China is the best country in the world to photograph. Okay, so we may be biased, but with everything from jaw-dropping landscapes to electrifying street scenes wherever you look, China definitely ranks among the most photogenic places on Earth.
It is no coincidence that many of photography’s great masters – McCurry, Cartier-Bresson and Riboud, to name a few – produced some of their most iconic work in the country, drawn to the accelerated sense of history that makes every photo of China feel like an historic artifact as soon as the shutter is pressed.
So whether you’re an iPhone shooter or a film connoisseur, here are some general tips for taking better photographs in, and of, the Middle Kingdom:
1. Slow down
Travel is often fast-paced: we move between places at a breathless speed, trying to cram as much in as possible to the time we have. But whether you’re an expat exploring your city or a visitor on a once-in-a-lifetime China trip, slow down.
This is important beyond simply carving out space to truly appreciate a place. Firstly, it gives you time to think. Consider how you want to approach a scene. What is it, exactly, that you’re trying to capture? Is it the contrast between old buildings and new? The vivid color palette of a roadside vegetable market? The historic timelessness of the Great Wall? Once you’ve decided, only then take your shot, composing so as to maximize the story you want to tell. The resulting image will be clearer in intention, and communicate more, for it.
Slowing down also allows you to work a spot. A hutong awash in evening light may be a glorious sight, but sometimes the addition of one simple element is all it takes to make a good photograph great. In a matter of minutes, a sports car might drive through that same hutong, or a family might walk, silhouetted, past the end of the lane. Move on too quickly and your chances of encountering moments like this are slim.
Linger for half-an-hour. Absorb in more depth, the sounds, smells and sensations that make travel such an unparalleled experience. All the while hone your composition, and have your camera ready to capture the decisive moment when it comes.
Approaching people to take photos can be a confronting task, wherever in the world you might be. When it comes to China, however, you’re in luck. Chinese people are, for the most part, very approachable, friendly, and at ease having their photo taken in public.
Of course, there are limits to this generosity of spirit and no-one anywhere in the world enjoys having a camera thrust point-blank in their face without warning. If you want an intimate portrait of someone then be sure to ask. If you lack the Chinese language skills then try raising your camera, smiling, and gesturing that you’d like to take a photo. Body language alone should be enough to tell if someone’s feeling it. If they’re not, or you’re unsure, don’t take a photo – everyone has a right to privacy.
Put people at ease by smiling and being friendly, but always respect their boundaries if anyone seems unhappy with what you are doing. The more relaxed and natural your subjects are, the better the resulting photo will likely be. At tourist spots, it is okay to include people in frame, but always use your better judgement, especially when it comes to law enforcement or military officials.
Ironically, when travelling outside of China’s major cities you are more likely to be on the opposite side of the lens. Foreigners remain a novelty in many places in China, and some people have a habit of trying to snap a photo of you. This can be a little unsettling at first, but it also presents a great opportunity for a two-way photographic dialogue. Take the chance to make an image yourself in return, or simply interact with some colorful characters along the way.
Many of China’s most iconic sights have been photographed a million times by as many different people. When you encounter one of these oft-captured scenes, think about how you can photograph it differently to everyone else. This approach not only guarantees an interesting image, but it also boosts creative flexibility, which can help navigate another of China’s great photographic challenges.
As the world’s most populous country, there will usually be other people at popular sightseeing spots. Don’t let this put you off. An image of, say, Huangshan, that incorporates the large numbers of visitors who make the pilgrimage to see it is a more valuable image than one that seeks to crop them out. It speaks to the reality of contemporary China, and tells a more powerful, lasting narrative than replicating the same pretty scene without the people.
Another legitimate approach is to focus in on the detail of a place. Rather than capturing the same wide-angle view of Shanghai’s electrifying skyline, take a close-up of the windows or architectural details instead. As before, you’re telling a different story to everyone else, as well as producing an image that can’t be found in 5 seconds online.
4. Be ready
This final point is a simple one to put into practice, but may be the most significant in terms of tangible results. In China, the most interesting and exciting things often happen in the blink of an eye, when you least expect them. Be prepared for when they come.
These moments are impossible to choreograph or predict, but they often represent some of the most bizarre, beautiful and memorable experiences people have in this nation of surprises. Wherever you are, have your camera ready, even when eating at a restaurant or shopping for groceries. You never know exactly when China will send something your way.