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Moving to China

Vox Populi

Category: Vox Populi

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00 chinaPhotography

Dave Cossey is a Xi'an based photographer. His website can be found here at photography dock. For information on the photography courses he offers, please contact him via his website. This article was first published on his website, May 29, 2015

Having lived in China for more than 5 years now, I’ve decided to embark upon a journey of sharing what has most impressed me from this fascinating country. I’ll be covering the areas that I think matter most, and of course include illustrations and guidance to help you take good photos when you next spend time in China.

For part one of this journey, we will look at what has always been my favourite subject to photograph here – the people on the streets! China street photography is an incredibly rich and rewarding experience, mostly because of the sheer diversity of shots available. So let’s take a look at my 5 important areas to remember when shooting people in China, helping you to improve your own China street shots.

1. Capture the stark contrasts in generations
Perhaps the most interesting contrast to be found in China is the difference between the young and the old. It’s difficult to describe just how different the experience of life has been between these two generations. So much has changed in this countries environment, and so much is still changing.

A young skater – 1/200, f5.6, ISO 800

The first shot is taken at my favourite local spot, Da yan ta (大雁塔). Singing, breakdancing, and skating all regularly happen here side-by side. The picture reflects just how important the younger generation sees hobbies these days – and it’s all about bragging rights.

Early morning music and dance – 1/1000, f2.8, ISO 100

I took the second shot another province across from mine in Lijiang, Yunnan. Another fantastic part of this culture is watching the older generation rise early, and meet together to sing and dance. You can see the first character just soaking up the ambient music, with the background figure throwing his arms around in joy whilst dancing to the music.

All of this action is easily caught by just researching the area in advance so you know where to go and for what optimal times to see the most interesting action.

2. Show the skills of the people
Another fascinating part of life here in China is that one minute you can be strolling down the street to pick up some vegetables, and the next you find yourself completely absorbed in watching some skilled individual at work on the roadside.

Another skilled worker – 1/60, f5.6, ISO 400

The above shot is from a famous food street on the south side of Xi’an. Every time I pass by, there is some kind of new and interesting food being made, often with some level of skill being applied to produce it.

The art of calligraphy – 1/160, f10, ISO 100

The second shot shows another individual producing and displaying his best calligraphy skills for others to appreciate. Chinese in its written form is not just about communication, at its highest form it is considered an art.

These types of shot are usually available within the commercial districts of each city. Often they are not registered shops, but just places that are run off of the back of some bike, or three-wheeler. So a bit of luck is also involved with finding them.

3. Display the wonderful ethnic diversity
“What is China like?” The longer I live here, the harder it becomes to answer that question. With 1.3 billion people, across numerous mega-cities, and provinces, and including over 50 vastly different minority groups, the only real answer I find myself able to give is ‘well…it’s very diverse!’.

The Naxi people group – 1/800, f2.5, ISO 100

The previous shot is again from Yunnan showing some of the Naxi people sitting outside in their wonderfully vibrant clothing. Such fantastic colours makes for wonderful photography!

Be sure to look for what stands out, and visit areas that you know will feature a different culture within the culture. Just be very careful of tourist traps. Because in China when a place becomes well-known you can be certain it will very quickly become overcrowded and expensive. China’s huge population makes this a certainty.

4. Reflect both work & leisure
The massive advancement of China in recent years has meant that there have been many average Chinese people working their socks off to try and move this vast country forwards. I can think of few cultures where people work as hard as they do in China.

Hard at work in the midday sun – 1/800, f2.5, ISO 100

The first picture was taken in the Xi’an botanical gardens, but away from all of the beautiful flowers. After busily snapping many shots of flowers, I noticed how these two individuals were slaving away on a very hot summer’s day to begin planting new flowers. There are examples everywhere of people working hard, try to get close enough to even show those sweat beads!

An impromptu game of cards – 1/100, f2.2, ISO 100

The second picture showed one of the many outdoor gatherings of men playing cards that can be seen across the city. The seemingly impromptu gathering for games of chess or cards always brings plenty of emotion to an often rather stoic faced people. Of course, emotion also makes for great photos! So also look out for leisure activities, especially earlier in the mornings in local parks.

5. Shoot both the old and the new

One more smartphone user – 1/640, f2.2, ISO 100

The other major contrast of life in China is between the old and the new. Technology races ahead, and new buildings soar into the sky on almost every street you go down. But yet those older traditions are quietly, but stubbornly refusing to disappear.

Some early morning swordplay – 1/1250, f2.8, ISO 200

Be sure to capture the borderline obsessive use of technology in this land, but also don’t forget to capture the Tai chi, various forms of swordplay, or the (my not so personal favourite) Chinese opera singing. Capturing a different culture on film is all about discovering exactly what is unique, and in China you don’t really have to look far to find that.

Bonus tip:
Try switching to auto-ISO, and set the shutter speed to at least 1/100th for your shots during travelling. That way a change in environment will not result in blurred or under/over exposed photos.

That’s it for this article on China street photography. If you found this article helpful in any way, please give us a social like/share from the options below. Otherwise you can check out our tutorials page for a full list of our FREE photography guides.


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