The Art of Knowing: Thoughts from a Photo Trip to China

For my recent trip to China, as I’ve done before, I planned and I planned… and I planned. I made detailed maps, took notes on locations and hints as to the best vantage points. I scoured everything to ensure that my time there was incredibly well-invested in capturing the best images I could manage within the time I had. And frankly, I feel that this was a great practice, for me.

I enjoy detailed preparations, and I enjoy the ease with which I can navigate myself upon arrival, having set them and assimilated them practically into my subconscious.

I brought the Nikon D850 with me for this trip and I intended to put it to use to see just how well it could perform in all manner of applications. While my choice practice of photography is landscapes, I intended to put in some serious miles on foot through the various cities in which I’d be staying, and to that end, I brought two wide-angle lenses and a single walkaround lens.

As things turned out, my recently acquired Nikon 20mm f/1.8 was the breakout workhorse of the two wides, and only once did I elect to swap it out. This thing renders beautifully, is immaculately sharp practically from edge to edge, and generally served me very well with its field of view.

The Bund (Nikon D850 w/ Nikon 20mm 1.8 – f/8, 189 seconds, 64 ISO)

I brought along the Nikon 24-120mm for my after-location walkaround habits, and while there are certainly mixed reviews on its usability as a “pro” lens, it performed admirably on the D850, capturing some excellent images up to as high as 25,000 ISO in the darkness of night.

Reflecting on the weeks spent using it in a variety of settings, I would rate it as an admirable lens to capture the memories of one’s journey, but lacking in some of the finer optical qualities of Nikon’s primes or top-level zooms. That said, it served its purpose.

For all of my plans and equipment and backup equipment, nothing that I’d sought could be achieved without a set of general guidelines to keep me focused on the task at hand. I was mulling this over one afternoon in Hong Kong – an extremely hot and humid afternoon – and as I huffed along the trails of Braemer Hill, cooking in my own perspiration, my mind drifted from my body and, floating somewhere ahead of me, began to conceive some essential notions which – unbeknownst to me – had helped guide me to just this place on this visually inspiring, if ruthlessly hot day.

Braemer Hill (Nikon D850 w/ Nikon 20mm – f/8, 5 seconds, ISO 64 – 10 shots on Median Stack Mode)

Photography in any form, once it becomes a consuming passion, is not merely a labor of love. It is often laborious and inconvenient. As often as one might be in the right place at the right time and take a tremendous photo to share with friends and family, someone else is dragging themselves up before dawn and hiking miles in the shadows to their preconceived destination. This is very much a product of determination.

Any experienced and dedicated photographer has a set of rules ingrained into their understanding of how they go about their workflow. These are the things we should all know in order to guarantee us that when the time comes, we are armed and ready. Somewhere within my roasting brain, these are the items I drummed up.

Know Your Plan

This is really as obvious as it sounds. For myself, the majority of my shoots are very early in the morning. For whatever the complexity of the shoot may be, or the distance from any sort of accessible food, water, power, or so forth, I try to always ensure that I have considered everything that I will need and the time I’ll need to dedicate to the trip. I save maps, I screenshot directions to my phone, planning for service outages (I could take this one step further and hand draw maps on my arm, but I haven’t gone that insane yet).

For my time in Beijing, this was a fairly basic aspect of my approach. Beijing is an extremely populous city, and at any time, on any day, you can expect to contend with crowds. On the first morning of my stay, I had wanted to shoot as early as possible within the Temple of Heaven to obtain some serene images of the grand alters within, and this entailed two basic requirements: arriving prior to the opening of the inner gates, and my most intense ND filter (I had brought only a 10 stop, so that’s what I used).

As it turned out, I was among the first people to enter the gate, and still, within moments, the place was busy with families and tour groups – I wouldn’t even want to imagine what it’s like inside of those courtyards by noon.

The final result here is a stack of exposures to remove any other spectators. The majority of the work wound up being a simple waiting game as people swirled around me shooting selfies and whatnot. My only really unexpected delay was amusingly an older gentleman with whom I could only communicate in gesture, asking me to take a photo of him – first on his phone, then on another phone, and finally using his laptop. He seemed very pleased with the shots I took of him, so I was happy to be of assistance.

Hall of Prayer (Nikon D850 w/ Nikon 20mm 1.8 – f/8, 5 seconds, 64 ISO – 10 shots stacked)

Know Yourself

This is not necessarily meant to impart some sort of David Carradine-esque Kung Fu wisdom such as “he who conquers himself is the greatest warrior.” Nonetheless, it is always a layer of consideration.

Know your preferences, and know your foibles. Plan around the issues you know you’re prone to causing yourself. On top of my consistently early wakeups throughout this trip, I was rolling my alarm back an additional 30 minutes because I always require about that long for my mind to claw itself out of the pits of sleep-induced delirium and into proper consciousness. It is always a rough experience – I tell you that.

In addition, consider your habits and what unexpected decisions you might make while you’re out. I love to walk for miles. I don’t generally consider it, but once I set on the ground and have the time, I can walk the length of a city and simply enjoy the sights and sounds. In China, one generally must take care to drink bottled water, and to that effect, my room was consistently stocked with half a dozen bottles and other drinks, and I was always a new, regular customer in my nearest corner store.

I probably spent more time talking with my corner store folks than anyone else. When out, one of my top considerations is to stack my bag with bottles of water – which while helping to keep me alive, also double as generous weight if I need to hook my bag from the tripod to help mitigate the wind.

Know Murphy’s Law

I’m sure most people are familiar with this phrase: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” I am a bit of a lunatic when it comes to my observation of this one – especially when I’m in a foreign country halfway around the world. Most mornings I leave my hotel with 2-3 batteries, a backup camera remote, a case of extra SIM cards, and multiple lenses, and I tend to check and re-check my bag even up to the point of walking out the door.

As for walking out the door, I’m usually doing it long before I truly need to, and tend to be the first photographer on location when I’m arriving at a sunrise shoot destination. My philosophy is that the world will test you with any number of unforeseen issues, and I’d rather sit on my hilltop or at the foot of a river for 45 minutes awaiting first light with 10 pounds of extraneous gear than to arrive late with a malfunctioning intervalometer.

That being the case, I spent my first two mornings up on Victoria Peak in Hong Kong in a good stretch of darkness as bats rustled the trees around me and swooped overhead and beneath the path, and some very large, unidentified things scurried across the path beside me. I hold no malice toward any animal and generally am fond of all of them, but I can declare now that I do find bats to be a bit on the creepy side.

All in all, my precautions were worth it, as they ensured I did not have to flail my fists to the heavens when I discovered my camera’s loaded battery was dead, or when I realized I’d somehow forgotten the trigger to remote number 1. In the end, this was my favorite of the images I walked away with from Hong Kong (and the one I’d been dragging myself up at 3:30 for, day after day).

Hong Kong from Victoria Peak (Nikon D850 with Nikon 20mm – f/9, 8 seconds, 64 ISO)

Once all is said and done, of course, the most important rule is to forget all notions of rules and to enjoy yourself, for as challenging a craft as this can often be, we’re all here in these bodies merely the once and should enjoy the sights before us before we commit them to everlasting photographic memory. To quote once more from Kung Fu: “To be at one with the universe is to know bird, sun, cloud.”

I could not agree more.


About the author: Philippe Newman is a photographer, hunter, gatherer, and scotch aficionado. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram .

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