When we planned our month in Venice, we didn’t know exactly what we were in for. But as photographers, there were a at least a few things we knew we were going to do. We knew we were going to spend a lot of time in Piazza San Marco, and we knew we were going to be riding a gondola. There are plenty of reasons to take a gondola ride in Venice, but in this post we are going to focus on photography tips help you get the most out of your gondola experience.
Planning for Photography on Your Venice Gondola Ride
Dannie and I knew it was going to be an important photo shoot for us (in addition to a fun experience), so like we always do, we tried our best to do some scouting. This was a particularly challenging mission for a lot of reasons. The gondolas in Venice depart from dozens (maybe hundreds) of locations along the canals and coasts of the island. But the departure point is just that, a beginning. The views you will see depend on the route the gondola takes, and that presents a new challenge.
My first instinct was to find a departure point and follow the gondola on foot so that I could see where it went. Of course, this proved to be impossible. Even if I ran as fast as I could, the gondolas had the ability to make any turn they wanted, where as I often had to run far down the street to cross a bridge, then double back only to find that the boat had vanished into the maze. It didn’t matter though. I found out how pointless this effort was when I actually stopped and chatted with a gondolier.
I pulled out a map of the city, and asked him to trace out his route for me. He humored me be drawing a possible 40 minute route, but explained that depending on traffic (yes, there is such a thing as gondola traffic) it might vary substantially. He also explained that different gondoliers ran different routes from the same departure points, and that they changed departure points from day to day. So it was going to be impossible to know our exact route. But I did learn a few things from talking with the gondolier that I could put to use when we planned our gondola photography.
Tip 1: The Best Light is in the Afternoon
The gondolas didn’t start running until around 9:30 in the morning, which was well after the golden hour light had shifted overhead and become unflattering. I talked to a number of gondoliers to see if they would negotiate a starting time, and they didn’t seem to be interested. I suppose they aren’t highly motivated to start work before the tourists are out and they can expect a good hourly rate. We were there in May and we decided that a late afternoon ride was better for us. We settled on 6:30pm (18:30) because, luckily for us, the light at that time of year was just getting good before the price went up at 7:00pm (from 80 euros to 100 euros).
Tip 2: The Best Locations Are Outside the City Center
Even though the exact route would be impossible to plan, the gondolas can only travel so far in 40 minutes. Our first instinct was to go for some of the classic Venice locations in the San Marco area, but having walked through many times, we saw a big problem with this for our photography. The smaller canals there were positively choked with gondolas, and the bigger ones were full of large tour boats and other commercial water traffic that sent gondola rocking waves in every direction. If we were in the popular locations, the backdrop for our photos would be other tourists sitting in gondolas and bridges covered in other photographers taking pictures of us.
We decided on a route through the Jewish Ghetto district, which is a very pretty section of the city that is off the beaten path and much less crowded. It also has a nice combination of medium and narrow canals that give you a good variety of open light and shadow to make the photography a little more interesting (if also more challenging). By focusing on the less popular parts of the city, you can take advantage of the late afternoon light while avoiding the Venice crowds. If you want to photograph some of the landmarks, you are probably better off doing it on foot anyway so you can control your compositions instead of going wherever the gondolier takes you.
Tip 3: No Hopping Off, No Switching Seats, No Standing
Think hard before you get on the gondola about what you want your foreground to look like. Once the gondola starts moving, you aren’t allowed to move around. I had originally hoped that I would occasionally be able to get off and take a photo of Dannie and Lisa as they passed under a bridge, but it is not permitted. For safety reasons moving around the boat is also not allowed, so think ahead of time about how you want to arrange yourself and your subjects. We decided that Dannie and Lisa would ride in the back, and that I would ride in the front with my camera.
Tip 4: Pick a Pretty Gondola
Actually, almost all of the gondolas we saw in Venice were very pretty and well decorated. But there were a number of distinctive looks and colors that tended to repeat themselves. The key is to look for one that matches the general look you are going for. We knew that Dannie would be wearing a red floral dress, and we sought out a gondola with a similar color scheme. Because Dannie was going to be up close, we weren’t worried about her blending in with the background, and decided it would look best to keep the color scheme simple. There is a lot of red in the city of Venice, so we knew the look would be cohesive.
Packing for Photography on Your Venice Gondola Ride
Once you start your gondola ride, there is no stopping, so make sure you have everything you need with you. It’s also important to get this right the first time because the gondola rides aren’t cheap, and even though they are fun, you probably won’t feel compelled to do it a second time just because a couple of the photos didn’t come out the way you wanted. We take our photography very seriously, and even though we made a couple small mistakes when we explored Venice by gondola, we decided we had gotten enough good photos that it wasn’t worth a second go.
Tip 5: Bring Your Wide Angle Lens
I love long telephoto lenses and I will be the first to tout them as a great way to get creative with both landscapes and portraits. But for gondola ride photography, a wide angle is simply the way to go. A lot of people think that wide angle lenses are designed for vast scenic vistas and mountain ranges, but I think they are even more important in close quarters like a gondola or a narrow canal. The closer an object is, the harder it is to squeeze it into your photos, and believe me the objects will be close.
I packed a 24-70mm lens, thinking the range would give me enough flexibility, but it turns out that flexibility wasn’t really what I needed. There are plenty of details you might want to zoom in on – flower boxes, lamps, and beautiful steeples and domes – but you will have plenty of time to capture those just walking down the street. They are everywhere! On the gondola your biggest challenge will be getting the scenery in a photo that still makes it clear that you are on the water and not the sidewalk. A wide angle becomes especially helpful if you are photographing someone else in the boat and you want to capture the scenery behind them.
The 24mm end of my lens is considered wide angle, but I wished I had gone even wider! For a list of the gear we usually carry with us, check out our resources page.
Tip 6: Dress for the Occasion
If you are just taking photos of the scenery, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot what you are wearing, apart from making sure your clothes are comfortable for the time of year. But if you are photographing other people in the gondola with you, whether it’s a family member, friend or a photography client, make sure that they look the part they want to play. Dannie and Lisa wanted to images of a romantic ride through Venice, Italy, so they opted to wear dresses nice dresses instead of tee shirts and jeans. You don’t necessarily need to dress up if you just want to chronicle your trip and show people what you did. But if you are looking for a nice picture for your mantle or your website, keep in mind that this is a good chance to look your best in a setting to match.
Tip 7: Keep the Kids Busy
If you are going to have kids with you, make sure they have what they need to stop them from stopping you. I know you’d rather have them totally engaged in the experience, but children have short attention spans, and once they get distracted, it’s better that they fiddle with a toy than jump up and down or pull on your arms while you are trying to take photos. Just because they are missing out, doesn’t mean you have to. If you think carefully you can even incorporate it into your photography (see the next tip).
Tip 8: Bring Props
If the passengers are going to be a part of your gondola photography, consider what objects, if any they are going to have with them. A backpack or shopping bag might be useful while you are exploring, but consider setting it next to the photographer during the photo shoots because you don’t want the gondola to look cluttered. Instead, try bringing props that will enhance the look of your photo by adding to the atmosphere and the scenery. For our photoshoot, we wanted to capture a feeling of wanderlust and exploration, so our primary prop was actually a second camera. Our plan was for Dannie to photograph little Lisa, but it turned out that we got better behavior by letting Lisa hold the camera (under tight supervision!).
Other props that we considered were a parasol, a mask, a cape, a map, and a toy gondola. Whatever prop you bring, take some photos with it and some without. The goal is to have variety in your photos. You don’t want the subjects to just be sitting or pointing in every photo, but you also don’t want them to look like they are in an ad for parasols.
Tip 9: Forget the Flash
We had considered bringing an off camera flash with us, but there were a couple of reasons we decided against it. The first is that there is so little space we weren’t sure how we would even set it up. A tripod was out of the question, and because we were over water, the fear of accidentally dropping it ruled out the possibility of holding it off to the side to get a good angle on the light. Also, we didn’t think the gondolier would appreciate a big ol’ soft box or umbrella blocking his view and ruining his balance, so we would have been left with unflattering bare bulb light. With an active toddler adding to the chaos, we decided to keep it simple and use natural light. This sometimes meant sacrificing a portion of the image to underexposure or overexposure, but it meant that we would have fewer distractions on our only gondola ride.
During Your Venice Gondola Ride
Tip 10: Photographer in the Front
As I mentioned earlier, once the gondola starts moving you won’t be able to switch seats. Our gondolier didn’t even want me to kneel on the floor. There are a couple of reasons why I chose to sit in the front of the gondola to photography my family. The first reason was that I wanted the gondolier to be in the photo. The gondoliers in Venice dress in iconic striped shirts with straw hats, and if you don’t have them in your photos, you will regret it.
The second reason is that since I was photographing my family, I had to put them in the back so that I could see their faces. If they were in the front, then every photo would either have the back of their heads, or they would have to look over their shoulders, which is not really a very flattering look for most people. Also, one of my models was a one year old, and getting a toddler to turn around is almost impossible.
The final reason to photograph others from the front of the gondola is that the back seat of the gondolas in Venice are usually very ornate, decorated with beautiful cushions and throw pillows, probably intended for couples out for a romantic (but expensive and poorly lit!) evening ride. Yes, the front of the gondola is often also beautiful, but if you can only get one end, the back is much better.
Tip 11: Keep Looking Around
The scenery changes a lot, and you should be on the lookout for good compositions. Your control is limited because a third party is steering the boat, but you don’t want to miss shot because of tunnel vision. Some things too look out for:
- Colorful buildings
- Old churches
- Beautiful Foot Bridges made of stone, wood or metal
- Other boats
- People dining at outdoor cafes and restaurants
- Striped mooring poles
Tip 12: Be Aware of Shifting Light
The ride is likely to only last for a 40 minutes to an hour, so the amount sunlight isn’t likely to change too dramatically. But you will be constantly changing directions, going around corners, under bridges and into and out of the shadows of buildings. That means the direction of the light will be constantly changing. I recommend memorizing the number of f-stops between exposing for the shadows and exposing for the highlights. By doing that, you can switch as quickly as possible without having to check your images to see how they look.
Make sure you are paying attention to what is coming up. Every time you go around a corner, there is likely to be a big change, think ahead about which aspect of the scene is most important to you and expose accordingly. In our photos, we were telling the story of Dannie and Lisa exploring Venice, so they were the most important element. If they were backlit I always exposed for the shadows, and if they were front lit, I always exposed for the highlights. Occasionally, if there was a bright, but particularly attractive background, I would take a photo where they looked a little dark, accepting that they would look a little noisy when we brought them back in Photoshop or Lightroom.
Tip 13: Don’t Drop Your Camera
Ok, I probably didn’t need to mention this, but it always bears repeating since the stakes go up over water. I still remember the one time I dropped my camera in the ocean. Our insurance through the PPA paid for it, but the time we spent without one of our cameras would have been much worse if we were overseas in a city without many high end camera stores.
So that’s about all you should need to know to walk away from your Venice Gondola ride with good photos. It’s mostly about being ready for the route, the lighting and the close quarters.
Plan your route, ahead of time to minimize stress.
Pack some toys if you are riding with a small child.
Pack a wide angle lens.
If you have taken great photos from a gondola ride and you have some additional tips to share, please feel free to comment below (our readers will appreciate it and so will we)!