Photography in the Forbidden City – Beijing, China

Ah!!  Beijing!!

What a great, great city!  Adriana and I arrived in Beijing after visiting the terracotta warriors in Xian.  We were fortunate with good weather while we were there, albeit cold. The Forbidden City, also known as the Forbidden Palace, was built in the early 15th century.  The buildings are incredible – and it’s just the kind of place that I really enjoy taking pictures.  Once I’m in a closed off area like this (there’s a small admission fee) I feel like I’m in my element.  It’s just great to walk around and have the freedom to take pictures of whatever you want in such a unique environment.

We begin with the main gate and entry at Tiananmen Square.  This is where the Chinese soldiers are guarding the entry to the Forbidden Palace, with a large photo of Chairman Mao hanging on the gate.  The photo below is a pretty classic and basic composition – guard in focus in the foreground with the background giving a sense of place.  Aperture was set to f/6.3 to create enough blur but plenty of detail to recognize Mao.

As you enter, this is the site you see:

This is an 11 picture panorama.  I set my camera to manual, set the exposure (meaning the aperture, shutter speed and ISO) as well as the white balance, and took 11 vertical shots from left to right.  No tripod, no nothing.  When I got back I put the photo into Photoshop and it merged the image, which I then cropped and adjusted.  It came out pretty well for a handheld shot.  Click here for a larger version.

As I entered the site I was really struck by the architecture.  The curving lines of the buildings, the circular, repeating structures on the roofs and the exquisite carvings all created an incredible atmosphere.  Instead of taking standard clicks of the buildings I found myself trying to get more interesting compositions of these aspects.

I chose to process the last picture here slightly different from the others.  Instead of adding a little vibrance and saturation, I did the opposite.  I took away some of the color to give it a more ancient look.  While many photographers strive to create their own style, I prefer to mix things up and keep people guessing!

In addition to being struck by the flowing architecture, there were also a lot of guards around.  These guys were standing stoically, watching the crowds with barely a move.

When shooting photos in a place like this I also like to get a variety of images.  Instead of just getting the buildings, I like to make sure I capture the detail of the place.  Taking close up pictures of the incredible sculptures and carvings can really give a sense of place. And for me personally, it helps me to remember what it was like to actually be there.  We’ve all seen pictures of the Forbidden Palace, but the pictures below strive to be different from the norm to give the viewer a more personal sense of the place.

In line with the details, I wanted to make sure I also captured the interior of some of the more famous buildings that are on the “main drag” of the complex.  These were challenging to take – there were people everywhere, crowding in to take a picture.  When I confront a situation like this I make sure that my camera is set appropriately (right lens, Av mode) and then wait patiently until I get a center spot.  Once I get that center spot I’ll take a few quick snaps and then get out of the way so that others can have a look. These pictures are HDR, due to the tricky interior lighting and the fact that …. well, I like to take some HDR pics!

The above is the throne in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, one of the larger and more important buildings in the Forbidden City.

The picture above is another famous building, the Hall of Preserving Harmony.

I also wanted to ensure I got whole buildings, so you could get a sense of scale and understand their overall shape and how large they are compared to their surroundings.  Of course my favorites of this group are the ones with my beautiful wife!

The picture below I edited in Silver Efex and made it completely black and white.  I really like the couple walking together with the buildings in the background – it gives an excellent sense of scale and tranquility.

I also like this one – it gives that same strong sense of Asian architecture with the tubular roofs and flowing gables, but also includes the beautiful white Stupa in the background.  This is known as the Miaoying Temple and yes, we visited it as well!  Pictures to come in a future post!

 The next photos I have to guess, I’m not entirely sure which building this is but I think it’s the Hall of Supreme Harmony.  I really like the picture of the building as the colors complement each other very well.

On the photo above you’ll notice at the edges how the gables flare out to the sides.  On top of them there’s a collection of figurines, or charms.  One of the things we learned while reading about the site was that the more figurines a building has, the more important the building.  I snapped a picture of these as well, shown below.

To the north of the Forbidden Palace is Jingshan Hill.  Below you see a picture of the building on top of the hill; the view down on the Palace is one of the best views in the city, which is the opening picture of this post.

All in all, we had a wonderful time in the Forbidden City.  If you get a chance to go, I would say you need over half a day to really get to see everything and not feel like you’re rushing through it.  If you’re a history buff or architecture junkie, you could probably spend more than a day on site.

Below is a Google Satellite image of the site.  We entered from the south and then walked north, which is what you pretty much have to do.  We were there in winter and I can honestly say the light was pretty good the whole time; the shadows weren’t too harsh.

I hope you enjoyed looking at these pics and it gives you a better idea of how you can capture some memorable images from your visit.  We really had a wonderful time exploring the site, taking pictures, and soaking in the history from one of China’s great historical locations.  Any comments and constructive criticism is welcome and if you’re interested in purchasing any of these photos as postcards or prints, you can do so here.  And if you’d like to see more images of our visit to the Forbidden Palace, you can check out my Flickr photostream where I post a wider collection of photos.

Until next time, hope you get some good pictures and for my UK friends enjoy the long weekend!

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About Aaron

A love of photography and travel have led to me creating this blog. I'm also interested in science, technology and the outdoors. I currently live in London with my beautiful wife and work in the telecommunications industry.
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3 Responses to Photography in the Forbidden City – Beijing, China

  1. CaPekelman says:

    Great post, great photos!
    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and this is the first time that I leave a reply.
    I’m already saving my pennies to buy a DSLR and your blog it’s been very educative, if I may say.
    Thanks you for sharing it all and let’s keep taking photos!

    • Aaron says:

      Thanks so much for the wonderful comment Carol! I’m really glad to hear that you’re learning from this and enjoying it! Let me know when you get a DSLR so I can check out your shots!

  2. Madhu says:

    Great shots!Lovely to get a photographers perspective :-)

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