Street photography in Beijing (Beijing, CN)
Maybe you are already used to street photography or are you completely new to the genre? Regardless, I hope that this article about street photography in Beijing can give you some advice and tips along the way, as well as ideas and inspiration. After reading the article and looking at the pictures, I hope you are full of motivation to just go out there, walk the streets of Beijing, have fun and capture moments that become motifs for your next wall painting, exhibition or something that forever will be etched in your memory.
What exactly is street photography?
I do not think there is a generally accepted explanation, but I really think that street photography is everything that can be taken during a walk, with the camera in hand, through in a city or suburban environment. The motives can be anything, yes - really anything. Everything from how the city pulsates to how it lies deserted during night. Who are the people in Beijing? What do they do? What is chareteristics about the people in China? What people do meet on the streets and what emotions do they express? Which musicians perform in the street corners? What food is sold at the square? When is CITY most alive? Is there any activity in Beijing at night?
Can I walk through the Beijing and photograph everything I want, without permission?
It is difficult to answer this in detail, but yes, as a guidance you can say that you as a photographer have the right to photograph everything in Beijing unless there are special regulations or that you happen to photograph near a security-classified object (government building etc.), but in those cases it is always signs telling you this.
If you are going to China on a holiday, do a quick research but I think you can assume that you can move around the Beijing without any worries because in most countries it is no problem to walk around with a camera and take pictures of the everyday life on the streets and the strangers who walk there, in front of you. As with all photography, street photography as no exception, must always be done with respect for the individual. And maybe it's just this, the fear of being "intrusive" that often prevents us from letting go of creativity out there on the street. And letting go of this fear is a key and once started you will quickly realize that you can practice street photography to the max without intruding on other people's privacy or make them angry.
So much joy - so much history
Street photography is one of the forms of photography that has given me the most joy over the years. Do not really know why but to going back and looking at some of the pictures I have taken gives me so much joy. I think my joy is related to the feeling of being a photographer that blends in, that is somewhat invincible and that is capturing an ever-changing environment where nothing can be directed. Your pictures will really be photo journalism, illustrating the everyday life in Beijing. Surely the idea of this is really amazing? If you are thinking of older, really old, photographs - do you think the portraits or street photographs are most interesting? I absolutely love to see pictures from, for example, a 100-year-old everyday life as these pictures say and give me much more than the portraits that of often quite stiff. Street photography is journalistic in nature as it often shows how we lived there and then, when the picture was taken.
The first time you are going to take photos in Beijing?
Imagine that you are the journalist who will document our time and our change as humans. If it is the case that you will return to China and Beijing later in life, it might be interesting to choose a couple of places that you can return to for later visits to Beijing. Wouldn't it be interesting to document everyday life at around a certain street or intersection with a few years interval? Imagine over time seeing how the fashion changes, how the cars looks different etc?
Easy to get started but difficult to master
To get started with street photography, you really do not need expensive equipment and you can do just as well with your mobile camera as with more expensive camera housings and nice lenses. It's all about us always being surrounded by interesting motives and it is mainly your own comfort and will that set the limit in succeeding as a street photographer.
As you practice street photography, for example now in the Beijing and next time in a completely different city, you develop yourself as a street photographer and slowly but surely your ability to be in the right place develops, see the motives that have always been there and then capture them technically. There is generally a lot to say about street photography but nothing is right and nothing is wrong. All street photographers develop their own technique and style and you will do the same. Maybe the city of Beijing will make its mark on your photos as well.
A bigger city gives you more to photograph
Although it can be just as much fun to walk around a small town and take photos, there are of course some parameters that a larger city inevitably gives you as a photographer:
- More people on the move
- More buildings
- More traffic
- More anonymity
With that said, it does not necessarily mean that it will automatically be better to perform street photography in a larger city but. Yes, thought it was worth mentioning here anyway.
As mentioned above, there is nothing right and nothing wrong when it comes to street photography but however, here are some tips along the way and if you want to go directly to ideas for pictures and motifs when you take street photos, you can go here.
Turn off Netflix or YouTube
Yes, it must be said. Whether you are living in or visiting Beijing; we all (myself included) consume lots of digital content via eg TV, Netflix and Youtube. It is comfortable and it keep us entertained. Instead of lying in the hotel bed or sinking on the sofa at home and watching all these movies and series, or clips on Youtube where photography is discussed - turn off all that for a while and go out and take pictures, create magic! Maybe you are only in Beijing once? An inner voice of bad conscience and lack of character often calls for me to urge myself to really make something of my time and control my own agenda instead of letting others' creativity completely devour me. Is it the same for you? Can you make street photography prevail over your convenience?
Dare - Just do it
On top of the convenience and laziness is precisely our own barrier and fear of standing out, of becoming a little uncomfortable or questioned, the biggest factor that prevents us from evolving from a good photographer to also being a good street photographer. You need to go out there and start defying the feeling of being a little uncomfortable. You might be thinking:
- But, what if they look at me?
- What will they think when I come with my big camera?
- It feels like I squeeze into their everyday life, is it even allowed?
- Are there really enough motives in Beijing?
- I probably do not know all the rules in China, do I dare to go out?
Every time you pick up your camera and for every picture you take, you will slowly but surely come across the threshold, your own threshold, that this is actually OK to do. And you will realize that the inhabitants of Beijing often completely ignore you. Some might even smile back at you, I promise.
Start at a small scale
Start by heading out to central Beijing with the camera hanging over your shoulder. Walking up and down the streets, pick up the camera when you have at least a few people around you and try to see the city through your viewfinder. Take a picture. Take another picture. Did it go well? Yes, of course it did! You see quickly that street photography does not have to be linked to feeling uncomfortable and you can continue capture those amazing everyday images. Wonderful!
Say "thank you" with a big smile
Again, imagine that you walk through Beijing, taking pictures of people in the middle of their hectic everyday life. Of course, someone might notice that you took a picture of them and yes, if someone notices that you photographed them - smile big and maybe say "Thank you". All to de-dramatize the situation. Are you starting a conversation, maybe you can even offer to send them the picture when you get home?
Street photography gives you exercise
For every kilometer and mile you walk, with the camera in hand, you have also exercised. This may not be related to how you become a good street photographer, but since street photography can mean long walks, you should make sure you have walking shoes.
Do not let (lack of) equipment stop you
Do not think that you need the latest camera or the most expensive lens to succeed as a street photographer, because you really don?t. Many times, it is liberating to have a smaller and lighter camera and lens, or maybe even just your mobile phone then, than to have a full-size camera body and a heavy professional lens. It is your ability to see situations, motives and people that is the main key to becoming a good street photographer - not your equipment.
Maybe you are on holiday in Beijing and just have your cell phone with you? If so, challenge yourself and test and see what you can achieve with, for example, only your iPhone. I remember being in New York once with my wife and both of us had an iPhone 4 at the time and we had so much fun capturing the city during that week.
If you want to increase the camera size and quality a bit, many people think that the compact cameras are perfect for street photography since they are easy to handle and rarely attract attention either, thanks to their size.
Those who want to bring a camera with interchangeable lenses can basically choose any camera and the flora of lenses that are suitable for street photography is gigantic.
May I choose, then I choose a "real" camera in front of the compact camera or the mobile phone - every day of the week. For me, it has always been different and more amusing to use a viewfinder in a camera than a digital screen on a mobile phone. If it was me who would walk around the streets of Beijing tomorrow, I would really like to use a system camera, but it would not have mattered so much which model it was. I have photographed a lot of street photography with models like Nikon D80, Canon 40D, Canon 5D Mark II and Canon EOS 1D Mark III and have appreciated them all.
If you are going to spend long days on the streets of Beijing, you will appreciate gear that is as light weight as possible. And then I mean not only the weight of the camera body but the total weight where both the weight of the camera body and the lens are summarized.
Best lenses for street photography in Beijing
Now I understand that it feels strange that I mention this, ?Best lens for street photography?, right after I have talked about that equipment does not matter, but you who read this probably think that photography and lenses are fun so why not also give some feedback on which lenses are the most suitable and extra good for street photography?
If I had to say a couple of lenses in which I had chosen for each manufacturer, it would probably have been these:
Dare to prime lenses without zoom, especially if you happen to have two cameras
Above I listed both zoom lenses and fixed lenses (where the possibility of zoom is not present). These fixed lenses can really be an incredible challenge - but a fun challenge - because when you will walk around Beijing, it is not always that you can stop and slowly compose your image by, among other things, zooming in and out. You sometimes need to act lightning fast and if you add to that the challenge of not being able to zoom in and out, but for example being stuck with your 50mm focal length - it can be a wonderful challenge. The prime lenses often provide you with a great image quality as well as nice aperture values of f/1.4, f/1.8 etc. that can be useful.
A discreet telephoto lens can make it easier
Above I also listed telephoto lenses. Many telephoto lenses are heavy and bulky, which can also attract a lot of attention. One of my absolute favorite lenses is the Canon EF 135mm f/2 L USM which with both its low weight (750 gr), neat size and its aperture f/2 makes this lens a completely magical lens to have in your camera lens lineup when taking the streets. If you are shooting with Canon, I - from the bottom of my heart - really recommend this lens.
Make sure you have purchased everything before the trip
Maybe you are going to go to Beijing on holiday and plan to start photographing immediately upon arrival? If so, make sure you have bought everything you need before departure. In general, the equipment list for street photography looks like this:
- Camera bag
- Extra battery
- Extra memory card
- Cleaning cloth
- Comfortable shoulder strap
Well, it is the truth - you do not need more than that. Sure, the camera bag can also contain more camera housings and more lenses, but the lighter the weight, the better.
As for the camera strap, the original straps are not always the most comfortable for longer periods. I used straps from a company called Black Rapid which gave me a comfortable strap in neoprene and with a solution to quickly get the camera up to the eye when the opportunity came.
Camera retailers in Beijing
Unfortunately we do not have any physical stores in Beijing in our database.
When it comes to buying camera gear before your trip, you should also check out these retailers:
Do not carry the camera in your bag
No photographs are taken while the camera is in the camera bag, so always try to have the camera easily accessible, in the hand or over the shoulder. In street photography, the motifs appear in a flash and during a walk through the city of Beijing it will be no exception. Be prepared!
Camera settings - File format
Shoot in color and in RAW format if possible.
To have the best possible conditions to process the image afterwards, always try to shoot in raw format. This gives you greater opportunities to process the image in applications like Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop have more creative freedoms to work with.
Camera settings - Autofocus
Photographers can have very different settings for their autofocus, but personally I liked to always separate the autofocus and shutter, so that the shutter on the camera was only used to take the picture and had nothing to do with the autofocus. No matter what settings you prefer the important thing is that you can quickly and accurately control the selection of the autofocus, and perhaps also select exactly where in the picture you want the focus point, when the subject suddenly appears.
Camera settings - Shutter speed
If you know that you will be photographing people in fast motion, it can be good to use the camera in Shutter mode, where you specify the desired shutter speed, and the camera can then adjust the rest. For example, if you know with yourself that you will photograph people walking towards you at a pedestrian crossing, use for example 1 / 500s as a starting point and see where you need to go from there.
Inspiration on what to capture
In a town there are tons of things to shoot. Here is some inspiration along the way:
The people of Beijing
In street photography, of course, nothing is more interesting and more photographed than the people of the city. What is everyone doing? Who are they? What personality types are there? Where are they going?
Capture the dream
We all carry dreams. Maybe the dream is coming to Beijing? People or situations that point to a dream come true can really leave an impression.
Joy, sorrow, fear and frustration are just some of the emotions that can be captured as a spectator in a city. Dare to stop, watch and listen to the people in the park. Maybe these emotions and your next motive is there?
Different living conditions
Although we often hear that everyone was created equal, it is unfortunately the case that many later in life have very different conditions. In many cities, there is widespread poverty, with homelessness and begging as a result. These situations can give very strong impressions on the picture, but as I described earlier in the article, you should take these pictures with finesse because even though there are many stories that need to be told, it must never be done at the expense of the weak.
Everywhere in our cities we interact with other people. Maybe it is two old friends who are finally reunited? Maybe it is a family debating which issue should be given priority? Maybe it is an old lady who needs assistance across the street. In all these meetings, there is much to capture.
Maybe there are more tourists than you in Beijing? Maybe there are more of you who stand and take pictures of the exact same buildings and sights? Try pointing the camera at those who also take pictures and see if you also get something typical with Beijing in the picture.
Capture what is happening around a show
In some cities, there are various forms of street entertainment. Maybe it is musicians, gymnasts or magicians. There are always interesting motives around these gatherings. Who will perform in Beijing this weekend?
Have fun and it will show
If you have fun as a photographer, it will also be reflected in your photos. Often there are also an incredible number of fun elements just around you when walking around a city such as Beijing. Fun signs, encounters and situations are all around you. They are often difficult to predict so it is important to be on your guard and always have the camera ready.
What are the street vendors in Beijing? Do they offer something interesting? Is their presentation of the products or the people around them of interest?
In a city there are always different forms of public transport. It can be the subway/metro, train and bus. On board these, we humans stand or sit close together and suddenly you get very close to other people. Maybe there are interesting motifs in the seat opposite you?
Dare to look up or down
Sometimes we are so focused on just looking and moving forward that we can completely miss what is on both the right and left but also at ground level or above us. To succeed as a street photographer requires that we will be present, here and now and dare to stop to capture the greatness of the small things.
Play with focus
Not all images need to be sharp. Deliberately taking blurry images can, for example, cause light sources to have a completely different appearance. Play around with it?
When the imagination runs out, it can be good to come up with a project. On a trip to New York, I spent several days photographing things containing the color yellow. It turned out to be an incredibly fun gallery to show off upon returning home.
Play with colors
There is a lot of color around us. We love color, right? See if you can walk around Beijing and catch some of the colors red, blue, green and yellow. Give it a go!
Find other projects
In addition to taking pictures of colors, you can, for example, focus on signs, shop windows, rubbish, buildings, entrances, people in hoodies, people talking on mobile phones or people smoking. It is possible to make small mini-projects of everything.
Just as with your general development in photography, nothing comes for free in street photography either. Sometimes it takes time and many turns back and forth along the main street to get that special picture you were looking for. If you have a picture idea, be prepared to put in some time and extra energy to make it happen. When you finally get the desired picture it is incredibly nice and you will forever be able to carry the warming reward every time it is shown.
Is there anything that can frame the picture?
Sometimes you get help from the environment in creating a background or framing of the image. Dare to play and be creative with what you get for free. If you see an interesting frame or background, move to where it feels optimal and wait for the right picture moment. Patience, as I said above. Patience.
Unique food for Beijing?
Maybe there are special food stalls in Beijing? What do the people or Beijing eat, and what do the tourists eat? What sweets are sold and what drink is consumed? Street photographers often want to bring a feeling that the spectator himself is walking around the city and what could be better than bring the food and maybe even scents through the screen or picture?
Animals in the middle of Beijing?
In many cities, animals live among us, free to move as they please. The animals often leave an impression, so see if you can capture the animals where it is clear in which environment they were.
A city has a pulse
Some cities sleep in the evenings. Some cities never sleep. But all cities are busy and have people in motion and it can be really interesting to try to capture this pulse.
Traffic is part of our cities
When you are in a larger city, you hear sirens, trucks and mopeds all night long. Traffic is a part of our urban lives and thus also a part of the cities' DNA. Which sounds and vehicles are typical of Beijing?
No city is complete without buildings
What would a city be without its buildings? Nothing, of course. Many buildings offer fantastic architecture and shapes. The most famous building in Beijing - what is it? Is it possible to get a different picture in of that building? Maybe you can take pictures of people where the building is shown in the background, even maybe a little blurry? Maybe there are details on the building that are a little extra exciting?
What is amazing about Beijing?
Above picture is some parts of the electrical network in Kathmandu which, several years later, still makes me smile a bit. Imagine being an electrician there! When you go out in Beijing, really think about whether there are any interesting and amazing things to capture. But lets hope that the electrical network in Beijing is better than in Kathmandu, hehe.
Street photography loves black and white
Or vice versa, that black and white loves street photography. Because yes, there is a love between them. There is something about the black and white scale that is particularly appealing when it comes to street photography. Maybe it is because our world is so full of colors and impressions that the black and white scale brings out the simplicity of our streets. I do not know, but no article on street photography is complete without some black and white photographs to wrap it up.
I truly hope that this article on street photography in Beijing has given you a lot of joy, ideas and tips. So, time to leave the sofa and hit the streets. Enjoy!