Travel photography in China is a big topic and therefore this article only explores the parameters that will go towards making your visit a success. The key point is to ensure that you keep the travel down to allow time for your main objective.
Duration and timing
For a visit of one or two weeks it will be well worth while to focus on one theme from one base only. Getting to and from the base and orientation there can swallow 4-6 days depending on your start point and quite how remote you plan to go. Each change of base is likely to take up at least one more day.
Flights may appear to shrink the country on paper but in reality the transfers to/from the airport, arrival and departure procedures and the inevitable delays will mean more frustration than ease. A good alternative is to make use of the new fast train network. That is mentioned again below.
If you are able to visit China for longer then you can begin to include additional bases. For a three-week trip two bases would be quite reasonable; three bases at a stretch – particularly if you are shooting in urban areas and are close to transport hubs for the required moves.
Your budget will also impact on the decision to move around. Flights and the associated costs are relatively expensive. Your budget will soon disappear on these if you try to include too much when, really, you should be thinking of allowing for quality services once at a base so that you are able to get out to the sites you want at the times that it is best to be there. That will normally require private transport and a local guide.
There is no best season to visit China. There are times to avoid, such as the Spring Festival (dates vary as this is based on the Lunar Calendar) the ‘Golden Week’ National holiday (1 – 7 October each year). During peak periods prices go up (an annoyance)but the main issue is that travel services become saturated and you are likely to find some tickets and accommodation unavailable at any price.
Destinations within China may have their own best season. It is well worth doing your research here as changing your dates by a few days may well have a big impact on the results you get. Check out national and local holidays/festivals as well as the phase of the moon (an indicator for tides too if you plan to be by the coast) and try to avoid major sporting events (such as the Shanghai Grand Prix) or trade fairs (such as the ones in Guangzhou – aka Canton).
Photographic style and style of travel
China is huge and exotic. It therefore offers photographers a vast range of opportunities. Your task during the planning stage is to get a handle on these and come up with an achievable plan. Be ruthless and eliminate as many add-ons as you can bear.
Landscape photographers are likely to be tempted to one of the mountainous areas. Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) is rightly one of the top destinations for local and foreign artists. The karst landscape around Guilin is also hugely popular, including the rice terraces at Longsheng and the town of Yangshuo, my home for the last 12 years.
Those landscape photographers with more of a sense of adventure may be tempted to Tibet (but should instead look to visit Tibetan areas in Yunnan, Sichuan and Qinghai to avoid the need for special permits) or to the desert-rich far west. The Great Wall of China ends at Jiayuguan (according to most) and the combination of snow-capped peaks, desert and fortifications is hard to beat. Zhangye is not so far away and is becoming relatively famous for its multi-coloured rock striations. Search for ‘zhangye danxia’ if you are not already familiar with the area.
Fans of architecture will find great delight in almost any Chinese city. The pace is development is so fast that ancient, communist-era and modern buildings all exist within small spaces allowing for a wide range of shots efficiently, for contrasts and for a documentary-style approach to construction itself.
Street photography fans have, perhaps, the widest choice of venues – both urban and rural. Even the simple difference that signs have Chinese characters has a huge impact on backgrounds, and there is never any shortage of foreground interest. Don’t skimp on batteries; do try to learn a few basic phrases of Mandarin so that you can come across as friendly and harmless.