Photography in China

China flag

Overview

Chinese history points to an independent civilization developing along the Yellow River several thousands of years ago and certainly Chinese culture retains features that are distinct from other Asian groups. We tend to think of contact with Europeans beginning with the famous Silk Road trade routes - but some small level of interaction, probably involving intermediaries, existed even before records began.

The first name that many will think of when considering the explorers who brought knowledge of China back to the west is Marco Polo. There are those who doubt that he ever visited China but, anyway, since his time, the country has enjoyed a strong reputation for its exotic culture and for riches worthy of great efforts and risks.

Photographic opportunities

In a country as vast as China there exist a vast range of photographic opportunities. The issue is therefore not a matter of what is available but one of selecting from so many options. This page is intended to help you in that process by giving a few outline suggestions. It cannot do so without additional research by you, nor can it cover all special interests. If you do have further questions then use the Contact form or drop us a email and we will see if we can help further.

Landscape photography

One of the most sought after locations for artists in China is Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). The rugged peaks have inspired artists and poets for centuries and are now much more accessible with cable-cars to save a great deal of effort and accommodation up on the ridges making early starts and late finishes a distinct possibility. Trails are of a good quality and require no special skills or equipment just some effort as there are few level sections.

China has lots of other mountains and mountain ranges so don't feel that you have to go to the one prime spot especially if you are on a budget or just want to avoid the 'crowds'. Here are a few suggestions

  • The Guilin area, Guangxi Province: karst landscapes (see below), especially around Yangshuo, as well as more gentle Danxia Landforms beyond Ziyuan.
  • Gongga Shan (Minya Konka): in Sichuan Province
  • Meili Snow Mountains: in Yunnan Province.

Karst is a topographical term of European derivation used for limestone formations. Danxia and Yadan are Chinese terms used for features that are pretty much special to China and could be worth researching for anyone looking to get original and unusual compositions.

China's rice terraces make for ideal landscape shots since the embankments mark out contours along a hillside and accentuate the missing third dimension in a photograph. Popular spots include the Longsheng rice terraces near Guilin, the terraces around Yuanyuang in Yunnan Province and other smaller ones in Guizhou Province.

Street photography

China has nearly 700 cities, each offering a wealth of opportunities to capture something of Chinese culture. Anyone getting beyond the tourist trail will find that they are amongst the first to record the scenes and the scope for a documentary-style project is therefore immense. The main setback is that local authorities might be suspicious of anyone who does choose to investigate beyond the regular tourist sites and you should therefore either speak good Mandarin or hire a local guide who can steer you away from sensitive issues and, if there's a problem, explain your good intentions on your behalf.

Most Chinese are happy to have their photo taken but are apt then to pose. If you prefer to get candid shots then you might need to find ways to disguise yourself (it's hard not to stand out) and it pays not to have a big camera set-up. A smaller camera will also attract less interest from the authorities mentioned above.

Local parks are a hive of activity and would make a good place to start on arrival in a new destination. Many people like to practice their English and that can be a great way of getting introductions to your real area of interest.

Architectural photography

China is rich in architectural projects, from ancient temples right through to ultra-modern skyscrapers such as the Canton Tower in Guangzhou. It should be easy to pick a sub-theme and find sufficient subject matter in a small area. If not, drop us an email and see if we can help.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • temples
  • bridges
  • towers
  • abandoned buildings
  • Imperial buildings
  • private buildings
  • colonial-era buildings

Please note: as with many other places in the world, you do need to take care when photographing civic structures. Avoid anything that might be construed as of military significance. If in doubt, ask first and heed any requests not to take images.

Route ideas

Whilst we do generally recommend choosing a base in China and cutting down on travel, there a number of routes which could well suit those intending to compile a portfolio.

The Silk Road

The Silk Road is actually a generic term for a set of routes between China and the outside world, including India so not just a link to Europe. There are plenty of good introductions to the history of this route so little point repeating that information here.

Photographers might be attracted to a Silk Road project for many reasons. The landscapes en-route are fantastic, often enhanced by ruins of ancient structures to create an atmosphere that cannot be faked. The pass at Jiayuguan, Gansu Province, is a classic example. The fort here was the western-most bastion of Chinese rule throughout much of history. It sits in a narrow section of desert with snow-capped mountains to the north and a gorge and then more desert and mountains to the south. Even with a modern town nearby it is not difficult to iamgine the desolation that soldiers must have felt when banished to this spot (many arrived as some form of punishment) nor to capture the essence of that feeling. A bit of research will identify plenty of other opportunities in the area.

People photographers will find a wide variety of faces, hats and clothes in any Silk Road city as intermingling is the rule not the exception. Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Mongolians - all have their heartlands but also have settled widely around Central Asia. It may take a while to recognize one group from another - but cataloging such differences could easily become a passion. Others might prefer to record craft workers or simple daily tasks.

The Ancient Tea Road

Again, this is not so much one specific route as a series with a similar purpose. China required good horses for its cavalry and found that the nomads of the Tibetan Plateau were willing to trade. The problem was finding something other than silver cash. Manufactured goods were a good starting point but, like the British later, the nomads soon became addicted to tea and willingly traded their excellent horses for bricks of the dried leaves.

The most famous route leaves the Pu'er District of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province and heads through towns like Dali on its way into Tibet. Other routes leave Sichuan Province via Kangding and Litang. Whichever you choose, you will likely find that travel restrictions apply, especially for the Tibet (Xizang Province) section.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall extends all the way from Shanhaiguan on the Bohai Sea coast to Jiayuguan as described above (with some derelict sections extending even further west). In places there are multiple sections of wall, marking areas of particular weakness or shifts in the border.

The extent of the wall makes it difficult for any one photographer to document it fully - even with the budget of a large publication behind them. If this is your interest then time spent researching options will pay off in-country. The dramatic wall snaking over mountains is the one to be found in the east, north of Beijing. A more gentle mud-brick wall is to be found out west. The wall in the middle is less frequently visited and therefore in a worse state of repair. Only you can choose which features sound the most attractive for your style of photography.

Please note: if you do intend going to remote areas it is worth using the services of a local travel company or guide as place names do not convert to other languages easily and you might find it difficult to locate your intended target without someone who speaks the local dialect. A guide would also know how to handle difficult situations, whether that be with the local authorities or trouble makers.

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal runs from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north. This may seem a strange route but actually links two of China's ancient capitals and, more significantly, connects the rice-rich south with the high-consumption north. It wasn't just the Imperial Court that demanded supplies; the north was the most heavily manned border and required enormous quantities of military provisions.

The canal has some photogenic sections but is included here to demonstrate that other routes exist beyond the obvious ones, and that focusing on such a route might provide enough of a theme to link together otherwise disparate images. The southern section is perhaps the easiest for access with many of the towns now being close to station stops on the fast-train service.

Preparing to go

General travel advice for photographers

For general tips about getting ready for one of our photography tours or workshops, check out our Blog category: Preparing to go


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