Late bar, Venice, 2008

By daylight the scene is nothing to write home about. But at night, nearly midnight, all those extraneous elements and colours just disappeared, and the atmosphere of the Venetian night took over.

There’s a kind of perverse pleasure to be had in visiting Venice with a camera and coming back with memory cards full of monochrome images. But then, if I wanted colours, I could always buy a postcard or two.

We were making our way back to our hotel near the Campo San Barnaba when we came across this little bar on a small back canal. It turned out to be the Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisti on the Fondamenta della Toletta. Very different from the industrial sized bars along the main drag between the station and St Marks. The clientele were a mix of locals and visitors as far as we could tell, and a glance at the menu was enough to make a note for future reference.

I’m now not sure what drew me to take the photograph. It was probably a combination of the location, the quiet warmth of the Venetian evening, the buzz of the bar and possibly the influence of a glass or two wine. I had however been looking for suitable bars to capture the essence of Venice at night. And here it was, pretty much the last picture of the day.

I conceived of it as a monochrome image right from the start. Colour balancing all those street lamps and fluorescent shop lights simply wasn’t going to work. In any case the colour noise in the image would be far too much to try to recover.

Venice Bar and the Fondamenta Toletta by day

By daylight the scene is nothing to write home about. But at night, nearly midnight, all those extraneous elements and colours just disappeared, and the atmosphere of the Venetian night took over. In its way, it’s as much representative of Venice as a picture of St Marks, or the Rialto Bridge. The little bridge and the canal say “Venice”, and the groups of people chatting quietly – at the window, at table by the wall, perched on the bridge – are all what you would expect to see on a late summer’s night.

But you know that once past this little pocket of light and life, you’ll plunge back into the shadows of back streets and calles, until you burst out into the next island of night activity a couple of blocks away, a bit further along the canal.

Late bar, Venice, 2008

One of the reasons this image is so special for me is the sheer improbability of coming away with a reasonable picture. The only light sources are the electric lights – shop windows and two street lights. But that by itself isn’t enough to sustain the image. It needs the quiet humanity, the groups of people sitting and standing, chatting to each other. The only thing happening is the murmur of conversation. No one’s in a rush to go anywhere, even this late at night. The calmness is mirrored by the reflections in the still waters of the canal.

You might complain, as people have, about the blown highlights around the street lights, and the lack of detail in the sky. But I think that’s pretty much beside the point. As a result of the darkness, there’s a natural vignette effect and your attention is inexorably drawn to the pools of light where the people are. And that far light leads you on to look for the next haven of life.

A holiday snap? Well, maybe so, but, in my book, a rather superior snap.

Despite my misgivings about talking too much about camera settings and other configuration matters which aren’t too important, these are the bits of technical information about this picture some folk find useful:

  • Camera: Canon 350D
  • Lens: Canon 24-105mm f4 L IS
  • ISO: 1600
  • Focal length: 24mm (36mm full frame equiv.)
  • Exposure: 1/2 at f4.0 (handheld – me and the camera at their limits)
  • I use Lightroom and NIK software for sharpening and noise reduction.

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