I have always been smitten with the Carnival in Venice!
Images of people dressed in sumptuous costumes and assuming a new identity through the medium of an imaginative mask have attracted me through the years in magazines, books and online. The fantasy of being who you want to be, no matter how wonderful or weird, against the fairytale backdrop of the most romantic city on Earth, has appealed to my imagination and made me dream of experiencing it for myself.
I delved into the story of the Carnival, researched the tradition of the masks and gradually got so consumed by the idea that eventually I booked a flight and spent five wonderful days in Venice during Carnevale 2011. I roamed the streets from dawn til dusk clutching my camera and observing life as I had never seen it before. The experience was so vivid and all-consuming that two years later I returned to Venice with my then boyfriend (now husband) so that we could live through a Carnival together and keep it as a cherished memory for the decades to come.
Now that we live in Vicenza – less than an hour away from Venice, we are looking forward to Carnevale 2015. I will be taking my trusty camera with me so that I can capture yet again little glimpses of a life less ordinary.
Every year thousands of prohotographers descend on Venice hoping to capture the allure of the Carnival in stunning photographs for their portfolios. You don’t need to be a pro to manage to snatch some pretty amazing shots. The architecture is stunning, the canals are brimming with gondolas, the streets invite you to explore them and not to worry if you get accidentally on purpose lost. All through the Carnival some wonderful events take place. So, you are in a prime position, no matter if you are a professional or an amateur, to take the photos of your life.
There are some obstacles to battle through though. First, the huge crowds of people jostling to take the exact same picture that you had in mind. Then the weather which can surprise you with anything from snow to sun. And finally the overwhelming feeling that you don’t know where to start or what to shoot first.
To help you out, I have compiled below all that I know about photographing the Carnival in Venice. I hasten to add two things:
- This all applies to street shooting the Carnival. I haven’t included anything about photographing the masked balls or other private events held behind closed doors. My tips and tricks apply solely to what you can see on the streets and the canals of Venice during the Carnival.
- I am not a professional photographer, just an entuasiastic amateur. As such, I can’t and won’t give you advice on technical stuff. I am just going to lay out some detailed information for you on how best to avoid the major pitfalls that can turn navigating Venice during the Carnival into a logistical nightmere for the keen photographer.
So, please, read on and at the end let me know your thoughts. It is a very long article with dozens of pictures, so be forewarned.
The people dressed in splendid costumes and wandering around Venice during the Carnival are known as ‘The Masks’. They walk slowly and with decorum. They hide their faces behind elaborate masks. They rarely speak, as to hear their voice would be to break the illusion. Often their costumes are so detailed and completely disguising them, that it is difficult to discern if it is a man or a woman looking at you through the slits of the mask.
The Masks are not paid to be there and they don’t expect payment for pictures taken of them out and about in the city. Photographers can book them for paid shoots in a palazzo or other fabulous setting. If you would like to work privately with a Mask, ask them politely for their business card. Even if you don’t book them privately, it’s considered a good form to email them the pictures you took of them on the street.
The Masks spend months dreaming up a character and then develop a unique costume to fulfill their vision. During the Carnival they pose patiently all through the day for thousands of people. They are the visual embodiment of the Carnival.
Based on the many business cards I have collected from the Masks, quite a few of them seem to be French, but there are also many Italians and some Germans, too. I haven’t come across an Englishman or a Bulgarian being a Mask yet, but perhaps this year this will change.
A little tip! When you take a picture of a Mask, make sure that the eyes of the person are well aligned with the slits of the mask covering their face. Otherwise, you may end up with something scary like this.
Some Masks draw thick black lines around their eyes to make them look more expressive through the slits. I have found for myself that Masks who haven’t outlined their eyes with make up end up looking less authentic in close ups. Personally, I prefer it when some eye pencil or eyeliner have been generously used. For example, look at this fabulous Mask.
I was so ridiculously proud of this shot, until I spotted the photobomber who had sneaked in there to smirk at me. Which takes me to the next point.
Each year thousands of people besiege Venice. Their number increases dramatically during the days of the Carnival. Piazza San Marco resembles a bubbling cauldron with people moving in every possible direction, trying to avoid bumping into one another.
The upside is that usually there is no shoving and pushing. A happy atmosphere reigns. The downside is that everyone wants to take pictures of the Masks. Dozens and even hundreds of people crowd around them at any one time.
Scroll back to the top of this article and have a good look at the very first picture in it. That of the Spring and the Autumn masks against the beautiful backdrop of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Now look at the picture below.
Yes! This is how many people there were between me and the Masks. I used my telescopic lense to get an uncrowded view. It helped that I am quite tall. I also stretched my hands above my head as much as I could. I managed to grab a shot I am happy with, but, let me tell you, I wasn’t that lucky countless more times.
There are different ways to overcome the issue of just too many people at the same place at the same time.
You can use a shallow field of depth to isolate the crowd and blur the background. Still, if there are too many people between you and the Mask, you won’t be able to get a full size picture of them, but just a shot of their shoulders and head.
Another option is to politely ask the Mask to step somewhere higher than the crowd. For example, see below.
Even if it is just the base of a streetlamp, it will give you vital inches to save your shot.
Then you need to bend a little or even squat and snap. This is the shot I got.
Another option is to have the Masks against a wall or a canal, so that no people can actually walk behind them and photobomb your shots. A popular (and also very photogenic) place is by the windows under the archay of the Doge’s Palace. A couple of examples below.
What happens though if you are simply not satisfied with shots that don’t include the full sumptuous costumes of the Masks and also you are tired of competing for the Masks’ attention with hundreds of other eager photographers? Then you need to pick well your locations and be there just at the right time.
The best place to take stunning photos of the Masks is in front of the Doge’s Palace. You get a fabulous view across the lagoon, dozens of gondolas as your backdrop on one side and a gorgeous square with fantastic lamp posts on the other. The secret is to be there at dawn!
You need to wake up very early and be there at 5:30-6:00 am.
All professional photographers and Masks know about this unspoken arrangement. They start trickling there long before sunrise, whilst the light is still beautifully blue. There are no tourists, no bystanders, nothing to detract from the amazing scenery and the Masks that pose wonderfully in it.
If you oversleep, don’t despair! By all means go to Piazza San Marco, face the crowds and take your shots. If you want to be really close to the Masks, without too many bystanders nearby, then you can buy a ticket for the enclosure of the main Carnival stage.
It works like this. A huge stage on Piazza San Marco is the main hub of activity all through the Carnival. The main public events reach their culmination on it. In addition, daily parades of the Masks are held on the stage.
Accredited members of the press and photographers have access to the enclosure in front of the stage. Members of the public and non-accredited freelancers can purchase a ticket if they want to be closer to the action and avoid the deep crowds which quickly form around the enclosure. The ticket is not cheap, I paid 25 euro in 2011, but it is so much more fun being in rather than out. And you can take photos of the Masks on stage, coming off the stage or simply mulling around the enclosure.
Whatever you do, don’t spend all of your time on Piazza San Marco. The Masks circulate around town and you can find them at the most beautiful places in Venice and on the nearby islands, offering you ample opportunities to take some amazing photographs.
The Masks are pivotal to the Carnival, but don’t miss the fabulous events which take place throughout its duration. My favourite is The Flight of the Angel. For reasons of succinctness (yes, this article turned out so long I wonder if anyone would read it to the end), I won’t retell its story, as you can find it with a simple search online.
I will only tell you that the Angel is a beautiful girl who ‘flies’ over Piazza San Marco suspended from a steel cable starting from the top of the belltower (99 meters high!) all the way down to the main stage.
It’s simply breathtaking and a photographer’s dream. Have a look!
The crowd is completely spellbound. The Angel dances in the air smiling all the way through. You can see her face on the huge screen behind the main stage.
Here she is straight after touching down on the stage.
And I love this picture of the cameraman giving her the thumbs ups.
Another event worth seeking is the Procession of the 12 Marias. And on the last night of the Carnival all electric lights alongside Canale Grande are switched off and the whole length of the canal is illuminated by candles as in days of yore whilst a symbolic black procession of gondolas and boats floats down marking the end of yet another Carnevale.
In the end, don’t forget that the main protagonist of the Carnival is Venice herself. This magical city surprises you at every turn. A word of warning though: the weather can range from sunny to a heavy snowfall. So, grab your opportunities as they come.
Enjoy Venice and the Carnival through the lense. It’s an amazing time of the year in a fabulous place. Much like a fairytale come true.
So, make it a happy photographic end!