Between its historical sites, distinct landscapes, iconic architecture, vibrant colors, and bustling street life, China offers a whirlwind of photographic opportunities around every corner. And since there’s so much to see and do, you’ll want to plan a few of your shots ahead of time.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
First things first: let’s tackle the Great Wall. This iconic site is a must while in China, but because it stretches 5,500 miles, there are a few things to consider before you get there. Although the Badaling section is only 1.5 hours from Beijing, it’s also the most crowded. For that reason, and a few others (we’ll get to those), we recommend making the drive to the Jinshanling section instead — located 2.5 hours outside of the city.
Aside from fewer crowds, Jinshanling boasts quiet and breathtaking vistas alongside steep, challenging hikes. The entire section zigzags up and down the mountain ridges in the shape of a W and is known as the ideal (yet hidden) photo spot along the Great Wall. Keep in mind that most of the section is completely original and without repair marks, so after you’ve captured the zig-zagging stretch of wall alongside the area’s rugged, natural beauty, take some close-up shots of the wall itself and showcase the striking age marks of the ancient structure.
Popular spots along the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall include the Ox-Horn Edge Wall, the General Watchtower, the Beijing Knot, and the Nine-Eyed Tower.
Covering some 50 square miles, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is known as the first national forest park of China and the highlight of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Zhangjiajie offers a vast parkland where visitors can connect with nature and catch a bit of serenity amidst the speed and stress of travel. Zhangjiajie provides the ideal setting for a reflective break. With towering quartz-sandstone pillars, swirling fog, deafening waterfalls, hidden caves, and lush foliage, it’s no wonder it’s an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although you could spend days exploring the area and never snap the same photo twice, choosing where to photograph within the park can be tricky — there are currently six travel routes with a total of 468 sightseeing spots. One scene you should be sure to capture is the park’s concentration of quartzite-sandstone formations. With roughly 243 peaks and more than 3,000 karst pinnacles and spires, the rock formations were even the inspiration for the alien setting in James Cameron’s “Avatar.” If you catch them in the right light or in the early-morning mountain mist, the result is simply otherworldly.
If you’re looking for stable weather, the best time to visit Zhangjiajie is between the months of April and October, but if you’re wanting to maximize your chance of photographing the misty clouds rolling around the peaks, February is your best bet.
Suzhou is a major city located in southeastern Jiangsu Province that features nine famous gardens, which date back to the 11th century and are collectively listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. These meticulously designed gardens — as well as the city’s stone bridges, canals, and pagodas — have contributed to its status as one of the top attractions in China. Suzhou is even referred to as the “Venice of the East.” The Suzhou gardens are a symphonic combination of rocks, water, trees, and pavilions that reflect the Chinese appreciation of balance and harmony.
When photographing the gardens, keep in mind that they were designed so visitors cannot see the entire landscape at once — so capture the details and focus on the garden’s many reflections. While taking in the sights, also remember to direct your camera toward the ground as well, as the garden paths are made of colorful pebbled patterns. If spending the day in Suzhou, we recommend starting off at the Humble Administrator’s Garden, then walking along Pingjian Street to the small (but quaint) Couple’s Retreat Garden, and wrapping up your tour in the quiet quarters of the Master of the Nets Garden. The gardens can get quite crowded on the weekends, so plan your trip for a weekday and avoid visiting on public holidays. Also, keep in mind that Suzhou is about 43 percent water, and boat taxis are still a popular way to get around — so snap a few shots of those while you’re at it!
YUANYANG RICE TERRACES
Located along the Red River in the southeastern Yunnan province, the Yuanyang Rice Terraces are a mosaic of rice fields stretching over thousands of hectares. The terraces are nestled among towering mountains and accented by tiny villages. Basically, it’s a photographer’s dreamland. That said, weather and lighting can still prove to be a bit finicky. Since the area hosts around 200 days of fog each year and unpredictable weather patterns are the norm, tapping into local knowledge is key. To get the most out of the experience, many recommend hiring a guide. In addition to knowledge of the rice terraces in particular, Hani people will offer insight that will be both fascinating and culturally rewarding.
If you’re looking to photograph the terraces at sunrise, head to the Duoyishu scenic area, and if you’re looking to capture the sunset over the fields, make your way to Beda. Note that the region is still quite rugged, and the best time to visit is between February and March (when sowing season leaves the terraces watery and reflective) or July and September (when harvest season gives way to a kaleidoscope of color).
THE FORBIDDEN CITY
As the largest ancient palatial complex in the world, the Forbidden City used to be the home of the richest and most powerful people in China. For centuries, the palace held China’s greatest treasures and secrets. During this time, citizens were not allowed to enter the palace grounds, and residents could not leave at their own will. Thus, it became known as the Forbidden City.
With many historical and cultural relics, the Forbidden City is internationally recognized as one of the five most important palace complexes in the world (among the Palace of Versailles, Buckingham Palace, the White House, and the Kremlin). But for photographers, this royal complex represents the essence of Chinese architecture and artistic achievement.
From the gates at the entrances to the ornaments on the roofs, numerical culture and symmetry can be found in every nook and cranny of the grounds. According to folklore, the palace consists of 9,999 rooms, since the number nine is believed to be intimately linked to the Chinese emperor.
From the overall layout of the city to its smallest details, the complex was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles as well. This is where symmetry plays a prominent role. The palace was laid out in a symmetrical grid to reflect China as the “Middle Kingdom” — both figuratively, as the kingdom between heaven and earth, and literally, as the physical kingdom situated at the center of the earth. So, when photographing the site, frame the palace grounds in the way they were designed, and capture the ornate detail in its architectural features and layout.
Located on the confluence of the Dadu, Mín, and Qingyi rivers, the city of Leshan is most famous for its enormous riverside cliff-carving of Buddha and its nearby Mount Emei — which, together, form a World Heritage Site. The Leshan Buddha is the largest stone Buddha in the world, as well as the tallest pre-modern statue. The area prides itself on the old saying, “The mountain is a Buddha, and the Buddha is a mountain.” The Leshan Buddha was sculptured from a bold cliff of the Lingyun Mountain, and is 233 feet tall. Resting on the riverside with his hands on knees, the statue faces the city of Leshan with a benevolent smile.
When visiting area, be sure to explore the in-depth beauty of the world-famous site and capture the unique features of the Leshan Buddha with your camera from different angles. First, shoot the detailed parts of Buddha, such as the head, eyes, hands, feet, and even the toes (which are actually quite large). You can observe the statue’s facial elements from higher vantage points, then walk down the plank road on the cliff to photograph his chest and hands. When you get to the bottom, look up and capture the scale of the entire carving.
The ancient town of Fenghuang was originally built in 1704 as a center of trade and cultural exchange. Its diverse population then created a breathtaking riverside settlement of winding alleys, temples, and rickety stilt houses — so it’s no wonder the town is a popular photography destination. Revered as one of the most beautiful towns in China, Fenghuang also boasts a patchwork of vivid, green fields surrounded by emerald mountains that dip into the Tuo Jiang River. Because of its remote location, the area has been untouched by war, so it’s still possible to catch a glimpse of the Ming Dynasty through its architecture.
It’s easy to get caught up in the grandness of Fenghuang’s structures, statues, and landscapes, but don’t forget to look around for some unassuming close-up shots of the details that are often overlooked. Wander the narrow cobblestone alleys and take in daily life on the river while snapping photos of locals washing clothes, casting fishing nets, and preparing food for the day.
Note that Fenghuang is a popular destination for Chinese tourists, so avoid Chinese national holidays and don’t expect to hear much English while you’re there.
The Li River was most notably described by Chinese poet Han-Yu as “the river that winds like a green silk ribbon, while the hills are like jade hairpins.” Sounds pretty picturesque, doesn’t it?
Well, it is. Stretching 52 miles (84 kilometers) from Guilin to Yangshuo, the river represents quintessential China and can easily be photographed by land or water — every scene along its bends resemble that of a painting. That said, the beauty of the Li River lies in its reflections, the most striking of which can be found at Yellow Cloth Shoal.
The area of Yellow Cloth Shoal boasts seven towering peaks that stand on both sides of the water. Named the “Seven Fairy Maidens Descending to the World,” these peaks are said to have once been fairies who refused to return to heaven because of the beauty they found on earth. On sunny days, these seven fairy maidens show off their true appearance — the reflections of the seven peaks are said to be so vivid that you may not be able to tell the real peaks from their reflections. But on a rainy or foggy day, the reflections are broken up by raindrops and shrouded in mist, so check the weather before you go.
If you’re looking to photograph the reflections in their full glory, be sure to visit between the months of May and October and reach Yellow Cloth Shoal just before sunrise. At dusk, you can also snap a few photographs of local fisherman in bamboo boats in the foreground of your images.
Situated along the northeast coastline of the Fujian Province, Xiapu is renowned for being the most enchanting fishing county in China. The area boasts tiger-striped mudflats that wind through bamboo poles, and locals who cast their nets in the same way their ancestors did.
The fishing village of Haishang Yu Cun is often referred to as “Venice on the sea,” and is comprised of hundreds of “floating” wooden houses that reflect in the waters below. These villages are known for being extremely photogenic, but the best times to visit the county are during the seaweed harvest in April or during typhoon season between the months of July and September — the dramatic clouds make Xiapu’s sunrises and sunsets something to write home about.
Header image by Joshua Joe.