Technique Feature

How to get the most from the Venice Carnival

A riot of colour and costume, 2020’s Venice Carnival takes place between 8 and 25 February, but you’ll have competition from a lot of other photographers. Three Carnival-experienced Photocrowd members offer their tips for making the most of the melee

'Red velvet smile' by M.Rotta, Canon EOS 50D, 60mm, 1/125sec at f/3.5, ISO 160

First, a history lesson

It’s said that the first Venice Carnival took place in the 1160s, and was basically an excuse to have a period of hedonism before the austerity of Lent kicked in. This is why the dates vary each year, as it’s timed to end as Lent begins.
The festival continued for several hundred years, ebbed and flowed after the end of the 1700s, then was banned outright by Mussolini in the 1930s. However, its value as a tourist attraction was later recognised by the Italian government, and it was relaunched in 1979. Nowadays, it attracts some three million visitors over its two-and-a-half week run, so it pays to be well prepared to make the most of its photographic opportunities.

1. Plan ahead

While the festivities take place throughout the island, it’s worth having a few specific locations in mind when planning your time. Carnival regular Marco Tagliarino says, ‘Photographing in Venice during the carnival is an experience that every photographer should try at least once in their life. I often head for Campo San Zaccaria because the light there is good, and a lot of masks gather there. It’s also a little quieter than some of the other spots.’
He also recommends any of the areas around Piazza San Marco, and suggests finding a spot you like the look of, and waiting for the masks to come past.
‘Another very interesting spot is Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco,’ he adds, ‘where it’s possible to recreate the atmosphere of Venice’s golden age.’

‘Venice beauty’ by Marco Tagliarino, Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Sigma 85mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art, 1/400sec at f/1.4, ISO 50

2. Set your alarm for early

If one thing is guaranteed, you’ll be vying for your spot with many thousands of other tourists, all intent on capturing their experiences. Get one up on the competition by heading out as early as possible. Not only will you get the best light, but also there will be fewer people to contend with. As Allan Moir says, ‘Be out as soon as the sun is coming up, because the masks also head out early. You can always take a nap mid morning if needs be!’
June Fox agrees: ‘At sunrise, only the masks and other photographers will be out – the tourists will still be in their beds. And if the light is low at that time of day, use flash to help fill in shadows and accentuate the eyes behind the masks.’

‘Venice poseur’ by June Fox, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF17-40mm f/4L USM at 40mm, 1/800sec at f/5, ISO 500

3. It’s all about the lens

Again, this comes down to planning. While you might want a wideangle to show the masks in the context of their environment, using one runs the risk of including other tourists in your shots. As such, you might find a more classical portrait focal length is your friend. June Fox has found this to be the case, in her experience: ‘My favourite is my 135mm f/2 prime,’ she says. ‘I use it with a wide aperture as this helps isolate the subject and blur the backgrounds, which can be distracting.’

‘Feeling blue’ by June Fox, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 135mm f/2L, 1/1600sec at f/3.5, ISO 500

4. Fill the frame…

As with almost any photographic subject, reducing it to its most simple elements will pay dividends. In the case of the masks, in their elaborate costumes, filling the frame with the vibrant colours will result in an eyecatching image that will stand. You’ll be working quickly, but still take a moment to check the edges of your frame to ensure no unwanted details creep in.

‘Venice masquerade character’ by Jan Murphy, Olympus E-M10 MarkII, Sigma 60mm f/2.8 DN, 1/250sec at f/2.8, ISO 200

5. …or don’t

Of course, there’s nothing to stop you shooting wider, even full-length portraits, too. This is where patience and timing will pay dividends. Find a photogenic backdrop and wait for some masks to come along – as they inevitably will.

‘Illuminated revellers’ by Allan Moir, Canon EOS 5DS R, 1/20sec at f/5.6, ISO 5000

6. Take charge

Shooting in an environment such as the Carnival can be a little intimidating at first, but keep reminding yourself that the masks are there to be photographed, and are happy to stop for a few minutes. ‘The people who dress up do so at their own cost,’ says June Fox. ‘It’s their hobby. They are happy to take direction on poses, so don’t be afraid to tell them exactly what you want them to do. It can be daunting at first, but it does get easier.’
If you find your mind going blank, jot down a few ideas for poses – or even a couple of sketches – and refer to these quickly before taking your shots.

‘Fire’ by Neil Johansson, Fuji X30, 13.2mm, 1/90sec at f/2.5, ISO 1600

7. Share your images

Many of the masks will have contact cards that they hand out after a photo session. Keep hold of them, and make a note on them of what the masks were wearing, so you know who to send your images to as a courtesy and a thank you for their time.
Do a bit of research and get to know some of the regular masks that come to Venice every year. By building up relationships with some of them, Marco Tagliarino has been able to organise small private shoots. They aren’t lengthy, but it does mean he gets images that others might not be able to.

‘Venice beauty’ by Marco Tagliarino, Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at 105mm, 1/1000sec at f/2.8, ISO 200

8. Keep your cool

Every other tourist and photographer has as much right to be there as you do. Getting caught up in a scrum of long lenses and clicking shutters is inevitable, but don’t get riled by others. ‘Photographing in Venice during the carnival puts a strain on not only your technical and creative skills,’ says Marco Tagliarino, ‘but also your patience. You’ll be spending hours in the middle of an apparently infinite crowd.’
If it all gets too much, walk away. Everyone is there to enjoy themselves, after all, and soaking up the atmosphere is every bit as important as capturing your images. As June Fox concludes: ‘Don’t have your eye to the viewfinder all the time.’
Oh, and wear comfortable footwear.

‘Carnival shooters’ by Stefan Nielsen, Canon EOS 5D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM at 24mm, 1/125sec at f/9, ISO 400

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