Photography in China – Kung Fu, Dim Sums and HDR

China had never really been on my ‘must see’ list of places to visit, however, after visiting Beijing, all I want to do is go back. As a photographer there is so much to capture in China that you could easily spend a month there and still have more to see. I guess it depends what part of the world you come from, but for me, as an Australian it was an eye opener. I had been to Thailand before, Bangkok in particular, and this unfortunately was not a good experience. I was there during political unrest and the Yellow shirts and Red shirts decided to have an argument over who should run their country. There was gunfire in the streets, people were shot, they closed down the airport and the Australian Government advised us to stay in our hotel rooms whilst they tried to work it all out! I did not feel safe at all in Bangkok and unfortunately, I had let this tarnish my opinion on Asia as a destination.

The Forbidden City

The opportunity to go to China came about when the company I work with decided to hold their annual global conference in Beijing, and being the keen photographer I am, my first thoughts when a travel opportunity comes up is what gear will I take?, what do I need to capture?, How will I get around?, Is it safe to party bouncy castle carry a DSLR around? When this trip came up I had just heard about Jimmy (the editor of this magazine) being robbed of all his gear on a train in Indonesia… this had put the fear of god into me so I was actually really concerned about taking my gear with me. I am sure you all suffer from similar if not the same questions.

Being into HDR for me means I have to take my D800 and a tripod. When I travel I do try to travel light, I find it really hard to leave anything at home, every time I go away I always wish I had brought something with me that I left sitting at home… and in most cases I had packed it then taken it out, repacked and taken it out of my bag again, this can happen 3 or 4 times as I deal with the ‘what to take’ saga that we all deal with! (Well I hope I am not alone… ) In the end, I packed my D800, my 16-35mm f4 VR, my 24-70 f2.8, 50mm 1.4 prime and my trusty little Benro travel angel, it is a great travel tripod if you’re looking for one. Of course I also take spare batteries, charger, memory cards and remote shutter release. All of this gear fits neatly into my Lowepro Inverse 200aw bag and the Benro tripod just straps to the bottom of the bag making it easy to carry on airplanes, and to carry around all day.

I arrived into China late at night, so I had to wait until morning to see what was around me. I was staying in Beijing and I had already done my research of all the things I wanted to see and photograph. I use Trey Ratcliff’s stuck on earth iPad app for finding the spots I want to photograph. It is a great app and if you don’t use it, I suggest you download it, I am pretty sure it is free and even if you have to pay a few bucks for it will give you a return on investment for sure! Basically, it helps you explore a location by showing you photo’s on a map that other photographers have taken and geo-tagged.

Trey Ratcliff’s Stuck on Earth iPad App

As a photographer that actually enjoys getting up at 4am (I know, at this point you think I am nuts… maybe I am!), getting up early means 2 things to me, firstly, I miss the crowds of people that are about later in the day, and I also capture a light and colour that a lot of people never get to see.  The problem with this school of thought in Beijing is that most days, the city is covered in fog and smog. It was rare to see the sky… so there really was no advantage in getting up early! The second issue, most of the temples, parks and attractions don’t open until 8am or later. The good news is that in China, there is so much rich colour around, that it didn’t matter… and capturing the crowds of the day was part of the fun!

Chinese Chess in the Park in the morning

I found myself shooting a lot of pics without HDR processing in mind, I can see why street photography is so much fun in a place like Beijing, and a smaller less intrusive camera would have been good for this, the D800 with my 50mm prime lens did the job.

As long as I bought some tea I could take his photo!

For HDR, you cannot go passed the temples. They have a lot of dynamic range and rich colours that really pop out when processed with HDR, to see my workflow on how I processed “The temple at the top” you can check it out in last month’s article in the Tutorials section of the HDR one site. The only issue I found was the amount of people, there is a lot and I mean a LOT of people visiting these temples, so you need to find some less popular ones or be prepared to be patient as you try to capture 5 bracketed frames.

In Australia, if someone sees me with my camera on a tripod, they will stop, walk behind me and generally wait until they know I have given them the all clear to walk in front of my camera, not so in China, one of the differenced in the Asian culture to the Australian culture is that they have to be pushy, there are so many people in Beijing that they have learnt if they are polite (or what we call polite) they would not get anywhere, you have to be prepared to push your way into a spot if you want to get a photo from that location… no one is going to move out of your way and hand you a personal invitation.

Temples make great HDR subjects

If you’re heading to Beijing here is my list of must photograph locations…

The Great Wall of China, really, this goes without saying. I made a point of getting out of the busy tourist areas to find a section of the wall that wasn’t as busy. I ended up at Jinshanling, it is about one and a half hour drive from Beijing. There is a cable car ride to the wall from the car park but you will need a good pair of walking shoes and to be ‘walk fit’ as this part of the wall is not very well maintained, it has some steep sections and is a little dangerous… the reward is that you can get a shot without 300 tourists getting in your way!

The Great Wall of China Jinshanling Section (no tourists!)

The Birds Nest and Cube. These are the names given to part of the Olympic stadium. I found the best vantage point to be the bar in the 7 star Pangu Hotel over the road. They have an outside viewing area that proved to be a good vantage point, and you can enjoy a glass of your favourite poison whilst you snap away… beware, the drinks aren’t cheap but to me this was the admission price for the view!

The Olympic Stadium at Night

The Hutong’s. This is the traditional Chinese way of living, as you wander around the Hutong’s there are countless photography opportunities. I found most of the Chinese people wanted to have their photograph taken so street photography was easy, as long as they could have a photo with you too! I have Red hair and that really amused them I think… so I was asked to be a part of an average of 6 photo’s a day with people and families I had never met!

This Chinese elder was more than happy to pose

The Temples. I won’t go on and list them all, there is so many Temples and Parks. Make sure you visit a few and you will be rewarded. I found the Forbidden City and the Temple of heaven almost too busy to get good shots with a tripod, there was just so many people that my tripod was continually getting bumped or people were getting in my shot! This is where having my own personal tour guide came in handy, she was able to take me to a few less popular locations… make sure you have some cash on you, pretty much every park or temple as an admission fee

The Silk Markets. A lot of the market stall holders don’t like you taking photo’s, so make sure you check first, I enjoyed the silk markets, so much colour and activity to photograph, and not just silk, they sell just about anything here, but most of it is fake so don’t rush to buy that super cheap Nikon lens you always wanted! They copy just about anything, in fact, there was 11 fake entire Apple stores in China according to my guide!

The Streets. Just walking around in any part of the city were countless photographic opportunities. Coming from Australia there are things that are just ‘everyday’ sights in Beijing that at home, you would never see!

Rickshaw drivers wait for a fare

I am sure I have only just touched the surface and now that I have visited Beijing I would love to go back just for photography. There are some magical places, the people were friendly and there was always something to photograph… a photographers dream really! If you’re looking for somewhere to travel that will provide you with endless opportunities to whip the camera out then I suggest you put Beijing on your list!

Ben Fewtrell is based in Sydney, Australia and has been a keen photographer since the 1990’s. He fell in love with HDR in early 2012 and now processes 95% of his images this way. His main interest is landscape photography and most mornings you will find Ben with his Nikon D800 on the coast of Sydney waiting for the sun to rise… you can find him at www.facebook.com/on3legs or follow his blog www.on3legs.com
  • http://www.facebook.com/ian.rushton2 Ian Rushton

    Nice one Ben. I visited China in 2008 and totally agree – its a photographers dream! And I can certainly relate to some of the challenges you encountered too… I hope to visit again sometime :)