Photography in China - Inside Guide
In considering the needs of the photographer, issues come into play that do not affect the general traveler. If the general traveler seeks good weather, the photographer requires good light. Here we cover items such as seasons and security specific to the photographer's needs.
A New Frontier for Photography
See something new in China
China is all-but uncharted territory for the photographer. Ready access to the country for overseas travelers began only recently, and the tendency for many who do visit is to hit the main tourist areas. As a consequence, most of the country rarely, if ever, sees visitors from abroad, and that means there are opportunities all over the country to get those first images of something new.
Something new may also be something quite breathtaking. China's scenery can be, in the genuine sense of the world, fantastic. To look at the mountain-high pillars of rock at Zhangjiajie wreathed in tendrils of mist, or the karst peaks of Guilin and Yangshuo, (below), or the colorful patchwork of fields in Dongchuan, or the equall-colorful vegetation and water of Jiuzhaigou can make it seem, at times, as if you have stepped from reality and into the mind of a surrealist artist. Words like 'unbelievable' are used all too readily, but in China it is often not hyperbole.
China Highlights can take you to all these places and more, offering you the best advice on when to go, arranging everything for you so all you have to focus on is the scenery before you.
No definitive guide of China's opportunities for the photographer could exist in less than several volumes, so what we present here is intended to do no more than whet your appetite. Look around our pages, particularly China's Top Photography Destinations, and get a better idea of the variety and opportunities this unique nation has to offer.
Frontiers offer opportunities, but they also present hazards.
The price you pay for venturing out into uncharted territory is the hazards associated with any 'frontier' situation but, with knowledge and care, difficulties that may confront the photographer may be almost invariably avoided and, if encountered, handled without too much difficulty.
If your camera equipment is professional and bulky, you cannot help but attract attention to yourself. Your gear tells local ne'er-do-wells not only that you are rich, (all foreigners are in the minds of many), but also that you are singularly so. Somehow this doesn't seem to apply to the same extent to genuinely rich locals touting around their own equipment in greater measure.
The first tip, then, is to avoid areas that are either too crowded, or too sparsely populated. The former offers too many opportunities for pick pockets and others who frequent such areas with an eye out specifically for unwary travelers, and that means foreigners.
Safeguard your equipment
If you have to be in such an area, make sure your camera bag is closed at all times. Don't haul out your camera for a quick opportunity and leave the bag open and ignored at your side filled with expensive accessories. In sparsely-populated areas you may be accosted and have no one to turn to for help. If travelling in such areas, it is best not to go alone and perhaps, even, to hire a reputable guide. China Highlights can help you here by providing a guide-chaperone to keep you company and an eye open on your behalf.
Should you leave your hotel for any reason, (to go out for a meal, for example), and not take your equipment with you, be sure to leave it in the hotel safe in your absence, however brief.
Beware pirated, ill-made accessories
A more unconventional form of thievery is piracy and this, too, can affect the photographer badly. Those usually expensive camera batteries you find going cheap in particular may be poorly-made, and have been known to malfunction so severely as to break the camera itself. If you must buy batteries while in China, go to a large and clearly reputable outlet. You will pay more, perhaps more, even, than you would pay back home, but it will still work out far, far cheaper than having to purchase a new camera.
No nation likes foreigners wandering around taking photos of their military installations, and China is no exception. Indeed, China proves more difficult than most countries in this regard, and it is necessary to be particularly alert.
Should you see a military installation, don't point your camera at it. Hurry past and out of sight; you will attract attention just by being there.
If you are caught in a military area...
There are many military areas in China, not just buildings with guards standing in front of them at a check point: open fields, hills, stretches of road, nondescript concrete structures by railways, etc.
Many are either poorly signposted, not signposted in English, or not signposted at all.
Should you be hauled in for questioning as a potential spy, the first thing to remember is to keep your cool.
While they're finding someone who speaks English, you may be in for a long wait.
The Risk of Confiscation
The worst thing is that though you may not be at risk, your camera equipment is. Try to show them that there's nothing on your camera that is subversive. If they still want to take it, offer them your memory card.
If the worst comes to the worst, the first rule is keep your cool... not your camera. If you have to lose it, lose it. If that happens, do not bother going to the police about it later. They will definitely not want to get involved. Your best bet is your embassy, however they, too, may not want to get involved.
The risk is real, but slender...
If you are now quaking in your boots at the thought of coming to China at all, don't. The chances of the above scenario taking place are minimal. Even if you are arrested, the above is the 'worst case'. You may, on the other hand, make a friend in the military and have a pleasant encounter with China's armed forces.
To be sure take a trip with us, and we'll steer you clear of military areas.
Other Places Not to Take Photographs...
... may be just about anywhere.
One obvious problem area is the police and government officials, both personnel and buildings. The police in any country are not to keen on having cameras shoved in their faces, particularly when conducting their duties, and they have the additional bonus of being able to arrest you should they feel like it, government officials to have you arrested. Regard these, then, as a lesser version of the military. However, they are not alone as a potential additional problem.
Some tourist areas may charge a fee for photography. It is best to find out if that is the case before you begin snapping away in certain buildings in particular.
Be very wary in temples. Check that you are permitted before you take any photographs at all. Just point to the camera and shrug at a monk or other person connected with the site. They will understand and nod or shake their head. It has happened that tourists occasionally find themselves in an undignified tussle with a monk as he tries to wrest their camera from them after they have taken photos that are against the rules. This makes a great story to tell friends later, but is disconcerting in the extreme at the time, and risks damage to your camera.
Use common sense when photographing people, particularly minorities, some of which may have very specific cultural reservations about being photographed. It is preferable to first ask permission. Some individuals who are particularly photogenic know themselves to be so, and earn extra money by charging anyone who takes their portrait.
See an elderly, bearded man seated in the most scenic spot in the town, dressed in costume and smoking a yard-long pipe, and it's not just your lucky day. He knows he's going to be photographed. It is best to ask if they charge first. However, it is not always so obvious. There have even been instances of people demanding money when someone has photographed their water buffalo. Go carefully.
Be particularly wary of flash photography in buildings. This draws attention to you, and may be regarded as a particular infringement, particularly when the atmosphere of the building is at stake, (eg., in a temple).
The Hassles of Officialdom
For some reason the idea you may be a foreign spy extends past the military and into such public areas as shopping malls or on the street running past a building site. Be prepared to have someone in a uniform jump out of nowhere and start shouting at you about your camera as if you have just done something immensely inimical by photographing a cat on a wall when that wall happens to be in his 'jurisdiction'.
Again... keep your cool. In this instance you're not in any danger of being arrested or having your camera confiscated. The uniform the guard is wearing was probably picked up in a local shop and all that's happened here is his boss, in a long list of things he's supposed to do, will have included 'No photography!' Your aggressor is probably no more than fearful of losing his job and can make no more sense of the rule he's trying to enforce than you can.
Just nod, smile, signal your incomprehension, (even if your Chinese is perfect), and move on. Once you're off his patch he'll just be relieved you've gone.
A good season in the north of China with fairly clear skies and little inclement weather, it can be more variable in the south. If rainswept landscapes are what you are after this may prove ideal, but the monsoon is such that it may offer little respite for variation in light and atmosphere, and landscapes may be effectively blotted out by the weather.
A reasonable season both north and south with a mix of weathers, but the further south you go, the more ideal photographic conditions are constrained by the sun's angle. At midday, around shadows may be severely foreshortened, and glare may be intense both north and south. This can lead to light too stark to be ideal for many photographers.
In autumn, the distinction is made between coastal and inland areas. Inland the weather is clement across the country, the light good, shadowing pronounced. The coastal areas, however, may be afflicted by the occasional typhoon. On the one hand, these are not so dependable to make it worth the photographer's time visiting in the hope of extreme weather photography. On the other, coastal squalls are more likely at this time of year.
Due to smog, overcastness, and generally cold and unpleasant weather in some key destinations like Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai, and Guilin (to a lesser extent), winter would usually not be our recommendation. See Best Times to Go to China.
That said, winter is particularly suited to extensive travel across the country, due to low season prices and lack of crowding. Pack warm clothes, you will need them. The cold weather keeps other travelers away, affording you scenic shots unspoiled by wandering tourists.
Predominantly northerly winds leave the air crisp and dry for ideal lighting conditions when there are clear skies, while shadows are more pronounced throughout the day and considerably more elongated than in the summer.
However, one strong precautionary note. Beware the Spring Festival Holiday. This is the major holiday in China, lasting some two weeks, varying year by year in accordance with the lunar calendar. The government sets the dates for the entire nation, and for the duration travel is crowded, (if not impossible), hotel accommodation scarce, popular scenic spots crowded as at no other time in the year, and thieves particularly virulent. Usually starting in the second half of January, it is best to check in advance that your plans and that holiday in no way coincide.
Our Photographic Tours
For a full list of our photographic tours, see here. A small selection will give you an idea of what it is we can offer the photographer.
9-Day Longji, Yangshuo and Zhangjiajie Photography Tour — Guided by Top Photographers
Experienced top local photographers will guide you to the impressive Guilin landscapes and the famous Li River. Take photos of Avatar’s floating rocks and “paddy fields in the sky” among Zhangjiajie’s hills.
This tour combines both the scenic attractions of the Yellow Mountain area with some of the ancient ethnic villages and lifestyles of the area.
14-Day First-Time-to-China Photography Tour — Classic China Photography Tour
Targeted more upon the first-time visitor wanting the stock shots China has to offer, this is a more wide-ranging tour that takes in many of China's classic attractions.
Let China Highlights Help you Focus
There is a great deal of information on this page alone; all these choices, not to mention the possible pitfalls in the photographic frontier that is China. Then there's plotting your itinerary once you've decided where to go, along with transportation, (sometimes into places well away from the beaten track), sorting out your accommodation, where you should eat, considering taking a guide to make things easier with local expertise... and all you want to do is take photos. China Highlights can help you.
See our photographic tours to begin with. See something you like? Want to jiggle it? No problem. Our tours are always fully customizable. Or perhaps you want to arrange something from scratch? Contact our tour managers and let them help you to create your ideal Chinese photo op. It's here for the taking, and we're here to give it to you.