Bella Ciao: Shooting Film Portraits in Venice

Where exactly in Venice is it worth going to for a portrait shoot? The short answer is… everywhere!

I am writing this article at an extraordinary time when Italy became one of the biggest victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, which literally stopped the world. I wanted to write specifically about one of the many gems of this country, and as some say, the largest gem that is Venice.

This country has always been strongly present in my life because of the family relationships. My father’s twin sister happily married an Italian so I have had contact with Italian language, culture, and cuisine since my childhood. I went there for the first time at the age of five and fell in love with… absolutely everything. So it was natural that I would go back there often. I decided to do the same last year and went to Venice with my fiancée. Who doesn’t know Venice? Even a child in elementary school knows what a gondola is, or that you can drink coffee sitting ankle-deep in water in St. Mark’s Square.

Choosing the camera and films

It would be a sin not to take with me a few rolls of film and my $7 gem: Canon EOS 300. It’s a plastic wonder that at this price could even be found in a breakfast cereal box or in a bag of chips. It’s fully compatible with all modern Canon lenses and even supports autofocus. Interestingly, the battery for this camera is more expensive than the camera itself… I definitely recommend it!

Since the idea focused only on portraits, I decided to get some Kodak Portra, Kodak Ektar, Fuji Pro 400H, Kodak Gold and Fujicolor rolls with me. The trip, on holiday of course, promised us beautiful weather. Only shooting with Fuji Pro 400H appeared to be problematic due to the relatively high ISO. However, overexposing is also a basic technique that I use in color film photography.

As a rule, I overexpose by two stops but always make the decision just before taking the photo. What matters to me is the contrast of the scene and how I want the shadows to look on the final photograph. If I want to get deeper shadows, I only overexpose one stop, and when I want to strongly light up the darkest parts of the image, I overexpose three stops. Please note that this technique only applies to negative films. When using a slide film, you must always meter for the light properly. If you don’t do it, you can say goodbye to good photos. Due to the principle presented above, using an ISO 400 film was not a problem at all. I was just taking photos as if I had an ISO 100 film in my camera.

However, a distinction should be made between overexposing the film and the “pull” processing. They are not the same! “Pull” and “Push” processes involve changing the sensitivity of the film by changing the exposure and changing the development time. In photo labs, developing pushed and pulled films always costs extra money, and believe me, that’s not a low price. However, overexposing is not intended to change the film’s sensitivity, but rather to change its color profile and contrast. The film, is in this case, intentionally overexposed and developed normally, just like for its box speed/sensitivity. Thanks to this technique it shows a lot more details in the shadows and impresses with the richness of colors. If you decide to overexpose your films, do not mention it at all in the photo lab! The employee may think that you mean the pull process and will develop your film incorrectly, and of course will charge you double.

The timeless charm of Venice

But, let’s get back to Venice. Anyone who has paid a visit knows that it’s the most beautiful city in the world. The so-called City on the Water is unparalleled, and all other cities with canals use it as a reference and are nicknamed “the Venice of.” Back in the old days, Italy was not one country, but rather a group of countries ruled from their largest cities. The Republic of Venice, however, was the most powerful of those countries. The Republic drew its strength from trade and at the time of its greatest splendor controlled the trade in most of Europe. Through the interests of merchants, it connected Christianity with Islam, South and North, East and West. The Republic of Venice existed continuously for 1,100 years, making it the longest-standing republic in the world history. Every European should at least once in their life visit this most important european city, learn about its history and… take some pictures. Preferably, of course, photos on film.

What I was afraid of the most was crowds of tourists entering the frame from every possible angle. However, my fears were exaggerated and I did not have to stop the traffic in the narrow Venetian streets. Still, those who expect empty squares and streets will be disappointed — unless one gets up at 4:00 in the morning and manages to take some photos before tourists pour out of the hotels. Venice is a fairly large city, its biggest asset is a maze of narrow streets, passages, and bridges. I wonder if anyone counted these architectural wonders, but definitely, bridges over the canals should be chosen as the symbol of this city. Every now and then gondolas flow under them driven by beautifully dressed gondoliers. Well, maybe not quite beautifully dressed, because most of them wear sneakers together with traditional red scarves, striped shirts, and elegant pants. What has been seen, cannot be unseen.

Making the shots

Doing a portrait shoot at the peak of the tourist season is quite difficult since we cannot ask the help of an assistant. We must wear backpacks with all the equipment at all times, and as a result, we additionally exercise while searching for the perfect frame. After a day-long photo shoot in the city on the water, you can easily let the gym go for at least a week. Unfortunately, you won’t develop the film on the spot, because the commercial space in Venice is too valuable to be used for “just a photo lab.”

Okay, but where exactly in Venice is it worth going to for a portrait shoot? The answer is… EVERYWHERE! In addition to obvious choices such as the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square with the beautiful Basilica of St. Mark, the Campanile, and the Doge’s Palace, it is worth venturing into the maze of streets and hunting for charming bridges entwined with climbing ivy. Narrow canals through which single gondolas pass with tourists with dropped jaws. Churches, of which the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute seemed to me the most beautiful. 

Particularly beautiful backdrops for portraits are the richly decorated doors and gates of Venetian houses, and walls usually covered with slightly flaky plaster in warm ocher, yellow, and orange colors. Kodak films are especially great for warm colors, so you won’t regret taking a roll of Kodak Portra or even Kodak Gold with you. Films from Fujifilm, on the other hand, will be great on St. Mark’s Square surrounded by white colonnades, under the palaces of the great Doges with bright walls, and wherever the beautiful greenish waters of the Venetian canals will appear in your photos.

If you’ve never been to Venice before, you must make up for it! Italy needs our help like never before, especially in rebuilding the tourism industry. Once it’s safe to travel again, make sure to book your tickets immediately. And don’t forget to buy at least a dozen Kodak and Fuji rolls! The City on the Water looks the most beautiful on film! Make the words of the popular Italian folk song “Bella Ciao!” not as a farewell to this beautiful city when you leave it, but more like “see you later” because Venice is worth visiting over and over.

With a good part of the world still homebound and unable to travel, we thought about reliving some of our most unforgettable trips captured on film through the Travel Throwback series. Share your travel stories and film photos with us through with the subject “Travel Throwback.”

Adrian Norbert Cuper
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Born in 1988, Warsaw-based Adrian is a portrait photographer, photography teacher, and co-founder of Whattaroll Magazine.

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