Photographing Piazza San Marco, Venice at Night
Photography and Classic Rock on St Mark’s Square.
Venice has been on my bucket list for some time now. There really is no other city like it in the world. Other cities like Amsterdam and Bruges may have canals too but nothing on the scale of Venice.
That Venice exists at all is something of a miracle. A marshy lagoon does not seem like a likely location for one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The first Venetians in the early middle ages obviously had other ideas! Trying to find a hiding place from Attila the Hun was probably a good motivating factor too. Apparently he wasn’t a very nice man what with the plundering and pillaging and all that.
The focal point of Venice is of course the stunningly beautiful Piazza San Marco. St Mark’s Basilica stands on the Eastern end of the square next to the Doge’s Palace. Several cafés occupy the arcades that line the piazza. If you’re prepared to remortgage your home or possibly sell your first born, you may even be able to afford a coffee in one of them.
The following series of photographs were taken over two evenings in and around Piazza San Marco.
If the Piazza San Marco is the focal point of Venice, then the Basilica San Marco is the focal point of the Piazza. The basilica was an obvious choice of starting point when it came to photographing Venice. There really is no other church building like it anywhere else. The majority of the present structure was completed by the end of the 11th century. The building it self is an attractive blend of eastern and western influences with rounded Romanesque arches and a series of Byzantine style domes.
I took this photo on my first night in the city. The Piazza was still covered in large puddles from the previous days flood or ‘acqua alta‘ as the Venetians call the regular (and in my opinion rather rude) incursions of the Adriatic Sea into their city. These puddles provided great opportunities for reflections and so I waded into one large pool of water in front of the basilica. I think it was worth ending up with soggy shoes as I am quite pleased with final shot. The beautiful front façade was perfectly reflected in the pool of water. I squelched back to dry land happy to have gotten my first keeper of the trip.
The following day, I returned to the basilica with my wife, our Italian friends and our two year old son and guess what? It turns out two year olds don’t really like dark, cavernous basilicas! About four minutes after entering the building, we made a fraught exit with our now bawling toddler in tow. He hadn’t appreciated the thirteenth century sculptures and paintings as much as I’d hoped. Apparently he prefers Peppa Pig.
Blue hour is without a doubt the best time to take night time photographs. After I took the Basilica San Marco photo above, the night began to darken and the sky turned black. Pure black skies don’t tend to look so attractive in night photographs so I turned my attention to the arcades and cafes that surround St Mark’s Square.
Once again, I used the pools of water to capture the reflections of city lights at night. Once again, I got my feet wet. The wonderful thing about the piazza at night is the collection of mini orchestras playing outside the various cafes. This being the city of Antonio Vivaldi, I expected to hear the the melodious refrains of “The Four Seasons” filling the night air. Instead, they appeared to be playing “We Will Rock You” by Queen. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Queen but the subsequent rendition of “Radio Gaga” did seem slightly out of place on the Piazza San Marco.
For my final shot, that evening, I decided to focus in on a couple who were watching a mini orchestra performing outside the famous Ristorante Quadri. Dining at this particular opulent eatery will require you remortgage your home and sell your first born child. Two coffees alone will set you back about €30!
That said, the terrace outside this Venetian institution provides one of the most spectacular settings in the world to enjoy a meal. Where else in the world can you look at the magnificent Basilica San Marco while eating a five star meal all while listening to an orchestral version of “Fat Bottomed Girls”?
A shutter speed of 1.3 seconds helped create some motion blur as the violinist played. It also makes it look as if he has two heads. After taking this shot, I discretely listened in on the couple’s conversation as they debated which of their children they would use to pay for their meal.
Before putting my camera away for the night, I turned my attention to the arched arcades surrounding the square. These areas contain a mix of expensive designer boutiques and shops where you can buy miniature gondolas and glitter covered carnival masks that were made somewhere very far from Venice. The shot above is a simple composition using the arches to frame the people who were browsing the windows of some of these outlets.
The Piazza San Marco is a special place, especially at night. Before turning in for the night, I sat on the steps at the western end of the square and spent a few minutes taking it all in and there is so much to take in. I watched tourists drinking their expensive coffees while listening to the mini orchestras who had by now moved on to playing renditions of Abba Songs. I became engrossed in the game of cat and mouse being played by the local pickpockets and police as the latter chased the former halfheartedly around the square. I spent a while simply staring at the imposing Campanile of St Mark as it towered over the basilica at the far end of the square. It really is one of the great urban spaces of the world.
The following night, I returned to St Marks Square but this time I concentrated on a part called the “Piazzetta San Marco” in front of the Doge’s Palace. The smaller square juts to the right at the basilica and leads to the eastern opening of the Grand Canal. Two towering columns form a gateway to an expanse of water called St Mark’s Basin. In the photo above, you can clearly see the winged lion of St Mark on the left hand column. The city’s less famous Saint, Theodore occupies the right hand column. Theodore may be less illustrious than Saint Mark but he does have a crocodile on his column which I think is pretty cool!
The columns were erected in 1268 and were stolen from the city of Tyre in modern Turkey. The Venetians had a habit of pinching beautiful monuments and artifacts during their travels. They had even stolen the body of St Mark himself from Alexandria in 828! The famous horses which once adorned the front of the basilica were taken from Constantinople during the fourth crusade in 1204 (The current ones are replicas). Napoleon was later to have them taken to Paris before they were finally returned to Venice in 1815. These are some seriously well traveled horses.
In the photo above, I focused on a couple as they talked on the Piazzetta. The corner of the Ducal Palace is to the left while the famous columns of St Mark and St Theodore frame the view of the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance. Even in a wide angle shot like this, it’s impossible to completely convey just how spectacular the surroundings are at this spot.
For the next photo, I set a focal length of 70 mm and zoomed in to the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore which lies about 500 metres from the edge of the Piazetta. As I often mention in similar articles, I like to stand back a little and then zoom in to my subject in these situations in order to compress the perspective. In this case, this makes the church and its bell tower seem much closer than it is in reality. It’s a technique that I think works well in urban landscapes. I also used the chairs of the cafe as foreground interest which helps add a sense of depth to the scene.
For the final photograph of the evening, I decided to create my own version of one of the the most famous views of Venice, a row of gondolas with San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance. Most photographers tend to capture this area at dawn and with good reason too. The Sun rises just to the left the island and can make for some superb morning light. I decided to photograph the scene at blue hour in order to get something a little different.
For this shot, I used a wide angle lens and set a shutter speed of 30 seconds. This created the motion blur effect you can see on the gondolas as they bobbed up and down at their mooring posts. As you can see, the use of a wide angle lens has the exact opposite effect to the previous photo. The island and church now look much further away from where the photo was taken from.
As during the previous night, I sat down for a while and just spent some time taking in my surroundings. I think us photographers can be sometimes so focused (pun intended) in getting the perfect shot, that we forget to actually put the camera down for a while and really take in our surroundings. You see it at concerts all the time. People spend the whole show recording on their phones instead of enjoying the performance. Sometimes it’s nice to capture the scene in our memory instead of on the camera’s sensor.
With a few keepers in the bag, I headed back to our apartment but not before stopping for a drink outside one of the cafes on the piazza. After exchanging a kidney for a small beer, I sat down and once again simply took in my surroundings all the while listening to the strains of “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC expertly played by the cafe orchestra.
Barry O Carroll