Moscow Kremlin by night – Photo tip!

The title of this post could have easily been: “On the merits of taking the picture you want to take even if (or when) you don’t have any of the right gear“. But let’s start from the beginning.

When we say “Kremlin”, we immediately think about Moscow Kremlin and the word is often used as a synonym for “the Russian government”, as this is where the country’s president has his office. In reality, in Russian Kremlin (Кремль) means “fortress” or “citadel” and many old Russian cities and towns have their own kremlin. It is a fact, on the other hand that the Moscow Kremlin is in many aspects the hearth of the hole country. First of all, the site has been continuously inhabited by Finno-Ugric peoples since the 2nd century BC. The Slavs occupied the south-western portion of Borovitsky Hill (or Kremlin Hill) as early as the 11th century, as evidenced by a metropolitan seal from the 1090s which was unearthed by Soviet archaeologists in the area. The word “Kremlin” was first recorded in 1331. In the second half of the XV century, Grand Prince Ivan III organised the reconstruction of the Kremlin, inviting a number of skilled architects from Renaissance Italy, including Pietro Antonio Solari, who designed the new Kremlin wall and its towers, and Marco Ruffo who designed the new palace for the prince. It was during his reign that three extant cathedrals of the Kremlin, the Deposition Church, and the Palace of Facets were constructed. The highest building of the city and Muscovite Russia was the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, built in 1505–08 and augmented to its present height in 1600. The Kremlin walls as they now appear were built between 1485 and 1495.

This 600-year-old red fortress is a sight to behold and I think that at night it is spectacularly illuminated. When the sky is overcast the clouds over Moscow reflect the light from the bustling metropolis below, often turning a strange purplish hue, but on clear nights you can still get an excellent tonal separation between the brightly light white buildings and the dark sky. The red stars atop the various towers are also illuminated and they stand up beautifully, I think. It is really really hard to fight the temptation of taking a picture of the Kremlin at night. Here’s how I took this picture even if I didn’t have any of the right gear with me at the time.

Photo tip! I had been walking around Moscow the whole day and I had my “casual walk-around” setup with me. Just my camera with a superzoom (28-300mm), no tripod, no cable release, no ND filter. Just my camera and a non-prime (some might even say sub-prime!) lens. But when I saw the Kremlin illuminated against the dark sky I knew I wanted to take a long exposure night picture of it. And so I did. I wanted the car lights to paint light streaks on the road, to give an idea of a live, non empty city. I walked to the steel pedestrian Patriarshy Bridge, in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and I looked for a vintage point that would give me all the elements I was looking for. A good view of the Kremlin, of course, the Moskva river with an illuminated bridge, and the street on the foreground. I laid my camera on my backpack, which rested on the bridge, in such a way that the lens would look through the iron railing on the bridge. At least this time, no tripod, no problem. Then I composed the shot ending up with the “non-standard” focal length of 72mm. The 28-300, like pretty much every variable aperture zoom lens, is not an ideal night shooter. It doesn’t make nice sunstars out of light points (like the lamp posts on the far left) and it actually turns them a bit into light blobs. To make matters worse, I had no ND filter with me, but for the car lights to turn into streaks I needed a nice long exposure. So I closed the diaphragm down all the way (at this zoom settings it turns out it is f.29) and this causes diffraction and makes the whole image a lot softer (less sharp). I was also limited to a maximum exposure time of 30 seconds, as I did not want to use bulb mode without a cable release (and the camera, remember, was resting on a soft base, which would have wobbled under prologued shutter release button pressure. Luckily 30 seconds turned out to be plenty enough exposure time. All this resulted into two things:

  • The image came out with a sub-optimal quality. But who cares? It did came out and I like it and it works pretty well on the web. Of course if you are planning to print your image in a huge size, that is not an ideal setup and the result would be disappointing (for this reason I am not, ever, going to sell this image in my photography only website: The World Photos). On the other hand you always have to think about where your image is going to end up. If you are planning to use it 1024 pixel wide to illustrate a point in your blog, the setup I used is more than good enough.
  • I had a lot of fun “overcoming the obstacles of not having my right gear with me” and making the picture. The great photographer Wayne Maser once said in an interview: “For me being a photographer means taking the picture. The fun is in that [action]” and I couldn’t agree more (even if I also have tons of fun in the post-production of images…)


Would you like to take part in a photowalk or a photo tour of Moscow or any other Russian destination with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking photographer (me) showing you the sights and the best time and viewpoint(s) to capture them in your images (even when you don’t have all the photo equipment you might think you need to take great pictures!) and telling you a bit about Russian history and traditions? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!


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