Shangri-La – The Lost Horizon

In James Hilton’s distinguished 1933 novel, The Lost Horizon, the fabled heaven of Shangri-La somewhere in the Kunlun Mountains is depicted as a utopia of sorts, isolated from the rest of the world, where life is perfectly harmonious. This expression is now regularly used to describe any sort of paradise on earth. It was therefore an obvious marketing strategy when the Chinese renamed the Tibetan town of Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan to Shangri-La back in 2001.

I first set foot in Shangri-La back in 2005 on a research trip, having come from Sichuan directly to the north. I have since returned a number of times on photography tours with customers. On a recent trip at the beginning of November, our group was photographing the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery in the early morning from the opposite side of the nearby lake. It was the first time I had been in this area so late in the year and the fog from the cold morning air moving across the lake combining with smoke from the stoves of the surrounding Tibetan homes produced some interesting cloud-like bands in the area. I thought about photographing the monastery from a further distance with a telephoto lens to help compress these white bands and make them more prominent.

At dawn the following day, we drove several kilometers away to a spot where we had a clear view of the monastery from across some fields and waited for the sun to rise. This photograph was taken moments after the first rays of light lit up the monastery a golden tone. The southwest direction that the hills behind were facing allowed them to stay in shadow in the morning, and therefore they appear black in the image. This gave incredible contrast to the photograph and allowed the fog and smoke to stand out.

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Secrets of Beijing (part 1)

How do you find unique photographic experiences in a city of 20 million people that now receives over 200 million combined domestic and foreign tourists each year? This was the dilemma I faced when I was recently asked by Cathay Pacific Holidays to lead an exclusive photography trip in Beijing for the discerning members of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The Great Wall: No trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to The Great Wall. Unfortunately, every other tourist is usually thinking the same thing, so your experience can frequently be similar to something like this:

This carnival atmosphere at Badaling is hardly a place to capture a special photograph much less enjoy the supposed serenity of the environment. It’s popular because it is the section of wall nearest the city.

By heading out to other sections of the wall a little further from Beijing, you can easily escape the crowds. The section of wall between Jinshanling and Simatai is remarkably photogenic, and easy to walk up to, yet receives comparatively far fewer visitors. Photographers trek up to the classic viewpoints for sunrise photographs, however, I have discovered that at certain times of year, the sunset view is actually more dramatic (see one of the photos on my homepage slideshow). Not many seem to stay for sunset since they are concerned about getting down off the wall before dark, but I convinced my group that they wouldn’t regret the experience. The ability to avoid the crowds is not only in your ability to choose your locations, but also deciding on what time to visit. On a glorious Sunday afternoon in October with cameras and flashlights in tow for the walk down, we were virtually the only ones on earth up on the wall freely capturing our own unique experiences.

There are many other amazing and very wild sections of the wall that I’ve explored, but I’ll leave that up to you to find so that you can uncover your own secrets.

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Secrets of Beijing (part 2)

The Hutong: Well, I couldn’t take the Hong Kong Jockey Club members just to a beautiful section of The Great Wall. A visit to Beijing should also include a jaunt through a hutong or two – those collections of narrow alleyways that are formed by rows of traditional courtyard style dwellings. Fortunately, when my fiancée lived in that city for two years, I had a chance to explore many of the old hutongs there. Up until the 1950’s, virtually all of Beijing residences were of this style; however, with China’s rapid modernization, many of these were torn down to make way for modern apartment buildings and office blocks. Those that remain are now largely protected areas, and a number of them have been refurbished and frequented by groups of tourists in pedicabs.

I was thrilled to be able to discover an ancient hutong on one of my visits that appeared to be completely overlooked by the tourists and had a real old Beijing ambiance to it that many of the other hutongs appeared to have lost. When I brought my group there, our sense of the past was heightened by the silence pervading through the soft morning light, for we were the only ones there along with the local residents.

An elderly resident strolling along with her walking aid

Storage sheds along a narrow alleyway

Chairs of all styles, age, and sizes are a key identity of a hutong

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Singapore Art Fair

My photography exhibition at Picture This Gallery in Hong Kong went very well (we had a full house on the opening and closing night parties!). On the back of that success, the gallery will be representing some of my work at the upcoming Singapore Art Fair from Nov 15-18. If you happen to be at the fair, drop by the Picture This Gallery stand.

We had a great turnout for the exhibition at Picture This Gallery

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Speaking at the Nikon School

Back in June, I was invited to speak at the Nikon School in Taipei on travel and adventure photography. The school was such a wonderful host! There was space for 100 people and we managed to fill the room and unfortunately had to turn away nearly another 100 others. I assume that everyone enjoyed listening to me for 3 hours (I had the help of a translator – I really need to learn to speak some more Mandarin!) since I returned to do two more lectures in September in Taichung and Kaohsiung. A belated thanks to all that attended and for all your questions!

I’m back there in the middle somewhere!

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Plains of Light – photography exhibition

From July 12th to Aug 31st, 2012, a selection of my photographs from the corners of China will be exhibited at Picture This Gallery in Hong Kong. These images will form part of a seven week long summer show with four other photographers.

This will be the official launch of the offering of my photographs as fine limited edition archival pigment prints. I’ve been working with one of the leading printers who has 25 years experience printing for many of the world’s major museums and galleries. The images have been carefully worked on to create a master file for each one that best reflects my interpretation of the scene without altering its content. From a short list of the finest long life archival photographic papers on the market, we select ones specifically to match each individual image to ensure that the maximum level of reproduction of colour range, depth, contrast, rendering and colour gradation is achieved.

I’ll be gradually releasing additional images to the collection once a master file and paper combination is achieved that meets my level of satisfaction.

Unfortunately, due to my previous commitments, I won’t be able to attend the opening; however, I will be there at the closing party on Aug 28th from 6pm-9pm.

Hope to see you there!!

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Upcoming lectures

The weekend of June 9 and 10 I’ll be speaking at both Nikon and DC View in Taiwan on travel and adventure photography and my experiences over the years, especially in China. I’ll be discussing my shooting philosophy as well as giving tips on techniques and composition.  I’ll also talk about taking advantage of different types of natural light so that you can photograph all day and how to increase your chances of being ready for that perfect moment.

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Seeing the light

One of the main things I teach customers on my photo tours is how to really see light, all types of light. When they are shown this skill, they are amazed at what they are able to photograph without any flashes at all, and they start looking for opportunities in situations that they would have previously passed up altogether.

Last year on a photo trip in Yunnan’s deep south, near the border with Burma, our group was visiting a tiny monastery secluded up a forested hill beyond a tea plantation. Most of the customers began photographing outside, since the dim interior, initially, did not look like it yielded many photo options.

I brought several of the customers inside and pointed out a north facing window, that allowed for subdued lighting to permeate the room, where there were a few young monks milling about. When learning how to manage light, the brightness of the overall scene is much less important than the brightness of the various subjects in the scene in relation to each other.

One of the monks was willing to act as the subject for our photos. I had him to stand about two meters from the window where the light intensity falling on him would be at a level so as to render the wall behind with the Tibetan writing on it to be slightly subdued. Though the wall was probably two stops darker relative to the light on the monk, since it was white, I knew that the black writing would still be visible in the final exposure. Had he stood closer to the window, the light on him would be too strong and the wall would have gone completely black. If he was too far from the window, the light intensity on him would have been too similar to the wall and the writing would have appeared too bright. I also had the boy stand at an angle where the light would catch just enough of his left eye to further create a more subdued feel to the photo.

There you have it. A nice composition with relatively soft light on the subject with a slightly dim room behind, but just enough light there to give a sense of place to the photo – all achievable with a simple lightweight camera and lens. No strobes used at all!

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Back on the blog

A very belated Happy New Year to everyone! Sorry, I’ve been silent for so long. For the entire fall through to the end of the year, I was past my eyeballs with commercial shoots, leading a photo tour in Sichuan, researching another trip and updating the information for the already existing photo itineraries.

In late October, the Sichuan: Edge of Tibet trip was a huge hit. We had fantastic weather. The timing couldn’t have been better as all the larch trees up on the edge of the Tibetan plateau had turned bright orange. We visited a fantastic monastery hidden in a valley up on the plateau and spent some time with semi-nomadic Tibetans in their winter homes. On our mornings in the Four Sisters National Park, it snowed, which when combined with the orange larch trees, made for some great photography. A handful of pics from the trip are below.

Cathay Pacific Holidays and The Marco Polo Club have now partnered with us and we’ll be working with their clients for selected photo trips.

The four photo trips we ran last year were a great success so for this year, we’ll now be offering six photo journeys. A new itinerary for 2012 will be into Tibet.

I’m planning on being a little better with the blog this year. I’m certainly not a frequent blogger by any means, but being absent for 4 months is probably a bit too long, so, you’ll hopefully hear from me a bit more.

Butter lamps

Our ecstatic customers with some of our Tibetan nomad friends

A young studious monk

The fall colours of the larch trees in the Tibetan countryside

Thousands of prayer flags covering a hillside

Tibetan areas are not complete without mani stones

Four Sisters Mountains at sunrise

A dusting of snow in the morning

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On The Tea Horse Trail

I’ve just returned from both a research trip and then leading a photography group through Northwest Yunnan, The Tea Horse Trail, as I like to call it. For over a millennium starting from the 7th century, the Chinese traded tea from the Pu’er region in Yunnan’s south with the Tibetans in exchange for their warhorses. This trade route passed through Northwest Yunnan before turning eastward in the mountains, and then heading for Lhasa. It’s a fascinating area, a mountainous corridor of ancient societies, ethnic minority groups, and old towns. From Lijiang to Shangri-La, we drove through the entire length of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and then completed the connection via a back mountain road. A few kilometers into the gorge, at the entrance to a narrow tunnel, is the main lookout, which is overrun by tourists. But this is as far as the masses go. Beyond the tunnel is a stunning section of slender twisting road that follows right along the edge of the gorge – no shoulder, no guard rail, and hardly a vehicle in sight. It is a fantastic drive, just don’t get too caught up in admiring the chasm below or you may quickly become part of it!

Novice monk at the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery

View of the monastery from across a nearby lake

Naxi ethnic minority girl with her horse in Yuhu village

The old town of Lijiang is now overrun by tourists, but take an early morning walk through the canal lined cobblestone streets and you can have the place virtually to yourself

A Bai ethnic minority calligrapher in the ancient town of Shaxi

An old Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel rests silently amongst Mani stones in a secluded forest temple

This is how we travel whenever possible, avoiding highways, and taking the quieter country and mountain roads

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