Classic Venetian gondolas bobbing on the waters of the Grand Canal in Venice – Venezia, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg
By Jerry Ginsberg
Eons ago in grammar school geography lessons featuring wistful mentions of some of the great places of the world captivated me and instilled a wanderlust that remains undimmed. Sights such as the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids of Egypt and the canals of Venice filled me with dreams of exotic travel that, over time, have been distilled into a concise bucket list.
After two years of chomping on the bit of an out-of-the-blue pandemic, I, like many of us, was finally able to translate a wishfully sketched out itinerary into a first person travel experience. Waiting until October when both the stifling summer heat and the crush of high tourist season would predictably abate, I jumped on a flight to Venice.
My carefully selected stops also included Capri, Pompeii, a tiny slice of the Amalfi Coast and, of course, Rome. While this may sound a little cliché and less exciting than our more usual adventures in nature travel, my preferred method of hoofing it twelve hours a day and seeing the world through the camera plastered to my face are hardly typical.
I had initially planned to write this tome in one large lump. But there is so much to report that it seems more efficient to break it into three parts starting with Venice, then the greater Naples area and finally, Rome. Please bear with me.
Editor’s note: Even the most avid nature photographers occasionally travel with spouses and families, go on vacations where landscapes and wildlife aren’t the primary focus. What do you do then? How do you apply nature photography techniques to urban settings? What do nature and travel photography have in common? Jerry Ginsberg, a frequent contributor on national parks, recently went to Italy. Here is how he approached it.
Venice – la Serenissima
Venice has no streets, only canals. These waterways vary greatly from the arterial Grand Canal to tiny capillary-like neighborhood streams. It all is indeed a municipal circulatory system. Some have delightful S-curves. Others are framed by ornate bridges. Colorful reflections abound. It is a city of water.
Transportation is accomplished with multiple waterborne carriers including Alilaguna, Traghetti, water taxis, tourist-laden and expensive gondola rides and what can be a multitude of confusing Vaporetti (passenger ferry) lines.
After pretty much mastering the code of the all-encompassing Vaporetti system in my first twenty-four hours, getting around became very efficient. Ambulances, the various police forces and even the popular overnight carriers; all have their own vessels.
In addition, a man-made causeway and rail link connect the city’s northwest corner to the mainland. Parking is provided for those traveling by car. Private vehicles are left there while their owners transfer to the canal network.
Fabled Venice is essentially in a time warp of the 17th century. Its singular topography, art, architecture, colors and very way of life can be found nowhere else on the globe. While some commercialization geared to the tourists has popped up in a couple of heavily trafficked spots, this has not materially altered the character of what remains a truly magical place.
The grand sights of this thoroughly unique city; St. Mark’s Square with its calling card bell tower, the Doge’s Palace with its Bridge of Sighs, iconic Rialto Bridge, the countless museums, art exhibitions and cathedrals although somewhat threatened, continue to be vibrant and enchanting.
And then there’s the food. Unlike many national parks and wilderness locations, it’s hard to get a bad meal here. an over-supply of restaurants all striving for the tourist dollar creates plenty of competition. As in any such place, perhaps especially in Europe, beware of the over-priced tourist traps. More often than not, better food and better value can be found in the smaller establishments frequented by the locals. It might be a good idea to pack a hole punch for that leather belt.
Photo opportunities are simply everywhere. Rather than trying to find compositions, the challenge in Venice comes in selecting the very best from the tightly packed visual confection before you.
Venice is a real walking city. Each turn in any one of the countless little alleyways can bring a new surprise. So leave those big boots at home and bring a sturdy pair of low cut hiking shoes. Explore! There are interesting scenes around every corner.
Classic and lovely Rialto Bridge spans the Grand Canal at its narrowest point in Venice, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg
When—Timing is everything
The key tip is – Get out Early!! Just like Yosemite or Grand Teton, getting out early (or staying out late) avoids a lot of crowds.
By about 9:00 AM, tourists and tour groups begin to arrive in force and can make good photography very problematic. Actually, this works fairly well for us. By that time, the best light is long gone anyway. Exploring the city before and shortly after dawn while most visitors are just waking up in their hotels, one encounters only a few serious fellow photographers rushing around with their lightweight travel tripods doing precisely the same thing we are; trying to artistically grab the best scenes in the best light before the crowds arrive. Venice is such a powerful draw that it can still be crowded well into the off season.
Happily, the same equation works to a great degree in similar fashion late in the day as well. By the time late day and early evening light arrive, the hordes of tourists are mostly closeted elsewhere.
During the middle of the day when the light is not favorable, it makes senses to tour some of the museums with their incredible art treasures. If we can’t beat ‘em, we might as well join ‘em.
What to look for
Among the “Don’t miss” subjects to shoot are:
- Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) including the bell tower, Doge’s Palace, basilica, piazza, clock tower, columns, Bridge of Sighs. These are all in a very concentrated area. There is often water in the square, making for lovely reflections. For the interiors, line up well prior to AM opening time.
- Rialto Bridge
- Grand Canal
- La Fenice opera house
- Basilica Santa Maria della Salute
- Tiny side canals with reflections
- Gondolas (They’re everywhere!)
Lenses from 16-40mm will work best here with 60-105 for details and optical extraction.
For most of these, I used my 24~70 zoom almost exclusively, resorting to my trusty little 20~35 only occasionally.
Interiors will require a very fast wide angle. 20-28mm should do the trick. Even the finest museums do permit photography, but wisely prohibit flash.
If you are a bird photographer and can bring your long lens, eBird lists 174 species seen in and around Venice.
Colorful Burano is a popular tourist destination as part of Venice’s northern lagoon, Vanice, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg
Around the lagoon
Beyond central Venice are the enticing islands of the Northern Lagoon. A full day loop to Murano, home of world class artistic glass creations, and Burano with its history of lace making is more than worth the investment in time.
The importance of going very early in the day cannot be over emphasized. When boarding we de the 8:15 AM boat from Murano to Burano, I was joined by fewer than a half dozen fellow passengers as we strolled casually on to a half-filled boat. In contrast, by the time of my 2:30 PM return to Murano, the waiting line for the same trip was at least 2 hours long.
Once making the effort to journey to Burano, perhaps make brief stops at attached Mazzorbo and nearby Torcello as well.
An even better way to come home with the best images of these two little island gems is to do them on two separate mornings. That will afford the opportunity to get the best light in each. In the alternative, doing one in the morning, spending the tourist-filled mid-day in the shelter of a charming cafe while waiting for the crowds to go home and then shooting late light can also be a viable solution.
For these charming little islands being equipped with 20-70mm is all you’ll need. Leave your tripod in the room. Oops! Did I just say that? I suddenly feel my throat constricting.
The logistics of getting here and away are very straightforward. Renting a car, even a supposedly amphibious one, is not an option. Venice has one big, cutting edge airport, a single modern train station and a huge car park as mentioned above. Once reaching one of those three, just hop on a boat and watch the scenery float past. Be careful not to overpack.
Choosing your lodging involves enough options to make your head spin. In addition to the major worldwide hotel brands, the centrally located and very desirable San Marco area alone has scores of good quality small boutique hotels hidden away in the narrow streets behind St. Mark’s Square. This charming area chock full of photogenic narrow paths and laced with innumerable small canals and bridges accessed through the famed clock tower and near La Fenice opera house is a treasure trove of these lodgings as well as high end shopping.
A brief mention of the food is in order. It is hard to get a bad meal in Italy. I suppose it’s possible, but wherever I traveled, I found virtually all of the dining establishments to offer top notch fare. As a devoted and all-day coffee drinker, it was a true delight to stop anywhere and imbibe the standard ‘café Americano.’
Ancient equine statues from the time of Alexander the Great inside iconic St. Mark’s Basilica in the very heart of Venice, Italy. © Jerry Ginsberg
Jerry Ginsberg is a multi-award winning and widely published photographer whose landscape, Nature and travel images have graced the covers and pages of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras.
Jerry has been awarded Artist Residencies in several National Parks across America and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks. His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America along with large chunks of Europe and the mid-East.
More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com