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Colour & Shape In North East China site contributor:

Glenn Guy / website


Article sponsored by:

Momento and Momento Pro


The city of Harbin is situated in far north east China, near the borders of Russia and North Korea. Prior to the end of the First World War Manchuria, of which Harbin is the capital, was part of Russia. Today visitors experience the beauty of classic European architecture in a modern day, prosperous Chinese city. While winter is extreme in this part of the country the locals have turned it to their advantage creating two major events, Ice World and Snow World.

Situated on large acreages both Ice World and Snow World offer fantastic photographic opportunities. I spent a full day exploring and photographing at Snow World and opted to visit Ice World for a 4-hour evening shoot.

Illuminated by neon lights Snow World is a Disney-like fantasy of colour and shape. Filled with an array of structures, many replicas of famous buildings and monuments from around the world, all carved from ice, the photographer is free to wander and photograph at their leisure
The above image features a structure a short walk in from the main entrance. Maybe it’s the fact that I was an Aussie far from home, but I particularly liked the green and gold colours within this structure. I remember having to wait a few minutes until most other tourists moved out of the frame. I released the camera’s shutter when the positioning of the two people on the right side of the frame made sense. So I’m photographing someone photographing someone else. The inclusion of people in the frame certainly helps tell the story by adding a sense of scale to the scene. The image was made, hand-held, at 1/8 second at f5.6. The zoom was set to 58mm and the camera to ISO 400.

glennguy20110720b.jpgAs I remember the minimum temperature for Harbin that evening was -20C. Ice World’s location, outside of the city limits, apparently is several degrees colder again. But, as they say, “its a dry cold”. Thermal top and bottom, thin and thick fleece tops, fleece pants and a down jacket kept the cold out. I have a pair of calf-high over boots which were easy to slide my feet into. Feet that were covered by thick hiking socks and walking shoes. As we lose so much heat through our extremities I was sure to wear good gloves and a balaclava, which was essential to protect my face from the biting cold. Every now and again I’d pull the fleece hood from my jacket over my head. Despite the extreme cold I remained as warm as toast which allowed me to enjoy my visit and continue photographing outdoors for most of my stay. I mention this because preparing yourself for these conditions is likely to be the difference between a great experience and a potential disaster.

For the image of the pillars and dome I lay down flat on the ice and aimed my camera upwards. Working hand-held I set the camera to ISO 800 and pressed the camera firmly against my forehead for added stability. I employed a 24mm focal length and an aperture of f11 to include much of the structure’s width and depth. To ensure that f11 provided optimum sharpness from foreground to background I locked my focus in one third of the way into the frame to ensure the largest depth of field (DOF) possible for the lens, aperture and camera-to-subject distance in question.

I kept my camera system simple: A Canon 5D Mark II body with a Canon 24-105mm f4 IS L series lens. As it was a night shoot I brought my tripod along and was pleased that it presented no problem for either entrance or security staff. In fact many of the structures were so brightly lit that I was able to work hand-held, at ISO 800, for much of the shoot. This allowed me to make my pictures quickly and keep moving. An important consideration when you’re not wanting to draw attention to yourself.

It’s interesting how the shapes and colours within the scene are so clearly defined. The fact that they’re positioned against a dark night sky really helps them stand out. I noticed that some of the larger structures were illuminated by neon lights, the colours of which would regularly alternate every few seconds. It was simply a matter of having the camera ready and waiting for the lights to cycle to the most desirable colour scheme prior to tripping the shutter.

I was concerned about the effect the cold would have on the life of my batteries. I made sure that I’d fully charged my camera’s battery the night before. When not in use I wrapped a fleece beanie around the camera to keep it warm. I got through the whole shoot on that one battery which, given the conditions, is impressive.

But the cold presented another challenge. Ice was constantly forming around the edges of the camera body and over the LCD screen. I found myself having to wipe the ice off around every 5 minutes. A simple task as it only took a few seconds and, again, a testament to the camera that it continued to perform under such extreme conditions.

The brightly illuminated buildings set against the dark night sky resulted in images with high Scene Brightness Ratios (contrast). By watching my histogram I was careful to ensure that the most important parts of the scene, the highlights, were retained. As a result the images have loads of highlight texture and subtle gradation in colour. Adobe Lightroom was employed to enhance the images and render them in line with my own personal taste.

Harbin can be reached by a relatively short flight from Beijing. It is a remote location but, if you’re prepared for the cold, you’ll find the photography adventures that await you at both Snow World and Ice World well worth the effort. It really is a unique experience and, for anyone considering travelling to China in January, is worth including in your itinerary.

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