Over three years in Shanghai, I have been collecting many ideas about shooting locations around the city. If I want somewhere that represent Shanghai, the obvious location would be along the Huangpu river with skyline of Pudong in it – after all the government decided to spend billion of Yuan turning the farmland across the river from historical bund into special economic zone full of clusters of skyscrapers as a form to say ‘Hey, look at this, here is the modern Shanghai’.

So I feel I compulsory to include this shot in my collection be fore I had to leave China for good. However, I also love to shoot at a place that has a strong feeling of being in Shanghai. This is where the Yuyuan backstreets come in. This is how local people used to live before the government decided to demolish these housings and turned them into boring residential towers.


Now, to do a shoot on the Bund during the normal weekend time, you will be asking for trouble. It is always packed with annoying tour groups and inevitably pickpocketers that stalking them- both of which I was keen to avoid. So we had to start early. A couple of weekends later, we decided at 5am would be good time to start as the sun has risen but it should still be early enough to have the place to ourselves. When we arrived at the location, we notice it was already full of people jogging and exercising. I forgot the locals do get up really early! The sun was behind and covered in the smog but it was still bright enough to shine through. This is good news because my flash does not have to work as hard to compete with the sun.


I started with the beauty dish and a SB-900 as the main light source but quickly discarded it as it does not have enough power for this bright ambient. Plus the beam angle will be to narrow to make it land perfectly on the subject. So I changed to double SB-800s mounted on trihead instead to give a bit more punch with shoot through umbrella to widen the light cone.  I also worked at max sync speed of 1/250, F/6.3 to make sure the subject stop in mid air and for the sky to be darker.  All we need now is for Fay to jump. Sounds easy enough but as it turned out, she had to jump over 60 times to get this shot below.


I was really happy how this shot came out while poor Fay was probably knacked herself out from so many jumps. When we finished, we were heading over to Yuyuan for the second shot. On the way we spotted some aunties doing the sword dance on the Bund. Something flashed in my mind that it would be so cool to use them as a backdrop. As we asked for their permission, one of them to came over and started giving Fay the sword and teaching her how to pose. This just went from cool to super cool.


When she finished, she asked us whether we want to try the fan dance too. Now if you have not been to Shanghai, normally people are not very interactive. They can barely take their eyes off the the Korean series being played on their smartphones while crossing the road. These aunties were really cool bunch, not only they allowed us to take photo with them but were coaching each pose.



Yuyuan Oldtown

Yuyuan is one of not many areas left in Shanghai where it still has spirit and liveliness. People feel it is the extension of their house so you can see people cooking, drying launder, sitting chatting and playing card. So to me this represent the spirit of Shanghai.

When we were finally moved over to Yuyuan back street, it was around 9am. The sun was high up in the sky by then. Good, because it could light up one side of the road and still leave the other in shadow. This gave me a bit of contrast to play with. I just love these streets where people basically personalise the space by filling it with their stuffs. Sadly, they are fast disappearing from being demolished. When the place already has a lot of characters, seventy percent of the work is done and you don’t have to do much. We just need to make sure the subject is properly lit.


We selected a busy junction in the middle of the old town. It was incredibly busy with people walking, riding their bicycles and scooters across from one side to another. The reason for this selection was because I wanted to capture the people’s expression as they walk pass. It took a bit for courage to get started but once we are on the roll then it was really fun. Everyone barely glance back. This would have been impossible to do in London for ‘health and safety reasons’. Here, the light was positioned on a stand just to the right of the camera with umbrella as a diffuser and 1/2 cut orange gel. You can just about the see the edge of the glowing umbrella in the picture below.


The aim is to create the light colour and angle that matches the natural sunlight. Otherwise, it will drawing too much attention to our model than the passerby we are about to include in the photo. I only wish we had a Ballet outfit with Tutu and all for Fay. It would have been perfect. Below are what we have after a few attempts which I am very very happy with.


The local residents were curious what we were doing. One of them who is restoring one hundred years old building nearly even invited us to go up onto the roof. That was all good except that when we managed to finally carry all the gears up five stories to the roof, the parapet wall was taller than our head. I sincerely thanked them for allowing us up there and informed them despite I’m quite tall, I am still quite far off than two and a half meters. Through a gap, I managed to snap this shot but no way I can do anything else with it unless Fay was willing to hang herself off the edge.

On my way up, I noticed a room full of building materials the guy was using it as a storage. It has the really nice rustic charm to it so I asked them whether we could borrow this room instead. What I have learned is people are generally quite open to request if you ask them nicely.


As we came back to the street, we met another uncle who was just sitting there, chilling out on the street, listening to the music on the radio. He said we should take more picture of the street. We took this as a cue to go and ask whether he can be included in our photos. He just agreed and we got on with the shoot straight away. The road was again very busy and the light stand would be quickly knocked over. So I had to place the light stand across on the other side of the lane to avoid blocking the road. I still had two SB-800s on the stand behind a shoot through umbrella. This made the beam spread really wide and lit up the entire frame so I decided to take the umbrella off and replaced it with the snoots.


The snoots even a very small one help to focus light in the centre and improve the shot drastically by limited it to the main subject. The only thing that doesn’t work so well on this shot is the distracting double-shadow on the wall due to my use of two flashes.

What is great about shooting in China is that people don’t really care too much whatever you are doing. They may gather around to look at you but none is going to stop you from doing anything. Below, the little girls and her mum just came out to see what us two crazy people were doing in front of their house.


This place is so rich that we only have to walk 10 meters to find another good location to shoot. Apparently, these outdoor drying cloth lines are somewhat unique only to Shanghai (and Hong Kong, but that does not count) Every time the sun is out, you will see people coming out of their house with baskets of laundry. If the weather has been wet for a week, the amount of cloth on the line increases astronomically. It is a good indicator of how the weather has been. Some people went as far as crossing 8 lanes street to tie up their drying line between two lamp posts. This is what makes this part of the city interesting.

It has been a lucky day for us that we met all the nice people in Shanghai, generally it is very rare to meet one, let alone 4-5 in one day. From my experience those old people in their 60s who was born and lucky enough to have studied art and music before the cultural revolution are very interesting and sweet people. They are a bit like the story of these neighborhoods, interesting but fast disappearing replaced by a new boring, characterless generation. My only wish is the neighborhood will still be here if I return to Shanghai next time. But I know that is just a wishful thinking. This could very well be the first and last time I ever shoot there.

More to come.