The Adventures of Gerry Ellis - Part 2

June 20, 2006 - Afternoon In Forbidden City

After spending over four hours working my way through the various gates into the heart of the Forbidden City my initial comment is give yourself tons of time and get a good pair of walking shoes – the Forbidden City is huge! Four gates and 400 meters after you enter through the main gate off of Jianguomenwai Ave., opposite Tiananmen Square you finally reach the paying portion of the City (note: you can pay 15 RMB, just less than $2, and climb up on the great entrance wall – there are the best photos of Tiananmen Square to be had from here – but unfortunately they don’t allow bags of any sort (especially big camera bags/packs. Here for 60 RMB (about $7.50) you get to leave the free crowds and hawkers behind and explore another several hundred meters of inner gates and courtyards. There are still throngs of people (this China after all) but most are lead about in orderly fashion by a flag waving guide. If you decide to stay outside, and that would be a mistake, there is plenty of activity and opportunities for creating imagery – most of the children photos here were in this public area – especially check out the dress-up-in-royalty area inside the third gate to the right. There is generally a big crowd around it. Inside a waist high fence average Chinese (and anyone else) can dawn the robes of ancient royalty and have their photos taken by a friends and a fellow happy to make you a keychain or t-shirt with your image. What the opportunity does do, is give you a wealth of cute Chinese kids all fussed up for their parents and perfect for photography – you’ll need 200 to 300mm for the best portraits.

Most of the day I photographed with just two lenses – my trusty 14mm 2.8 and an 80-200mm 2.8 AF zoom. Rarely did I want for anything else – from sweeping plazas to tiny dragon details, I could photograph it all. The flat smoggy grey overcast turned out to be perfect for the images of architectural detail and portraits I was hoping for. Under other circumstances I could see how the sharp angled light of morning or dusk would be great – but quite frankly the Forbidden City is so huge, I don’t know if you could access it at those hours and get much accomplished. Once inside keep moving – there is plenty to see and photograph. Also, small food venders, water and sodas are available – so don’t carry anything you don’t need.

Forbidden City has a second connotation – off limits – and just as it was 500-600 years ago when it was first call Forbidden. Because the City is so vast and so exposed, it always seems to be under partial reconstruction. Don’t be surprised to find one or more large sections under scaffolding and green tarps – such was the case of the main central building of movie fame – with the 2008 Olympics just around the corner it was undergoing a massive facelift. But the key is enjoy the city not forbidden – there is more than enough. And remember good shoes!

June 20, 2006 Back in Beijing

Honestly Beijing has never been my favorite Chinese city – big, generally overcast and grey (translate into very flat light), traffic, trying too hard to be westernly modern, did I mention it's big, too big to really let your senses take in? But then again I have spent limited time exploring the city or the surroundings. Dr. Katherine Feng, who was GLOBIO’s contract photographer on the Wolong Panda Project, has fond affection for the city and has spent time living and studying here. She claims it has an energy and life I have not found except on Saturdays when I visit the street market. So this trip I’m trying to take a couple days and see a bit more of the city in between meetings before flying southwest to the mountains of the giant panda.

June 21, 2006 – Spares!

Photographers always ask me about backups, spares, “how much extra do I need?” Well, with digital photography I’m still sorting that out and it can get tricky. I spent half the night last night running around Beijing trying to find a USB download cable that would work with the D200. Don’t assume cables are easy to find – at least the right ones. In a country with six gazillion cell phones and computers you would think it would be a relative no-brainer to find… not so. Even the dealers I found with Nikon gear didn’t have much in the way of extras. Finally, I found a small repair dealer on Wangfujing St. (heart of the shopping area - about 1km from Tiananmen Sq. – across from McDonalds and a 100 meters further west – its just a doorway with small ‘camera repair’ above it – but they seem pretty knowledgeable) who were there until past 7 PM – but no hours were posted so beware) and they rummaged through a drawer and came up with a cable combination that works. So before leaving home get a second cable! Especially, if you are carrying few cards or photograph so much that it’s crazy to carry that many cards.

The walk back provided this evening photo:

June 23, 2006 – Wolong Nature Reserve

It’s wonderful to be back in the cool clean air, blue skies and vaulting green mountains of Wolong Nature Reserve – despite the four hour trek on mountain roads in the midst of enormous construction (long delays). Sparsely populated at 7,000 feet in the mountains Wolong village feels quite the opposite of most Chinese travel experiences - wilderness.

The reserve has always been famous for its giant pandas, but in the past year it has skyrocketed to super star status with tow events: a record 16 baby giant pandas born in late summer 2005 and in April 2006, the first release of a captive-born panda back into the wild. This, more than ever is THE place to see and photograph giant pandas in a wild (looking) setting. My trip here this June however was less about pandas and more about catching up with teachers and school children before they let out for the summer. We (GLOBIO) had done a biodiversity education workshop for teachers a bit over a year ago and it was time to see what they had used and evaluate our next steps. In most of these situation I use photography as purely a documentary tool to create photographs we can use in fundraising powerpoints and training, today was going to be different.

I can not over emphasize always being prepared to photograph when you are traveling – fresh memory cards, fully recharged batteries and of course the lenses you need to create. In the midst of our meeting with teachers, they asked if we would like to see the children dancing. The series of photos that follow were a wonderfully fortunate accident – the kind that often pops up when you travel off the beaten path. On this Friday, for a reason I’m still unclear, most of the children came to school in their traditional Tibetan and Chang dress (95% of the students are of these two ethnic minorities in Wolong). During a short break from class they were going to dance for exercise. A 14mm wide angle and an 80-200mm zoom created all the photos here.

A couple tips in photographing people performing is remember to get close – even kids dancing for exercise are performing – performers like their pictures taken – so don’t be shy. Also, if possible, photograph from different vantage points. In my case the kids were moving so I moved as well. One of the advantages I enjoy about working with two lenses of such extreme focal length is they force me to consider my photo opportunities from vastly different perspectives, physical position and interaction with my subjects.

Panda Photo Primer

Wolong offers photographers a unique opportunity to photograph giant pandas in a near wild looking setting. Virtually every photograph you see in calendars, magazines, and books come from the panda population living in Wolong Nature Reserve. The layout of the Center includes several open enclosures, virtually large and small chunks of forest surrounded by a wall. If pandas are your prime reason for coming here plan on staying 3-5 days. In that time you can guarantee overcast cool weather conditions best for panda activity and photography and you can guarantee a variety of feeding, climbing and playing opportunities to give you a nice balanced collection of images – not just sitting portraits.

  • Equipment: Lenses 80mm to 400mm will deliver the best results. From a flexibility standpoint I would suggest an 80-200 and 2x converter, or add a 300mm with 1.5x converter. Anything less than 80-100mm won’t give you much.
  • Best Time to Visit: May and June are great – the vegetation is bright spring green and creates beautiful lush settings. Best of all babies born the previous year are at the perfect cute toy panda stage (40-80 pounds). The other option is late fall (mid to late Oct) when the foliage in Wolong turns every imaginable hue of gold, rust, and red.

  • Time to Avoid: May holiday the last week of May and Golden Holiday the first week of October find 300 million Chinese out seeing their own country and the pandas of Wolong are extremely popular – my advice is to avoid China altogether during these periods – unless you love crowds beyond your imagination!
  • Weather: Prepare for light to medium rain any season you are in Wolong. The weather in the mountains is spectacular in any occasion, but moody. If the day is guaranteed sunny head high in the mountains with your driver and spend time photographing the spectacular scenery. If clouds are floating about, or the mist and drizzle are present (and they usually are) go for the Breeding Center and photograph pandas – overcast results in wonderful photos.
  • Language: Sichuan dialect of Mandarin Chinese is the lingua franca – few speak enough English to make things work so plan on visiting Wolong with an interpreter. If you do decide to try and speak, expect confusion but friendly welcoming smiles.
  • Logistics: Getting there - Wolong is located 4 hour drive from the city of Chengdu (12 million) the capital of Sichuan Province in southwestern China. Chengdu is a 2.5 flight from Beijing or Shanghai (about $400 round trip).
    Transport from Chengdu hired a car and driver (you can not rent your own vehicle) is $100-120 one way or arrange it through your tour operator Not much when you consider the road conditions and local skill required to negotiate the trip. I have driven all over the world and trust me this is not worth a second thought at trying on your own – even if it were possible – Chinese driver operate using a mystical traditional horn blaring system of over-taking and near collisions only they fully comprehend. Note: pedestrians and bicycles have no right of way – even where it seems they should. (**There are limited and confusing local options to hire car and driver – save yourself a nightmare and wasted time – arrange this before you travel to Chengdu.)
    Everything in Wolong is Chinese cash based, including the Wolong Hotel, the only truly western style accommodation available (western bathrooms). A single room is about $30 US/night.
    Meals will run $3-5/person – and there are several wonderful local spots – but not much English, but your guide will help you enjoy wonderful fresh local food. There are several small shops that offer water, soda, juice and beer, along with assorted snacks and food items you can not define – have lots of small denomination (1-20) Yuan (Chinese currency) available. The Wolong Hotel doesn’t exchange foreign currency – again bring all your Yuan from outside.
    Breeding Center Entrance Fee into the roughly $4/person/day. The hours are 8:30AM – 11:30AM and 2PM – 5:30PM The staff all go to lunch between 11:30-2Pm and the pandas all fade from view and nap – so take this opportunity to eat lunch – a restaurant is available in the Chinese style-hotel near the Center entrance.

June 25, 2006 – Chengdu City

Survived the roads and sadly left the beautiful Wolong mountains behind. I was wishing we could tie the clean air and cool weather to the bumper and drag it with us down into the Min River valley where summer is cooking Chengdu.

Back in Chengdu, the fastest growing city in the west – where the agricultural plains meet the mountains. With between 12-13 million people it is the heart of Sichuan Province. The city is a mix of old and a rapidly growing new. With a rich supply of hydro power – in turn the Chengdu region has become the new technology frontier for companies like Intel and other high techs. Over the next two days I’ll try and photograph some of Chengdu’s older cultural sights and activities to share with you.

June 27, 2006 - A Night at the Opera

It’s after 1AM in Chengdu and I'm just getting in. As hoped, I was able to squeeze in a night at the opera – Sichuan style – the following photos are from a wonderful, but lighting challenged evening at the Shu Feng Ya Yun Teahouse performance. For a mere 220 Yuan (about $28) you get a spectacular night of costumes and magical entertainment – and no limit to the photography – other than you need to stay in your seat. Most of these were 200mm with the ISO set at 800 – hand held with the 80-200mm 2.8 AF zoom… enjoy!

More on how I photographed this evening when I get some rest.

About This Adventure

For the next few weeks Gerry Ellis will be traveling in China launching the next phase of educational projects for GLOBIO. His travels will take him from the capitol of Beijing to the far southwestern hi-tech boom city of Chengdu, and into the mountains of the Wolong Nature Reserve. Its here that over the past three years Pro Photo Supply has been proud to support the educational and documentary work of GLOBIO. The organization has now been responsible for creating more in-depth work on giant pandas and red pandas than previous created by any other photographers and film-makers. Check back often over the next few weeks as Gerry shares this latest adventure into the heart of China.

The Adventures of Gerry Ellis - Part 1

Monday May 29, 2006: Across the Mountains of Bhutan

Just on sundown last night we arrived in the Bhutan capitol of Thimphu,the physical end point of our journey. Because of our purpose, establishing the new project area and meeting with teachers and candidate schools, most of the journey thus far has been very different than my first visit here in 1998.

A Primer to Photographing Bhutan

  • I suppose if I were to create a primer for a visitor to Bhutan, on the equipment and approach to photography, it would be begin with two camera bodies.

  • Mount each with a wide angle zoom and medium telephoto zoom. Every time you turn around you want to be wide (12-24) and telephoto (80-200) at the same time. Forget super telephotos unless you are planning to be here to photograph something specific such as plant species. And while wildlife is there, birds are wonderful and abundant, the wildlife is not photographable on a basic visit. Concentrate on people, architecture and landscapes.

  • Carry one meg cards and plenty of them - or download every night. I am carrying a 120 gig laptop for other purposes so storage isn't a great concern, but you will create more images than you imagine. So, be prepared.

  • Learn how to photograph with fill-flash!!! Interiors have limited lighting and people are often just inside doorways, inside weaving or cooking, be prepared to create in low light and have confident control of flash lighting. (I photograph in Aperture Priority, with the flash on rear-curtain, and drop the output to -2.0)

  • The people of Bhutan are very open to being photographed, and even on occasion invite it. In two villages yesterday I was asked if I wanted to take pictures, "It's okay," they would say with a smile and an inviting sweep of the hand. That's as rare in this world as the tigers in these forests!

  • A polarizing filter is very useful. Weather in most of Bhutan is similar to the Pacific NW of the USA, but everything is at altitude much above 5,000 feet, so glare and brightness can be moderated with the use of a polarizer.

  • Every hotel has consistent power, so recharging batteries and laptops is not an issue. You will need a round two-prong adapter, but buy it at one of the may shops in Thimphu on arrival. (By the way: most shops are open until about 7 PM and open up around 8:30-9 AM)

Yesterday for the first time on this journey I missed being here purely as a photographer; forests are one of my photographic soft-spots and the past two days climbing up and over mountain range after mountain range the lush broad-leaf forest, and mist and rain were extraordinarily beautiful. For such an incredibly small country with less than 800 thousand people both the landscape and the people share enormous diversity.

Thursday May 25, 2006: Morning in Guwahati

Sweat Sweat SWEAT! Only 7 AM and already the temp is over 90 and humidity feels twice that... incredible. I have traveled in a lot of tropical locales and this is starting to take the cake, a melting one!

Heading for Manas National Park this morning, one of the three key sites for the initial Save the Tiger campaign started in the 1970s when the world thought the tiger was nearly gone. They roam the park on both the Assam and Bhutan sides of the border, but we will probably not get deep enough into the park this trip to see them. Monkeys, elephants and hornbills, among other, are a good chance. We'll see?

Wednesday May 24, 2006 : Guwahati

I have always had a passion for off-the-beaten-track places, and Guwahati does not disappoint in that regard. Less than an hour flight from Calcutta it is a world away... lush, green, hilly, the activity center of Assam in northeast India. As someone said at dinner last night, "We are really the neighbors of Thai and those southeast Asia people more than our own India."

This afternoon after the spending the morning working with local teachers we passed through a riverside market along the Brahmaputra River. The heat of the day is not the best time for a market photo trip. But on the other hand, what was revealed was a hot, humid, sleepy, world of venders and spices.

Tuesday May 23, 2006 Morning in Calcutta (Kolkota)

The moon rode like a soft papaya colored sliver in the east, just over head of where the sun has now risen. That was only an hour ago and though it wasn’t, it seemed cooler. Its just on 5 AM and its already in the low 80s and rising humidity. Now the sun has replaced it in the same hue and already the heat can be felt filling the thick definition-less air. Black crows and Indian mynas swim through this humid air above the sounds of trucks and honking taxis... Calcutta is awake.

About The Adventure

This is the occasional blog by former wildlife and environmental photographer Gerry Ellis. He is traveling in the eastern India and Bhutan over the next two weeks to explore opportunities for developing new educational program in the area of Manas transborder national park. He will be sending us thoughts and photos as he has internet access along the journey. Starting in Calcutta he and the GLOBIO team will be flying northeast to the capitol of Assam state Guwahati, then by road north to Manas National Park in Assam, over the border in Bhutan to Royal Manas National Park, then continuing by road north to the Bhutanese capitol of Thimphu. The group has received rare permission to enter by vehicle and travel overland and should provide us with a wonderful glimpse of this lost mountain Shangri-la.