12 Tips for Photographing the Carnival of Venice

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I recently had the pleasure of visiting Venice again for the Carnival, a great festival where people like to dress up in elaborate costumes and wear masks in the streets. It is also a wonderful opportunity for photography, but can be a daunting experience if you don’t come prepared, due to the sheer number of possible subjects and the huge crowds that swarm the city in the Carnival days, most of them with a camera in hand.

The best thing about the Carnival for photographers is that the people in costume are willing to pose and model for you against the backdrop of the most beautiful city in the world. The worst thing is that a million other people know this.

I have collected in this article twelve tips will help you make the most of your day in Venice. They can equally be applied to the Rio Carnival or the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, or at similar events. My approach to photographing the Carnival is photo-journalistic and I always want to show some context, detail, and scenery in addition to beautiful costumes. I try to grab the best images I can and use them to tell a story, without too much organization or planning and my tips reflect this style. Yours might be different, but I think most of the tips will be useful anyway, regardless of your modus operandi.

I suggest you start watching the video below, which will give you an idea of what to expect, then read the rest of the article that gives a bit more explanations about the tips. You can find more photos in this gallery.

I would like to thank my friends Massimiliano Cremascoli–for providing some of the photos used in the video and appearing in it–and Dolidh Young for the voice overs.

1 – Travel Light

Don’t carry more equipment than you will need. A day of shooting in the city can be long and tiresome if you have too much weight on your shoulders.

The Carnival is not a fast-paced event, so you don’t need the kind of equipment that is used for sporting events. Wielding a 200-400mm zoom lens in front of a crowd of other photographers is not going to make you any friends.

This year, I shot everything using a Fujifilm X100s and a Fujifilm X-E2 with a 35mm f/1.4 and a 60mm f/2.4 lens.

Travel Light

2 – Use a long lens and a large aperture to isolate the subject

If too much is happening around your subject, as is often the case, use a long lens to isolate it and a large aperture to blur the background.

Pay attention to your backgrounds. You want to avoid them to be distracting and having lots of random tourists behind your subject is not the best recipe for beautiful images.

Example of subject isolation and background blur.

3 – Use a wide angle lens to show context

Conversely, use a wide angle lens, when possible, to provide some context and exaggerate the perspective, making your subject loom larger than life. Just pay very careful attention to your backgrounds and to the borders of your frame.

Costume and gondola

4 – Get down low and shoot up 

Another useful technique to get rid of background distractions is to get down low on the ground and shoot up at your subject. Try to include some monument or landmark in the background, not just empty skies.

Example of shooting up at subject

5 – Get close

Get really close to your subject and fill the frame with it to show details and provide a sense of intimacy. This can also be a way of provoking some interaction from the subject.

Close portrait

6 – Play with flash when dusk falls

At the end of the day, use flash light, maybe with a warm gel, to make your subject pop against the deep blue sky. Having an off-camera flash with a diffuser can give great results, but is not very practical, unless you are doing a private shoot. Even a pop-up flash, dialed down to give just the right amount of fill, can be sufficient.

Two subjects lit by flash

7 – Capture some candid moments

Most people who masquerade for the Carnival will pose for you and that is great, but try also to steal some candid pictures when they are relaxed or doing natural gestures.

Unposed subject

8 – Photograph ordinary people

Don’t limit yourself to the people in costume, but watch out for interesting characters in the streets. Most often, they will appreciate having their picture taken as well. A Carnival is the perfect opportunity for some great street photography.

A gondolier

9 – Shoot some iconic scenery

Don’t miss the opportunity to shoot some beautiful cityscapes. They will complement your people pictures and round out the story. After all, you don’t go to Venice, Rio, or New Orleans every day!

View of the Grand Canal

10 – Exchange business cards

The people who dress up like to be seen and photographed and expect to see their portraits. Exchange business cards with them and send them a copy of their pictures after the day. If they like them, they might contact you to organize a private shoot.

Business cards

11 – Be respectful of others

The biggest problem you will have is the crowds of people with cameras or those who want to be in their friends’ pictures. They will inevitably get in the way of your shoot. Be patient and respectful and you too will get your chance to shoot freely.

Photographer in the shot

12 – Have fun

Most of all, remember the Carnival is supposed to be a fun event. Take it lightly and don’t just look at it through your viewfinder. Be happy and revel!

Smiling masked girl


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