Venice is beautiful anytime of year. But during Carnival, its iconic streets and canals brim with a special pageantry. Thousands of masked participants arrive from all over the world, with meticulously crafted and ornate costumes.

Carnival in Venice, or Carnevale di Venezia in Italian, was first recorded in 1268 and occurs annually in late February or early March during the week ending in Shrove Tuesday before the Lent season begins in the liturgical calendar. In the Americas, many are familiar with similar celebrations such as Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday in New Orleans or the colorful parades of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Carnival’s subversive nature was a response to strict laws that restricted celebrations and the wearing of masks. Today, the elaborate costumes allow people to set aside their everyday identities and embrace playing a character. Among the crowds and elaborate balls, Venice’s version of Carnival maintains a distinctive European charm with a focus on the regal costumes and a formal program that takes place in St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco).

For my own photography goals, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone of landscape/cityscapes and gain some experience with lighting and photographing people. Besides the stunning costumes, Carnevale is an ideal time to experiment with posed and environmental portraits because the costumers want to have their picture taken. Most are happy to model and pose for a simple promise of emailed photos, of which I sent to dozens after the trip.

I visited with world-class (and Boston-based) image makers, Bobbi Lane and Lee Varis, whom I first met years ago through the Boston Camera Club when Bobbi was a judge there. We also benefited from professional photographers Libby Nightingale and Fabio Thain, a local Italian that helped us get around the Venetian maze of canals, streets and bridges. This was Bobbi and Lee’s eighth year at Carnevale, and I would highly recommend taking advantage of their deep experience and connections. 

In terms of equipment, I traveled with two Sony mirrorless bodies, the a7rIII and a9, and two lenses, 16-35mm f2.8 and 85mm f1.8 prime, of which the latter produced the best portrait photos from the trip. I also brought a standard flash for on and off camera, a light reflector and took advantage of the soft boxes and other lighting equipment in Venice.

We stayed very near the Rialto Bridge and every morning, I would walk over the bridge to St. Mark’s Square where costumers would be there for sunrise, often by the dozens. It was the perfect setting to capture the sun rising over the harbor with the backdrop of the Doge’s Palace and the iconic Venetian lights without the crowds of the day tourists.

On some days, we took models in old world costumes around the city’s wonderful architecture (and, of course, in gondolas too). We tried out various lighting techniques using natural light reflectors, off camera flash, dragging the shutter and more complex lighting techniques with multiple strobes. Getting back into my comfort zone at sunset, I tended to find various cityscape locations around the Grand Canal and its bridges, or back at San Marco for the Carnival festivities.

We took day trips to the nearby islands of Murano and Burano. In Murano, we did an up close photo shoot of workers blowing their famous glass creations.

Burano was also well worth the ferry ride to take in the colorful buildings and lace making. I extended my trip by two days to spend some additional time in Venice and also take the train to see Verona, which was fun but not a must-see, in my opinion. 

Lastly … it’s Italy, so the food and wine are incredible and the people are warm and friendly. As I look back on my photos, there is more variety than I initially imagined. Of course, there are plenty of portraits, masked and otherwise, but also street photography, urban landscapes as well as fascinating detail images that recall a terrific all-around experience.

Venice Grand Canal

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