The Aurora at Sunset – Photo tip

Having being launched on 11 May 1900 and commissioned on 29 July 1903, the Russian Cruiser Aurora stands today as the oldest commissioned ship of the Russian Navy, still flying the naval ensign under which she was commissioned (even if today it’s under the care of the Central Naval Museum). She is still manned by an active service crew commanded by a Captain of the 1st Rank.

Read the ship history or jump directly to the Photo tip!

The ship’s history actually begun in a (much) less than flattering way. Soon after completion, in November 1903, Aurora received orders to sail with a group of reinforcements to the Russian Pacific Fleet. However, she suffered from repeated mechanical failures and had to be repaired at several ports along the way. Moreover, on the way to the Far East, Aurora sustained light damage from confused friendly fire, which killed the ship’s chaplain and a sailor, in the Dogger Bank incident. On 27 and 28 May 1905 Aurora took part in the Battle of Tsushima, along with the rest of the Russian squadron. During the battle her captain, Captain 1st rank Eugene R. Yegoryev, and 14 crewmen were killed. (This is already the second captain of the ship to die in less than two years!) The executive officer, Captain of 2nd rank Arkadiy Konstantinovich Nebolsine, took command although wounded. After that Aurora, covering other much slower Russian vessels, became the flagship of Rear-Admiral Oskar Enkvist, and with two other Russian cruisers broke through to neutral Manila, where she was interned by United States authorities from 6 June 1905 until the end of the war.

The main reason why Aurora is so famous relates to what happened after WWI. In 1916 it had been moved to Petrograd (the renamed Saint. Petersburg: it was deemed unfit by Russia to have a capital with a German name during the war with Germany) for a major repair. The city was brimming with revolutionary ferment and part of her crew joined the 1917 February Revolution. The ship’s commanding officer, Captain Mikhail Nikolsky, was killed when he tried to suppress the revolt (I guess being the Captain of Aurora was a high-risk job: this is the third captain to die in 15 years!) A revolutionary committee was created on the ship, with Aleksandr Belyshev elected as captain. Most of the crew joined the Bolsheviks, who were preparing for a Communist revolution. At 9.45 p.m on 25 October 1917 (O.S.) a blank shot from her forecastle gun signaled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace, which was to be the beginning of the October Revolution. 

During the Second World War, the guns were taken from the ship and used in the land defence of Leningrad (formerly known as Petrograd, and formerly still as Saint-Petersburg). The ship herself was docked in Oranienbaum port, and was repeatedly shelled and bombed. On 30 September 1941 she was damaged and sunk in the harbour.

After extensive repairs from 1945 to 1947, Aurora was permanently anchored on the Neva in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again) as a monument to the Great October Socialist Revolution. In 1957 she became a museum-ship. On 22 February 1968 she was awarded the Order of the October Revolution, whose badge portrays Aurora herself.

The Order of the October Revolution, awarded to the Cruiser Aurora in 1968 and portraying the Cruiser Aurora itself! Photo source

Having been a museum ship for 60 years, Aurora underwent s few major restorations, the last one of which was completed just earlier this year and the ship returned to St. Petersburg (yes, the city went back to its original name!) on July 16, 2016. It remains one of the city’s most popular museums and even if you don’t visit it by going aboard it is definitely worth it to go and admire it from the outside either on land or with one of the many sightseeing river cruises (available only in the warmer months, as throughout winter the rivers are frozen!).

Photo tip!

I took this picture from a river cruise boat. Even if the water is always calm, in this situation you are on a moving and rocking platform. If you have a camera that shoots many, may frames per second you can actually try a bracketed exposure to later create an HDR image with great detail both in the highlights and shadows. On the other hand, I find that if you shoot RAW (and you always should!) that might not be necessary.
Most of the cameras have an incredible dynamic range in RAW and you can easily recover the shadows. What that means is that even if in the back LCD of your camera you can only see the sky and the rest seems to be completely black, once you open the image on your computer (with Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, Capture One or any other such software) you can actually “lighten” the dark areas and see that there is a lot of “information” in those. The trick is NOT to overexpose the light areas, as most cameras (especially Nikons, in my experience) are great at recovering shadows, but not so much with clipped highlights (that is when the sensor gets too much light and the result is areas of the image completely white).

There are a few different ways to do so:

  • If you have a great understanding of light, shoot in manual mode and pick the correct shutter speed and f-stop. Trial and error is easy with digital cameras, as you immediately see the result, but if your subject is moving, or if you are on a moving platform, you might miss the best composition when you have to re-shoot.
  • If you have a good understanding of light, you can shoot in auto mode (or aperture priority or shutter speed priority, whichever more appropriate) and tell your camera to underexpose by two or more stops.
  • If you are not really sure, the easiest way to achieve a perfect result is the following: set the metering of your camera to “spot metering” (the camera only considers the very center of the image to determine exposure) and point your camera directly at the brightest part of the scene (in this case the setting sun). Then hold the “AE Lock” button (it might be called differently on your camera, but basically you are telling your camera to “remember” its current exposure setting and NOT to change them until you release that button. Then recompose the image to your liking and, without letting go that button, make your picture by also pressing the shutter speed.

Would you like to take part in a photowalk or a photo tour of Saint Petersburg, Moscow or any other Russian destination with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking photographer (me) showing you the sights, the best time and viewpoint(s) to capture them in your images and helping you improve your photo technique with practical tips? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!


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