When you get a chance to visit somewhere like Hong Kong for the price of the flight and a bit of spending money, you don't turn it down, so I found myself there in the last week or so of April 2015.
I tried to travel fairly light with photo kit on this trip and restricted my cameras to the Fuji X-series, taking just the fixed focal length X100T and the interchangeable lens X-T1 with a few lenses. Knowing how useless SLRs are generally for street photography and how the weight would literally be a pain, this seemed like a great idea.
Quite unexpectedly, I ended up with a new lens to carry at Heathrow! While time killing before my flight I went to Dixons Travel for a mooch, expecting to see prices about the same as the best online deals, but was amazed to see the prices of some Fujinon lenses. The 55-200 was £100 less than the best street or online price. Having sometimes missed having a reach over 56mm I decided to get it and I am very impressed....as usual it is certainly a cut above similar range, variable aperture lenses but is compact enough to travel with.
Anyway, back to Hong Kong. I was in the fortunate position of being gifted some useful tips about interesting off-beat places to visit as a photographer so I set off to find the working class areas, wet markets and the like, spending rather less time in the well-known areas.
In summary, its a wow place to visit. I don't think I have ever seen such a fusion of old, traditional practices living alongside some of the most modern architecture, travel systems and business enterprises on earth. One second you are looking at a stunning modern building like the Bank of China Tower, but turn a street corner and walk a bit and there will be someone scrubbing pig heads on the footpath or cutting up live fish! The best thing of all is that it feels safe. I am a pretty confident person, but I really enjoy places where you do not feel people are trying to rip you off, rob you or pick-pocket your hard-earned. A few European cities (Barcelona!) could learn a few lessons here or maybe its just the Asian culture. Whatever, its nice. The metro system (MTR) is staggeringly efficient and modern and the easiest way to get about.
I really enjoyed wandering the streets and capturing the activities and characters on show. I would be the first to admit that I am very far from being a great street photographer but I got better and learned about not only the techniques, but what worked for me on a personal level. Street photography presents ethical issues that the shooter needs to consider based on the people, environment and their own character. Do you sneak shots without any consent and without putting yourself on offer?...do you show yourself and take shots efficiently and without fuss?....do you engage a subject and ask permission?
I soon found out what made me feel comfortable and what didn't and ultimately what techniques created the best images.
I hate being sneaky and trying not to be noticed, like a perv outside the school gates. Ironically trying to be covert actually has the exact opposite effect. If someone doesn't want to be photographed or has refused consent whether angrily or kindly, I do not want to take their photograph, however cool the scene may be. It makes me uncomfortable and the image would have that memory embedded like the metadata. Covert images also lack any relationship, acknowledgement or interaction between the photographer and subject, which often does not work.
I think the best street photographers get good results by simply wandering about like a normal person, placing themselves on offer to be seen but working so discreetly and naturally that people are not bothered by them or do not notice them shooting. I got a bit better at this technique as time went on but perhaps I will never be a true natural. I think the way to feel comfortable doing this is acknowledging that the worst thing that can happen is that someone says "no" in which case, smile, raise a hand, say "ok", then walk away. There is a kind of implied consent shooting in a public place if people do not react negatively, but be prepared to back down gracefully. I had a few refusals, one or two quite vocal, but mostly people were fairly apathetic and didn't care at all, just busy getting on with what they were doing. It isn't nice to be refused or generate a negative reaction and I never got wholly comfortable with that, but others may just shrug it off. I never stuck the camera in people's faces, but rather composed a scene with them in it. This method produced the largest number of keeper images and the more relaxed I was the easier it became. The fact that the subject was often aware, sometimes gave eye contact and that the shooting positions were open and comfortable, also gave better compositions than covert shots. These images were shot this way.
After becoming a bit fed up one day after some negative experiences, I tried the engage and ask permission approach and found that I really enjoyed both speaking or communicating in some way and then getting the image. It produces a different style to that when you just catch a moment of people getting on with what they do, but it gave some nice images. I do not mind sharing experiences, showing them photos, or even giving them a photo if I was to have the Instax printer with me, but I will not give money to take a photograph....I think that thats sets an undesirable precedent.
The reader will see that I have presented only mono images to this point. Hong Kong does present a dilemma as to whether to shoot colour or black and white. This is because it is one of those places that offers good colour in many scenes but amazing textures and contrasts too. I have explained before why I tend to shoot jpg images with my Fuji cameras in almost all circumstances and I think doing so actually helped here as it made me decisive about what I wanted from an image and how I saw it....as a tone/texture image or a colour image. Most of the time I fell on the mono side as the gritty, high micro contrast look just worked for me, especially for the street images and the incredible character faces.
I was pleased I made the effort to visit the hugely atmospheric Tin Hau Temple. This was one place where I really preferred to shoot colour and I was well impressed by the images the Fuji cameras were able to produce at ISOs of 3200 and 6400 in the dark interior. The atmosphere was laced with candle light, incense and burner smoke which just looked great. Aware of religious sensitivities, I did ask one of the wardens/custodians if it was OK to take images and it was. I just enjoyed being there and soaked up the atmosphere, taking my time to compose and think about what images I wanted.
I wanted an external shot to show how claustrophobic the position of the temple had become with all the new development erupting around it. Time to bring out the fisheye!
Hong Kong has a lot of amazing modern buildings, including some of the tallest in the world. I tried to capture some of these in ways that were more than just a record shot.
No trip would be complete without a ride on the famous Star Ferry which crosses from Central to Kowloon and also does harbour tours. The Ferry was as interesting as the scenery so I took a few images of the boat and crew. The amazing skyscraper in the background is the ICC Kowloon Tower, which is the tallest in Hong Kong at 484m (1588ft).
The Night skyline of Hong Kong is perhaps the most impressive in the world and a great vantage point is at Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) on the Kowloon side, looking back at the main city. This composition using a round stairway is a gift for anyone with a fisheye lens, with its mixture of shapes and lighting.
The nightly laser show from some of the tallest buildings is pretty impressive.
Ferries come and go all the time and give some interesting opportunities for playing with exposure times and ND filters.
Its nice to get some Star Ferries in long exposures of the night skyline to add some extra interest. Here there were 3 ferries and a cruise liner too!
I tried the new panorama stitch option in the latest release of Lightroom Creative Cloud, after taking some series of images for this purpose at dusk and at night. Its very impressive and very easy to use. Yet another reason never to venture into Photoshop!
The skyline viewed from the opposite direction from Victoria Peak is well worth a look too.
It was pretty hot and sticky wandering around so I did not want to be burdened with tons of heavy kit all day. I therefore travelled with all my photo gear, chargers, filters and macbook in a Think Tank Photo Airport Essentials rucksack, but on a daily basis I decanted the required gear into a Think Tank Restrospective 7. This is a great bag for a trip like this, looking informal and inconspicuous but capable of swallowing a large amount of stuff, including batteries, remote releases, hat, mini tripod, wet wipes, map etc. The velcro flap securing the bag can be silenced (insecure) but I left it normal as it would be very hard for a thieving hand to get into the bag without that loud ripping sound and I didn't want stuff falling out while jostling through crowds. Often I was out with the X100T and the X-T1 with just a couple of lenses. Sometimes I added a Rolleicord TLR film camera, but that increased the weight and filled the bag tightly, so I carried it less often.
For the long exposures I took the Sirui T-025X travel tripod, which proved excellent and ideally suited to use with a mirrorless camera system. It weighs just 800 grams in carbon so you don't mind carrying it around for a while. The penalty is that it is a bit prone to vibration if there is any wind, but the bottom line is that you bring it, whereas you would not bother with a bigger and heavier tripod. Its construction quality and ease of use are both amazing. The only issue I had was that it can be hard to get good leverage to lock the ballhead knob firmly enough with slippy fingers and maybe a lever would be a bit easier. I did wonder if the design was to limit the strain on the small ballhead but the 6kg rated capacity of the head suggests the head is very strong and it is not that. You just need to learn to crank it up tight.
The main areas of Hong Kong are well worth seeing but to me it was the back streets and working areas like Sham Shui Po and North Point that were the most interesting as a photographer. There are endless characters, colours and a claustrophobic network of alleys and passages behind the stalls, often lit by lots of bare bulbs. There is a style of visual clutter on offer that you don't get in western countries, which works well in images. You have to be prepared to accept the different standards of animal welfare....fish at least are treated solely as a commodity and are butchered into pieces while still very much alive. The heads and hearts carry on moving for quite a while as they sit on the stands awaiting sale. What is eaten in Hong Kong, seemingly by choice, is what we would tend to throw away at home (offle). I think many western meat eaters would shy away from much of what was on offer. As a vegetarian, finding something to eat could be challenging but there were some places where it was easy enough, once you knew where they were. Traditionally demands from Hong Kong have placed huge strain on some endangered species and I was especially interested to see what evidence of shark finning and fin sales I could find. I am sure a lot goes on "underground" but I get the feeling that there is much less of it on show than before, which hopefully means things are changing and the better educated people have an awareness that those before did not. What fins I saw looked old and dusty and like they had been there for years. I cannot begin to imagine the appeal of eating something that looks like a decayed curtain!
The scaffolding is something to behold. What an amazing material is bamboo. Its light and strong enough to be used on the exterior of buildings 30 or more stories high and looks incredibly precarious. The speed at which it is erected is incredible and the assembly is very simple, being easy to lift and secured with a twine.
There are many really "out of the way" places surprisingly close to the city. A short Metro ride from the main city, across the harbour to the Kowloon side, takes you to Yau Tong station. If you get off here and wander for about 20 minutes southeast, you come to Ma Wan Tsuen, a scruffy, working fishing village right on the narrowest part of the harbour. You will not see any tourists there! Wander the maze of little alleyways and be surprised at what you see. Wander the undercover market closer to the metro and you can see a whole coral reef ecosystem in one shop! I hope lots of it is farmed. The appetite for seafood in HK is staggering.
The iPhone proved its worth time and again in helping me navigate, check the Metro map and taking a few snaps here and there, not to mention triggering my cameras using Triggertrap Mobile. My provider (3) even included all calls, texts and data use in my £10 per month UK contract....awesome.
Would I go again...you bet.
I can highly recommend Hong Kong as a photography destination. However, try to leave some western sensitivities at home and travel outside the summer period....it was already getting hot in April. Leave the big, heavy SLR cameras at home and bring a high end compact camera or mirrorless camera. Your legs and shoulders will thank you and for street shooting SLRs are intrusive, indiscreet and stop you getting the shot. Explore and wander the streets where the working people live out their lives, as well as seeing the modern centre of the city.