St Basil's Cathedral

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.

The quintessential onion shaped domes of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow are remarkable. St Basil’s Cathedral is a fascinating, if not somewhat bizarre looking structure that’s decorated in a variety of colors.

However, as this photo was made late at night, I opted for a black and white rendering as I felt it was more in line with the more quiet and sombre mood of Red Square at that time of the evening.

Where is Saint Basils Cathedral?

Where is Saint Basils Cathedral you ask? It’s in Red Square Moscow, right next to the Kremlin.

This beautiful, 65 meter high Red Square church is amongst the most famous Russian buildings.

Here’s what you need to know about St Basil’s Cathedral tickets.

St Basil’s Cathedral Facts

Originally called the Trinity Church, the basis of what we know today as St Basil's Cathedral was built between 1555 and 1561 by order of Ivan the Terrible.

The order was given to commemorate victory over the Kazan Khanate which occurred on the religious holiday of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin.

Up until 1813 the Kremlin was protected by a moat which ran along one side of Red Square.

That’s why St. Basil’s Cathedral is also referred to as the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat.

It’s said that Vasily (i.e, Basil) Blazhenny was known as Basil, Fool for Christ, could see into the future and that he predicated the fire of 1547 which destroyed almost a third of Moscow.

Despite extreme poverty throughout his life St. Basil was honored with a respectful burial. Ivan the Terrible acted as one of the pallbearers.

St. Basil was canonized in 1588 as St. Basil the Blessed.

The tenth small church was added to the cathedral to house his relics and the entire complex became known as The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed.

The architectural design of St. Basil’s is something to behold. The design of the cathedral and its original, more subdued color scheme is said to have symbolized the Heavenly City from the Book of Revelation.

Four of the cathedral’s eight chapels were named after religious holidays. The basement served as the base from which 9 small churches were built.

These churches were connected to each other via galleries and passageways.

After a fire in 1595, the churches were decorated with onion domes. The vivid colors we associate today with these distinctive onion domes were added, in several stages, between the 1680’s and 1848.

It’s said that French troops, retreating from Moscow in 1812, wanted to blow up St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Thankfully time was against them and this remarkable structure survives until the present day, despite the fact that Soviet authorities in the late 1920’s wanted to demolish it.

For a number of years St. Basil’s was used as a public museum.

In 1990 St. Basil’s became part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and from the early 1990s this most iconic Russian building, including the Chapel of Basil the Blessed, once again began to be used for religious services.

Photographing Saint Basils Cathedral, Moscow

Sadly, during my visit Saint Basils Cathedral was closed so I wasn’t able to enter this sacred space.

While I didn’t get to experience or photograph inside the cathedral I’m told it’s very beautiful. I’m sure St. Basils will be at the very top of my itinerary the next time I visit Moscow.

As to whether it’s possible to enter with a big camera and tripod I’m unsure and, anyway, rules change over time and, in some places, from day to day.

Sometimes it’s yay and sometimes it’s nay. We photographers simply adapt and make the most of whatever situation we find ourselves in.

One of the reasons I moved from a traditional DSLR to a mirrorless camera was to be able to work with a physically smaller camera.

It’s not always good to look like a professional photographer.

Sometimes appearing like an enthusiastic amateur is enough to ensure that you’re allowed to make photos without being hassled by overly zealous security guards.

Mirrorless Cameras are Well Suited To Travel Photography

Mirrorless cameras are a joy to use and produce exceptionally good results for their size and weight.

These days I use a Sony A7r ii camera, though I’m due for an upgrade.

The very latest Sony mirrorless cameras include incredible technology proving a variety of advantages that include the following:

  • Fast and accurate focus for candid portraits and action photography

  • Great high ISO performance under low light conditions and for achieving high shutter speeds when you want to freeze movement

Even though I didn’t get to enter St Basil’s 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 as a way of showcasing St. Basil’s in relationship to the surrounding environment.

The above photo was made looking back towards Red Square at night.

I’m not sure what function those buildings in the back of the picture perform. I believe they’re mostly restaurants and a department store.

I was fortunate that the outline of the buildings is brought out at night by the lights festooned around them.

Those lights add interest to the background and help to place St Basils in its environment.

How To Photograph Red Square Russia

It was a gorgeous summer's evening, in fact quite balmy, which just added to my enjoyment. The most difficult thing were the hordes of tourists constantly moving through Red Square that evening.

I have to say that all those people made it quite difficult photographing from a tripod.

In the end I opted for low ISO and very long exposures so that many of these good folk would simply pass unseen and, largely, unrecorded by my camera.

There could easily have been one thousand or more people in Red Square at any time during my visit.

However, on 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.

How to Photograph Crowds and Architecture

There are a range of problems you’re likely to experience when trying to photograph St. Basil’s Cathedral with so many people moving through Red Square.

I remember being approached by people wanting me to photograph their little party of friends. This must have occurred around a dozen times.

No doubt my camera kit back then, a Canon 5D Mark II camera and a big old Really Right Stuff tripod and BHS ball head, indicated I was serious about my photography.

I didn’t mind grabbing their mobile phones and making their photos. It’s a nice 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 people together.

For me it’s an added bonus as I really enjoy meeting and engaging with people from all parts of the world. It’s one of the joys of travel. Is it not?

But how do you photograph crowds that are moving through an otherwise static architectural scene in a place like Red Square?

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.

While a little blur probably looks like poor technique, considerably more blur can enhance mood by adding a very artistic effect and a transient feel to your 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., f/16 or f/22)

Combining low light, low ISO and a physically narrow aperture 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.

The process I refer to is referred to as High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.

As part of that process it’s possible to reduce ghosting (i.e., movement of individual elements from one frame to the next) 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.

Russia Travel beyond Moscow

Moscow is 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.

Of course Russia is a destination worthy of an entire trip. Believe me when I say that St. Petersburg, Novgorod and Moscow make a pretty impressive itinerary.

Moscow is a vibrant and culturally rich city. Situated in Red Square, and right next door to the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral might well be the perfect place to start your Russian grand adventure.

However, to my mind, St. Petersburg is something else entirely. It’s splendid offering a huge range of opportunities for great architectural photography.

St. Petersburg 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.

Yet despite the grandness and beauty of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novgorod for some folk those grand sites are just the beginning of their Russian adventure.

Could you imagine yourself undertaking an adventure on either the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian Railway. I sure can.

Imagine that, journeying from Moscow to Beijing via train. That’s 5 time zones and, in the case of the Trans Siberian Railway, a distance of 9,289 km (i.e., 5,772 miles) my train.

My nephew Matthew has displayed a gift for languages, predominantly Italian and Russian, both of which he studied by correspondence.

While I can’t help with much more than mamma mia or nyet, I can at least make use of my photography to 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.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru