Postcard Intellect

Travel photography for the uninitiated….



Travel Photography in Beijing – Beihai Park and the Temple of Heaven

I’m closing in on finishing the series of posts on China, with Beijing being our final destination.  I’ve already given a description and some thoughts on photography in the Forbidden City, and my closing post will be on the Great Wall of China.  But there are some other sites to see in Beijing, so I wanted to have an interim post to discuss two of the other famous photo-worthy locations in China – Beihai Park and the Temple of Heaven.

Beihai Park is located north-west of the Forbidden City; it’s essentially a Chinese garden, famous for it’s white Dagoba sitting atop an island in the middle of a lake.  We went to Beihai park in the late afternoon.  Although the overall park is open till 8:00, the White Pagoda closes at 5:00 and as a result we were really rushed to get some good pictures from the top (in fact we got kicked out as I was frantically setting up my tripod!)

As you enter the Jade Flowery Islet (by crossing this bridge) you can see the White Dagoba in the distance.  Upon entering through the gate we were confronted by an enormous collection of red ornaments, hanging in the trees.  There was writing on these but I’m afraid to say my ability to read Chinese is not what it used to be, so I have no idea what they said.  I took numerous pictures here as there were so many options.  I wanted to give a sense of place but also create a repeating pattern to show the sheer number of ornaments.

As we came through the red ornaments you walk up another flight of stairs heading towards the famous White Dagoba.  In the image below I framed the stairs with the gate and the overhanging tree canopy.

As I said, we unfortunately ran out of time when we got to the top as they were just closing the Dagoba.  They do have some repeating patterns of these praying monks that I took below – this is a basic composition of repeating figures with a leading line fading into the distance.  Finally you can see a snap that I took the of the White Dagoba itself.  The sun was setting and the light was nice, but once you get up there you’re smack on top of the thing so it’s not easy to get a good picture.

As is usually the case when out traveling in a foreign city, you live and learn.  Beihai Park is a nice little park; a great environment to walk around and enjoy the scenery.  I do think that if we’d had more time you can get some good images from the top of the pagoda of the surrounding area.  To the east is Jingshan Hill, another location where you can get some good pictures overlooking the Forbidden City.  If you’re going solely to get a better view of the Forbidden City, I think Jingshan Hill is a better option than Beihai Park.

On another day in the evening we went to the Temple of Heaven.  This place is just beautiful, and we had great, great light in the late afternoon.  It was pretty busy while we were there, but we hung around long enough for the majority of people to leave and get some good pics.

While arriving at the site, they had these big, red hanging lanterns in preparation for the Chinese New Year celebration.  They provided a great opportunity for different compositions, in many ways similar to the red ornaments hanging in the entry to Beihai Park.

As I said the light was really good; I’m particularly pleased with the picture at the top of the post but I took a few others that you can see below.  The first was taken with the dragon engraving in the foreground; this is located on the middle of the stairway as you head up to the main landing.  The second photo is taken on the platform so that I was level with the Temple.

While we were there we wanted to get the all important picture of us!  So as we usually do we exchanged cameras, took a few shots and then eventually setup the tripod to get a picture of the two of us in front of the famous landmark.  I know I don’t spend enough time discussing this but I think it’s absolutely critical to take pictures of you and your family while you’re there.  I love taking pictures and capturing these incredible landmarks from all over the world, but at the end of the day it’s great to have pictures of you and your loved ones.  As you grow older these are the pictures that will remind you not just what it was like to be there, but also what YOU were like when you were there.

As always, a few select images (non watermarked of course) from this trip are for sale. If you’d like to take a look and purchase you can click on the thumbnails below.


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!

Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai

After our few days in Singapore our next stop on our tour of Asia was Shanghai.  Now this city is is B I G.  The population is over 23 million and it’s the largest proper city in China. And I have to say I absolutely loved the place.  We stayed in a great hotel – the Westin Bund so we had a great view of the famous skyline and easy access to many of the cities well known sights.

I’ll probably write a few posts on this but I wanted to get started with the Yuyuan Gardens, which is where we went on our first day.  It was overcast and the pictures weren’t great due to a slight lack of motivation on our part but it’s still a pretty incredible place.  The garden was originally built in 1559 and is one of the finer gardens in the area.  I’m not an expert on Asian gardens so let me just tell you – it looks like an Asian garden.

There are beautiful fishponds – I would probably call these goldfish but I think they’re more correctly carp (they’re large, and I like this picture because they’re all moving in the same direction).

I took this picture of the Chinese writing – I was using a wide angle lens that allowed me to give this an interesting perspective, but unfortunately I can’t tell you what it says.

The day was a bit rainy and overcast (reminded me of English weather!) but that didn’t stop us from getting some detail shots.  This is one of the figurines that adorns the sweeping roof.  I always try to take more detail shots when the weather isn’t great; it allows you to hone in on what it was like to be there without being reminded that the weather failed to cooperate.

I took a panorama of the garden which I put together using Photoshop CS4.  It gives a nice feel for what the overall scene looks like – a bridge over the goldfish pond, rocks and plants all around and beautiful buildings surrounding the environment.

After taking some pictures and walking through the garden we also spent some time walking around the general area.  They were getting prepped for the Chinese New Year which is a huge celebration; this year will be the Year of the Dragon.

While walking around the rest of the area there are several markets and tea houses.  I particularly like the picture below; I was trying to capture the hanging lanterns when I spied this woman looking at her friend.  It fit the composition well and I’m very pleased with the bokeh and the focal point directly on her.

For a break during the day we stopped in a famous (and crowded) teahouse called Huxinting.  It was kinda funny because we had absolutely no idea on how to order tea.  Adriana’s drink was served in such a strange looking cup that we had to ask for instructions on how to drink it!

Finally while walking through the markets I snapped this moment in time that I just love – it’s one of the merchants selling his stuff and I really like the way people are not only huddled around him but also the lighting on their face.

I think this is where Gremlins came from!  Next post I’ll be writing about our adventures on Nanjin road and finally my experience on the Bund taking pictures of the awesome buildings of Pudong.

Farewell Bali

After many days of sun, fun and photos, it was time to wrap up our trip of Bali.  We closed out our last days with an early morning trip to Lovina Beach, in the northern part of the island.  Now Lovina is famous for being a great location to watch dolphins.  You get on these cutters and go out on the water at sunrise, and if you believe the hype there are scores of beautiful dolphins around.  We decided to give it a spin.  Dolphins are beautiful animals, and it’s not often that you get the opportunity to see many of them in the water with you.

Man what a bust.  This is the one pic that I got of a dolphin off Lovina beach.  So you can see it’s definitely not a sure thing.  However I will say that we ran into other people that went on other days and really had a great experience.  So it’s really luck of the draw (or the dolphin’s decision, depending on how you look at it).

After the lacklustre performance at Lovina we drove to a temple, called Brahma Vihara Arama.  It’s actually a Buddhist temple with some Hindu elements, and it was impressive.  I took the HDR photo below because the sun was so harsh, I’m pleased with the way it turned out.

The picture below is of the two statues at the entrance; I put the focus on the latter statue in an effort to draw the eye into the picture a little more.

We left Brahma Vihara Arama and drove into the mountains on our way home; this is where we saw yet another of Bali’s famous temples, known as Pura Ulun Danu Bratan.  It’s sitting in one of the mountain lakes and is probably tied with Tanah Lot for being one of the more iconic images of Bali.  This is one of the those places where I just took way too many pictures.  The temple is so incredibly photogenic and on the day we were there the sun was coming in and out behind the clouds to really change the lighting every few minutes.  I think my favorite version of this picture is above but I like the two below as well.

And across the street from this temple was another one.  This one was relatively small and “quiet” looking, and I’m sorry I don’t know the name of it.  But there was absolutely no one around and it was yet another opportunity to capture the essence of the island. 

I also created a map so you get some clarity on where all these temples are and maybe it will help you understand your trip if you get to Bali and want to take some pictures of the temples.  I hope you find it useful.

Ladies and gents, this concludes our week in Bali!  If you ever get the opportunity to visit I would highly recommend it.  For those of you looking for simple peace and quiet you may occasionally be frustrated.  The island is busy, it’s developed in many areas and it may not give you the seclusion that you’re looking for.  But it’s a great place to visit, the temples are incredibly photo worthy and the people are wonderful.  Highly recommended!

Finally, I leave you with a brief video of our journey, we didn’t get much footage while in Bali but I figured I’d post it anyway.  It’s worth watching just for the video of me trying to impersonate Zoolander – “Water is the essence of wetness!”

Enjoy and thanks for reading!

Tanah Lot and Monkey Temple – More pictures from Bali

On our way home from Besakih temple we had lunch at a really cool place called the Lotus Temple in Ubud.  The weather was just starting to turn and you could see the storm clouds approaching behind the temple.  I took the picture above after lunch; I love the bright colors of the temple against the ominous background of the clouds.

After lunch we drove down to Monkey Temple, sometimes known as the Sacred Monkey Forest.  It was a bit crazy – there are macaques everywhere, and they’re not afraid of humans so it creates a bit of a chaotic situation.  You have people walking around taking pictures, then suddenly there’s a fit of chaos as a monkey grabs the sunglasses off a woman’s head or jumps on top of a child who’s holding a banana.  People give a nervous chuckle but in reality most people are pretty much terrified the whole time they walk through the area.

I did take a few pictures of course, I’m particularly fond of the three below.  The first I like because it looks like the monkey is staring at the statue in the foreground, almost like it’s protecting it’s young from the frightening monster.  The second picture of the young one holding the fruit just gives that sense that every child is thinking but maybe not quite capable of saying.  “This is mine and you can’t have any.”

And finally the last one I like because….well he looks like me.  And you, to be honest (and not meaning any offense).  It’s really amazing to watch a primate and think about the way evolution works, and how it came to be, over millions of years, that I was there taking pictures of them while they were staring at me wondering if they could eat my camera.

The temple itself isn’t much to speak of – the main draw is definitely the monkeys and they sell some bananas, etc. that you can purchase to feed them.  Quite a few people do this, including this guy who made a new friend.

There are some idols and statues worth taking pictures of, and the environment is dark, humid and definitely has that Indiana Jones feel to it.

After we left the temple our driver was more than willing to bounce around, and I wanted to get some pictures of the farmers in their rice paddies.  This is another iconic thing that Bali is known for and I had seen images in Flickr that blew me away.  Unfortunately we didn’t really get to the interesting areas where the rice terraces are really profound, but that didn’t stop us from getting some good pictures of local life, and an appreciation for the staple food that a lot of Asia relies on.

In the latter part of the day we made the drive down to Tanah Lot.  This was THE place I wanted to go while in Bali, so I was ready to go (and ready to drive my wife crazy in the process).  Tanah Lot is one of the more famous temples in Bali – it’s in the southern part of the island and is absolutely beautiful.  The temple is on an island that is just off the beach, and when combined with the sunset can make for an absolutely beautiful scene.  As we walked down I was paranoid about making the sunset (we were there in plenty of time).  I first took this picture, from the right hand side as you’re walking to the water.  It captures the temple and the water very well.

From where this picture was taken if you were to look to the right there’s a short peninsula/overlook that goes out probably 50 meters.  It may be a better vantage point if you’re planning to get that “Postcard shot” but you need to get there early.  When I was there the place was mobbed and I knew this was my one chance, so I stuck with my position.  Below you can see a picture of what the setup looked like.  I was mainly using my 17-40 wide angle lens with an ND filter so I could get a longer exposure time (which I find also helps to enhance the light around sunset).

Finally for the winning shot.  As I was there taking a gazillion pictures waiting for the light to really change, Adriana finally said – we should go over to the other side – the view will be better, there’s a place to sit down, the sun’s not in a good place yet, etc.  My wife is usually right about these sorts of things and I figured after 150 shots of the above I was ready to go.

Well it was the right decision.  If you’re coming down to the temple and go to the left of the temple (while facing the water) there’s a series of markets which leads into a few restaurants / cafes that sit over a cliff where you get an incredible view of the temple.  This was where I knew I was going to get the shot I had really been after.  I used my 17-40 again with the filter and took a series of photos until I settled on this one.

If you’d like to view large click here.  I love the colors in this shot, made possible with the filter that allowed this picture to be exposed for a total of 10 seconds (at f/22 – remember that thing called aperture?  Setting the camera to f/22 with an ND filter let me take a long exposure, even with the receding sunlight).

The drive out of Tanah Lot after sunset is pretty rough – we went back home and prepped for a few days of pool-side relaxation and an awesome New Years Eve party at Ku De Ta.

We’re getting near to the end of our tour of Bali.  I’ll wrap this post up and when I get the chance will close out with my final images of Pura Ulun Danu Bratan and who knows, maybe even a video!

Photography in Bali – Besakih Temple

I’m finally finding the time to write about my trip to Bali, where my wife and I finished 2011 in style by spending just under a week enjoying the island.  We stayed in Seminyak, an area in the south and home to some great restaurants, spas, and resorts.  We arrived late in the evening and spent our first day lounging at the pool to figure out what where we wanted to go, but after that passed we were soon out and about taking pictures of the beautiful island.

We knew that we wanted to see several temples, and on our second day we hired a driver who took us up north to the large temple of Pura Besakih, sometimes known as the Mother Temple.  We paid a small entry fee and had a guide take us around, as there are certain areas of the temple that you’re not allowed to enter.

I started out trying to get some general shots of the overall temple structure as we approached, and it’s large.  The entire temple structure consists of over 18 temples and there are areas that were initially constructed as early as the 11th century.  The mountain in the background is known as Mt. Agung and creates an imposing backdrop for the image.  Here’s an image from part way up the temple looking out; quite a view!

When I take pictures at temples like these I like to try and get some detail shots as well.  While the overall structure is incredible, there’s a lot of opportunity to get some great images of the statues and idols that are all around the temple.  I took the photo below with a very traditional composition; the statue to the right is looking right at you while the white statue in the back left is slightly blurred out (due to the aperture setting).

The picture above is similar but with a slightly different look; the statue in the back is in focus and the blur is on the statue towards the front (which is also facing to the right, looking out of the frame).  There are so many different compositional options in a temple like this – it’s honestly a photographer’s playground.  I like to spend a lot of time walking around and trying different options until I get some images I’m happy with.

Further inside the temple I took some additional pictures of the temple towers; in the first one I liked the pattern that the squares created on the ground.  In the second one I framed one of the temple towers amongst some of the other temples.

The clouds on the day were a bit overcast and quickly changing.  I took many of the photos knowing that I would convert them to HDR pictures in post processing.  I particularly like some of these images below as we got closer to the main temple area and the stairs that form the center piece of the temple complex.

While on the stairs I took a picture of the view looking down as well.

And at the bottom of the stairs I took this picture of some of the statues and idols.

We spent a few hours at the temple.  If you’re not taking pictures it’s probably something you could do in an hour, but both my wife and I really enjoy taking our time and doing our best to capture the feeling and lock in the memory of being there.  When we were finished we jumped back in the car and went off to Monkey Temple near the town of Ubud, and then eventually ended up at Tanah Lot temple on the southern coast, but I’ll write about that journey in another post.

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