27 Nov 2008 China – The Great Wall & The Forbidden City (Podcast 164)
Last week, on November the 20th, I went to Beijing, China, for a very short business trip with my day job. I had planned to be there for an extra day though on Saturday, and people that I was visiting had kindly agreed to take me and my boss site seeing. We were planning to go to the Great Wall, and to the Forbidden City. Our original plan was to leave quite early so that we wouldn’t be that rushed, but unfortunately my boss had a kidney stone attack on the Friday afternoon, and we spend half a day in the hospital. That was an experience all in itself, but we had started to plan to change the flights, and leave on the Saturday instead. When I went to his room at 8AM on Saturday morning though, he was much better and so we decided to go to the Wall anyway. This meant though that we would not have the early start I’d hoped for, and in fact it was after 10AM when we left the hotel, meaning things were pretty rushed. Either way though, I was never going to have lots of time for photography, as I would be one of a party of four, and the only one that really wanted to photograph the places we visited, so I was prepared for some snappy shooting. Let’s take a look at the results.
The Great Wall is about an hour and a half from the hotel in Beijing, having stopped to refuel and grab some water etc. As we were still going to try to get back in time to visit the Forbidden City as well, we drove to where there was a cable car that you can ride to one of the highest points on the wall, and then we planned to walk back down along the wall towards where we’d parked. Shortly before noon I shot image number 1987. You can see that there was a lot of haze, and actually this is the result of a lot of messing around with the curves and applying a neutral density filter to the top half of the shot in Lightroom. In reality, the scene was almost totally white above the wall. I’m relatively happy with the results, as we can see a nice section of the wall, and then follow it as it winds off into the hazy mountains to the right. I quite like the layered effect as the mountains drop off into the distance too, each one getting slightly paler. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but to start off, I should also mention a few facts about the wall itself. The Great Wall of China was built between the 6th century BC and the 16th century, to protect the northern borders of the Chinese Empire. Apparently there are several walls, but the most famous which was much further north than the current wall was built between 220-200 BC by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Little of this wall remains. The current wall was built during the Ming Dynasty.
The Great Wall stretches over approximately 6,400 km (4,000 miles) from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west, along the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. At its peak, the Ming Wall was guarded by more than one million men. It has been estimated that somewhere in the range of 2 to 3 million Chinese died over the centuries that it took them to build the wall. This is straight out of Wikipedia mind, so I won’t go into any more detail. I will put a link in the show-notes though, so you can check it out in more detail yourself if you’re interested.
I shot this image with my 70-200mm F2.8 lens at the wide end, with an aperture of F8 for 1/200th of a second, ISO 100. I was in manual mode as usual, but the meter was reading high. I had to compensate for the very bright and white sky, to keep the foreground exposed correctly. The camera’s meter would have exposed the foreground very darkly if I had framed and exposed as we see the image here. I was very conscious that I was going to need to keep the sky bright to save the foreground, but was also conscious of keeping it from clipping, so I kept my eye on the histogram, and only allowed the very top left to clip. That meant that I had enough detail in the layered mountains to be able to bring it back down and save some detail like this.
The next image, number 1986, is one of my favourites. It’s a little bit of a roller coaster ride, due to the perspective. I basically shot three images horizontally at 70mm, again with the 70-200mm lens, and then stitched them together in Photoshop. As I said, I was rushing fiercely. I actually shot the first image, then decided to a panorama, and moved across and shot two more. Had I planned a panorama I would have turned the camera up vertically, and shot four frames or so. Because it was an afterthought, I actually had to crop off more of the bottom of the image than I would have liked, but I think the tight crop along the bottom has actually helped to increase the drama, and really make us feel that this is all coming down on top of us, kind of like sitting at the bottom of a water slide with a hundred people zooming towards us. I also like the golden colour and texture in the grass and brush on the left of the shot. This almost has an HDR effect, despite this being a straight shot. The only thing that I did that is slightly out of the ordinary, though becoming less so all the time, is that I was using Highlight Tone Priority, to try to stop the sky blowing out in some of the shots. Not so much for this one, but I left it on, as I was fighting time and didn’t want to spend much time switching modes etc. The ISO was 200, because of the highlight tone priorty, and that gave me a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second at F11. Note that once I’d focused around half way up the shot on the people in the foreground, I did not refocus for the center and left image that made up the panorama. If you refocus when shooting images to stitch together it can cause problems during the stitching. Since using the back focus button for focusing this is simply a case of not hitting the button again, but if you focus with the shutter release button, just make sure you keep the button half pressed as you move through the scene shooting your images for the panorama.
The wall is intersected with towers or turrets every so often. You aren’t allow in them all, but some are open to the public and they have windows on the side from which you can peer out onto the side of the wall, as I did when I shot image number 1984. You can see here that I have composed this with the wall running right up to the top of the left side of the image, which helps to give us the feeling of the wall being really high, despite the fact that I’m actually very close to the top of it as well. When viewed full size you can actually see some very nicely exposed people on top of the wall. This is another one though with which I had to deal with a very bright sky. Similar to the first shot, I exposed for the sky, but allowing the brightest part at the very left to blow out slightly, with the intension of bringing it down later in Lightroom, and also then get some different shades of grey in the layers of the mountains. Exposing for the sky though meant that I had to underexpose this side of the wall, which I brought out with the Fill Light slider in Lightroom. That can help to lighten up the shadows considerably, but if you go too far you will start to see some grain in there, which you might not want. Having 14 bit RAW files to play with though really helps. The same goes for the recovery slider. There’s an amazing amount of detail left in the highlights in this big RAW files that would probably have been no starters a few years ago. You can almost count on being able to bring detail out of some highlights if necessary to open up the dynamic range of the shot a little. For this I was shooting at F11 still, for 1/320th of a second, again with ISO 200. I was also shooting with the 24-70mm F2.8 lens at this point too by the way.
In image 1983, with the crowds not quite as bad as before, I played on the fact that this is a wall, and included a large section of the bricks that it is built with. Again a very quick decision to shoot this, very much thinking on my feet and grabbing what I could, I shot about four frames here, and the ones after this had a young girl with bright pink trousers coming into the shot. I went with this one because of the more modern clothes that the two people on the right are wearing. With the brown colouring of the wall and the overall feel, I just keep thinking that these shots look like they’ve come straight out of a 1970’s travel brochure, which I definitely mean in a negative sense, and so I went with the more modern look to try to reduce that feeling as much as possible. The little girl with the pink trousers, as cute as she was, was not going to help to bring this into the 21st century. Note though how I also composed this with the Great Wall winding off to the left of the shot after that first turret, and then we can see it going off even further into the distance to the right. To really make sure that I got the maximum depth of field here, I closed the aperture down to F16, and focuse about a third of the way down the wall in the foreground, probably to just in front of where the people in the red and the white coats are. This was kind of my rough attempt to guess at where the hyperfocal distance would be. As you can see, the wall is sharp right up to the left of the frame, so it was not a bad guess, but I also used the depth of field preview button to check that I was not too far off as I framed this shot. At F16 I used a shutter speed of 1/160th of a second, again at ISO 200, still with highlight priority turned on.
As we were about to leave the wall, and head back through a large courtyard then back to the car park, I saw a young lady messing around for a photo and snapped one of my own, which is image number 1981. Here I’ve shot the long shadow of the girl with her arms outstretched for her own photo. I reduced the shutter speed to 1/200th of a second here, firstly to stop the highlights on the wall from blowing out, but also to give us a bit of a silhouette look, with the shadows and everything. There’s a tiny bit of green ghosting in the center and foreground, and I’ve cropped a little off the top of this where the sun was just totally blown out at the very top of the frame, but I thought it was kind of a fun shot, thanks to the pose of the young lady.
As we passed through the courtyard that I just mentioned, I couldn’t resist snapping image number 1980, with the Chinese flag, very symbolic with the Great Wall in the background. This is a bit corny, and I really was in two minds as to whether to even upload it at all, but I figured it was a nice patriotic reminder of the visit, and kind of a tribute to the Chinese people that built this amazing structure. For this I was back with the 70-200mm lens, at F16 and back down to 1/160th of a second, as I had the sun to my back again.
I’m not totally happy with these shots from the wall. They’re OK, but most feel more like a record of the visit than anything truly artistic. If I’d had more time here, I would definitely have liked to get here at sunrise and stay until sunset. Of course, if I was planning private trip, I’d probably come in a better season, maybe when there’s some flowers in the hills or some autumn colour. In the winter with a smattering of snow might be nice too, but I’m sure it would be very slippery up here in the snow. To be honest though, as beautiful a place as it is, I probably wouldn’t spend my own money coming here. I’d be more likely to go to Africa, Antarctica, or one of the other places that I’d really like to visit for wildlife photography. Still, having had the opportunity to visit with my day job is still great, and it’s always best to try and shoot whatever we can and I do quite like some of the resulting images.
After this, we sped back to the city. The guys we were with were hoping to get us there before 3:30PM, when they close the gates and don’t let any more people in. We actually arrived closer to 4PM, and couldn’t get into the city itself, but there are plenty of photo opportunities in the out Forbidden City area. In image number 1978 we can see one very young soldier, standing against a mirror that has been washed with a very dirty cloth. I’m pretty happy with this shot. The warm light towards the end of the day is nice, and the angle of the light has emphasized how dirty that mirror is, which I think works as well. If you look into the mirror you can actually see the reflection of lots of people looking at the guard, and many, like me, were taking pictures. I shot this with the 70-200mm and had the ISO at 200, probably still in highlight priority mode, but I don’t remember, and the aperture was F5.6 with a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. I was out at 173mm so I was relying on the image stabilization a little here.
In image number 1977, to the right of the mirror and the last shot, was a bunch of soldiers on parade, with a sergeant major or something giving them one last check, before they turned and ran off in an orderly fashion. I was not quick enough to capture this, but there were also a couple of soldiers having a friendly fight with a third, and having kicked him a few times, he ran up and laughing, they all ran into the building together. I felt a very warm camaraderie amongst these young men which I thought was nice. This image was shot with the same settings as the last.
In image number 1975, we can see that all the soldiers have jobs, and here are two bringing back some trash from another part of the city. Again, they seemed really quite relaxed and happy, which was nice to see. For this I opened up the aperture to F4, and changed the shutter speed to 1/200th of a second, still at ISO 200. I wanted to force the background a little more out of focus for this and I’m happy with the amount of bokeh that I ended up with here at F4. I actually cropped a little of the top and left of this image. Although I shot it at 200mm, there was a little too much at the top, and there were some people in the left that were more distracting than I liked, so I removed them. I consciously left the lady in the red coat to the left, to mirror the other lady in the red coat to the right.
My favourite shot from the trip without a doubt is image number 1974. This is the expression of a soldier that just told you not to take his photo, but with such a wonderful expression and smile that you just can’t resist shooting anyway. This young man’s superior came over, and I asked him if I could take his photo too, and he also refused, but both were laughing a lot as I was basically giving them a big “pretty please”. I’m sure they didn’t mind actually, and got the feeling that it may be kind of against the rules, but there smiles were actually saying go ahead, so I did. I shot this with the 135mm F2 L lens which I picked up last month, and that gave me a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second at F2, with ISO 200. I’ve actually cropped this a little too, as I had a little too much arm in, and it kind of emphasized the fact that I cut of this young man’s arms in the shot. This way I think I can just about get away with it. More than anything else I just love that cheeky smirk and slightly embarrassed look on his face. Definitely a favourite from the trip, and may end up being a favourite for the year.
So that’s it from my very brief visit to China and even briefer few hours of photography. Hopefully I’ll get a change to go again next year, and may be able to do some more shooting at my own pace that time. I was going to be going to India again in three weeks time, but following the shocking scenes that we’ve seen from Mumbai today, I’ve actually cancelled my trip. That’s a shame, because I was looking forward to going back to the market with prints from my last visit. That will have to go on hold now until things calm down again in that beautiful country.
Thanks very much for listening today. I’ll be back next week, with another Martin Bailey Photography Podcast. Until then, you have a great week, whatever you’re doing. Bye bye.
Here’s a Wikipedia article on the Great Wall of China: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_great_wall_of_china
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Posted on behalf of Martin by Michael Rammell, a Wedding Photographer based in Berkshire, England. Michael also has a long-standing passion for Nature & Landscape photography. To catch up with Michael, visit his Web site, and follow him on the following social networking services.