Photographing St Basils Cathedral, Moscow, at Night

The quiet of night at St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow, Russia.

Canon 5D Mark II camera and Canon 24-105mm f4 L series lens @ 65mm. Exposure; 0.3 to 10 secs, f8 ISO 100.

St Basils Cathedral in Moscow is a fascinating, if not somewhat bizarre looking structure. Sadly during my visit the Cathedral was closed so I wasn’t able to enter this sacred space. As a consequence I didn’t get to experience or photograph inside the cathedral, though I’m told it’s very beautiful.

Photographing St Basils Cathedral, Moscow

As to whether it’s possible to enter with a big camera and tripod I’m unsure. This is one of the reasons why I’m moving closer and closer to one of the new mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 or the Sony A7 or A7r cameras. As well as producing exceptionally good results for their size and weight, I think it’s going to be some time before security at such places catch on and become suspicious of your motivates as they so often do when you’re toting larger camera gear.

Even though I didn’t get to enter the Cathedral I had an absolute ball photographing it from the outside. I moved around and photographed the structure from different distances and angles, looking for interesting details and placing it in relationship to the surrounding environment. The above photo was made looking back towards Red Square.

I’m unsure what function those buildings in the back of the picture perform. My guess is they’re restaurants. Can anyone tell me?

Finding the Right Place

It was a gorgeous summer's evening, in fact quite balmy, which just added to my enjoyment. The most difficult thing was the hordes of tourists constantly moving through Red Square during the evening. There could easily have been one thousand or more people at any time during my visit. However, one my way back to the hotel I walked down the hill, away from Red Square, and found a vantage point where the crowds had diminished considerably.

Photographing Crowds and Architecture

There are a range of potential problems when photographing a space, whether interior or exterior, with so many people moving through it. For a start I must have been approached by a dozen people to photograph their little party of friends. No doubt that my camera kit, a big old Really Right Stuff tripod and BHS ball head indicated I was at least serious about my photography. I didn’t mind and it’s a nice little bit of détente, given I’m from a western country. At the end of the day we’re all so similar in so many ways and it’s great that the craft of photography can help bring us together. For me it’s an added bonus as I really enjoy meeting and engaging with people from all parts of the world.

But how do you photograph crowds moving past and/or through static architecture? Well, you can start by exploring the fact that those two elements of the photo are so completely different. But if you’re going to have movement, you probably want quite a lot of blur. A little blur looks like poor technique, while considerably more blur can enhance mood by adding a very artistic effect and a transient element, a little like a fast flowing stream, to the image.

Exploring movement within the bounds of a still photo can be really interesting. A very slow Shutter Speed is required, which will most commonly be achieved under the following circumstances:

  • Low light conditions (e.g., night time)
  • A low ISO (e.g., 100)
  • A narrow aperture (e.g., f22)

Combining all three will likely put you in the ball park to achieve some pretty interesting effects. To achieve an even slower Shutter Speed consider placing a Neutral Density filter in front of your lens to reduce the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor.

This photo was produced by combining a number of individual exposures into a single composite image so as to reduce the overall contrast (i.e., dynamic range) of the scene. As part of that process it’s possible to reduce ghosting (i.e., movement of individual elements from frame to frame) within the software. Add to this the long exposures (i.e., 0.3 to 10 seconds) actually employed and it’s possible to minimize and, on occasions, eliminate all movement occurring within each frame. 

Moscow’s a very long way from my current abide in Melbourne, Australia. And, while it may be sometime before I return, I can certainly recommend it as an interesting extension for people visiting Central or Eastern Europe. Moscow is an interesting city with some amazing monuments, but St. Petersburg is something else entirely. That city is an absolute gem. No wonder it’s referred to as the Venice of the North. I really hope I can make it back there one day.

For Matthew

My nephew Matthew has displayed a gift for languages, predominantly Italian and Russian, both of which he has had to study by correspondence. While I can’t help with much more than mamma mia or nyet, I can at least help paint a picture of some of the wonders of our world that I really hope one day he’ll be able to see for himself. This one’s for you Matt.

By the way, there are still places available for my next Night Photography Workshop in the City of Melbourne If you have any questions just email me directly here.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru