Category Archives: China


Dylan and I have been checking the magazine stands over the last few days and it has finally happened… our article has hit the stands!!

The established Australian Photography magazine has published an article written by Dylan and myself, along with many of Dylan’s beautiful photos, on traveling and photographing China’s Yunnan province.  Our article appears on pages 26-30.

We had to keep it quiet over the last two months as we worked on the article, and it was quite an exhilarating experience knowing that the magazine would reach photography enthuasiasts throughout the country.  We were so excited that we both brought a copy home!  This is our first ever publication and it was an honour to be accepted for print in an issue that also features Frans Lanting and Darren Leal, two established and professional photographers.  Australian Photography has been in publication for over 50 years and is one of few Australian magazines catering for the photographic community.

So if you get a chance, pick up a copy!



Jiuzhaigou For Photographers

As the most expensive National Park in China, you might think twice about spending the yuan to visit this park.  However, you would be doing yourself no favours, and unfortunately, the peak fall season is also one of the best times to view the spectacular scenery.  The park operators have it all worked out, and the entrance price of 220 yuan – plus another 90 yuan for the green bus to travel around in the park – is only valid for one day’s entry during the months of July to March.  Outside of this period (April – June), the entrance ticket can be used for two days, and the bus fare is reduced to 80 yuan per day.

Jiuzhaigou is situated in the northern reaches of Sichuan province and used to be difficult to access.  Now there are several flights departing daily from Chengdu and buses from Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport can take you to either Jiuzhaigou (88km away) or Huanglong (53km).  We stayed at MIGU Youth Hostel, which is part of the Hostelling International chain of youth hostel accommodation, and was only a half hour walk from the entrance of the park.  The rooms are clean and serviceable for 120 yuan/night; if not of the 5 star quality of the Sheraton Jiuzhaigou Resort on the other side of the park, at least the owner speaks English, Mandarin and Japanese very well.  Beware that you may need to pay extra to operate the heating unit though, as electricity is still considered a relative luxury.

We arrived in late October and spent two days exploring Jiuzhaigou.  We were worried that we had missed the fall colours, and although it was clear that peak colour had passed, we still think it’s worth a visit.  During our visit the ground was covered with fallen leaves but there were still a fair number of trees holding onto their coloured foliage, and the scattered leaves in the lakes provided interesting contrast with the deep blues and turquoises of the water.

Jiuzhaigou was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992.  It has gained popularity in the last few years and tourism is now responsible for the majority of locals’ income with over 1.5 million visitors annually (mostly local Chinese).  On our first day we made the mistake of taking the green bus all the way to the top of the right fork of the Park, and whilst the day started off quietly enough, by 11am it was thronging with local tourists and jostling is in order to secure enough space for your tripod.  As many of the paths are boardwalked, you will also need to deal with vibrations as the thousands of people stampede past whilst you are trying to take that 2-second exposure of a waterfall.

So here are some tips that will hopefully help you to make the most of Jiuzhaigou:

Tip #1: Wake up early and get to the park before it opens at 7am.  You can only buy tickets for the day, on the day, during peak season.  At 6.45am there will already be 20 people lined up, if not more.

Tip #2: To avoid the crowds, catch the bus to an approximate halfway mark in the park.  Our first stop was Mirror Lake on the second day, and there was not a soul in sight; it was a fabulous relief from the crowds and we didn’t need to fight for tripod space.  We shot Pearl Shoals Waterfall, then Nuorilang Falls, then caught the bus UP to Long Lake on the left fork.  If we were to do it again, on Day 1 we’d still stop off in the middle, head downwards towards the entrance of the Park, then go to the Primeval Forest at the top of the right fork later in the day.

Tip #3:  Pack your own food/beverages.  Don’t waste time trying to catch a bus back to the Visitor Centre as there are no kiosks or eateries anywhere else in the park.  The Government has actually done a very good job of keeping the park clean and man-made structures are kept to a minimum.

Tip #4:  Try to shoot the waterfalls in the morning period.  Most of them face west, so later in the afternoon it can become very bright and exposure is horrendously difficult to control.  We had to use an NDx4 filter in addition to our GNDs to be able to achieve a slow enough shutter speed in the bright light.

Tip #5:  If you only have one day, we recommend the right fork.  The 5 adjoining lakes of Arrow Bamboo Lake to Golden Bell Lake are probably the most picturesque group in the Park.  Heading towards the entrance, Mirror Lake, Rhinoceros Lake and the Shuzheng Falls are also very pretty.  If you do have two days, the left fork leading to Long Lake is probably better in the afternoon as the boardwalk faces east out towards the Lake, and it can be hard shooting into the sun in the mornings (we only did a morning shoot at Long Lake).  The Upper Seasonal Lake did not contain a lot of water at the time of our visit, and there are fewer bus stops along the left fork.  We most certainly felt that the right fork offered more photo opportunities.

Tip #6: Be patient, especially as it gets later and more and more tourists arrive.  You may think that you will never get your shot, but there will be very brief periods where there are gaps between groups of people walking past.  The only downside is that it takes longer, and you may cut into the time you have allocated for each area – however the only advice we can give here is that if you really want to do everything in the park, you may need to think about spending more days shooting (maybe 3, or even more).

Tip #7: Beware of ACE – Asian Composition Envy.  We made this term up after noticing the phenomenon in numerous places we visited throughout China.  What will occur is that you will spend time setting up your tripod and camera for the composition you want, and then you will patiently wait for a gap in which you can actually take the photo.  In the meantime, at least 5 other people will come up right behind you, try to look at your LCD screen, look at the scene towards which your camera is pointed, then immediately take the same picture whilst standing right next to you.  In some cases, they will go so far as to stand in front of your camera, and ask you to take a photo of them, posing in front of your carefully selected scene.  The only solution we suggest – smile, take the photo, and they will be on their way soon enough.

Tip #8: Pack some warm gear as it can be quite chilly in the mornings and evenings when the sun is not shining directly on you.  It didn’t rain during the two days that we visited, but we were very lucky – on the last evening steady precipitation soaked the ground and didn’t let up until well into the night, so some waterproof gear might not be such a bad idea either.

Tip #9: Enjoy yourself!  The Park really is a gorgeous display of natural scenery, so whilst there are some downsides to visiting in peak season, you’re there and you might as well make the most of it.

For more information, the website is not bad, but a Google search of “Jiuzhaigou” will bring up more than enough sites to trawl through.  Hopefully we’ve managed to give a brief overview from a photographer’s point of view that will also help if you do decide to visit the Park.


HDR Workflow Tutorial

I’ll be using the following image of Shenlong waterfall in Yunnan for a step by step tutorial in my particular method of processing HDR images.

The Final result of an HDR image

HDR images tend to be very popular because of its innate properties as well as the fact that the web seems to be flooded with HDR imagery out there these days.  As a personal opinion, I use HDR to present exactly what it stands for : High Dynamic Range in an image – meaning that there are minimal blown highlights and minimal areas of pure black shadow. However, HDR as it has come to be recognised online, has almost become synonymous with the imagery that one particular software program called Photomatix produces. The results are often stunning, surreal, heavily oversaturated and tend to look more like digital art than a photo. There’s nothing wrong with this appearance but I still like to present photographs as photographs rather than digital art as such (definitions clash I know).  I’ve been given the odd compliment here and there that many of my HDR images veer away from the photomatix trend in a good way; which is the reason why I thought I would share some of the workflow and photoshop techniques I use to create the final result. Note that there are many other ways to process and present these images that are by no means less effective or worthwhile.

Step 1: Choosing the right images

One of the important things to recognise when taking shots for an HDR image is that many of the images look awful on their own.  You can take any number of exposures of a given scene and the best results are achieved when you can calculate these exposures manually, however, the easiest way to take an image is to use the camera’s autobracketing function to take three images.

0EV image : neutral exposure : I try to take this image as though I were not shooting with an HDR in mind such that shadows and highlights are balanced as well as possible ( I do use filters even with HDR shots). Often, if I’ve done a decent job, I will only process this image and not go on with my HDR workflow.

Balanced lighting in the image : note the histogram on top right

-2EV image: this image will look dark and unusable but don’t ditch it! The purpose of this image is to have no blown highlights at all so the histogram should be gathered to the left.

Highlights are correctly exposed for (but nothing else) - note the histogram on the top right - this image is probably a little too underexposed even for a -2EV

+2EV image: this image will look blown out as though you’re staring at a lightbulb but once again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Its purpose is to capture shadows in the image exposed to a neutral degree hence the histogram should be gathered to the right.

Ouch! what a sight for sore eyes. Note though that it has served its function by lightening the foresty hills . Note the histogram is bunched to the far right.

The wider the exposure bias in your images, the larger the dynamic range of the final result. If I’m serious about creating a good image, I use a tripod so that all 3 images are exactly aligned. If I’m even more serious, I might take 5 or more exposures for the one scene though I find that in most instances, the standard 3 will suffice.

Step 2:  The Photomatix steps

I wont’ discuss how to use Photomatix at all. Needless to say that it is a very simple process to produce an image from this program. In the screenshot are the typical settings that I use on the tonemapping function of this program.  I choose to use the details enhancer by default.

Importing into photomatix is as simple as dragging and dropping the images into the photmatix window and clicking OK at several prompts

My typical settings on photomatix : others not shown in the other tabs include settings for temperature, smoothing and micro-contrast

The final result from Photomatix’s effort at producing HDR creates some very attractive textures and a heavy degree of saturation. Often, it warms the temperature of the scene somewhat too. It’s shortcomings however are:  Bizarre looking skies that are completely unreal  (a good thing if this is what you’re aiming for) , terrible grain where the program has tried to turn pure blacks into a midtone , uneven lighting which varies from the original image wildly at times.  (In the above example, I was not happy with the darkening of the middle of image,the odd highlights in the water, and the inappropriately darkened bottom right) So this is why I find it necessary to undertake the following steps.

Step 3: Creating the base image to edit:

Typically, I open the Photomatix image as a base layer in photoshop.

I then open the +2EV  image and adjust the colours to match roughly what I want in the final result. Copy the image and add it onto the original image as a new layer and you will see only the +2EV image layer.

The photomatix image is at top left. The +2EV image I've adjusted to match the colour before dragging and dropping into the photomatix image as a new layer

Step 4 : Realistic looking shadowed areas

Create a layer mask over the new layer and select the brush tool. Using black on the layer mask deletes the current layer hence exposing the underlying Photomatix layer. Using white on the layer mask recovers the layer. I use settings on the brush that are soft, and at about 30% strength so that the change is gradual. The aim of adding this layer is often to retain the ‘photographic’ quality of the +2EV image’s shadowed areas while retaining the textures from the Photomatix layer. As a result, I end up ‘erasing’ most of the new layer’s areas where there are highlights in the original scene and retaining most of the new layer’s areas where there were shadows in the original scene.

The two layers visible : Since the +2EV image is on top, that is all you will be able to see at this stage

Setting the brush to small percentages and flow means that any change will be gradual and less likely to need undoing

In the layer mask on bottom right, you can see that the areas I've retained from the +2EV layer are in white. Any areas in black on the layer mask are effectively 'see through' areas to the underlying photomatix base layer

Step 5: Realistic looking highlight areas ( eg water, sky)

Next, open up the -2EV image and adjust the hue/saturation and vibrance to the same degree as you did for the +2EV image.  Copy the image and add it onto the original image as a new layer. You should now only be able to see this new shadowed layer on top of the +2EV layer and the Photomatix base layer.  Create a layer mask as above.  The aim  of this layer is to retain the photographic feel of the bright areas of the original image while getting rid of the shadows from this layer that are unusable.  Often, I end up retaining 100% of the sky from the -2EV image with no contribution from the Photomatix layer at all.

The process described for the +2EV layer is repeated with the -2EV layer. I only want to retain bits of the water from this layer, meaning that most of this layer will be deleted through the layer mask being brushed 'black'

You can repeat the procedure with new layers for other exposures that you took if there is a particular aspect of each exposure whose appearance you want in the final image. An example of this is for waterfall images. Because of the way I shoot these images, the best water motion is often contained in the 0EV image which I will add as an additional layer, removing everything else (using a layer mask) but the water I wish to retain in the final image.

The end result should be that you have an image with good dynamic range where shadows are visible and highlights are well controlled. By blending in the original images , the resultant image looks more real than the original image that Photomatix produced for you.

The final result of melding the three layers together. Now all that's left is to do is"flatten" the image

Once you are happy with the exposures and general appearance, ‘flatten the image’ and then whatever workflow for all your non HDR images comes into play….but that’s a post for another day!

So , just to show you the evolution again , We went from

The three native images:

To a Photomatix generated image : (weird lighting)

To a more natural looking image by blending in the original images: (soft looking image)

And finally, some more adjustment to colours, levels, sharpening layers and borders for the final result:

Hooray all done!!!

Well, that was probably a bit of a lengthy read but I hope it would at least have given you some ideas as to how to to about producing these kinds of images after taking the shot!(bigger version at