Visiting and Photographing Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary

The abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia Pennsylvania is a very spooky, massive complex of tiny, dilapidated cells along dingy corridors. Built in 1829, this was one of the world's first and most notorious penitentiaries, influencing the development of prisons throughout the world. The penitentiary is laid out in a spoke-like design with seven long wings radiating out of a central hub. Along each wing are many dozens of cells in varying stages of ruin. The doors are small, forcing anyone entering a cell to bow down. Based on the prison’s historical basis on the idea of instilling penitence in prisoners, the small doors seem appropriate though disturbing. The Eastern State Penitentiary is a few minutes drive from downtown Philadelphia, and well worth the trip for its photogenic atmosphere and history. The penitentiary strongly influenced prison systems all over the globe.

The Yellow Door

The medical wing of Eastern State Penitentiary was very photogenic, and the pictures here provide a taste of how the place felt and looked like. It is difficult to fathom the stories and nightmares experienced within its bars. The penitentiary was in operation for over 140 years, finally shutting down in 1971. Eighty thousand inmates served time during this time period, including Al Capone, Willie Sutton and other notorious gangsters and outlaws.

Infirmary Bars

Philadelphia is a great city to visit, and the Eastern State Penitentiary is a must-see on any visit. During my visit, crowds were managed well so they were not overwhelming, which was ideal because a tripod is essential. Most of the penitentiary cells are very dark. Luckily, tripods are allowed after paying a $10 equipment fee. You can read more about their photography policy here. I recently acquired a Manfrotto BeFree travel tripod, which worked out great on this trip. There are two versions of this tripod, aluminum and carbon fiber. Aluminum is much less costly than carbon fiber, and the slightly extra weight of aluminum increases stability, so this is what I got. I also grabbed Manfrotto’s travel backpack that has been great so far. The travel tripod fits entirely within a side pocket of the backpack, and the entire pack fits under airline seats, which is awesome. The backpack easily accommodated my Nikon D750, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 Art lens, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens, my large ND filters, a film camera, and other accessories including the tripod. We’ll see how well the bag continues to hold up but so far so good.

For the penitentiary, I just used the Sigma 24-105mm, which has been a sharp, versatile lens, and all three photos were shot at f/4. For most of the interior images, I generally had the tripod set at its lowest height and shot at or near 24mm. Although the BeFree tripod worked well, I just placed an order for a Platypod Ultra plate for those times when tripods would require additional fees or are prohibited at a venue. I’ll post a review of the Platypod after I get my hands on it.

The barber chair