Photographing a Classic Chinese Village

October 13, 2013 ·

Glenn Guy

I visited China in January 2011 to scout great locations for a photography tour I’m running there during the first 2 weeks of January 2012. It will be my 5th visit to China since 1988. During that time China has certainly changed, both economically and socially. 

The opening up of the country has made travel much easier and safer than was the case during my earlier travels. Back then almost everyone was wearing the ubiquitous chairman Mao suits, and gender was no obstacle to this government encouraged fashion trend. All were expected to work and contribute to the dream of the communist state. Individualism and personal expression, at least on the surface, was very much repressed. Westerners were viewed with suspicion and travel was limited, in the most part, to organised group tours. But change had already begun and, over the years, the dogma of the old regime has been replaced with a vitality and engagement that is very refreshing. China seems, once again, to be a young country and its youth are not all that different from their counterparts in France, Australia or the USA.

Numerous Chinese cities offer the convenience of contemporary living in a modern, vibrant city that still retains much of the wonders of a bygone age. Photography opportunities are rich and varied. Beijing, for example, offers traditional housing in the shadow of skyscraper apartments together with historically significant architectural wonders and ultra modern sporting venues. The contrasts are fascinating. I’ve traveled Asia extensively since the late 80’s and, as the success of the economic miracle has swept through parts of the region, I still have a penchant for the more authentic travel experience. Sometimes that’s found in the HuTongs of Beijing, the serenity and sublime beauty of Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) or the traditional charm of a classic Chinese village like Hongcun.

Hongcun is a delightful place to visit. It is a real working village with a thriving community. The fact that it has retained much of its traditional lifestyle has brought it considerable attention. The village has been featured in numerous films and TV shows including the classic motion picture Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
But with its celebrity comes the inevitable hordes of tourists, many of them Chinese. Visit during the middle of the day, particularly during the warmer months, and you’ll encounter line after line of organised tour groups led by the ubiquitous yellow or red flag carrying tour leader. The trick is, not so much to beat the crowds, but to avoid them. Put simply, be there when they are not. That means arriving either early morning or early evening. During January sunset is early, around 5:00-5:30pm. I arrived just before sunset to see the last tour group leave and revealed in the stillness that remained. The light was warm and soft, perfect for the practice of beautiful photography.

The above picture has an interesting perspective. I set up my tripod mounted camera on the top of steps leading down onto the narrow footbridge below. This allowed me to look down on the water and, at the same time, appear to be relatively parallel to the buildings in the background.

The combination of a narrow aperture and wide-angle view afforded by a 24mm focal length, on my full frame Canon 5D Mark II camera, allowed me to include a considerable amount of the scene within the frame and place emphasis on the footbridge which further added to the sense of 3-dimensional space within the scene. As well as anchoring the camera during the relatively slow 1-second exposure (required by the low light, ISO 100 and narrow aperture) the tripod allowed me to slow down, reveal in the moment and create a highly constructed image the success of which is largely design dependent.

Let’s take a moment to examine that design. The image is made up of lines and shapes, colors and textures. The most important line is that of the footbridge which leads the eye through the frame, dividing the scene into two equal parts and adding a sense of balance and harmony to the image. This balance is further enhanced by the triangular shaped damed areas, just in front of the houses, and by the reflections of buildings and trees in the water. The dominant shapes in the image are the rectangular shape of the footbridge; the square and rectangular shapes of the buildings and their roofs; and the rectangular and arch shapes of the various doors and windows.

The light was very diffuse, yet sufficient color contrast existed between the warm tones of the buildings and the cool colors evident in the water and distant mountains to make the image pop. Furthermore the textures evident in the stone and roof tops is contrasted with the smoothness of the water, mountains and sky. Such contrasts make for more interesting and visually arresting images.  

The next photo was made from the footbridge towards the soon to set sun. Photographing into the light placed the trees into silhouette. Thin cloud cover lowered the intensity of the sun and, as a consequence, the Scene Brightness Range (contrast) was reduced. The result: a slightly impressionistic scene featuring predominantly warm, muted colors framed, to an extent, by the silhouetted tree branches.

From the far side of the footbridge I concentrated my composition on a relatively small ares of reeds within one of the triangular-shaped ponds mentioned earlier. I loved the mirroring effect the back lighting achieved when the reeds, cast into silhouette by the backlight, joined with their shadow to create new shapes. The warm, end of day light added a sense of romance to what is essentially an abstract nature image.

With the sun well and truly set I wandered down a lane, behind the buildings in this article’s top most image, to explore the village itself. It was a great experience which included a quick game of ball with some kids and a conversation with a local guy who proudly introduced me to his young daughter as a way of demonstrating her excellent English language skills. I must say I was impressed with both her spoken word and comprehension. Especially as she was only about 15 years of age. I was asked in for dinner but, with a plane to catch, I reluctantly declined.

The practice of making good photographs is exhilarating. But, no matter the enthusiasm with which a photograph is received or how successful it becomes, I both remember and measure the success of my adventures as much by the people I meet as by the images I make. And its always a joy to meet local people. To be invited into their homes and, by my own conduct and enthusiasm, to bring a measure of joy into their lives is perhaps my most successful achievement to date.

Your camera is only a barrier if you decide that it is. I prefer to consider my own camera as a passport into lives and worlds outside my normal experience. It is a great gift indeed, to live the life of a photographer.

February, 2012


© 2012 Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru 
All Rights Reserved 
Glenn Guy is a photographer with over 30 years industry experience.

Glen is the owner and content author ofhttp://www.travelphotographyguru.coman educational photography blog and website
which aims to share the beauty of our natural world and its people with an ever-wider audience.  

For more information on Glenn’s CHINA Photography Tour, January 2013 follow this link

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