Shooting in China , Online article ZOOM, January 2014
This fascinating country is in the news almost every day. Today a rocket is launched to the moon, the next day it is polluter no. 1 and again a day later you read that they have the largest capacity of windmills and solar panels. The economy seems to be much less affected by the global crisis than the west and almost everything we have in-house is produced in China. If you like street photography, China is like heaven on earth. Everything is different, everything is different and most Chinese don't mind if you photograph (them). That makes the life of a documentary photographer a real party!
But what if you like nature and silence? Is there still something for nature and landscape photographers to find in this crowded country?
In 2011, I read an article about the northern province of Inner Mongolia, not to be confused with the country of Mongolia. This is the province of the grasslands, the (Gobi) deserts, nomads and relatively few people. What I read really appealed to me and in May 2013 I decided to visit two different areas in Inner Mongolia.
Both areas are part of the huge Gobi. If we see the Gobi here in the west as one big desert, the Chinese make a distinction. A very large part consists of sand and gravel, is flat and empty. According to the Chinese, this is the Gobi. Other parts, they say, are the real deserts. These include the Takla Makan, Tengger and Badain Jaran deserts
An area in the northwest of the Gobi is the area around Ejin Qi (also called Ejin Banner or Dalain hob). This small city, certainly by Chinese standards, has about 20 thousand inhabitants and is located a few hundred kilometers from the Chinese launch site “Jiuquan” from. More interesting for us photographers is the fact that just outside the city there is an area of the so-called Euphrates poplars. These types of trees are only found in three areas in the world. In autumn the area is a 'sea of gold' due to the beautiful discoloration of the (living) trees. Very popular with photographers but for me the 'dead forest', a few kilometers away, was a lot more attractive. The course of the nearby Ejin River has changed over the years. No water means no life and for this reason the once blooming and colorful poplar forest has turned into a forest of 'dead' trees. The sight is special and unexpected! Lots of sand, dead or nearly dead trees, stumps and branches everywhere. It looks like a huge battlefield. Dried and molded by wind and weather, they sometimes look like sinister figures from the underworld, an outstretched hand sticking out of the ground, the head of an alien, a curved back, etc.. Walking around during sunrise or in the last light of the day see endless shadows and silhouettes everywhere, your imagination can run wild. In short, a mecca for fine art photographers and Ansel Adam addicts. Beautiful in black and white but also great in color!
The Badain Jaran Desert is located in the southeast of the Gobi. With almost 50 thousand square kilometers it is the third largest desert in China. It is here where the highest sand dunes in the world are located, sometimes exceeding 500 meters! To make the landscape even more spectacular than it already is, there are more than 140 lakes scattered throughout the area that are probably fed by underground streams. The lakes vary in color and size. Some contain fresh water while most are salty to very salty. Of course, the water provides life in this dry and harsh environment. You can find herds of camels, goats, horses and birds along the banks. Here and there a family has settled in this barren landscape and somewhere along a lake is a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Built in the 19th century and thanks to its isolated location, it survived the cultural revolution.
Travel and photography
To travel in this landscape you need a number of things and the three most important things are a good driver, car and a guide who knows the way. Going into the desert on foot without a pack is already a bad idea, but with heavy photo equipment it is almost impossible. The adage of 2 steps up, 1 down is more than true in this area. During my visit I hired a local guide/driver. A man who was born in the area, knows the desert like the back of his hand and turned out to be a great but also safe artist with his Toyota Landcruiser. Driving through loose sand and up dunes of hundreds of meters is a spectacular activity and not something you should do if you quickly get carsick. Renting a private car gave me the opportunity to determine exactly where I wanted to shoot, at any time of the day. Sand and wind set the stage with the most fascinating shapes, lines and textures imaginable. The desert colors continuously differently and the landscape around you changes throughout the day. The sand and the light are an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration for creative photography.
The 'field work' is only part of the work. At least that much time I spent on post-processing my photos. I edit the images completely to my own taste, I have to like them myself. In this case, that meant that I tinkered a lot with contrasts, sometimes with the color temperature and sometimes even with the orientation and the angular displacement. My aim is to create aesthetically beautiful images that do not necessarily have to represent absolute reality. I therefore see photography as a starting product and certainly not yet as the end product.
The environment is beautiful and fascinating but the conditions under which you have to work are difficult. Sand and wind in combination with sensitive equipment is not ideal. However, it is also not too dramatic. When you work with the necessary attention, care and a good set of cleaning supplies, you can achieve great results and have the time of your life in this beautiful environment.
Tips and tricks
Below is a list of tips and recommendations when shooting in the desert.
Before departure, make sure everything is in optimal condition. In any case, test everything thoroughly at home.
Always determine in advance where and what you want to photograph. If you are with more than one person, make an appointment. When you walk or drive somewhere, you immediately leave tracks in the sand that can seriously ruin your own landscape.
My equipment consisted of the following:
Nikon D3, 14-24/f2.8, 24-70/f2.8, 70-200/f2.8, 1.7* converter;
Olympus Pen E-P3, 7-14mm, 14-42mm, 45-200mm;
Memory cards, batteries, chargers;
A complete cleaning kit for your gear; Sensor cleaning, lens cleaning, bellows, brushes, liquid, pads and everything that goes with it these days;
ND filters, gradient and ordinary (not often used).
Tripod, often you want a considerable depth of field. I have worked a lot with the 70-200 mm zoom (with or without the 1.7* conv) and then you have very little depth of field anyway. During the day there is a lot of light available so that you can use small apertures, but as soon as the light decreases, you really need a tripod. It is precisely these times of the day that are beautiful, of course because the light is less harsh. The long(er) shadows make it all even more plastic.
Bring a change bag. Here you can replace your lenses without sand being blown into your camera. I myself have encountered relatively windless weather, but it is nice if you can also change when there is more wind. There are special bags, but I brought some regular garbage bags with me. Cheaper and worked great.
A laptop or at least a backup option. I spent a total of about 6 days in the desert and every time I came back to the hotel I not only backed up my tickets but also immediately looked at what I had shot. The advantage of this is that the next time we 'departed', I could take the experiences with me and adjust things if necessary. I use a 15” Macbook Pro, heavy enough to run all the relevant software and light enough to take with me on a trip. The software used is Adobe PS 6, LR 5 and the Nik Software.
I also occasionally photographed from the car. That in itself is a difficult job because you simply do not drive on a nice smooth asphalt road. However, with the window open (also with the window closed), the way is clear for incoming dust and sand. That's why I always had a wet towel over my camera bag, my camera, and anything I didn't want to get dust in and on. Damp rags are extremely good dust absorbers and it certainly helped me to shoot without interference.
Provide a reliable, knowledgeable and above all safe guide/driver. Driving in sand is an art in itself, but driving in a desert with dunes many hundreds of meters high is a tricky business if you do not know exactly how, what and where.
Who is this author?
Trained as a computer scientist but since 2000 I have been a professional photographer. In the past 13 years I have traveled and photographed a lot. I am not only interested in landscape photography. I also find social and documentary photography fascinating, especially in Asian countries. Since 2005 I have been coming to China with some regularity and in 2011 and 2013 I have lived a large part of the year in the southern Yangshuo. I also gave workshops here.
In 2014 I will accompany two trips for Nordic Vision. Of course the trip to Inner Mongolia described above, in addition a winter trip to Huangshan (Yellow Mountains).
I made a book of the Inner Mongolia trip, now for my own promotion but I am considering looking for a publisher so that it can be offered for an affordable price. In the preview of the book you can see more images of my journey on the BLURB site.
You can see more of my work on my website or on my facebook page.