Photographing Moscow, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

A night time view of the spectacular Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia.

Canon 5D Mark II camera and Canon 24-105mm f4 L series lens @ 35mm. Exposure: HDR Composite @ f8 ISO 100.

I was wandering around Moscow, as you do, late at night looking to make some night photos from one of the bridges crossing the Moskva (i.e., Moscow) River. In doing so I found myself in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It was closed, so I couldn’t enter. However it’s white exterior and copper topped domes make it a standout for night photography.

A close study of the building will reveal that there are no interior lights turned on. That means the cathedral is being illuminated by exterior lighting. And that, my friends, is often the trick to photographing buildings at night.

I was particularly fortunate in this case as the cathedral facade and domes are, by nature, reflective. An image of a black cat in a coal mine on a charcoal exterior would be considerably more challenging.

Tripod Based Photography

While it’s not always necessary to undertake night photography with a tripod it can be beneficial, particularly when critical composition or very long exposures are required.

I made this exterior view of the Cathedral of Christ Our Saviour with the aid of my camera fixed onto my Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballhead which, in turn, was mounted securely onto my Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod. Have no doubt, after all these years, this is by far the best ballhead and tripod combination I’ve ever owned. It’s an expensive option, but absolutely top quality.

Made in the USA and underpinned by great design, world class materials and brilliant engineering these items are beautiful to behold and a dream to use. They’re neither light nor small, but the use of carbon fibre significantly reduces the load. If you’re serious about tripod based photography and you’re happy to spend the money Really Right Stuff, in my opinion, represents the highest quality currently available.

What’s Right For You

It should be said that the tripod and ballhead combination I use would be overkill for all small camera systems. But a full frame DSLR or medium format camera, particularly one with a large lens fitted, will be well and truly secure on this platform. I may well investigate a smaller camera system before the end of the year. It won’t require this particular arrangement of Really Right Stuff gear, but that doesn’t mean I won’t continue with the brand. They have many models of tripod and ball head, one that may be just right for you.

The Friends You Leave Behind

I’m often reminded that it’s not what you see on your journeys, but the people you meet that makes the experience, one way or the other, memorable. This particular evening was a case in point. 

When you’re working with a large tripod and camera you’re going to be noticed. I don’t mind, after all I have nothing to hide. My photos are about sharing the beauty of our world and its people with an ever wider audience and I’ve long overcome any feelings that might make me feel self conscious. There’s just too much at stake to be drawn into such negativity.

While I’m always careful not to block other peoples progress or draw too much attention to myself, my very presence elicits quite a bit of attention. Sometimes folks approach me and ask me what I’m doing. While it’s pretty obvious that I’m making photos I assume they want somewhat beyond the obvious answer their question suggests. I might mention the following:

  • that I’ve travelled from Australia (that’s a connection that’s never done me any harm)
  • that I have an educational photography website
  • that I’m here to document the beauty of this country and its people

While most gals are usually content with this kind of reply guys, more often than not, want to know a little bit about the gear I’m using. Of course, in some parts of the world, the conversation quickly turns to how much money I make.

Over recent times, with the explosion of digital photography, folks often ask me to make a photo of them. I guess they assume, because I have a substantial camera kit, that I must know what I’m doing (a dangerous assumption, to be sure). Likely it follows that, as I’m a guru (not just in name) of photography I’II be able to make an incredible photo of them, right here and right now, with their phone camera. Naturally I do my best. I enjoy the challenge, though I tend to thumble around trying to understand the device in question.

On this particular night I was approached by a young Russian lady who spoke quite good English. She said she was a lawyer, but had a passion for photography. A fun conversation followed before she was summoned away via an urgent message on her mobile phone. Not long after a young American journalist approached me. He had some straight forward questions about photograph and I was happy to help. In fact, after about twenty minutes, he’d been given a short course. He was a really nice guy and I hope our little chat has helped him make some great photos during his posting in this incredible city. 

Star Light, Star Bright

Finally I was able to get back to the task at hand. I very much loved the old fashion lights leading towards the cathedral. Even late in the evening there were still so many people moving around that I needed to raise my camera up to remove most of them from the frame.

You’ll notice the starlight effect emanating from some of the lights. This effect is very much created in camera. To achieve it is a simple matter of photographing at your lens’s minimum aperture. That’s the physically narrowest aperture, the one that let’s in the least amount of light (e.g., f22). There’s something that happens as the light is funneled through such a physically narrow opening and then spread outwards across the sensor that accounts for this interesting phenomena. It doesn’t seem to work with the long fluorescent tubes, but it does work a treat with those old tungsten/incandescent rounded bayonet or screw in light bulbs, particularly where there’s a fair amount of moisture between the light source and the camera.

Time To Smile

If you don’t like the effect simply avoid the very narrowest apertures on your lens. But, if you do, you now know when and how to produce it.

Night photography offers so many amazing opportunities for creative photography. The world most certainly looks and photographs differently after the sun has gone down and you simply have to be out there to see, enjoy and record it. My next Night Photography in the City of Melbourne Workshop is being held on Thursday, 10 April 2014. With the end of daylight savings upon us, sunset will occur at 6pm so the workshop will be concluded around 8pm. Quite early and, therefore, not too big an ask for a weeknight.

It’s a fun, informative and inexpensive way to really bring your creativity up to the next level. Frankly, folks rave about the experience. If you’d like to know more just Click HERE. I really hope to see you there.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru