (cars and boats!) to see how to create images like this.
Another unique aspect and feature of Venice are the gondolas.
Imagine a romantic ride in a luxurious gondola, being rowed by a singing gondolier. Yes, that’s all true. And for only 80 Euros for 30 minutes, you can have that experience.
If you go with Ugo he also arranges for each tour participant to get a ride in a gondola with one or two masked models.
So not only do you get to enjoy the ride, you have built-in subjects to photograph the whole way.
Without Ugo and knowing where to go and what time of day to be there, I would not have gotten that shot.
There is a yellow building in the background, and at a certain time of day, if the sky is clear and it’s sunny you will be able to see this. With the blue sky, yellow reflection and red on the boats it’s simple and visually stunning.
The next image was taken inside the famous Acqua Alta bookstore. It’s very old and has books everywhere, including inside a boat, and many cats wandering around like they own the place.
It’s significant because at the back of the bookstore you can climb a book ladder to look out over the canal. It’s from that viewpoint I took the following images.
Notice the masked models in the boat in the left image. Guess who was in the boat? It was Ugo and Chris (one of the tour members).
I had taken the rest of the group to the bookstore while there were on their ride, and the timing worked for me to capture them as they went by – totally by luck!
Finally, here are some of the 118 or so images I shot in the span of 30 minutes on my gondola ride. These are my favorites.
Architecture – markets – local craftsmen
It also goes without saying the Venice is rich with history, amazing architecture and many other cultural aspects (food of course) as well. Here is a look at a few of those things.
We took a ferry boat ride (called a Vaporetto) over to Burano, an island in the lagoon where they make lace. It’s super cheerful with all the houses painted bright colors.
Here are a few photos from our visit to the Rialto market.
I bought some pasta spice mixes and by comparison to shops in Florence later, I got a really good deal! The market vendors sell flowers, spices, fruit, vegetables, meat, and fresh fish. I love European and Asian markets!
We watched as a gang of seagulls tried to steal sardines from one stall. One would swoop down and grab a few, shouting in Italian followed along with waving of arms and a big stick.
If one bird dropped some of his loot, the others would come in and grab it, with lots of loud squawking.
I didn’t get a good shot of the shoplifters, but a couple of people in our group with longer lenses managed to do so.
I started to really like the idea of stand up coffee bars and espresso.
The idea is you go into a bar or coffee shop when you need to use the toilet. It’s about 1.00€ to use the public toilet, or you can pay about the same or 1.50€ to get an espresso.
So you go in, order your coffee, use the toilet, swig your coffee back and you’re done.
Quick and easy, no fuss no muss and you get a quick caffeine boost.
In most cafes, if you drink your coffee at the bar you’ll pay a lot less than if you sit down and get table service. Then you can expect to pay 2.50€ or more. Also note, that if you order a “coffee” you’ll get an espresso (do NOT pronounce is EX-presso that’s a no-no).
As part of the Venice tour with Ugo we visited two craftsmen – a glassmaker and a puppet maker.
I missed out on seeing the glass sticks made into jewelry and other neat things (my back was hurting that day if I recall) but I did meet the puppet maker Roberto Comin.
He truly is Geppetto, and he reminded of Roberto Benigni the actor who starred in Life is Beautiful (1999 Best Pictures the Oscars). His work is fascinating and is a lost and dying art.
There is no doubt the passion he has for what he does and his creations are full of life and creativity.
Johnny Depp even owns one of his puppets. It is of course of Captain Jack Sparrow and was ordered by Johnny’s assistant for his birthday one year.
If you’re interested you can even order a puppet of yourself or a loved one! Check out his website HERE. They are all hand made and not as expensive as you’d expect (500€ for a large one, 20% more for a custom one).
Note for shooting in a location like this where the light was dim and it was fairly dark you need to have a lens with a large maximum aperture.
Read more here: Tips for Low Light Photography
Okay, so I haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet – the masks!
At Carnival, they often refer to the costumed characters and models that wear fancy masks simply as that – Masks. So if you see me use that term, that’s what it means.
I was expecting to see a lot of masks and fancy costumes, but I was blown away by the sheer number of Masks and how elaborate and intricate each costume and outfit was.
In chatting with a few people I learned that many of them search the globe for accessories, fabric, hats, wigs, jewelry, etc., just to complete their ensemble.
It’s so impressive the great lengths they go to to create their outfits.
Some have designers make the clothing portion, and high-end mask makers do that portion. There were some with moving parts, many with lights, and some had hats that looked like they weighed a ton (below right his hat has a lamp in it!).
One lady’s headpiece was 6kg (below left, Solange Sophie Pauline Solangissima)!
They also walk around in costume all day and do not take their masks off in public. I imagine for some just going to the toilet requires planning and assistance. And I can’t even fathom the cost of some of them!
That’s something else Ugo does for the photography workshop attendees. He explains about all this and what is the proper etiquette when photographing and just being around Masks.
It’s impolite to eat or drink in front of them because they cannot. All good things to know so you can do the right thing!
Some people even have multiple costumes and outfits, and they usually create a new one every two or three years.
One couple I met (in the gondola ride) have been doing this for 30 years! They used to be photographers, then got into coming in costume.
Amazing! I’m hooked! I also met many other photographers from around the world who I’ve now connected with on social media to follow one another.
It’s great meeting people with a common interest and connecting, without often even speaking the same language. For me that’s another huge benefit of photography – it’s visual, not spoken words.
Here are a few more of my favorites. There are too many to put them all here (see slideshow at the bottom of the page to see them all).
Below is another one of the most spectacular costumes I saw, this one is worn by Santiago Garcia Pastor.
The model below was simply stunning and very queen-like.
A quick story of serendipity
I want to share a little story with you about thinking out loud and asking for what you want (of The Universe, God, or whoever you pray to).
On the day we went to Burano Island we were all walking to the boat stop (like a bus stop) and I noticed this really interesting spot (see below).
I pointed it out to another person in our group and voiced my interest in photographing a Mask there in that spot. Fast forward a couple of hours and we were coming back from the island and happened to be walking with a few Masks including these folks.
I had photographed the couple in the bird costumes and the pirate girl a few times already and had been chatting with them on the boat back.
We got to that exact spot above, the one I wanted to shoot a Mask in and the man asked me, “Can you please take our photo there?”
How is that for serendipity and manifestation!?
The light was even better than it had been in the morning and I was able to create these images.
Do something different – stand apart
So here is the challenge of Venice Carnival – how do you get images that are different than the other 6000 or so photographers shooting it? Here are a few of the ways I tried and dared to be different.
- Camera angle (get down low or up high)
- Do some long exposures
- Use off-camera flash
- Light painting
- Shoot with an infrared converted camera and make it b/w
- Experiment with a Lensbaby lens
#1 is easy and you can see examples of that in many of my images above.
The second (long exposures) you can see in the images of the Grand Canal and some that I shot at sunrise below.
People who know me, know that I do NOT like getting up early. So for me to go shoot at sunrise THREE times in one week, it’s a big deal!
For these images, I was up and out in the square before 6 am (sunrise was 7 am). All I had to do was get up, throw on some clothes and grab my gear.
Imagine the preparations the Masks have to do, but they do it because they were there well before me!
I did a fair bit of processing on these to pull out the models though.
So I went back another morning with the intention of using off-camera flash to light the Masks. There were many photographers shooting each model at the same time and some of them were quite pushy and rude.
So on the last day, I decided I’d be a little more aggressive and I didn’t care if I annoyed someone else by getting in their way temporarily.
I put my camera on the tripod and the remote trigger for my flash on the hot shoe on top. I set the exposure to UNDER exposed the ambient or natural light and set the flash to expose the model correctly.
These are some of the results.
I was by myself, so what I did was I put my camera in the 2-second timer mode so that I had a delay before it fired. Then I pressed the shutter button, ran four or five feet to my right (annoying the photographers over there) and held the flash up, pointed at the subject.
That was my method and I had to do it for every single frame I shot. So I think I pissed off a few people that morning but there were fewer than other days so I can live with it.
One thing I like to do that’s different is light painting.
I haven’t done a lot of it with live models but Ugo and I decided that we’d give it a try so I brought a bunch of Light Painting Brushes and this is what we came up with one night.
Thanks for Mango Cola and Zia Vale for being willing to pose for us while we played around and experimented.
Then the lady on the left got the idea of dancing through the scene during the exposure. So she did!
She was a very quick study, and she assessed that it was too much so we tried it again with less dancing and more walking.
So the image above was a collaboration of myself and Ugo, the two German ladies, and the models.
I did the blue wash of light going over them using the white fiber-optic brush, Ugo lit their faces with a flashlight, and our German models provided the light streaks by walking behind them.
Pure magic! I love it when stuff like that happens.
Recently I sent my old Fuji XT1 to be converted to infrared.
They have a process where they remove part of the coatings on the digital sensor and install and IR one to allow it to see and record infrared light which is invisible to the human eye.
I chose the 720nm filter.
It costs around $275 USD per conversion, plus shipping.
I did my IR conversion with Life Pixel (I’ll do a full review of my experience and the process another time) and was excited to take it along and use it. I’ll admit I thought it would be a lot easier, and because I had shot b/w IR film figured I could just wing it.
Thanks to Venice tour member Fritz for pointing me in the right direction getting my camera set up and some processing tips.
Here are a few of my favorites and a color version (shot with my regular Fuji XT3) for comparison.
So I learned that there are a few tricks to shooting infrared and to processing it.
If you’re considering getting one of your old cameras converted, or you can even buy one from Life Pixel already done – you’ll want to get some education on the entire process.
As I said before, that’s a whole other deal and I’ll write about that another day.
Finally, (whew this post has become epic!) I took along my Lensbaby Sweeet 50 Optic for something else different.
If you’ve never tried one, it’s kind of like using a tilt-shift lens (without the big price tag).
It allows you to make the edges of your image blurry to varying degrees based on how you position it and the aperture you use. I find that if I shoot too wide open then everything is blurry and that f/5.6 or f/8 is about right.
Here are a few of my Lensbaby images from Carnival.
The image above is romantic, dreamy, and different. Even the pigeons cooperated and posed in just the right place.
To enhance it a bit more, I added a color LUT and a texture overlay using Luminar 4 to give an old-world feeling.
On our last morning in Venice together Ugo and I even recorded an episode for his podcast, right there in San Marco Square.
It was about 7 am and the fog had just rolled in and it got cold really fast. Watch and you’ll see what I mean and all the activity around us in the square as they set up for what was to be the last day of Carnival (more on that below).
Coronavirus and Carnival
Okay, so let’s talk about the elephant in the room – yes I was in Venice when the order to cancel the end of Carnival came down due to the Coronavirus.
I’m not going to get all doom and gloom on you, but this is my experience of being in a red zone.
Sunday, February 23rd was my last full day in Venice, and they had announced it would also be the last of Carnival 2020. All festivities were to be canceled for the following two days and schools were also closed.
All week the city had been packed with people and the best restaurants had people lined up to get in for a meal. That night the streets were eerily empty and I walked right into a great restaurant for dinner.
Leaving the following morning for Florence by train had the police boarding every train to make note of names and ID information for each outbound passenger. I’ve never experienced that before and I confirmed with Ugo that it was not normal.
Once in Florence, things seemed pretty much business as usual.
But there were a lot of people wearing masks and it was all over the news. There was a triage tent set up outside the hospital, and sandwich board signs on many corners urging everyone to wash their hands, cover their mouth and stay home if they were sick.
I considered cutting my trip short by four days and changing my flight to come home early.
But in the end, I decided to continue, but I was hyper-aware of anyone that was coughing or sneezing. One lady seated next to me basically sneezed on me (turned my direction) in a restaurant. Another sneezed out into the air – not even an attempt to cover her mouth at a popular city viewpoint.
Paranoia definitely started to set in and I avoided taking public transport and walked everywhere. My taxi driver who took me to the airport confirmed that there was a lot less traffic than usual including bicycles and pedestrians.
It was February 28th when I left Florence.
That was just the beginning of lockdown in Northern Italy (which would later be expanded to the whole country). Hand sanitizer was used liberally and I even used it to clean the airplane (and train) armrests and tray table.
So I’m thankful to have gotten home safely and hopefully without any extra bugs.
Once home I started a 21-day self-imposed house quarantine.
I canceled or rescheduled all meetings and workshops for three weeks and have not seen any of my family or friends since arriving back home.
That is the proper thing to do, to keep those around me safe just in case I get the Coronavirus (Covid-19) or am a carrier. If you travel, anywhere, by any method – I urge you to consider doing the same.
Now everyone in my city of Edmonton has gone off the rails buying toilet paper and shelves at big suppliers like Costco are empty.
So you can stock up TP if you want, or do what I did – order a bidet toilet seat! I loved the Japanese toilets and didn’t want to replace the whole thing so this will suffice for now.
This is the one I got at a recommendation from a friend (thanks Rita).
So stay safe, be smart, be cautious – but live life. If you want to stock up on coronavirus pandemic supplies here’s a list for you.
See more images
To see all my top Venice images, play the slideshow below or click here to see the gallery on my portfolio site.
I hope you enjoyed this virtual trip to Venice Carnival with me. Who knows, if you sign up for Ugo’s Venice Carnival 2021 tour you might just see me there. I’m hooked!