ENCHANTING CHINA my favorites from my WORKSHOP IN rural china

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It was nearly two years ago when I first saw my dear friend Rick Sammon's beautiful shots of the Cormorant Fisherman, and they just absolutely captivated me. I asked him where they were taken and it told me it was in rural China. I said, "Rick, if you ever go back there…I want to go!" and that's how our travel photography workshop was born.

That's Rick and Me during between shoots. Apparently I was all "Adobe'd up" that day.

It seemed like in no time at all, I was standing there in China myself, at dawn, besides Rick and his lovely wife, Susan, at a place I never thought I'd really ever get to shoot, photographing those very same fishermen. I gotta tell ya; it was a pretty surreal moment. I had the biggest, most incredulous smile. I just could not believe what I was standing in front of, and getting to capture. I knew at that moment that all the months of planning; all the hours of travel (four flights each way), and all the hiking in the sweltering Africa-like heat…was worth it.

First, you can't pick a better guy to do a workshop with than Rick. He's always in a good mood; up for anything, he's so enthusiastic and pumped all the time. Rick so enjoys life, and he genuinely loves people, and thus, he loves his students. He wants them to enjoy all of this as much as he does, and he's so committed to making sure they come home with amazing shots and unforgettable experiences.

Rick's wife Susan, a really accomplished iPhone shooter herself, brings that same enthusiasm and joy of photography to the group, and she makes any workshop better by just being there (except, of course, when she's showing off her iPhone shots and we're all amazed at what she's getting with that phone).

I felt so fortunate to spend this time with Rick and Susan. Of course, having an attitude like that attracts like-minded people, and the group of students we had with us was just fantastic. Great attitudes all around, and the trip was filled with laughter and fun the whole time, even when we're climbing up mountains (OK, especially when climbing up mountains — I think the laughter is what got us to the top). Such a great group we were blessed with, and all of them — all of them; good shooters!

This is the shot that I came for. The one that made me want to make the trek all the way to rural China. Cool thing was — I got it on the first day there. The pressure was off!


This was my third trip to China (my first was some 16 years ago), but never outside the big cities. Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai — all fascinating, all very different (Shanghai being my favorite), but I had never seen anything like this. To get out to where the fisherman were, we left our hotel along the Li River at 4:00 am, then drove an hour or so into the middle of nowhere; then we hiked 20 minutes or so further into the middle of nowhere, then we boarded the smallest little raft I had ever seen (about 5 feet wide at best) and in the pre-dawn mist its tiny motor puttered us into one of the most amazing scenes I've ever seen.

The tall jagged mountains of the region soared in front of us, backlit with the light of a full moon, and it was so eerie and quiet — just the sound of that puttering little diesel motor, and I swear it was like something out of a movie. Like a scene from one of those Vietnam War movies, where soldiers are chugging down the river, loaded M16s in their arms, scanning the tree-lined shore knowing that any moment they might be ambushed. It seriously so felt like that, but instead of Viet Kong, we were worried that some other photographers might show up and try to take our spot. That's why I brought my M16 (totally kidding. I didn't have one. It was a rocket launcher). ;-)

While this scene was unfolding, I took out my iPhone to try and shoot some video of this incredible view, and while we could see the dark scene in front of us with no problem, the iPhone view was just solid black. I wish I could have captured how it looked on video; that would have been a killer clip. It was only about a four-minute ride on that rickety little raft out to our shooting location, but it was four minutes I'll never forget.


They weren't models — these are the real Cormorant fisherman — who are now retired, but are reenacting for us how they made their living and fed their families using these traditional methods for decades in these very waters. Two of them were now in their 80s, and their faces had so much character and told such great stories. It was a thrill to meet them and to get to photograph them in this amazing location.


From well before dawn 'till after the sun came up; we all kept shooting and loving every minute of it. From scenes of them lighting their gas lamps; to dunking the birds; to casting their nets high overhead — from close-ups to wide shots and everything in-between; it was a pretty magical morning and the day had just begun.


Thanks to Susan Sammon, who came up with the awesome idea of capturing the fisherman throwing out their nets using our iPhone's built-in Slow Motion video feature. This is pretty cool!

Those beams coming out of the lantern above are there because my lens hadn't un-fogged (de-fogged?) yet from going from an air-conditioned van to the hottest most-humid place on earth. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only slight.


That's the little diesel-powered raft we took to get out to our shooting location before dawn.
Shooting alongside the shoreline.
Here's the view out my hotel room window, along the Li River, just to give you an idea of how close we were to the mountains in this region. We were right in the middle of it all.

BELOW: my friend Andy Lay took his drone along, and got some really interesting views. Here's one from right over the Fisherman while he's casting out his net.


Our intrepid and thoroughly awesome photo guides in China; From L to R: Gao, Andy & Mia Beales, and David. They are photo guide superheros!

When Rick and I started planning this workshop, Rick told me he had some absolutely fantastic photo guides in China; Andy and Mia Beales. Once I got there and got a chance to work with Andy and Mia (and two locals guides that work with them, Gao and David, seen above), I realized that Rick wasn't only right; he was holding back. They are photo guide superheroes! Calling them just fantastic is doing them a disservice. They are incredible. Extraordinary! They so have their "stuff" together, and besides being top-notch photographers themselves (award-winning, no less), they are absolutely top-notch people as well.

I could do an entire post just about on them. They handled everything; looked after everyone; planned every little logistics of moving 17 people, and loads of gear all over, and everything came together perfectly. Managing multiple buses, vans, boats, rafts, cars, and arranging 'Sherpas" to carry our equipment all over — it was just incredible.

To keep this somewhat short, but still give you an idea of the level they work at; we've taken a bus ride for an hour and a half; we get out and hike 25 minutes; we then take a small raft down the river into the middle of nowhere, and disembark on a small patch of land — all in pitch darkness. We start setting up our tripods, and it's like 5:00 am, and we're rather bleary-eyed as you might expect. Andy is helping us get set up, and Mia walks over to each of us with a cup of delicious hot coffee, and flakey, fresh-baked croissants. We're in the middle of nowhere, China, and we're drinking fresh coffee and having croissants as we wait for the Fisherman that Andy and Mia arranged to get into position. Oh. Come. On! That is just amazing.

They are just amazing, and the reason I need to tell you about them now is that without them, I wouldn't have gotten any of these photos. They worked with the retired fisherman to be there for us. They arranged to get us into local villager's homes to see how they live and photograph them in their surroundings. They arranged to have a model in traditional costumes for us to photograph inside a local museum. They arranged our hotels, many different forms of transportation, they planned all our meals, they even took us to McDonalds one day when they knew we needed a taste of home.

Mia, with a headlamp on before dawn setting up a coffee service out in the middle of nowhere.

Over the years, they have developed the connections and contacts and built up such trust and goodwill that they can arrange truly amazing shooting experiences for their clients. I totally see why Rick adores them, and now I, and the 11 other participants in our workshop do, too. They did more than arrange all the hotels, and meals, and got us to amazing shooting locations. They looked out for us. Cared for us. Made sure we had an incredible journey, and they made it so Rick and I could concentrate on teaching and spending time with our students and making new friends. They are just the best.

Their company is called "Gatsby Travel" and their Website is GatsbyTravel.com - if you want an adventure of a lifetime, with the best guides in the business, contact Andy and Mia. I can't wait until the next chance I get to work with them. Thank you, Rick for introducing me to these two marvels. They are everything you said and more!


When we landed in Guilin (at a surprisingly modern airport), Andy and Mia met us, and we were off to our first location — scouting a location that we would take our students to when they arrived in two days. I thought they were joking when they told me that we had a two-hour drive, and then we would hike up a mountain. They said not to worry, that they had put stairs that wind up the side of the hill, so it wouldn't be bad getting to the mountain top. I asked, "How many stairs?" They replied, "Between 700 and 800 or so." I seriously thought they were kidding.

They assured me they were not. "Around 700 steps." Of course, then it's another 700 coming down, so 1,400+ steps roundtrip. I was ready to bail, but they promised it would be worth it if I did the climb. Did I mention it was about 150° of sweltering heat and a level of humidity that would make summer in New York City seem like Antarctica? By the first 100 steps up the mountain, we were already completely drenched with sweat from head to toe.

The only thing that saved me was that about every 15 or 20 steps, there was a small landing where you could rest for a few moments before biting off another 15 or 20 steps. These weren't carpeted stairs at the Marriott. These were hard carved stone steps, and every step was a different height. You celebrated the shorter steps and cursed the really deep ones. Did I mention there was no railing? There was no railing.

I went at a very slow (sloth-like) pace, and I did pretty well until I was about 70 steps from the top, and I was just whipped. I had to take a rest against a big rock for about 5 minutes; then I went another 30 or so steps; then had to rest another 5 minutes, and when I finally got to the top I had to sit there for another 10 minutes to recharge myself enough to stand up and start taking some pictures. Thankfully, there was a nice breeze up top, and that helped a lot, plus our guides had plenty of bottles of water for us, which was awesome! The view was pretty incredible at sunset.

Here's a pano from up there (below).

OK, it was worth the climb. Kinda.
Here's a two-shot pano that gives you a bit more depth.


Then there was the trip back down, which uses an entirely different set of muscles, which were now destined to hurt as well. LOL! I'm not a hiker or climber, and stairs are my natural enemy (well, stairs and cilantro), so I was rather happy that I had made the trek up, down, and survived. Well, I was glad until Rick reminded me that we'd be making this same hike up the mountain again with our students in just two days. Thankfully, the 2nd time was easier for me. Maybe only because I knew what to expect, and I knew that I could make it. Just for the record: I never want to climb that stupid mountain again.


This next viewpoint would be a much more popular spot with photographers, so we had to get there very early – we left our hotel at 3:30 AM to take a long drive to climb what I was originally told was "half as many steps" as the first mountain. However, as we got closer to the location, the story changed and it somehow went from 1/2 as many steps (around 300-ish) to around "it's only 500 steps or so." Ugh. Well, at least this time, there was a railing and that did help a lot.

Gao, David, and a team of local Sherpas they had arranged all went zooming up the mountain first, with all our gear and tripods. They said it could get jam-packed up there as it's popular with local Chinese photography guides, so we had to get our tripods set up in place early if we wanted a clear unobstructed view. Climbing this early had another advantage; it wasn't nearly as hot on the way up as it had been on the 700 stair mountain two days before, so that part wasn't nearly as bad. Plus, again, once we got up there, there was a bit of a breeze, which was really nice.

Shooting before dawn was really something. The light kept changing, and while it was still foggy (it was also foggy because of the intense humidity and open fires burning all over), it still looked pretty awesome.
Here's a pano from up there just after sunrise.


About 30-minutes after we got to the top of this mountain, we realized why it was so important that we left our hotel at 3:30 am. A ton of photographers started making their way up there. Photographers and Instagrammers and people with selfie sticks — all wanting to be up there with us, making things really cozy. How cozy? Look at the image below:

The four Westerners you see top center? They're with us. Some of us set up down here, the rest on the level above it where I took this spot. It was about six people deep behind me, and you literally couldn't move. You're only getting one shot there because leaving your spot was like leaving your front row spot at a rock concert - you'll never get back to that spot again, or even near it.


Here's an iPhone pano taken after the shoot was over and the sun was already well up in the sky.


We got lucky enough to get to photograph one of the Cormorant Fisherman at his home in a nearby village, and he was terrific. So patient, friendly, and he loved having his picture taken (and seeing the photos afterward). We started by photographing him in the doorway of his home, but then right next to his house was a storage shed with not only some incredible light, but a fantastic big red poster tacked up to the wall, which made a perfect backdrop — it contrasted wonderfully with his blue shirt. We just couldn't stop photographing him in there.

While half our group were photographing in this barn kind of room (above), the other half were on the other side of the house, in a dark woodshed with a small cast iron pot, where his older brother (who is now in his 90s) was smoking a pipe and posing for us (you'll see a few of those shots below).


Here's a few behind-the-scenes shots from our shoot in the village with two of the Cormorant Fisherman.

That's Mia; one of our incredible photo guides, holding a small, warm-gelled LCD light to help light the dark scene inside the hut.


One of the highlights of the trip was getting to visit a small village named Daxu, where village local Mr. Joe (you can see him standing in the doorway in the shot below, taken on the way there), invited us into his home to take some photos. Mr. Joe loves meeting people, having his picture taken, and loves to see the images we're taking — he has a great interest in photography, which makes his such an ideal subject. He seems to have a great sense of light and drama, and he definitely knows where the light is, and how to make the most of it.

I found his home just absolutely fascinating, and I felt very fortunate to get a glimpse of how he lives. First, the light inside was just incredible. Incredible! The kind of natural light you dream of; streaming in through cracks and openings and windows, and it was about as magical a light as you could hope to get. His modest home was filled with little objects he had collected; an old abacus; half of a scale with a tiny wooden chair perched on it; dusty jars filled with paintbrushes; and old hand-made tools — just lots of clever, interesting little things all over. It reminded me of Jay Maisel's house, where Jay had collected so many interesting objects he found during his walks on the streets of New York. This felt like the Chinese version of Jay's collection (and Jay would love to see Mr. Joe's collection).

That's Mr. Joe on the left standing in the doorway to his home.
Shooting from inside Mr. Joe's basement. It was quite dark and I didn't have a tripod with me that day, so I balanced my camera on an old box. Hey, it worked.
You just can't ask for light too much better than this.
Some of the interesting objects hanging in Mr. Joe's home.


Before our visit to Mr. Joe's home, we had about two hours to wander through the old village and take some shots (or even do some shopping). I'm always drawn to the detail shots — those little shots that, even though they're not the big "hero" type of shots, do so much to help you tell the story. Here's a collection of some of my favorite detail shots from wandering around Daxu.

Some detail shots from my walk around the village.


…but the same amazing light and another fascinating subject who invited us into his home to photograph.


When we first arrived in the village, we split into three groups, and Rick and I, Mia, and Andy headed over to a local museum that Mia had convinced to let us photograph within. She had arranged with a local model to pose for us in a traditional gown. Rick and I worked with the model to find a couple of locations within the museum that would have enough natural light for us all to be able to shoot (if we had to use flash, it would mean only one person at a time could shoot). Even though we had to crank up the ISO a bit because of the low light in the museum, it was worth it.

Our model was a pro at posing, and she gave us such delicate and appropriate poses that it made our job really easy. She was also incredibly patient, especially considering that it was incredibly hot (no Air conditioning and sweltering heat), and she is dressed in layers from head to feet. She never complained even once. We did our best to fan her between takes and keep her hydrated, too. Yes, it was that hot (I cannot imagine how hot it must have been for her in that outfit).

Direct window light on the mezzanine area of the museum, which was still under construction, but we managed to carve out this little space to shoot.
This shot is hand-held at 1/20 of a second at 1,250 ISO.
Wonderful poses, and soft natural light. It's a hard combination to beat.
Rick, our wonderful model Kiki, and yours truly.


This time, it was two of the local villagers and one of their daughters (she was so sweet!), on location in the village. They were dressed in traditional clothing, and one of the villagers was one of the women Mia and Andy had arranged for us to photograph in the rice patties the previous day. They were very kind, very patient, and of course, it was pretty hot for us, so I can imagine it was super-hot in those heavy costumes, but they were absolutely troopers about it all.


Our journey continues in another location. Our cute little boutique hotel was just 100-yards up the road from the rice fields we traveled to; perched right on the side of the mountain, with great views over the valley and the rice fields. It was modern, with really delicious food served in the lobby/dining room; really nice cold air conditioning, and a large flat-panel TV hanging from the ceiling with a long HDMI cable for connecting my laptop - perfect for my sessions on post-processing, and the next day; in class image critiques. It couldn't have worked out better.

The rice paddys themselves were really something to see. The patterns are so interesting, and late in the day (our first shoot), the light was wonderful, and the following morning, we did a long hike (pretty flat for the most part), brought a different type of beautiful light skimming across the paddys.

Here's a pano taken from one of the overlooks.
You could even walk right along these paths through the fields, but we wanted to shoot out over them. This one was my favorite field — twisting and winding along with the terrain.
I thought — "What incredible luck — three women with baskets in traditional outfits, with contrasting colors, walking through the fields." Well, I thought it was luck until I found out our guides arranged to have them there for us for an hour. I so love our guides.
Here's a little village nearby, nestled within the rice paddys. See that temple-looking thing up in the top right corner? We hiked there the next morning before dawn. It's farther away than it looks.
Here's a behind-the-scenes iPhone pano of us shooting the rice fields from an overlook, about 100 yards from our hotel.


One of our workshop participants (and a really good shooter), Andy Lay brought his drone with him and did some flyovers of us shooting. The 2nd day there, we got up well before dawn and hiked from our hotel out to that pagoda (not sure that's what it's really called — it's the one you can see in that wide shot above). It was about a 40-minute hike from our hotel — mostly flat (just a few flights of stairs here and there), which was a nice change. Anyway, Andy was kind enough to share this awesome little video flyover clip with me so I could share it with you here (yup, that's us out on the terrace shooting, just after sunrise).



My actual first stop on this journey was in Hong Kong. I flew from Tampa to Atlanta, then straight over to Hong Kong (14 hours), where I met up with Rick and Susan at the hotel. We had planned to stay right in downtown Kowloon for a day (right across Hong Kong harbor), but with the recent protests and rioting, we decided to move our hotel to the Marriott at the airport just in case (we couldn't afford to get stuck there, not able to reach the airport for our flight out).

I only had that one morning to shoot in Hong Kong before our 1-hour flight to Guilin, China that same afternoon, so Rick, me, and Paul Kober (one of the participants in the workshop, whom I had met previously at one of my Chicago seminars) went out shooting first thing in the morning. I had three places I wanted to shoot there, and we hit all three thanks to Uber being available in Hong Kong. We even got to the airport early, but mostly because the trains into the city were closed by the local government to help thwart any protests that weekend, so the streets were kind of empty (especially at 7:00 am). We were able to make our way around town really quickly. Here are a few shots taken around Hong Kong that morning (we skipped the classic shot from up at "The Peak" since I had that from an earlier trip).

This is a popular location on Instagram — it's the top of a parking garage with the backdrop of a colorful apartment building. People were playing basketball; doing Tai Chi, and jogging. It's was a beautiful morning just to be there.
This is another famous locale you see on Instagram quite a bit. It's often used to show the overcrowding of Hong Kong, and in the US you might consider this a slum but we were told that the people that live hear are fairly well-off as they can afford an apartment in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive places on Earth to own or rent an apartment.
Here's the view from the center looking up with a wide angle lens. Only three sides actually have these buildings, but thanks to a little Photoshop magic I covered the tall singular building on one side.


OK, I'm not going to win any award for camera technique, but that's how I shot the previous shot you just saw. Hand-holding; aiming straight up; with my LCD rotated so I can see what I'm composing.
My dear friend and colleague, the one and only Rick Sammon in the center courtyard from that same building. He looks pretty dashing in that hat - kind of a modern day Indiana Jones (or New York Sammon)
OK, we literally didn't see this until we were leaving and heading back to our Uber right. They placed this at the exit from where we entered. However, we weren't the only photographers there that morning, including videographers and Instagrammers.
Here's Rick photographing a Chinese woman's butt. OK, that's not really what he's doing, but I couldn't resist. These Tai Chi'ers were gracious enough to let us photograph them while they were doing their routines. Rick asked if it was OK, and they said "sure" but who can say no to Rick, right?
While I was I Hong Kong I had to do at least a little Fine Art Architectural type shooting and post processing. I just released an entire class on how to create these types of images on KelbyOne.com
We really one got to shoot one building, and only then because it was near the parking lot deck where we were shooting as we were tight on time with a flight in just a few hours, but I felt lucky to at least get out shooting that morning at all.
And here's a shot of me taking those shots.


Now this is a great location for a group shot (below); courtesy of Andy Lay and his marvelous drone work.

There were 17 of us total; 11 workshop participants, 2 instructors, and four photo guides. From L to R: Donella (magenta shirt), Paul, Barbara, Jeremy, Prathi, Tom, David, Susan, John, me, Alec (in the corner), Gao behind him, David behind him, Mia in the turquoise shirt to the left of David, Andy right behind her; two random Chinese photo bombers, Rick Sammon in red, and Andy Lay in the tan shirt with a drone controller in his hand next to Rick. Not pictured: Ken (probably off getting the shot we wish we all had).


I'm thankful I survived this adventure as I'm not a hiker or climber by any means, and I have a well-developed fear of heights, which was tested several times on this trip (including when a bridge was out, and we had to jump/climb down to a ravine and cross it, and then climb back up. Andy and Mia Beales — what can I say; they're the best, and Mia really looked out for me the whole time, and I'm so grateful to her. Gao and David were both great, and they made the trip that much better (and thanks to Gao for always grabbing my gear, protecting it always, and getting it up to high places for me), and to both Gao and David for always having a fresh bottle of water at the ready. It was a trip I'll never forget, with experiences I never dreamed of having. I learned a lot about China and the Chinese culture, and I think I learned as much as I taught, which was awesome.

I'm so grateful to Rick and Susan for having me teach this workshop with them, and we were so blessed to have such a great group of participants with us. I loved the chance to share some of my post-processing techniques with the group, and I really enjoyed staying up late for some one-on-one lessons with some folks who needed it. Anytime you can help like that, it's a blessing to you both. It truly was a trip of a lifetime and I can't wait to wait to work with Rick and Susan again, along with Andy and Mia and their awesome team. My humble thanks to you all.

And dear reader, thank you for letting me share my trip to China with you. I'm so glad you stopped by. :)


All photos above were shot using a Canon EOS R Full-frame mirrorless camera, primarily with a Canon 24-200mm f/4 – f/6.3 IS USM Lens, and just a few shots here were taken using a Canon 16-35mm f/4. Camera support: A Gitzo Traveller tripod with an Oben BE-117 ball-head, and also a Platypod Ultra (still using the Oben ball-head). Shot on a single 128 GB Lexar SD card; backed up to a 500 GB Samsung Portable SSD drive each night.


I set up three Custom Modes on my camera to make my shooting life easy, and to make sure I don't make any mistakes by forgetting to change my ISO or f/stop. You can switch modes in a split second and always know that you're settings are on the money.

Here are the three I use: (1) The first mode was for taking bracketed exposures (3 images total: one normal; one two stops under-exposed, and one two stops over-exposed). This mode included a 2-second timer, so I would just press the shutter button once; it would wait two seconds, then take all three bracketed shots for me. My shooting mode as Av (Aperture Priority), my ISO is 100, and my f/stop is f/11. (2) My 2nd custom mode is for long exposures. It switches my shooting mode to Bulb mode: 100 ISO at f/11 with a 2-second self-timer. It also turns on touch-screen shooting, so I tap the screen where I want the image focused; it waits two seconds, then my LCD screen goes black and a timer starts on screen. When I want to stop; I lightly tap the screen again. (3) My third custom mode is for hand-held shots. It switches me to Av mode; f/5.6 at 100 ISO. If I need to bump up the ISO, I just use the dial from there.

Created By
Scott Kelby


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