Photo tour in the Moscow Metro

Published by Marco Rubino on

Tour fotografico nella Metropolitana di Mosca

Mayakovskaya Subway Station, Moscow © 2016

Subways are always a particularly attractive photographic subject for all photographers in the world. Generally it is simply a cheap way to get around in town, maybe even a little too oppressive and claustrophobic during rush hours, especially for those subway systems built without any artistic or aesthetic ambitions. There are however some notable exceptions, though they typically concern individual stations particularly attractive from an architectural point of view: some examples are the Toledo Station in Naples, the Arts et Métiers Station in Paris, the Formosa Boulevard Station in Taiwan and several stations of the spectacular Stockholm subway (especially T-Centralen, Solna Centrum and Stadion). Another exception deserves the Moscow Metro, which was instead conceived entirely as an exaltation instrument of socialist realism, and for this reason nearly all stations, especially the older ones, are of absolute architectural interest, with luxury items such as mosaics, bas-reliefs, statues, marble, chandeliers and many other elements that make these stations seem like real underground museums.

The Moscow Metro

To understand what we’re talking about, it is worth quoting some statistics about the Moscow Metro. Inaugurated in 1935, it is one of the busiest subways in the world, a little less than those of Asian megacities like Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul, but far more than any other European (Paris, London) or American (New York , Chicago) subway system. It carries every day about 9 million people and includes 12 lines and 200 stations, fifty of which are considered cultural heritage of the state. Trains run with an impressive average frequency of 90 seconds! In practice, you never need to wait more than a couple of minutes to catch your train. The history of the Moscow Metro has seen several expansion phases, during World War II and then especially in the ’50s. During the period of the Cold War, the stations were built at very great depths, so that they could serve as bomb shelters in case of attack. Unfortunately, the Moscow Metro was also the scene of the horrific terrorist attacks in 2004 and 2010, both of Chechen separatist matrix, which caused dozens of casualties. There are also a lot of curiosity and urban legends, such as the fact that the circular line (Koltsevaya) was built after Stalin placed a cup of coffee on the subway map. On the map remained the circular sign of the cup and for this reason the line was built on that path, and still today bears the brown color, like the stain of Stalin’s coffee. Besides being punctual, precise, clean and scenic, the Moscow Metro is also very economical: 1 single trip costs about 50 rubles (less than 1 Euro) and allows unlimited travels in all zones and for all the time you want until you exit on the streets. In practice, if you have time and good will to walk a lot, you can spend several hours in the Moscow Metro, dropping to visit all the most interesting stops, all at the price of a coffee. Just as I did during this photowalk.

My photowalk in the Moscow Metro

I had visited Moscow in November 2005 and already on that occasion I had the opportunity to visit some of the most beautiful stations of the Metro, although randomly during my movement paths while I was exploring the city. When I had the chance to return to Moscow again in August 2016 I decided to plan a precise path going to touch all the most interesting stops to photograph. First it should be said that taking photographs in the subway is not at all an easy exercise: beyond all legal and security problems that you may find for example in the Italian subways, where due to a very old Royal Decree it is still forbidden to take pictures without being previously authorized to do that (thankfully in Moscow this is allowed without problems), there is objectively a series of technical problems such as poor lighting, a difficult white balance, the inability to use a tripod, the crowding of people in transit, the risk of theft or damage to your camera equipment, etc. Photographing in the Moscow Metro, with 9 million people passing each day, makes it extremely difficult to find a moment to take pictures in the absence of people that may ruin the shooting. It’s better to choose a time of day when there is less traffic of people, such as late at night or Sunday morning at dawn. I chose to do my photowalk on a sunday evening after 11pm until closing time, at 1am. This allowed me to really have very few people in my shots, so as to minimize the post-production work (even though I needed some) to erase them in Photoshop. As instead regards the problem of poor illumination and the simultaneous inability to use the tripod, I had to use a rather complex technique of shooting and post-production: first I shot bursts of 9-10 shots, raising the ISO automatically so as to allow a shutter speed of at least 1/200 of a second and an aperture of at least f/8, obviously getting shots with much digital noise; in post production in Photoshop I then used the technique of image stacking: in a nutshell, I opened the files as layers in Photoshop and applied the automatic alignment of the levels and the conversion to Smart Object, then finally I applied the median stack mode for smart objects (layer menu->smart objects->stack mode->median) which it has allowed me to almost completely eliminate digital noise caused by the fact that the single images were taken with high ISO. After this I applied the usual basic adjustments in camera raw, straightened lines, the possible application of Tone Mapping in order to give a eye-catching look to the images, the output sharpening and finally the exportation in JPG. Moreover, in order not to take risks about the licenses, I indexed the files as editorial and I sent them to agencies. All images in this article were accepted for sale on Shutterstock with the editorial license.


In order not to waste energy and time, since I was also near the close of the service, I decided to follow the path recommended by my Lonely Planet Moscow city guide, though going in the opposite direction, therefore from the outside towards the inner city and starting from a station not listed on the guide, but unexpectedly very interesting and nice to visit. I started from Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line (blue line – n.3) and the Slavyansky Bulvar station, then I continued on the same line with the stations Park Pobedy, Kiyevskaya, Arbatskaya and Ploshchad Revolyutsii, right near the Red Square. From this station, I changed the line, going to Zamoskvoretskaya (green line –  n.2) with the stations Teatralnaya, Mayakovskaya and Belorusskaya. This last station, with the same name, is also on Koltsevaya line (circular brown line – n.5), from which I went to the stations of Novoslobodskaya and Prospekt Mira, to conclude the tour with the incredible Komsomolskaya station.

Tour fotografico nella Metropolitana di Mosca 2

Slavyansky Bulvar Station

Line #3 – Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya

The Slavyansky Bulvar station is the first stop on my photowalk. It is located in the west side of the Russian capital and is of recent construction, having been opened in 2008. It doesn’t present the typical elements of socialist architecture, typically of the stations built in the 50s, but it has undoubtedly an attractive appearance, thanks to the “belle Epoque” style of the lighting lamps, the green marble walls and the granite floor.

Tour fotografico nella Metropolitana di Mosca 1

Park Pobedy Station

Line #3 – Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya

Also the Park Pobedy (Victory Park) station was built recently, having been opened in 2003. It is the deepest station of the entire metro network, located 84 meters below ground level, with the longest escalator in Europe. The walls covered with red and gray marble and the checkered floor create a pattern of symmetrical lines vaguely reminiscent of a sci-fi location.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca

Kiyevskaya Station

Line #3 – Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya

As you approach the center with the line 3, the stations become older and decorated with valuable elements. Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 2The Kiyevskaya station dates back to 1953 and is decorated in a similar style to baroque, with white marble and pottery on the walls, stylish chandeliers, as well as a long series of paintings concerning the recurring theme of the station, that is, life in Ukraine. On the bottom of the central hall there is a mosaic that celebrates the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Russia and Ukraine.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 1

Arbatskaya Station

Line #3 – Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya

The Arbatskaya station opened in 1953 and has a very large and deep quay, designed as a bomb shelter as well as a metro station. The special feature of this station is that it has an elliptical instead of round tunnel and is decorated with red marble, classic chandeliers and patterned floor. It is located underneath Ulitsa Arbat, the most famous street of the historical center of Moscow.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 3

Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station

Line #3 – Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya

The station Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) is an incredible museum full of bronze statues placed as an ornament of the elegant marble arches that characterize the central hall. The 72 statues represent the people of the Soviet Union, portraying soldiers, athletes, workers, students and other categories of people. It is one of the oldest stations in the subway system, whose inauguration took place in 1938. The station is located near the Red Square, the very heart of the Russian capital.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 4
Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 6     Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 5

Teatralnaya Station

Line #2 – Zamoskvoretskaya

Teatralnaya is the first line 2 station on my photowalk. It is located in correspondence with the Bolshoi Theater and the square of the theater, from which it takes its name. The most interesting part is undoubtedly the ceiling decorated with majolica bas-reliefs. The station is one of the oldest ones, opened in 1938.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 7

Mayakovskaya Station

Line #2 – Zamoskvoretskaya

The Mayakovskaya station is probably the most beautiful station of the Moscow Metro and one of the most famous Metro stations in the world. Opened in 1938, it was conceived with an art deco theme about the Soviet future. It has a single span, with 2 rows of columns made of steel and marble and 34 mosaics on the ceiling, depicting scenes of life in the Soviet Union. The station is named after the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in whose memory is ideally dedicated. Because of the large size of the central hall, during the Second World War the station was used as a bomb shelter and as a place for political gathering by Stalin.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 8

Belorusskaya Station

Line #2 – Zamoskvoretskaya

There are 2 stations named Belorusskaya: one located on the Zamoskvoretskaya line (green line) Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 12and the one that is located on Koltsevaya line (brown line), both connected via underpasses and both connected to the Belorusskaya railway station. The station on the green line dates back to 1938 and is adorned with decorative elements that recall Belarus. The walls are made with pink and black marble. The lighting is ensured by ceiling chandeliers as well as by floor lamps placed in niches of the central hall. There are also statues, including a monument to Belarusian partisans and a bust of Lenin.
Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 9

Belorusskaya Station

Line #5 – Koltsevaya

The Belorusskaya station located on the circular brown line (Koltsevaya), always inspired by architectural motifs that recall Belarus, opened in 1952. It has a beautiful ceiling with bas-reliefs and mosaics, marble columns and lighting with sconces on the side walls. From this station, I continued my photowalk following stations clockwise along the circular line.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 11

Novoslobodskaya Station

Line #5 – Koltsevaya

Despite Mayakovskaya is the most popular station, my favorite is undoubtedly the Novoslobodskaya station. It dates back to 1952 and has a rather unusual look, with pink and black marbles and a set of 32 stained glass windows in the grafted side pillars and surrounded by very rich and elaborate cornices. The stained glass windows are backlit, with a very attractive visual effect. The lighting is completed by the elaborate chandeliers on the ceiling, while at the end of the hall there is a beautiful mosaic that represents the World Peace.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 15

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 16     Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 13

Prospekt Mira Station

Line #5 – Koltsevaya

Another very spectacular station is Prospekt Mira: opened in 1952, it features a white marble pillars and bas-reliefs in Soviet theme. Quite remarkable are the huge candlesticks that provide light to the hall. From Prospekt Mira I took the last transfer of this photowalk, towards the end stop at Komsomolskaya station.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 19

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 17     Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 18

Komsomolskaya Station

Line #5 – Koltsevaya

The Komsomolskaya station, opened in 1952 and placed on the circular brown line Koltsevaya, is undoubtedly the most richly adorned station in Baroque style, with a spectacular yellow-painted ceiling with floral mosaics and bas-reliefs. The side columns are naturally white marble, with Ionic capitals. Noteworthy also are the enormous candlesticks that provide illumination.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 14

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 20     Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 21

Moscow Metro in Microstock

Being one of the main attractions of the Russian capital, the Metro is definitely a popular photographic subject and therefore already extensively covered in microstock. If you perform a search on Shutterstock with the words “Moscow Metro” or “Moscow Subway”, the search returns more than 3,000 occurrences. Not too many (if you search for “Colosseum Rome” you get more than 15,000 results), but not even few. The very positive aspect is that there aren’t among the results, with rare exceptions, high-quality images, most likely because of the technical difficulties of shooting which I mentioned at the beginning of this article: only cameras that manage well the high ISO needed for shooting or a lot of effort in post-production can help to make these images acceptable from a technical point of view. In addition, the poor lighting and the difficulties with the white balance make it very difficult to achieve high-impact images. In almost all cases, in addition to the procedure to eliminate digital noise with the image stacking technique previously described, I have chosen to apply also a passage of tone mapping, to get a bit more structure and detail by shadows and high lights. This allowed me to have images that stand out in the pile of the results: in fact even from the very early days after the publication, these images have begun to sell quite well

In conclusion, as usual, here following the map with the geolocation of the images shown in this article. Of course it is a map of the surface to give the right idea of the territorial extension of the path, but the photowalk took place entirely underground in about two hours.

Tour fotografico nella Metro di Mosca 22

Liked this article? Would you share it?

Expert in Marketing and Communication in a major company of the Italian FMCG market, traveler by vocation, passionate photographer, contributor at all major international microstock agencies, founder of Marcor$tock, a blog focused on Microstock Market and Digital Photography.