Photographing the Elegant Spiral Staircases of the Czech Republic

Prague Stairwell 3

House of the Black Madonna, Prague, using tripod, ISO 200, 20 seconds

Magrit and I just finished conducting a 9-day photo tour in the Czech Republic and are now recharging our batteries (internal as well as camera) in the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany before our next photo tour begins in the Cinque Terre.

Kutna Hora Stairwell, Czech Republic

Stairwell in Kutna Hora, handheld, ISO 1600, 1/30th seconds

One highlight for us and our clients when photographing in the Czech Republic are spiral staircases. I was trying to think of the perfect adjective to describe these stairwells and “elegant” was the clear winner.

Prague Stairwell 5

Detail of stairwell in the House of the Black Madonna, handheld, ISO 1600, 1/50th second

The archetypal form of a spiral seems to be pleasing to all of us humans and draws us in, just as doors and windows (what might be hiding behind?) or perfectly rounded pebbles on a beach. And with so much perfection and grace in their architectural shapes, capturing them with our cameras is incredibly compelling. Plus there are so many different angles one can approach them from: below, above and from all sides.

A tripod is useful if you are allowed to use one as the light can be low in many of these situations. Sometimes, even if a tripod is allowed, it is impossible to use it such as when photographing from above and leaning out over the railing to capture the perfect composition. Make sure to have your camera strap secured around your neck!

If you’re interested in my review of a sturdy and light-weight tripod for travel, click here. »

Kutna Hora Stairwell, Czech Republic, Photography Travel Tours

Kutna Hora stairwell from above, handheld, ISO 2500, 1/20th seconds

There are some situations when tripods are not allowed, such as in this wonderful church in Kutna Hora, 1.5 hours east of Prague. In the photo below we shot straight up, laying on our backs with the camera resting on our faces for stability. If you use the self-timer, you have a few seconds after pressing the shutter release to really try to achieve stillness before the exposure. This approach was necessary as the light was low and we had to raise the ISO to 1600 to allow for the relatively slow shutter speed of 1/30 of a second. Be sure to use the Image Stabilizing (Canon) or Vibration Reduction (Nikon) when hand-holding at slow shutter speeds.

Kutna Hora Stairwell, Czech Republic, Photography Travel Tours

Kutna Hora Stairwell from below, handheld, ISO 1600, 1/30th seconds

Kutna Hora Stairwell, Czech Republic

Handheld technique resting cameras on cheekbone for stability. Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Magrit captured the wonderful image shown below from the top of the spiral staircase in the House of the Black Madonna in Prague looking down. How can you not want to check out a place with an intriguing name like that?

A tripod was out of the question as she had to lean over the railing and point the camera straight down. The light was really low so she used an ISO of 16,000 (!) to achieve a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second. The challenge when using such high ISOs is the unsightly noise it produces. To combat this, she converted the image to black & white which made the noise look more like graininess and actually added to the overall effect. It’s called “making lemonade.”

House of the Black Madonna, Prague. Looking down, handheld, ISO 16,000, 1/50th seconds

The classic view of the spiral staircase in the House of the Black Madonna is from below and in this situation we were able to use a tripod and therefore an optimal ISO of 100. You have to be a bit of a contortionist to get your tripod and camera and your head and eye in the correct position as the camera is pointing straight up.

Prague Stairwell 2

House of the Black Madonna, Prague. Looking up, using tripod, ISO 100, 20 seconds

We love photographing these elegant staircases on our Photography Travel Tours. Focusing on such a unique photographic theme in an interior location is not just very gratifying but it also helps to get off to the beaten path and away from the tourist crowds. It invites us to slow down and really lose ourselves in the process of photography and also challenges us to make use of  many different photographic techniques.

We hope that you can put some of these tips to good use. Next stop, Cinque Terre!

Happy shooting!

Jim + Magrit

J_M_150x150(1)Jim and Magrit have been photographing professionally and traveling in Europe for the past 20 years.

They started Photography Travel Tours in 2011 with the goal of educating and guiding photographers to some of the most beautiful and iconic scenes in Europe.

The tours are not just about getting great photographs but also have the side benefits of doing so in wonderful environments. Great food, wine, people, and ambiance.

Read more about Jim & Magrit and their wonderful photo tours here: (

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.
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