Setting the Scene – 5th Street/Independence Hall Subway Station
During our east coast photography road trip, we stopped at Philadelphia for a brief stint after an eventful time in the capitol photographing its cityscapes. The main aim was to photograph the sunrise over the Delaware River, but we also spent time exploring downtown Philadelphia and taking in some of the historical landmarks like Independence Hall.
To get to the different landmarks, and travel through the city easily, we used the Philadelphia subway system. This is not a huge network by any standards, but it has three main lines. These are the Market-Frankford Line, the Norristown High Speed Line, and the Broad Street Line. This photo is taken on the what is locally known as the blue line – the Market-Frankford line.
In particular, it is within the 5th Street/Independence Hall. This station was opened in 1908 and sits at the corner of 5th and Market Street. It is one of the most iconic stations on the Market-Frankford Line, and is a major hub for a myriad of notable landmarks in downtown Philadelphia. These include Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Philadelphia Bourse, and the National Constitution Center.
For years, the station has needed repairs and rehabilitation – like many subway stations, the architecture becomes outdated, and the overall interior quality declines. Luckily, in 2016, the station was revamped completely. It had an overhaul which included improved lighting, new signs, and rebuilt staircases. However, one of the best improvements was the 400ft of brick and tile murals on the main subway wall.
Throughout the station, the walls are covered with amazing murals that depict various important American figures, and figures from colonial times. It makes a stark contrast to the other aspects of the station like the train carriages and rails. These murals make for some interesting photos and it is what I wanted to capture when visiting this station.
Creating the Composition – Murals and Subway Carriages
I knew that I wanted to take some photos of the stunning murals in the 5th Street/Independence Hall Station – they are not like anything else and this is a unique landmark in Philadelphia. It was also nice to get out of the cold and away from the biting wind. Although subway stations do not offer the best protection, they are somewhat sheltered compared to the exposed spaces above ground!
To create this shot, I used multiple long exposure shots and blended them together in Photoshop afterwards. Using a long shutter speed allowed me to capture the movement of the train carriages, but also get adequate lighting in the photos.
Remember that subway stations do not have any natural light. As a result, the ambient light levels are quite low which can result in needing to use higher ISO settings. To avoid this, and to get a low ISO setting (for minimal background noise), long exposure shots work great. Long exposure shots also help remove any people from the photos. Unless a person stands still for the entire duration of the photo, they will not show up – an easy way to get clean photos without any human disturbance!
Whilst at this subway station, we also took some time shooting video and capturing the movement of the trains. You can see in this clip below glimpses of the murals on the walls. Also note how clean and fresh this station looks – sadly not all subway stations are as well maintained as this one! It was fun setting up our tripods and cameras and recording the prompt trains entering and leaving the station.
What Makes This Photo Stand Out?
I love the contrast between old and new in this photo. This photo bridges the gap between the colonial history of America, and its modern development. On the one side, you have historical brick murals showing important figures from American history. On the other side, you have the modern subway carriages rattling by showing the development of America and its technologies.
The framing of this photo is also impactful. It is shot diagonally looking down the subway station. This creates the impression of distance and depth. Also, there are several strong leading lines that direct your eyes off into the distance.
First, your eyes travel down the length of the brick murals as you pick out the different depictions. Next, the line of the subway rail and carriages draws your eyes down the length of the track. It is a simple technique, but in this photo, the multiple leading lines are incredibly effective.
The quality, sharpness, and colors of the photo also make it stand out. Using multiple blended long exposure shots was the right choice. It helped me get a clear photo in which every aspect has detail. Also, the colors of the murals, and different elements in the station really pop.