A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow. This travel story has been published by Smart photography, India’s leading photography magazine, in their December 2015 Travel Special Issue.
Canon India had provided me an EOS 5D-SR body and an EF 11-24mm f/4.0 USM lens for review during my Moscow visit. If it were not for these pieces of equipment, I would surely not have managed to capture the stunning images you will see in this feature. My grateful thanks to the camera giant for their generosity!
I travelled to Moscow with some trepidation. Knowledgeable folks had told me the language was a big issue – not many understand English there. Despite this, I took the plunge and travelled. Thanks to a friend’s contact in the Indian Embassy, I got a cab driver that could manage some English. Well, not really. But he was eager to help and he had a Wi-Fi router in the cab that turned out to be a blessing. Both of us were able to communicate through a phone app that could translate English to Russian and vice versa.
Upon landing at Sheremetyavo Airport in Moscow and after the customary once-over by the passport control, I made my way towards the baggage carousel. To my utter surprise, there was no duty-free at the Airport. When I enquired, I was told the duty-free is only at the airport departures.
As I made my way to the hotel, I felt a certain lack of character in Moscow that most other cities normally exude. Over the next couple of days, this first impression was to be totally, comprehensively and permanently dislodged from my brain.
I started my sojourn with the capital of Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic the following morning. My first stop was Red Square – a globally famous city square. The sky was overcast. So, while I shot some images, I made a mental note that I needed to visit this location again during my short stay. Sergei, my young cabby, pointed out it would be better if I visited again in the evening. And that is what I did the following evening.
This remarkable landmark is 330×70 metres in area and is surrounded by five heritage marvels. These were Gum Departmental Store in the North-East, State Historical Museum in its North West, Kremlin’s Outer Wall in the South West with Lenin’s Mausoleum projecting out from the middle of this wall and St. Basil’s Cathedral at the South East corner. While we may be more familiar with the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, I found the State Historical Museum and Gum Departmental Store to be true architectural gems. Gum, for instance, has an intricate façade that extends an unbelievable 242 metres in length, while the museum’s brickwork is brilliance personified.
From here, I proceeded towards an imposing Orthodox Christian church – Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It is scenically located on the northern bank of River Moscow. It is the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world – standing tall at a neck-craning 103 metres. En route, I made a few stops to capture some more stunning structures lying littered across the entire length and breadth of Moscow.
Next stop – Moscow University. Its building not only has 6 other look-alikes in Moscow (one of them being the office block of Russia’s Ministry of External Affairs), but it has an uncanny resemblance to the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. Sergei mentioned that this similarity might be attributed to the fact that Stalin was instrumental in commissioning all of these. Its stunning design and captivating locale attract Moscow-ites for their cherished photo-ops – be it the candid pre-wedding shoots or the celebratory videos a spouse commissions to surprise her partner.
A short visit to Victory Park and Triumphal Arch later, I called it a day over a chilled glass of beer at the Hard Rock Café. It is situated on a historical pedestrian avenue called Arbat Street. Interestingly, here I had a chance encounter with dancing Russian devotees of ISKCON. Though I had no intention to cover any more landmarks that day, I swung by Red Square again and on my way back to the hotel. Once there, I could not resist capturing a stunning blue hour image of Bolshoi Theatre – the home ground of the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet Troupe.
Next day took me around the underground Moscow. No, I am not talking about the crime-spewing dark underbelly that characterises all large cities! But am referring to the palatial Metro Stations of Moscow’s Metro network. Stalin had envisioned these as the palaces for the proletariat. Some of these are akin to larger than life art galleries and are surely an envy of many-a-museum across the globe. What is even more remarkable is the fact that these were constructed in the mid-1930s – the period between the two World Wars. The deepest station is 84 metres beneath the ground.
The reason for building them so deep was they were to double up as nuclear shelters in the event of a nuclear war. I spent 4 hours moving from one Metro station to the next – all with just one ticket that cost me 50 Rubles (approx. 80 US Cents).
I made a stop at the 110-metre tall Monument to the Conquerors of Space that is made entirely of Titanium! From there, I reached VDNKh – a permanent exhibition site that may be called Moscow’s equivalent of New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan. The place is popular amongst the local Moscow crowd as the structures blend beautifully with the landscape. Additionally, the area is large enough to offer privacy to the thronging multitude and has places that cater to their food and entertainment needs. It sprawls over an area of 2,375,000 square metres!
Another similar vast landscaped leisure space in Moscow is the Tsaritsyno Park. The place takes your breath away with its beauty and leaves you short of breath when you walk around its vast expanse. After this, I made one final visit to the Red Square in the evening. This visit resulted in some idyllic blue hour shots.
Before rushing off to the airport next morning, I stopped by at Kremlin. There are only two words that describe the monuments and churches lying scattered over Kremlin’s outspread grounds – Gigantic Opulence. While being driven to the airport, I found myself smiling at my stupidity of harboring an initial thought that Moscow lacked character. I also silently wondered about how many times I would have crossed the lovely river, Moscow, through its many different bridges during this short, two and a half day trip. I also wished my trip was a little longer! I conclude with an earnest request to the heritage and architecture-loving photophiles to add this magnificent city to their personal must-visit bucket list.
A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Canon India had provided me an EOS 5D SR body and an EF11-24mm f/4L USM lens for review during my Moscow visit. This combination added tremendous firepower to my arsenal. Before we see how, let’s take a look at some of the truly useful features/specifications of this camera body and lens (In case you find any of this too technical, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to resolve the tech-query for you).
Canon EOS 5D SR:
While EOS 5D SR is a hugely competent camera with its features and settings manual running into 532 pages, I’ll focus on just a few useful features/specifications of this recent entrant to the Canon stable.
- Full frame, with flexibility to become an APS-H (crop factor of 1:1.3 as in Canon EOS 1D Mark IV) or APS-C (crop factor of 1:1.6 as in Canon EOS 7D Mark II) sized sensor
- Maximum resolution: 50.3 Mega Pixels or 8688 x 5792 pixels; at APS-H crop – 6768×4512 pixels (30.5 MP); at APS-C crop – 5424×3616 pixels (19.6 MP)
- ISO Sensitivity – Auto, 100-6400 (Extended Mode: 50-12800)
- Continuous Shooting – up to 5 fps
- Besides the usual picture styles (Auto, Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and Monochrome), an additional picture style – Fine Detail – has been added.
Canon EF11-24mm f/4L USM:
- The lens’ effective Field of View (FOV) in landscape mode at 11mm is 117.1° (as against 73.7° for 24mm); and in portrait mode, it is 95° at 11mm (as against 53.1° at 24mm)
- 11mm also allows you the leeway to shoot handheld till slow shutter speed of 1/10 secs (inverse of focal length rule)
I went around shooting in Moscow, a city well-known for its large, tall, wide buildings, unique onion domes and startling brickwork and masonry. I will now be delving into the mishmash of advantages this unique combination provided to me.
- I did not have to carry my TS-E (Tilt-Shift) 24mm lens as the FOV provided by 11-24mm was 1.58 times the FOV provided by a 24mm lens in landscape orientation. Let’s see what that translates to. Capturing a tall structure like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (103 metres tall) normally would lead me to use the TS-E, as tilting the camera up would lead to an unavoidable distortion of parallels converging towards the top of the building. The 58% increase in the coverage angle helped me keep the camera parallel to the ground and still capture these tall structures without distortion.
- I did not have to stitch panoramas of extremely wide structures like Gum Departmental Store or the State Historical Museum in Red Square as it all fitted into the wide FOV provided by the magical 11-24mm lens while retaining textural details. To give you some idea of what fitting Gum Departmental Store in a single frame meant – the facade of this classic structure is 242 metres from left to right and I was shooting it from 60 metres away. It still fitted the frame! Now, that’s one heck of a FOV!
- The small ISO sensitivity range of 100-6400 was deceptively effective. Normally, in my Canon 5D Mark III (ISO Sensitivity: 100-102400), I would play it safe and seldom go beyond ISO 1600 to avoid noise (way below the upper limit of 102400). In 5D SR, I shot hand-held at ISO 1000 and discovered there was no noise. I shot with a shutter speed of 1/30 and since this shutter speed was faster than the usual ‘inverse of focal length’ rule, there was no camera shake either.
- While shooting St Basil’s Cathedral from close quarters, I realised I could only fit it into the frame in a distortion-free manner if I tuck it in top left corner of the frame while keeping the camera parallel to the ground or if I tilted the camera upwards (latter would have led to distortion). I preferred tucking it into the top left corner. This was possible as the lens gave me a 78% extra FOV and the high resolution offered by EOS 5D SR allowed for a fair degree of cropping, while still giving me extremely hi-resolution cropped frame (see St Basil’s Cathedral uncropped and cropped image below).
- The picture style of Fine Detail helped me get the textural details of Church of the Theotokos Icon – Joy of All who Sorrow – at the MONIKI-Research Institute Hospital, in its full glory (see the image below and its 100% crop)
- Its fast fps (frames per second) helped me capture this heart-warming action on the streets of Moscow.
For me, what this body-and-lens combination offered was invaluable as it delivered quality results, accorded me the freedom to carry lesser gear and still capture crisp images.
It truly was the case of getting more with less in Travel Photography. So, should one procure this combination? My counter-question to that is – Do I really need to answer this?
Round and Round in City Squares
You can’t help it. All new cities you visit, you’ll end up going round and round in their city squares. A city square defines a city. During my travels, a few that have impressed me are Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Main Square in Krakow, Red Square in Moscow and Covent Garden in London. I invited a few serious travellers to share their favourite city squares. Here’s their take!
Piazza San Pietro, Rome, Italy
One of my favourite squares in the world, and truly one of the most scenic city squares in the world is Piazza San Pietro in Rome. Rome is one of my favourite cities in the world and you will find Piazza San Pietro located directly in from of St Peter’s Basilicia in Vatican City. Whether you are admiring the square from afar, from above (top of St Peter’s Dome) or from the centre of the square you’ll realise what a truly remarkable place it is. Each time I have visited Piazza San Pietro it is always bustling with a mixture of tourists, locals and nuns/monks. The square is encircled by enormous colonnades and overlooked by 13 statues at the top of St Peter’s Basilica. The square also features two beautiful fountains, designed by Bernini and Maderno. Piazza San Pietro is a stunning and architecturally beautiful city square that has been the location of an incredible about of history in its time. This beautiful, scenic city square is one of the most visited in the world and is a must see on any visit to Rome.
Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium
In the heart of Brussles, Belgium is one of the most beautiful squares I’ve seen: Grand Place. Incredible detail surrounds you on all four sides, the centrepiece being the Town Hall.
On the opposing side is the just as ornate Museum of the City of Brussels. You could spend hours in this space just admiring the historic artwork that will hopefully survive many centuries to come.
Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy
Welcome to Piazza del Campo in Siena – one of the most famous throughout Italy (and Europe). What makes it so unique? It’s original shell shape. While we do not recommend you eat here (tourists traps), we do recommend an aperitivo or a gelato and do not forget the photos – and try one from each angle. For a great photo, stick around for the sunset – your photos will look amazing!
Piazza del Campo is dominated by the red Town Hall (Palazzo Pubblico/Palazzo Comunale) and its tower, Torre del Mangia. The Town Hall, as well as the Duomo of Siena, were built during the Council of the Nine (1286-1355), which was the greatest economic and cultural splendour of Siena. From the courtyard of the Town Hall leads to the Civic Museum and the Torre del Mangia, on top of which, climbed the 500 steps, you can enjoy a splendid view of the city. Truly one of the most scenic squares in the world!
Old Town Square, Warsaw, Poland
Upon arrival to Warsaw I had no idea what to expect. I was informed by many people that Warsaw was nearly flattened in WWII so there would not be much to see in the terms of old historical architecture. While these people were not altogether wrong, I discovered that Warsaw is a stunning capital to Poland with some of the most beautiful mixtures of old and new architecture thus far. My favourite part of being in Warsaw was exploring the Old Town located through Castle Square. Completely blown away by the beauty that this reconstructed square holds, I didn’t think I would find anything else to match it. After getting lost down the streets of Old Town I found myself in the the most stunning and vibrant square I have ever seen. Old Town Market Square takes the gold for me in beautiful squares. Tiny and hidden from the less adventurous travellers, Old Town Market Square is a hidden gem of quaint, cozy and colourful and I quite enjoyed spending my afternoon here.
Place Massena, Nice, France
While visiting France I had the opportunity to stay at the stunning city of Nice for a couple of weeks. Nice is the second-largest French city located on the Mediterranean coast. The full name of the city is Nice la Belle (Nissa La Bella in Niçard), which translates to Nice the Beautiful. The location of Nice includes Terra Amata, an archaeological site, which contains historic use of fire. Through the years, the city has changed hands many times. Its location has been of military importance and the port significantly adds to its maritime strength. When walking around many attractions catch the eye and visualise the beauty of this old city square. It’s not long before the colourful square and old buildings transform into the old city. This part of historical Nice curves round past Castle Hill and near to the scenic Promenade des Anglais. Like Italy, the streets are lined with tall households. The vibrant buildings are often up to five stories high and the old narrow streets are full of interesting cafes and boutique stores to explore.
Red Square, Moscow
Red Square defines ‘BIG’! The four sides of this square are marked by St. Basil’s Cathedral (the iconic onion domed colourful church that perhaps inspired Disney’s logo), the outer wall of Kremlin with Lenin Memorial smack in the middle, State Historical Museum that places evolved masonry amongst the premier art forms and Gum Departmental Store, a 242-metre façade, which is illuminated every evening!
The entry into the square is allowed only after 1pm but once it opens for public, the place is normally buzzing with people. Being here around sunset and beyond will surely delight the photographer in you!