China is a country unlike any other; a photographer’s dream. It’s the kind of place photographers go to create one-of-a-kind images. But traveling through China is much different than in America – or anywhere in the world. Before you take a red-eye flight across the ocean, read these 10 China photography tips to get the most from your next China photography tour.
You Can Visit China All Year Round – If You Know Where to Go
Because China is such a large country, photographers can go on photo tours all year long, if they know where to go. Though the climates vary, there’s always a great spot that will produce stunning images. Before you plan your trip, make sure you know which region will be the best for making images during your time there.
China can be quite hectic during Chinese festivals and holidays. This is something to take into consideration if you plan on spending the majority of your time in large cities. If your tour is taking you out of tourist destinations, these events shouldn’t impact your trip too much.
When to visit different parts of China:
Winter (November – March): Southern China – Hong Kong, Yunnan, Hainan, Macau. Most of China will be cold, and there will most likely be snow in many parts. For those who are accustomed to snow, however, this time of year could make for some great snow shots.
Spring (April – June): Central, Eastern, and Western China – Beijing, Tibet, Xi’an. Most of the country rests at mild temperatures, with the exception of the very north of China. If you’re looking specifically for foggy, misty, and hazy photographs however, check out southern China during these months.
Summer (July – August): Southwest China – Kunming, Hunan Province, Sanya. While summer is one of the peak tourist times for all of China, keep in mind that most of the country is very hot, which may make for long days when photographing outside. The southern parts of the country are great to visit at this time of the year.
Fall (September – October): Eastern China – Shanghai, Xinjiang, Hong Kong. While the fall is also a popular time for tourists, the weather is much more bearable for photography tours. Rural areas – great for taking landscape photographs – will definitely be less crowded during this time of the year, too, when most tourists spend their time in large cities.
Our Cultures are Different
In America and many other parts of the world, it’s commonplace to see photographers walking around and taking photos of people, buildings, sights, and more. In China, this isn’t always the case.
Big cities such as Beijing are used to photographers. But if you’re in a non-touristy or rural area, make sure to be culturally sensitive to the people who live and work there. They may not want their photo taken, and it may even be illegal for you to take their photograph. Many times simply asking permission is enough, and they’ll be more than happy to pose for you.
This is especially important to take into consideration if you plan on publishing or printing these photos once you return home.
Some Places are Totally Off-Limits
There are a few places in China where photography is a complete no-go – whether you have permission or not. Even if there is nothing official on a location’s website or on-site stating that photography is prohibited, “no photos” and “no flash” signs are common in China. It is in your best interest to adhere to these signs. Some of these places are very old and sacred. Taking photographs is many times considered disrespectful in these areas.
Certain spots where photography is prohibited may allow the visitor to pay a fee to take photos. If you feel it’s worth the fee (usually very small), this may prove to be a great opportunity for some unique shots.
Locations in China Where Photography is Prohibited:
- Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, Mausoleum of Mao Zedong – Tiananmen Square, Beijing
- Mogao Caves – Dunhuang
- Potala Palace – Lhasa
- Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses – Shaanxi
- Normal streets that have signs marketing ‘Military Controlled Area’.
Stay Away from Politically-Associated Places
It is best to stay away from government buildings and other politically-sensitive areas when taking photos such as military bases and airports. Again, while this might seem commonplace in the United States, taking photographs of these areas may be perceived as something else – possibly spying or a terrorist act. Understand where you’re pointing your camera at all times.
Pack a Language-Phrase Book
The Chinese language is nothing like English, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get by in rural areas without knowing any Chinese. It is wise to pack a pocket translator or, better yet, a language phrase book.
Before you travel, identify some commonly used phrases you may have to say when traveling. Think of the type of situations you’ll be in, and what speech may come in handy.
Some of the Best Photography Spots Aren’t the Touristy Ones
You may want to spend all of your time at the shrines and religious statues that dominate many of the tourist areas, but keep in mind that many of the best photography spots aren’t where all the tourists are crowding.
China has word-class rural landscape that any photographer would be amiss not to photograph. The trouble with many is you need insider knowledge or a lot of time to get to them.
6 Rural Stops Landscape Photographers Must Make in China:
- Mount Everest – Tibet
- Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – Lijiang
- Landscapes in general and the Li River – Yangshuo
- Rice terraces – Longji, Guilin
- Karst Mountains & Li River – Guilin & Yangshuo
- Tiger Leaping Gorge – Lijiang
Bring Extra Batteries – and a Charger
Plan ahead and know how many batteries you can bring for your camera. While most types of normal batteries are acceptable in checked and carry-on luggage, it’s important to note that travelers may only bring spare lithium ion batteries on carry-on luggage only. Some airlines also only allow passengers up to two batteries in their possession at a time. This may affect your luggage weight, so make sure you know how many batteries, and what kinds, you’re allowed to travel with.
A charger is also necessary. Because you’re in a different country, it’s unwise to rely on basic tourist stores to carry the exact type and brand of battery you need in case yours is damaged or lost. Bring the maximum amount of extra camera batteries allowed by TSA and your airline. Don’t be left standing on the top of Mount Everest without a working camera!
Your Most-Frequented Websites May Be Blocked
As a photographer, chances are you like to share your images with the world. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that many of the websites we use most often in America are restricted in China, including many popular photography display and storage websites. If you’re unsure, there are tools you can use before you leave for your trip to see if the website is blocked.
Frequently-Used Websites Blocked in Mainland China 
- Google (all of Google – maps, Gmail, Photos, etc.)
- Cargo Collective
- 22 Slides
There are options for how to get around this, however. If a website you plan on using for uploading or storing photos during your trip is blocked, a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, may be a great option for you. VPNs allow users to “securely access a private network and share data remotely through public networks.”
VPNs are legal to use in China as long as you aren’t doing anything illegal on them – spreading political messages, breaking laws, etc. The Chinese government can and may shut down VPN traffic at any time, however, and it does happen on occasion.
If you’re looking for once-in-a-lifetime images, China is the place to go for your next photo tour. Along with stunning historical structures and cultural buildings, rural China features views your camera will be drawn to – but the best part? No matter the time of year you choose to visit this unique country, you’re sure to leave with memory cards full of images.