Photographing in China

Photographing in China

More visual.

If you are a serious photographer planning a trip to China, you may want to pay close attention. I’m recently back from co-guiding a small group of photographers for three weeks in China, using five internal flights to cover some of the most scenic (and popular) tourist areas, as well as some remote and far less frequented places. My assistant, Sean Lo, capably co-led the tour and served as our interpreter.

I plan on doing a series of blogs on specific sites in the Travel section of our website in the coming months, but for now I thought I would summarize our China tour and give some quick tips to those of you planning a trip there.

Take Your Time. I sometimes hear of China photo tours that are seven or ten days long. I really cannot imagine spending that little time and expecting to come away with enough keepers to warrant the expense and flight time needed to get there. China is huge and exceptionally photographic, so my recommendation is to take at least 2-3 weeks. I know I plan to go back.

Claustrophobia Central. Before going to China, I recommend the following to prepare yourself. Purchase an inexpensive, small pine casket. Now crawl into it with at least three of your close friends and have someone close the lid. Have a contest to determine who can get out first, no holds barred. Repeat every day for the month prior to leaving. Now you just might be prepared for the crowds in China.

Do The Math. If you think the above tip is a bit over-the-top… okay it is, but not as much as you might think. Just do the math and you’ll see. China has 1.4 billion people. 1,400,000,000. That’s a lot of folks competing for space. Here’s another number. 97% of the tourists in China are Chinese citizens. Read the next tip to see why that matters.

Culture Matters. The Chinese concept of personal space is this.. No, those two dots are not a typo. Measure the space between them, then fill in this formula. Let x be the first dot and y the second. Now, x-y = Personal Space in China (I’m coining the term PSC). This is in no way a denigration of China or its people. Seriously. But it does have consequences to which we Westerners must adjust.

For one, there is no such thing as an orderly line, to get onto a bus, for example. When the bus door opens it is a rugby scrum to board. Do not bother to be bothered. Just hold onto your gear and jump into the fray. After a few tries it can get to be fun.

Second, the crowds at the touristic sites are unimaginably huge. Once you station yourself, or you and your tripod, you will attract curious folks… lots of them. People think you are Ansel Adams (or Dorothea Lange) and must know what you’re doing, so they will literally push you aside to take their own shots. I had more than one man come over to my camera and actually put his eye to it to see what I was seeing. Another man come over and tried to manipulate my camera to see my previous images. We might consider this pushy, but in Chinese culture it is acceptable.

I’m no historian of China, but our guide told us that much of this behavior is a survival remnant of the Cultural Revolution when people were starving and had to scrabble hard to survive.

Friendly People. The Chinese people that our group met were uniformly friendly except, of course, for police and government types. Most people were happy to be photographed and we had some wonderful photo sessions with folks we happened to come across in wandering around villages. A good portrait lens or 24-105 zoom would be great as a walk-around lens.

Be Prepared to Be Awed. Make no mistake about it; China is ascendant. Bridges are new and gorgeous. Tunnels are engineering marvels. Skyscrapers are going up everywhere. Roads are mostly well paved. Bullet trains run on time (take heed, Amtrak!). Soak it in, folks. It may just prompt you to start learning Mandarin.

Avoid Holidays. The Chinese do not get many work-free holidays. That means when there are national holidays the crowds at scenic, historical or cultural spots - the ones that we photographers like to go - will be very, very crowded. Setting up tripods can be hazardous to your gear and fellow tourists. Do your research and go when things are calmer.

Hire a Photography Guide. When traveling to any new location for an extended stay, I always recommend hiring a guide. In China such guides are very reasonably priced. Just make sure the guide you hire is experienced in guiding photographers in particular. See my previous blog on this topic for detailed tips.

Enjoy the Food. Look, life is not only about photography. If you are in China, you would be a fool not to indulge in some of the best food options this planet has to offer. If you plan on taking a large bus tour, you will unfortunately probably be offered substandard buffets. Figure out a way to skip at least some of them and go with a Chinese speaking guide to a smaller restaurant.

While in China we enjoyed 10-15 plate meals, each one freshly prepared, for lunch and dinner and brought to our table piping hot. There were carnivore and vegetarian options galore. In fact, I would completely grok it if you opted instead for a culinary tour of China and did foodie photos. That’s how good the food is. Plus, the prices are very reasonable.

Equipment Thoughts. If you will be taking internal flights, you may be baggage weight restricted, so strategic planning is essential. My recommendations are: take more storage cards than you think you’ll need; don’t bother with long tele lenses; take two camera bodies if you can.

Safety. Thankfully, capital crimes are exceedingly rare in China. However, pickpocketing and street scams are common. Use common sense. If your camera bag does not lock, use a carabiner to hook through your zipper tabs to thwart quick access to your bag. Never put your gear bag down unattended in a public space. Do not accept private car offers. Keep wallets in front pockets. If you make these procedures second nature you will be able to fully enjoy your stay.

Enjoy. My tongue-in-cheek comments aside, I can’t emphasize just how enjoyable China is once you have a few days to adjust. Now that China is on the world stage and a potent rival to the U.S.A. and Europe, few trips could be as valuable as one to China. The country is changing quickly and many scenic areas will be fully built up in coming years. Go soon if you can.