Photography vacations in China

Anyone who has seen Avatar will recall the film’s stunning, otherworldly landscapes, not least its floating mountains. Of course, in an animation, filmmakers have the freedom to be as creative as they like, creating surreal worlds that unfold on the screen.

However, Pandora’s Hallelujah Mountains were not the result of an artist’s wild fantasy or a particularly fantastic brainstorming session. They were, in fact, inspired by China’s own Hallelujah Mountains, 3,000 rock pinnacles soaring a kilometre into the sky and covered with dense foliage. As the mist swirls around the bases, the pinnacles appear to float. And so, as often happens, reality proves to be stranger than fiction.

These ‘floating’ mountains are just one of the reasons that China is such an extraordinary destination for photographers. In this vast nation, there are plenty of surreal natural settings, from Tiger Leaping Gorge to the huge Yellow Dragon Cave. Away from China’s ever expanding metropolises, rural traditions have been preserved, from farming on iconic rice terraces, to fishing with cormorants. Some areas – such as Yunnan and Tibet – were out of bounds to Westerners for decades, meaning that you’ll feel like a truly pioneering photographer while exploring these regions. And even the most popular spots will lake on an entirely new character when lit by the first rays of dawn, or after a dramatic thunderstorm. On photography vacations in China, a combination of professional photography tutors and expert local guides means you’ll always be in the right spot at the right time. Keep your camera round your neck, ready to capture the magic.

What does a China photography vacation entail?

Our small group photography vacations in China usually have a maximum of 10 participants, though there are often just four to eight people on the trip; this is a lot less intrusive when taking photos in local villages and markets. Tours are led by an English speaking Chinese guide, and one or two photography tutors, who are usually professional travel photographers. The focus is on the photos, so expect a few very early mornings to catch the best of the dawn light, and to stay out past sunset, too. Your daily itinerary will be dictated by the weather; there will always be a backup plan in case of rain. But this is a photography vacation, not a boot camp; there will be plenty of downtime, with some full days off, during which you can join optional activities or workshops, or simply relax.

On some trips, you’ll have a short consultation with the photographers before departure so that they can get to know your photography experience, requirements and personal interests. On others, the photography guide may follow up afterwards to see if you need any additional questions. Time out in the field will be balanced by technical workshops back at your accommodation, with tutorials on how to use your camera as well as editing software such as Lightroom. You might be able to book a feedback session on free days, or join collective sessions with the rest of the group where you share your favourite photos on a laptop and discuss techniques, composition and lighting.
These trips are suitable for photographers of all levels. Beginners will benefit hugely from the tailored advice, while more experienced photographers will appreciate the well planned itinerary, which takes them to out of the way destinations, into local homes and villages, and schedules daily excursions around the ideal light and weather conditions.

Accommodation is in comfortable hotels and guesthouses, and as these trips tend to attract solo travelers, some departures don’t require a single supplement if you’d like your own room; do double check with your operator. You’ll benefit from private transportation, enabling you to get further off the beaten track, and to set off before dawn if necessary.

Our top Photography Vacation

Avatar Mountains China Photography Tour

Avatar Mountains China Photography Tour

Photography in Avatar Mountains and Phoenix Ancient Town

From £2900 10 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2019: 12 Oct
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China photography highlights

Kunming Stone Forest

Deep within Yunnan Province, this ‘stone forest’ is in fact a cluster of intricate limestone karst formations. Wandering between the labyrinthine pinnacles, you may discover rocks that have eroded to resemble trees, animals and even people, making for some very creative compositions.

Rice terraces

One of the most quintessential Chinese scenes, most photography vacations in China will include at least one visit to the rice terraces. These green ridges swirl around the hillsides, and seem to shift with the seasons and light, with multicoloured pools reflecting the pink dawn or the blue sky, and dotted with silhouettes of trees. This is a superb spot to play with your camera settings as the light fluctuates.

Zhangjiajie National Park, Hunan province

Zhangjiajie is where you’ll find the Hallelujah Mountains, the inspiration behind Avatar’s famous floating mountains. Formed of tough quartzite, rather than limestone, this landscape is found nowhere else on earth, and the lush subtropical forest surrounding the pinnacles – and indeed clinging to their steep sides – adds a particularly dreamlike atmosphere. Visit early morning to see the mist rolling in. Elsewhere in the park, Tianmen Mountain is Zhangjiajie’s highest peak, and boasts a particularly impressive selection of natural and manmade features. These include the world’s longest cable car (7km), a precarious hanging walkway, a glass ‘skywalk’ (definitely not for those who suffer from vertigo), Heaven’s Door (a huge natural window in the cliff) and the 99 Bends road. Of course, this area can get packed with tourists; your guide will know the quietest spots and the best times of day to avoid the crowds.

Yellow Dragon Cave, Hunan province

Huanglong – meaning Yellow Dragon – is an astonishing cave system stretching some 15km over four levels. With vast chambers (the largest is 4,000m2) underground rivers and waterfalls pouring up to 50m, venturing into the cave on foot and by boat is a fascinating odyssey. Photographing the cave is an unusual challenge; tutors will advise you on how to make the most of the lighting conditions, and will point out the most curious rock formations.

Shangri-La, Yunnan province

Originally the name of a fictional utopia, since 2001 Shangri-La has also been the name of a town in the province of Yunnan. This may have been a shrewd marketing tactic on behalf of its tourist board, but visitors to this ancient town would find it hard to argue with its paradisiacal description. Sitting in the Himalaya at an altitude of 3,160m, Shangri-La is picturesque and beautifully Tibetan Chinese, with prayer wheels, monasteries, vivid rice terraces and maze like backstreets. It is also close to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Guilin’s Fairy Mountains, and this region is filled with many ethnic cultures.

Southern Great Wall, Hunan & Guizhou provinces

While most tourists head to the main Great Wall in northern China, few realise that there is a southern section, which once stretched over 300km. The Southern Great Wall may not boast the magnificent architecture of its northern counterpart, but the scenery here is astounding, as it curls around mountains and lines the top of steep ridges. There are also opportunities to meet ethnic groups in this part of China, and it’s considerably easier to get a good photo of the wall without it being packed with tourists.

Ethnic culture

Photography vacations will introduce you to some of the many cultures that make up China’s 1.4 billion strong population. Southeastern China is the hub for ethnic communities; here you can visit Dong mountain villages, where life revolves around farming and song. Meet Yao women, who have many traditions based on their hair. It can grow to over 2m long, and they only cut it once in their lives; the cut hair is then used to make elaborate headdresses. The animist Zhuang are China’s largest ethnic minority. They are known for their elaborate handmade brocades and embroidered silk balls, which a Zhuang girl would traditionally throw to a young man to demonstrate that she found him attractive.

One of the most extraordinary customs that you may be lucky enough to photograph is the practice of fishing with cormorants. On the Li River, fishermen use these trained birds to catch fish. Snares around the cormorants’ necks prevent them from swallowing their prey.

Chengyang, Guangxi province

Spanning the Linxi River, the unusual ‘wind and rain bridge’ of Chengyang was built in 1912, and today it is a popular stop off for tourists and photographers. This 64m long structure was constructed of wood without the use of nails; it is held together by precise dovetail joints. The ‘wind and rain’ refers to its ability to protect those who cross it from the elements; the bridge achieves this with five pavilions joined by porches. It is extraordinarily pretty, from both the inside and out.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: sasint] [Intro: Ben Kucinski] [What does it entail?: Anders Nord] [Rice terraces: sasint] [Southern Great Wall: 213852]
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