San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice

San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice


Venice is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Every year, between 20 and 30 million tourists visit and take photographs. Lots of photographs.

St Mark’s Square, gondolas and canals – they have all been photographed every which way possible. I wanted some photographs of Venice that were different to all the photographs I’d seen before.

When you think about Venice, you think of the crowds of tourists. You may even picture an enormous cruise liner parked just off St Mark’s Square, on the Grand Canal, blocking everyone’s view.

Everyone is in such a hurry to see as much as possible of this city in the least amount of time. That means that there is no time for anyone to stop and really admire. To contemplate and appreciate the beauty that surrounds you when you are in Venice.

San Giorgio Maggiore

San Giorgio Maggiore is an island to the south of St Mark’s Square in Venice and near to the entrance to the Grand Canal. On it sits the Church of St Giorgio Maggiore, which was built in the 16th century and has a bright white façade.

One of the most famous paintings of San Giorgio Maggiore is called San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk, by Claude Monet. I’ve seen it in the National Museum, Cardiff. It is an incredible, atmospheric painting with the buildings surrounded by a gold and blue glow.

I decided that I was going to photograph the church, not at dusk, but at dawn.

If you have ever wondered how landscape photographers get those perfect reflections of hills in the Lake District or the Highlands of Scotland, it is because they get up before the sun does. Once the sun begins to rise, it warms the land and creates a gentle breeze that causes ripples across lakes and lochs. It is the same in the Venetian Lagoon.

That is why I went for a 5.30 am start local time, 4.30 am UK time, which we had left the previous day.

Without the crowds of tourists, Venice looks and feels completely different at this time of day. Even the pigeons were still asleep. The grandeur of its buildings is enhanced by the stillness that surrounds them. It feels tranquil and at peace.

I wanted to photograph the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore from just outside the Doge’s Palace, on a thoroughfare called Riva degli Schiavoni. I would be looking south, so it meant the sun would be rising to my left.

Apart from a few like-minded photographers, there was nobody to be seen. There were no gondolas and the lagoon was calm.

I set my camera up on a tripod and waited. There is something quite magical about seeing the first rays of light creep their way across the sky in total silence. You almost feel like you are an intruder.

Bridge Sighs Venice

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice

Very slowly, the sky began to turn pink and blue. Lights on the church were reflected in the water and all the buildings began to glow.

I was using a tripod and cable release, as I knew that I would be taking a series of photographs, each of which would last for a few seconds.

I did wonder about removing the scaffolding from the photograph in Photoshop but decided against it. Good photography is about good story telling and, rather than presenting an idealised image, I wanted to show the truth. This most fabulous city is constantly fighting against the elements and is an on-going restoration project. Perhaps forever?

I then walked a few yards from where I had been standing and took this photograph of the famous Bridge of Sighs. During the daytime, the Rio di Palazzo that runs underneath it is full of boats and gondolas, but at this time of day, the canal was empty.

Around 6.00 am, the first Vaporetto water bus arrived, discharging passengers who were on their way to work in the city. I could hear their chatter as they hurried along Riva degli Schiavoni behind me.

The silence was broken. A city and its people were stirring. Heading back to our hotel, via dark alleyways, I could smell coffee being roasted and freshly baked bread. A new day had begun for the people of Venice.

A friend of mine saw this photograph on our website and immediately ordered a canvas wrap of it for his new house. When the canvas wrap arrived, my wife Liz insisted that I ordered another one for our house. It works well as a canvas wrap as most people think it is a painting, rather than a photograph.

This photograph is one of the 10 photographs that make up the landing page on our website

Some tips for improving your holiday photography

If you are on holiday and want to take photographs that will bring back memories for many years ahead, a few of my tips are:

Use a camera, rather than a smartphone. I’ve written about this in an article I posted online here.

Avoid taking photographs in the middle of the day when the sun is directly overhead. This will give you very flat, two dimensional photographs. You want shadows to create depth. Take photos in the morning and later in the afternoon, or if the light permits, early evening.

Wherever you go, take some time to soak up the atmosphere of a place before you take your camera out. Listen to the noises, take in the smells and then work out which images will best remind you of this location. Don’t just photograph big views, take shots of little details as well.

It varies from country to country, but always ask before you take someone’s photograph, especially if they are in uniform. For instance, in Monaco, the guards at the Palace don’t let people take their photograph whereas the Carabinieri in Florence are more than happy to pose in front of their cars and motorbikes. Everyone understands what you mean if you smile and point at your camera.

When you get home, have your best photographs printed and put into an album. Depending upon how skilled you are with a computer, think about making a slide show that you can put on your television. These days, most televisions will take a USB stick that can play back a gallery of photographs.

In areas that are popular with tourists, never leave a phone or a camera on the table of a street café. Be discreet with your camera and don’t carry it on a strap, hanging off your shoulder – keep it in a bag, when not in use.

Finally – take lots of photographs. Unlike the days of film, digital photography costs next to nothing once you’ve bought a camera.

Caribinieri Florence

Caribinieri in Florence


Photograph of San Giorgio Maggiore taken with a Canon Eos 5D Mk III and a Canon 24 mm – 70 mm f2.8L II lens at 61mm on a tripod. Exposure 2.5 seconds at f11. ISO 400.

Photograph of the Bridge of Sighs taken with a Canon Eos 5D Mk III and a Canon 24mm – 70 mm f2.8L II lens at 33 mm on a tripod. Exposure 2.0 seconds at f8. ISO 400

Photograph of the Caribinieri in Florence taken with a Canon Eos 5D Mk III and a Canon 24 mm – 70 mm f2.8L II lens at 45 mm. Exposure 1/320 second at f6.3. ISO 200.


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