The Magnificent Moscow Metro

Magnificent Moscow Metro

The Moscow Metro system is more of an art deco design project than a transportation hub. Sure, it ferries somewhere in the vicinity of 9 million people a day (fourth only behind Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing in terms of daily riders), but the logistics are really beside the point.

What’s the real draw here is the design of the metro stations themselves. If you find yourself in Moscow and someone suggests you check out the Moscow Metro….and visions of the often stinky, and always dirty NYC metro system immediate come to mind (sorry NY’ers, but you know it’s true!)….try to get them out of your head, because you’ll miss out on one of the great things Moscow has to offer (believe it or not).

Magnificent Moscow Metro

One does not typically think of 1930’s Russia when they think of forward thinking design, but the Moscow Metro was one of the USSR’s most extravagant architectural projects. Stalin ordered the metro’s artists and architects to design a structure that embodied svet (radiance or brilliance) and svetloe budushchee (a radiant future).

My feeling is that Stalin had a pretty heavy governing hand, and the State (Government) was quite oppressive for the average Russian. I think the extraordinary designs of the different metro stations were a way of reminding the Muscovites that their sacrifices did have benefits.

What better way to remind people of the glory of the USSR than with a grand design they must look at every day to and from work? I am willing to bet the riders simultaneously took pride in the beautiful work while also wishing that perhaps the benefits of sacrifice were shown in ways that contribute more positively to their daily lives. Perhaps?

History of Moscow Metro

Built in 1938 and designed with the inspiration of a Soviet future (as envisioned by the then-popular Russian poet Mayakovsky), the Mayakovskaya Metro Station (pictured here) is a nice example of pre-World War II Stalinist Architecture and is often considered to be one of the most beautiful metro stops in the system with its grand pink, white, and grey marble columns.

Besides its beauty, it is also famous for being an air raid shelter during World War II and for temporarily housing Joseph Stalin during the same period (air raid!).

I have a lot of images from the different metro stops (seriously, each metro stop deserves a full post), but chose this one to feature because I really love the lines and movement. I also feel it works well in Black and White, even though there are nice colors in the marble and floor. Something about Moscow screams Black and White to me…I’d love to go back and do an entire Black and White series there.

Photo Tip 

I took this image without a tripod, which, given the motion in the image (read: long exposure) and relative lack of blurriness in the floor and ceiling, is a bit of a miracle. If you do go to Moscow, you’ll find that they are quite sensitive about tripods, especially in a place of art and pride (like the Metro stops).

I have a feeling there is some kind of security concern with tripods as well, but what that is and how a tripod would offer any kind of less security than a duffel or backpack I have no idea. If you go to Red Square (Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral) don’t even bother brining a tripod, as you won’t even get one leg extended before guards are all over you.

So how was I able to get a clean and clear shot of the metro and at the same time blur the people walking? MAGIC! Just kidding…I have no magic. It was plain patience, practice, and a steady arm. Nowadays, the digital cameras are so good that I could have bumped up the ISO and captured a clean shot (with nothing blurred) even in the relatively low light of the metro.

But I wanted the motion of the people…that’s the mood I was going for. So I set the Time Value (“TV” on a Canon camera, “S” on Nikons) on the lowest number that would give me decent blur of the people walking (about 1/30th of a second with the available light in this scene…this will change with every circumstance!) and then braced my left arm against my chest while holding the camera close to my body and depressing the shutter with the right hand.

2-Second Delay

I also put the camera on a 2-second delay, allowing me to get set and stable while the camera counted down to releasing the shutter (even pressing the shutter release will shake a camera if it is not stable). I then snapped away….taking 7 or 8 of the same images (timing then with the people in the frame, of course).

When you do this, you know that there will be a few that are going to be fuzzy…maybe most or all of them (you took a breath while the shutter was open! Heaven forbid!). But really focusing on holding steady and taking a bunch of shots with the 2-second delay and strong and stable hand positions will usually allow for one of them to be pretty darn good and usable.

In this case, I lucked out and got one I am really happy with. It’s not a technique I would suggest…if you have a pole or something stable to lean against then your odds of getting the shot your want increase a thousand fold. But with the restriction of no tripods and no stable structure to lean against, sometimes you gotta improvise.

Give it a try….see if you can capture motion blur and a clean shot in one image without a tripod. With these few tips, I bet you can make it work as well.


bio photo jonathan irishJonathan Irish is a seasoned travel photographer who has traveled to over 65 countries and specializes in photographs of people, landscapes, abstracts, and, above all, cultures abroad. His work has appeared in various National Geographic publications, and he is represented by National Geographic's Image Collection When he is not traveling the world in search of amazing photos, he gathers inspiration from the other great photographers at National Geographic, where he is the Program Director for National Geographic Adventures  Jonathan lives in Washington, D.C.

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