Walking Through Yangshuo

A buddy with an umbrella

Can I tell you what a luxury it is to have someone hold an umbrella for you in the rain while you take photos? It is unbelievable! I love to shoot in the rain, and always struggled with also holding an umbrella and trying to operate all my equipment. Plus, I refuse to get one of those hat-umbrella things… I must have at least a little bit of dignity!

Daily Photo – Walking Through Yangshuo

This was the only moment in the night where it stopped raining long enough for me to get a shot with a tripod. I took many other handheld shots this evening with my other Sony A7r, using Leica lenses. Of those, probably only 10/200 turned out interesting… but I was happy this one came out good. I do like to set up for the occasional wide-angle shot to try to capture the whole scene.

Walking Through Yangshuo

Photo Information

  • Date Taken
  • CameraILCE-7R
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/250
  • Aperture4
  • ISO3200
  • Focal Length24.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramManual
  • Exposure Bias

Spire through the Morning Fog

Thanks for signing up for the Newsletter!

I wanted to thank everyone again for signing up for the Newsletter. We have more special treats coming soon. And, as usual, we send out about one a month… it’s not to be missed! :)

Daily Photo – Spire through the Morning Fog

Every morning here near the Li River is different. I walked all the way up here one morning only to be surrounded by pea-soup the entire time! This time I woke up again at 4 in the morning to come up here to try again. This time, I was rewarded with some truly beautiful mists and foggy cloud layers that made everything feel like a dream!

Spire through the Morning Fog

Photo Information

  • Date Taken
  • CameraILCE-7R
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/60
  • Aperture4
  • ISO100
  • Focal Length15.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramManual
  • Exposure Bias

Beijing From Above, aka The Story of How I Was Detained by the Police for flying my DJI Quadcopter

DJI Phantom Review

The most common question I get here is what equipment did I use? See my DJI Phantom Review here on the site!

The video – Beijing from Above

Before I tell you the story of being detained by the Chinese (and, like Taborlin the Great, I similarly did not have key, coin, or candle), I’ll share the video I made! I would have gotten even more footage had the quadcopter not been, ahem, confiscated… BTW, I recommend running the video in HD mode with earphones!

This was made with a really awesome quadcopter — the New DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H3-3d 3-axis Gimbal and Gopro Hero 3+ Black Edition. All the footage was shot with that GoPro. I did a mixture of wide angle and narrow shots. I also had it in a mode that automatically took a photo every 5 seconds, and I put some of my favorite photos at the bottom of this blog post!

That music is by the great Jon Hopkins. The name of the track, fittingly, is “A Drifting Up.” Thanks to Chris Craker for the introduction.

The Detention Facility and Quadcopter Confiscation

So, I went into this not knowing what was legal and what was not legal. Okay, I had a sinking feeling that flying a quadcopter over the Forbidden City might be more black than grey, but my intentions were pure and artistic, so I figured that gave me some sort of leeway. At least, this is how I justified everything in my head beforehand. You’re starting to see how I make bad decisions.

Note to self: don’t mess with these guys. Another note to self: don’t goof around with drones the 25th Anniversary of It-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. This was taken with the Sony A7r the Alpha 28-300mm lens. See my Sony A7r Review for more.

Let me set the stage here. Beijing is the seat of all Chinese government power. So, deciding to fly a drone over China is kind of like Luke Skywalker deciding to ride his landspeeder on the Death Star.

There are multiple “rings” that encircle Beijing. The first ring is the Forbidden City. The second ring has many monuments and other houses of government. It’s kind of like Washington D.C., except with less communists.

I had flown the DJI Quadcopter for about five days with no problem. I was there with my friend Tom Anderson who also had the same DJI Quadcopter setup as I did. We were both having a great time and getting some really cool shots. I am so excited to take photos and experiment with this thing! We had even flown it several times around police in various places. They never said anything. The police were probably generally confused; their lack of interference only emboldened us.

Note to future self: Do not fly quadcopter over the Chinese NSA Intelligence Buildings

So here comes the juicy bit. Well, it could have been worse. But I was certainly at fault!

I was at Beihai Park. Now, some of you may already be rolling your eyes, because you know what I did not know. That behind those trees there are all their government buildings, where they would rather not have things flown above.

My DJI remote control was low on batteries, and I have this rather sane fear of the controller going dead while quadcopter is off having a party somewhere without me. So I set the quadcopter on the ground beside my assistant. My assistant is this 28-year-old female who was kind of cute and quite bubbly named Ady. I say this because it comes into play later in the story. One other thing I can tell you about her is that she was absolutely zero help in warning me that I was about to fly the quadcopter over the Chinese NSA and FBI buildings. That’s one of those things I would have liked to know… My plan was to take an aerial shot of the White Dagoba on Qionghua Island (which you can see from the ground level here).

Anyway, I went out to get my batteries and walked back. I saw Ady still standing by my quadcopter with a rather surly-looking female police officer. I was getting a bad vibe. As I approached, the surliness seemed to increase, and it was really harshin’ my mellow.

Beijing From Above

Here’s a view from over the Northeast Tower. This is the most popular area to take photos in Beijing… so I was happy to see what it looks like from a thousand feet up with the sweet DJI. I had this set to take a photo every 5 seconds while recording HD video!

Off to the lockdown

I approached and planned on using my charm offensive. It’s the only strategy I have, so I hoped it would work. One unforeseen fault in my plan is that this policewoman did not speak English.

But Ady spoke both languages, so we began a brief frenzy of back-and-forth, all of which went nowhere fast. We were then escorted to the nearby police area. My friend Tom was standing nearby. But not that near. Actually, he was off in the bushes by the lake, peering at us from afar through multiple tiers of shrubbery.

We were escorted inside a series of secure doors, and the last of which made that CLA-CHUNK-CLINK sound effect that you hear in movies and TV shows. It really made that sound. I thought….oh shit.

To the right here, you can see an example of the sorts of bad decisions I make in China… this is my “spa” day with Tom.

There were more enforcement officers inside. I figured I had a lot of ‘splainin to do. And I did!

I had a feeling that I was in a rather sensitive area that I did not know about. So I was sure I had indeed done something wrong, but I just didn’t know what. Thank mao I wasn’t actually flying the thing and it was sitting inert on the ground when security descended. This helped.

Now, this small little detention facility did not have a lot of lights. It was dimly lit, flickering in a sickly yellowish light, and I could not quite see everything inside. I did see the rather burly gentleman officer that was right there with me, leading the questioning. Ady translated. Although I wasn’t so sure of her translation capabilities because earlier in the day we had gone to KFC and she had ordered me a chicken neck.

Luckily, she was very smiley and cute, which probably did not hurt. She seemed very positive and happily began translating for me. The senior policeman seemed to enjoy her bubbly nature.

He was holding the quadcopter and turning it around, examining the camera, the blades, the everything. He was a curious cat. He asked many questions while a female officer held something that looked like an old CB radio but actually had a camera and was recording me. So I’m somewhere in some Chinese video database, making some amazing arguments.

I basically explained that I was a photographer, and I like getting unique angles. I simply like taking photos and making Beijing look beautiful. I noticed they liked to hear this and were a bit surprised. I saw an opening.

I whipped out my Samsung Nexus Android (S4) phone. I pulled open my photo portfolio and asked Ady to translate. I started sliding through the photos, then I handed the phone to the alpha male. He started swiping and asking questions. She translated and I answered. Oh, that is in Japan. That one is in New Zealand, my home! That one is in Indonesia. This one is in Death Valley where the rocks move on their own! Very mysterious! By now, the guy was smiling and inviting the other officers over to see. They were all crowding around, smiling and laughing, pointing. Now Ady was laughing and having fun and explaining. I was telling stories about the photos… etc etc. It was a suddenly a fun party in jail!

Okay, so this little photo party went on for about ten more minutes… this was an exciting day for them! I think they saw that I was an artist and I really had no interest in taking photos of sensitive things. Those of you that have been coming to the blog for the past 8 years also know this… but, well, these guys were not regular readers so I had to fast-track them! In fact, the alpha male there asked for my blog website here so he could come see new photos. He’s probably reading this now. Hello Nice Chinese Military Police Man! I forgot your name, but thanks for not doing bad stuff to me and stuff.

After the little photo partay, he gave me back the quadcopter and said, “Okay, here you go, but please don’t fly it inside the first or second ring of the city.” I said, okay, cool. And then we made our hasty egress.

Apparently, the news kind of spread around to another group with which I was working in Beijing. They showed up at my hotel the next morning to confiscate the quadcopter, obviously not trusting me not to fly it any more. They agreed to bring it to the airport before I left Beijing. I doubted I would ever see the thing again, but, sure enough, they showed up! I threw the sweet beast in my bag then jumped on my flight back home to New Zealand. Shwew!

Other Photos from the Quadcopter

Here’s some of my other favorite photos that I took with my little toy :)

Metal Underpants

Here’s an arial shot from the CBD area. This building is really cool, isn’t it? The locals call it the “Metal Underpants”

 

Quadcopter Perspective

The perspective from up above is truly amazing. I find myself trying to picture what it looks like from above then launching the quad to confirm. It really makes you think about 3D space in a different way.

 

World Park

Here’s one from their little World Park where they have all the world’s monuments in semi-miniature. It’s a strange place, truly. I treated this one with the new Analog Efex Pro 2 from the Nik Collection

 

Trees on Roof

I didn’t even notice there were trees growing on top until I got the quadcopter up there!

 

World Wonders

Here’s another from that strange world park. You can see four World Wonders right there below!

 

Drum Tower

Looking down near the drum tower.

 

Ming Tombs

I like how they lay out the towers for the Ming Tombs in this pattern. I bet the original designers would have enjoyed seeing this perspective.

 

798

Getting up high in the 798 area gave a nice perspective on the industrial detritus.

 

CBD

Traffic on both sides of a park in the CBD (Central Business District)

 

Ming Tombs From Above

One of the Ming Tombs from above. This is honestly the straightest shot I’ve ever taken! I didn’t even have to rotate it 1% in Photoshop… and I was 1000 feet up in the air!

 

Drum Tower Axis

The amazing drum tower sits right in the middle, along the central axis.

 

Willow Path

A beautiful path of willows bends into the distance.

 

The Forbidden City From Above

And last, The Forbidden City from above.

 

Hiking Through 14 Towers along the Great Wall

Various Areas of the Great Wall

I’ve been to the Great Wall about five times now, and I am grateful every time! I’m now learning that there are many many areas of the Great Wall to visit, and they are not all the same. This time, I visited Mutianyu, and it’s a really wonderful section. It’s hard hiking, for sure, as is pretty much every area. But it’s not very crowded, which is important. Never, Never, Never go to “Bataling” — that place is absolutely caked in tourists!

Daily Photo – Hiking Through 14 Towers along the Great Wall

This was a heck of a day! It was a long, arduous walk. But boy, was it beautiful. Towards the end of the day, the light was falling and the rain moved in. I descended in almost perfect black pitch. It was hundreds and hundreds of steps to get down to the little village below… I had the tiniest of flashlights and the tiniest of umbrellas… I was quite ill-prepared for the latter part of the adventure, which is quite unlike me!

Hiking Through 14 Towers along the Great Wall

Hiking Through 14 Towers along the Great Wall

Photo Information

  • Date Taken
  • CameraILCE-7R
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/50
  • Aperture4
  • ISO640
  • Focal Length46.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramAperture-priority AE
  • Exposure Bias-0.3

The Other Half

A blog post from Karen Hutton

Ever wonder what it is like to be a Master in The Arcanum? Here’s a great blog post from Karen Hutton that talks about that! :)

Daily Photo – The Other Half

While walking through some tiny roads in a small village near Xingping in Guanxi, I came across this rather surreal scene! I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. They were wondering why I was taking photos, and I just smiled and gave them the thumbs up! I'm sure this just confused them even more…

The Other Half

Photo Information

  • Date Taken
  • CameraILCE-7R
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/250
  • Aperture4
  • ISO100
  • Focal Length24.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramAperture-priority AE
  • Exposure Bias-1

The Fisherman and his Mindmelded Cormorant Bird

Leica Lens Buying Guide

I started a Leica Lens Buying Guide here on the site and linked to it from within the Sony A7r Review. It’s kind of version 0.9 — so I look forward to your feedback!

Now, btw, as of the writing of this, comments WORK fine on pages like those two above, but they don’t work here for daily blog posts :( We are working on that now, though!

Daily Photo – The Fisherman and his Mindmelded Cormorant Bird

This was the wildest thing I've ever seen. I got in close to this fisherman on the Li River, and he had his trusty bird-friend right behind him. No matter which way the fisherman turned his head, the bird looked the exact same way. It reminded me of the daemons from His Dark Materials. I have about 6 frames I shot where they are all looking in the same direction as they rotate their heads… I wish I had it on video!

This is a Cormorant Bird, and they have a little ring around their throats so they can't swallow the fish they catch… the fisherman takes the fish out of his mouth and puts it in a straw basket at the back of the bamboo boat. The ring is just wide enough to let little fishes go through…

(this was taken with the Sony A7r and the Leica 24mm at f/1.4 – processed with my Lightroom Presets – “Fire of the Chandrian” I think)

The Fisherman and his Mindmelded Cormorant Bird

The Fisherman and his Mindmelded Cormorant Bird

Photo Information

  • Date Taken
  • CameraILCE-7R
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/500
  • Aperture
  • ISO2500
  • Focal Length
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramManual
  • Exposure Bias-0.3

Little Girl and Thought

Very nice post about The Arcanum

I know we have more people signing up all the time and we just can’t meet the demand for The Arcanum, but for the few that are in, the experience has been magical I think! Here’s a nice post by Tricia Booker about what it is like to be an Apprentice within the system.

Daily Photo – Little Girl and Thought

I was walking through a little town in Xingping talking to a local man that was making some silver jewelry by hand. While he was working, his daughter was running around across the street while his father sat nearby. I snapped this quick photo while she was running free…

Little Girl and Thought

Photo Information

  • Date Taken
  • CameraILCE-7R
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/2000
  • Aperture4
  • ISO3200
  • Focal Length48.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramManual
  • Exposure Bias

The Blueness of Li

Amazing time in Guilin

Would you be interested in joining me here in Guilin next year? If so, sign up for the newsletter there on the right side of the page! We’re thinking about doing a fun workshop event here! :)

Daily Photo – The Blueness of Li

This is at the top of a rather sweaty and humid climb a few days ago here above Xingping in Guangxi, China. In fact, it may be the absolute sweatiest I have ever been. I remember starting out and going slow thinking… okay… I'm gonna take it easy… gonna take it easy… and then the heat and humidity hit and I was like… awwww no…. it's on now… it's on… so then I just started working it all the way up. Oh man – clothes were flying off left and right by the time I got to the top… but I got there just in time to take this photo!

The Blueness of Li

Photo Information

  • Date Taken
  • CameraILCE-7R
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/4
  • Aperture8
  • ISO100
  • Focal Length15.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramManual
  • Exposure Bias

Chinese Megamalls

Best Mall in the world

What is the most interesting or beautiful mall you have heard of? There are many out there now… This one below is filled with all kinds of crazy sculptures (although you can’t quite see them in this photo).

Daily Photo – Chinese Megamalls

These malls all seem very parallel-universe to me. It's strange to walk around and see all the shopping-mall-trappings of the western world but with a Chinese twist on the whole thing. And to see it covered in Chinese people is also something I'm not used to. I'm sure they are used to it of course… and I am sure the opposite is totally true, maybe even more poignant because 98% of Chinese never even leave their own country.

Chinese Megamalls

Chinese Megamalls

Photo Information

  • Date Taken
  • CameraNEX-7
  • Camera MakeSony
  • Exposure Time1/5
  • Aperture6.3
  • ISO100
  • Focal Length10.0 mm
  • FlashOff, Did not fire
  • Exposure ProgramAperture-priority AE
  • Exposure Bias

Grand Prize Announced – the Sony A7r!

I’m giving away my camera in China!


I just updated my Sony A7r Review here on the site with new data, photos, and more. It will give you a good backgrounder on the camera if you don’t know much about it. I also updated all the Camera Recommendations with new links, data, reviews, and more.

More on the PhotoWalk

I updated the PhotoWalk information here on the site with the new information including a special guest star!

Some favorite photos from China

-The Great Wall of China-Wow I was alone here. As I walked along this ancient, original stretch of the Great Wall, I felt the ghosts haunting the old towers and little enclaves.I finally found an extremely remote part that is far enough away from civilization to stay pure. The ruins of the wall in this area has been overgrown with vegetation. When you walk along the top, you have to snake your way between huge bushes and all sorts of trees. Stairs and parts of the walkways have crumbled away in the past thousand years. The old towers are slowly fragmenting as lichens and moss cover parts of the stone that are decaying away.This has only reminded me that the main tourist part of the Great Wall is a very tiny stretch that has been re-built in recent years… so it is all fake and kind of Disney-wall. I don’t think I like that…That day I walked from tower to tower, looking at the sinuous wall as it snakes over the mountains. It’s so huge that I won’t even begin to come up with analogies… but, speaking of snakes, a family here told me to watch out for them. I kept that in mind as I hiked back in the pure black of night. I had a little flashlight to keep me company, along with my music. I didn’t see any snakes, and I didn’t fall down, so all together it was a great day and night.

Night Settles In Feung HuangThere is a general poetic peace when it begins to go dark outside and the town comes alight with shopkeepers and villagers come out to turn on the lights.  If you look around, you can see them popping on, one at a time, like little fireflies coming out to play for the evening.This area is no different, and it's made even more magical by the little river that flows through the middle of it all.  And then you are faced with all these nice decisions... where to eat?  where to drink?  where to find an inn for the night?  - Trey RatcliffRead more here at the Stuck in Customs blog.

The Nameless Pagoda SleepsTom and I visited this Pagoda late one evening in Li Jiang. There was zero wind, so the perfect reflection made us happy. The thing that did not make us happy was having to get on the ground with our tripods in the lowest position. I do try to avoid getting on the ground as often as possible… but when the scene is right, I guess I have no choice!- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the entire post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Hong Kong from the Peak on a Summer's Night If you want to see how I made this (and how you can too!), visit my HDR Tutorial. I hope it gives you some new tricks!I had a long day waking up at 5 AM to take a series of subways and trains up to Shenzen for some meetings. I had a Chinese VISA, which you don't need to get into Hong Kong, but I had to use to cross the official Chinese border after getting off the train. I didn't realize that it was a one-time use VISA, and I had to go to Shanghai the next day. This caused a lot of problems with the Chinese officials, a body of government with which I do not enjoy causing problems.Anyway, after I got back to Hong Kong after a day in Shenzen, I was hot and sweaty and in the sort of meeting clothes that aren't great for being hot and sweaty in. But, everything about Hong Kong was still awesome and I had too look hard for things to complain about. The sun was setting, and I made it up to The Peak just in time for a shot.This was a 5-exposure HDR shot at 100 ISO, and, of course, a sturdy tripod to get all the lights as steady as possible.- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Boat in Feng HuangIt was a cool and calm afternoon in the ancient and impossible town of Feng Huang. It's an old town, wreathed in many legends.On the old river, you can occasionally see a boat passing here and there. The boatmen come in all shapes and sizes, but many wear the same hat and style. It is absolutely like a warp of time...- Trey RatcliffRead more here at the Stuck in Customs blog.

The Morning Fisherman Now, getting to this place was not easy!I arrived about 1 AM at a tiny family-run inn by the river.  I was meeting a local guide at 5 AM, so I didn't get a lot of what I would call "quality sleep".  Anyway, I got up very early and went downstairs in pitch black.  There seemed to be a big white cloth box I had to go around to find the front door.  My guide was outside.  The door was locked and we could not figure out how to get it open.  Everyone at the little inn was sound asleep and I was totally confused.  Then, from inside the big white box, a body flew out of it!  There was a 60-year-old Chinese guy inside that was sleeping until I woke him up with all my lock-manipulations.  His naked limbs in the white sheets scared the bejeezus out of me and woke me right up!And then we were on the river about 5:15.  It was still completely dark outside.  And I mean COMPLETELY DARK.  It was a thin bamboo raft with an outboard motor.I turned around to ask my guide, "How the heck does the boat driver know where he is going?!?"He calmly said, "Oh, no worry.  The river is very wide."I not-calmly said, "Well, that's great and everything, but I can't even see the edge to the river!"He calmly said, "But it is so wide."This line of questioning was not getting me anywhere, so I just decided to sit back and enjoy my possible last moments on Earth.  Then the sun started to rise, and we moved the boat over to the best bank for the angle.Want to hear something amazing about these fishermen?  You won't believe it... but maybe others can confirm this! The fishermen use these two trained cormorant birds that have their throats tied.  The birds dive into the water, eat a fish, but then can't swallow it because of the rope.  The fisherman rudely pulls the fish from the bird's throat and drops it into that basket behind him.  The bird then goes over to a tiny keyboard and sends out the tweet, "WTF".- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Dark and Light in LijiangHere’s a photo that I edited live during the class a few days ago. The motions I went through are also inside of one those “Trey’s Lightroom Presets” I mentioned a few days ago… you can do so much in Lightroom nowadays that it is kind of scary!This is one of the main streets in the city of Lijiang. During the day, it looks quite traditional, but at night, everything lights up and becomes wonderfully alive.- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the entire post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

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