5 Tips for Travel Photography in China

5 Tips for Travel Photography in China

More images of my trip to China can be viewed here.

Tip 1: Be prepared for low light situations.

Many of the places you go won’t be keen on having a high-powered strobe continuously blasting. Not only is it distracting for everyone around, it also reduces the number of over-priced postcards venues like to sell you on the way out the door. For this reason I seldom travel with a flash for my camera.

Take the space and weight that would have been used for a flash and purchase an extra lens with a large aperture. 2.8 lenses are great and usually do a good job, but some small 1.8 prime lenses are better for low-light situations and can be found for around a hundred dollars.

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Realize that the more lenses you have, the more hassle it becomes to pull out your bag in the middle of a situation or performance to switch glass. Do a mental cost/benefit analysis and see what will most benefit your style of shooting.

For this trip I narrowed it down to 3 lenses: 50mm 1.4, 105mm 2.8 and 24-70mm 2.8. In the end I found I could have gotten by with just the last lens mentioned, but there were a few shots I grabbed with the others that probably made it worth the energy required to lug them around.

When shooting the Chinese dancers above and below, even with a nice lens, I found I had to push the ISO all the way to 1000 before I could compensate for camera shake and their movement on stage. You’re images will start to get noisy at that level but you can tweak them a bit in post production with noise reduction software. If that doesn’t work out, noisy images often look great as grainy black and whites.

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Tip 2: Keep an eye out for interesting detail shots

It’s easy to get caught up in the grandness of large structures, statues or landscapes, but don’t forget to look around for some interesting detail shots that often get overlooked because of their small size or unassuming nature. As everyone else was listening to a guide relate history lessons I grabbed a few shots of some door latches and handles.

By the end of the trip I had a nice collection of Asian style hardware for possible framing. Often times, the trinkets street vendors are selling, as in these paper Chinese fans, make interesting photographs. Since details subjects like these aren’t normally moving, take the time to experiment with different settings such as with or without the popup flash, changing aperture, shutter, and ISO settings.

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Tip 3: Faces, faces, faces

Nothing can compare to a photograph that captures the beautiful emotions of the human face.

Try and get up close and fill the frame with your subject. Be bolder than you normally are — to get those special shots, you may need to step out of your comfort zone. Remember, you’ll never see these people again so don’t be afraid to ask if you can take their picture. (Or just shoot away and assume they are fine with having their picture taken.)

I look for individuals that have uniqueness about them. This old man standing on the side of a river loved posing for the camera and didn’t mind a little tip for his troubles. The two men concentrating over a complex looking board game, on the other hand, had no idea I was photographing them.

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Tip 4: Schedule time for photography

Candid photography is great, but good photographs often take dedicating some time on the side.

If you’re traveling with a group, it may be hard to experiment without slowing everyone else down. Try and think of times you can go out exploring with no other purpose than taking photographs. For me this often meant going out after everyone was in their hotel rooms and trying a few night shots. Be creative.

On this image, I didn’t have a tripod but wanted to get a good shot of a police officer standing still as the cars were speeding by. I improvised by using my hotel towel to prop up my camera at the right angle on a nearby wall for a 5 second exposure.

The second image of an old man doting over his beloved pet bird was captured as I wondered down some deserted back alleys hoping to find interesting things to shoot.

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Tip 5: Get a good gear bag

Before going to China I decided to get a good gear bag from DPS friends Crumpler. I opted for the Million Dollar Baby primarily for the compact size it offered, but I also liked the unique way the zipper only allowed the contents to be accessible when the bag is off your back.

I felt more secure traveling with expensive camera gear in crowded areas knowing no one could slip a hand in my bag with out me knowing it. There are lots of good options out there, some pricier than others. Try visiting a local camera shop to get a hands-on feel before making your purchase. Other things to look for are bags with built-in rain covers or water resistant zipper seals.

Making photography a key part of your vacations not only lets you come away with great images to remember your trip by, but you increase your skill set as a photographer along the way. Feel free to send DPS some shots taken from your recent travels.


Chas is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

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Chas Elliott is a freelance photographer in the Northern Virginia and DC area. See more of his work at www.chaselliott.com.

Some Older Comments

  • flora November 15, 2011 03:40 am

    images are very nice.
    50 Stunning Photographs of China - http://www.incrediblesnaps.com/stunning-photographs-of-china

  • Chinese Pictures March 25, 2011 02:34 pm

    To Richard,
    Do you mind to share the photos taken in China at our website? www.chinesepictures.org, as there have already 800 China photos there!

  • Richard Crowe January 28, 2010 03:54 am

    I agree with most of the great information you provided. However, I do have some additions to offer.

    1. I transport my gear in a backpack since it is very easy to pack into the overhead compartment of an airliner. However, I do not use the backpack for carrying my gear while shooting. I carry my camera or cameras (I often shoot with a pair of cameras) on OPTECH straps or the OPTECH dual harness. I use a photo vest for the rest of my gear. I always have an OPTECH (no I don't work for OPTECH) Rainsleeve for each camera to protect it from percipitation or dust.

    2. I always carry a flash which I use primarily for fill light.

    3. I like my 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens in combination with a 70-200mm f/4L IS on a pair of crop bodies. The f/2.8 and IS capability of my 17-55mm allows great low light shooting. The f/4L IS is great for isolating specific portions of my image or to compress distances.

  • Richard Crowe August 8, 2009 11:51 am

    I plan on visiting China (Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, Three Gorges, etc.) I have my choice between the last week in March and any week in April. I hate hot weather and am thinking that March will be my best option. How is the air quality in late March or April April?

  • Spencer Wynn February 26, 2009 10:56 am

    I TOTALLY agree with Ricster! I have traveled a lot in China for publications and other clients. Getting close is often difficult since in the West we don't want to get in people's face or invade their personal space. I have always found, not matter what country or language spoken, a SMILE and easy attitude is universal.

    If waved away by older people, just put a hand up signaling you understand, keep a broad smile, and DO NOT betray them by shooting regardless. If a cooperative subject lets you shoot them and does not ask for a tip - tip them anyway to thank them.

    I often travel with a model release both in English and translated into the language of the country in which you are traveling. This is nessessary if you are intending to publish the images of people which you will directly profit from. Best to familiarize yourself with the rules in case you are questioned as to your motives and intentions.

    Great tips! I look forward to reading more!

  • William January 29, 2009 04:35 pm





    more to come

  • Philippa January 24, 2009 10:48 pm

    I live in China and this article has really inspired me to take advantage of it!
    I absolutely love those photos.

  • Sam January 23, 2009 09:55 am

    pro photos, love the old man sitting and playing chess. wish i had those opportunities.

  • Hans Maerker January 23, 2009 08:09 am

    Great shots about the more public and commercial site of China. Yet, China has another and more subtle face as well. I have been crisscrossing through China some time ago and was more interested in the less public and more local life of it. A small collection of it can be seen on my website at the China portfolio. For those who would like to have a glance at this selection, the direct link to the English China site is as follows: http://www.maerkerphotos.com/en/albums/china_en/index.html
    Enjoy :-)
    Hans Maerker

  • Jules @ Lovely Las Vegas January 23, 2009 04:55 am

    Great advice! I can't wait to get to China, but I'll test them out before then. I did some of these hints in Taiwan, but I especially struggle with low lighting situations no matter where I travel or take pictures, so your advice should help. Thank you.

  • John Lambert January 23, 2009 02:52 am

    I have recently returned from a two-week tour of China and agree with the writer's tips. I might add that since almost everyone in China has a camera and is happily shooting away, one more photographer is nothing new. I have taken some wonderful fairly tight shots of people simply being themselves. No one ever discouraged me from taking a close shot. As Chas says, often the subjects aren't even aware they are being taken. With such a huge population, splendid photos ops exist on every street corner. The Great Wall, Tienanmen Square, gorges of the Yangtze are great places, but it is the people - that wonderful variation of young and old, rich and poor that make candid photography in China such a fantastic experience.

  • heidileon January 23, 2009 01:56 am

    Hi Chas,

    I really appreciate the article. I've being living in Shanghai for 2 yrs and I love it, but love even more to go out and shoot my surroundings, the locals, those wonderful markets, alleys and parks this amazing has. Your tips arrive in such a good timing!

  • Ronano January 23, 2009 01:04 am

    Helpful tips. I'll test them out this weekend road trip. Cheers Chas.

  • Chas January 22, 2009 12:02 am

    I'm surprised by the strong response against taking pictures of people before asking permission. Most countries with a strong tourist industry understand and actually welcome visitors and aren't opposed to having people walk around with cameras flickering constantly. Of the countries I've been to with all my camera gear this last year (Korea, Philippines, China, Thailand) I've never run into trouble taking pictures of people. I'm sure if I ask before pushing the button more people would opt out. I know I would if someone wanted a picture of me standing next to a Taco Bell in rural USA.

    I'd be curious to know what the protocol is for photojournalists like Nat. Geographic and the likes. Maybe I'm taking the wrong approach :)


  • James Simmons January 21, 2009 04:49 pm

    In some parts of China it is considered extremely rude and offensive to take a stranger's photograph without gaining his/her permission, so I would strongly advise ALWAYS asking before you take the photo.

    James Simmons, Hong Kong

  • Disvroian January 21, 2009 04:36 pm

    Good theme of post. i m actually in China ... :D

  • Erik Ingman January 21, 2009 01:20 pm

    Nice post. Thanks for the tips. Not making it easy for me, i just got my first DSLR a Canon 450D to use on my travels, currently in Cambodia, going to China in april, probably malaysia soon after that. I currently only have the 18-55 kit lense but i want to buy a new lense and was thinking about the 24-105mm F4 L lens from canon, but the aparture bothers me, and the 24-70mm F2.6 L doesnt have IS. Which one would you recomend as a one-lens-fits-all-situation?

    Thanks in advance

  • giles January 20, 2009 10:54 pm

    Very nice work, although i agree with those who commented that it's better to ask if you can take their picture. Regardless of superstition, it's simply good manners.

  • Alain Pilon January 20, 2009 11:27 am

    I just want to point out that the recommended bag is NOT GOOD if you plan on using a body with a battery grip. The bag is not deep enough and while the camera fits, it is very hard to remove quickly afterward. This is very sad because it is an awesome bad in any other respect.

  • Steffie van den Akker January 20, 2009 07:29 am

    I think these are very helpful tips, also for other countries than China. Very beautiful and inspirational pictures, too. These make me want to step outside of my comfort zone! I am also scared of getting bad reactions when I want to take a picture of someone, and therefore, I never do it. I have to change that!

    Thanks for the great article!

  • Tanya Plonka January 20, 2009 06:19 am

    I am very intrigued by this camera bag, so thanks for mentioning it!

    A good thing to have in your gear bag is a photo viewer you can upload your memory cards onto, instead of waiting until you're home again to back them up.

    p.s. Gorgeous photos in this post!

  • Chris Sutton January 20, 2009 06:08 am

    Great tips - thank you. It is a wonderful country with so many photographic opportunities

    A word of caution: be careful taking candid of locals; many (usually older) Chinese believe that by taking their picture, you are taking part of their soul. I got in to hot water during a visit to the Forbidden City some years back; my Guide counselled that it is always best to check before pushing the shutter release

  • Reysbro January 20, 2009 05:20 am

    Went for a month in Nepal recently, and can definitely agree with the above, with the addition of a wide-angle for the larger views.
    Reysbro Photo

  • Chris January 20, 2009 04:45 am

    Can you tell us a little about the post-processing you did on the dance photos? They look almost like paintings in a way. They look amazing!

  • Chang Yang January 20, 2009 03:23 am

    I like the board game shot very much! It is actually the Chinese Chess, and it's very popular among the Asian population. It's computationally more complex than the international Chess.

  • Smash and Peas January 20, 2009 03:02 am

    Great tips and I really love the photographs used in this article! They're all so crisp and vibrant!

  • Sven Blom January 20, 2009 01:42 am

    Nice article!

    I was lucky enough to travel for 2 month trough China:


    Greets Sven

  • MT January 20, 2009 01:31 am

    Great Photos Chas and some good advice but I cant believe anyone would give out the below advice!

    (Or just shoot away and assume they are fine with having their picture taken.)

    surely its best to ask?

  • eB Photography January 20, 2009 01:24 am

    Way to get the travel bugs biting again. I hit the road to China and Thailand and returned home in 2002 just as digital cameras were starting to pick up speed in the photo world. I was way too stingy on what I photographed with film... must travel again soon.

    Awesome dance photos. The color and movement in these is superb! eB

  • Ricster January 20, 2009 01:12 am

    Chas, thank you for the helpful photography tips during travel! I've done quite the same in Vietnam and most of the time people don't mind their pictures taken as long as you start it off with a smile yourself :) other than that, being really conspicuous helps too!

    More tips please! I've now added your blog to my fave along with DPS!