Since coming to Thailand almost two months ago (oh god, time has passed by quickly), I have been experimenting a bit with night photography. It has really fascinated me for a few years, but it’s quite difficult to get into. First of all, you need a decent camera, then you need a lot of knowledge, then you need a good place to do it, and then you need lots and lots and lots of luck. It also helps to have an app like PhotoPills on your phone, but even then you virtually need a doctorate in astronomy just to figure out how to use it.
Anyway, I began experimenting on the roof of my apartment building a few weeks ago, shooting the stars with pretty mixed success. This was probably my best photo:
A few nights ago, I was about to go to bed when I noticed that it was quite clear outside. Now that the rainy season has arrived, it is typically rather cloudy in the evenings, but all of a sudden we had an unexpected clear night. I then noticed just how starry it was… I pulled out my phone and checked PhotoPills, my weather app, and a guide to the nightsky.
They all told me the same thing:
This was the perfect night for shooting the stars.
No clouds, no moon, and the Milky Way rising above the horizon at about 11pm. Great!
I realized that my boring old roof wouldn’t provide a great foreground, and so I decided to hop on my bike and drive along the dark roads to Promthep Cape, where I previously shot some cool sunset photos.
The roads were dark and quiet, and thus pleasant to drive. The air was also surprisingly cool, too, which made a real difference from the sweltering heat of the day. Towards the cape, I began to worry that I wouldn’t find anywhere sufficiently dark because the street lights even in the middle of nowhere were quite bright.
At the cape, I found a dark path and wandered to where I felt I would be able to get a decent shot. The fishing boats on the horizon were brightly illuminated, which wasn’t ideal because it would blow out the horizon portion of the photo. Moreover, mosquitoes were swarming around my ankles and I had no desire to get dengue fever… I realized that my roof was great for taking the time to set up a series of shots, but here I’d have to be faster.
I shot a handful of photos that were more or less satisfactory. Here are my two favourites:
They are not the greatest photos in terms of composition. If I had spent longer, I could’ve gotten something much better. However, in terms of actually shooting the stars, I think these worked really well. I have my fingers crossed for another perfect night like this… but I’m not holding my breath.
I’ve been interested in night photography for a long time, and I have posted a few photos on this website. However, it is a difficult thing to master… and in fact, difficult even to be able to do the basics.
Here is a selfie I took under the stars a few years ago:
It’s definitely among the best night photos I have taken. I used a GoPro to shoot this because GoPros are simple and actually surprisingly good for night photography. You can see a light by my life hand – that’s my phone as I remotely triggered the shot.
Using a DSLR allows for far more versatility but it is of course far harder. When you throw in the fact that Nikon’s app (for setting up and triggered photos) is useless, you can begin to imagine how long it takes.
When you are shooting photos at night, you need long exposures, and sometimes many of them. Making a mistake can cost you a great deal of time. And mistakes are easily made when you can’t see a damn thing. For a start, how do you focus in the dark? It took me until last night to figure that out.
Last night I went up on the roof of my building with both my GoPro and DSLR, and took a number of photos. I started with a 3 hour series of long exposures to capture star trails, – something I had never done before. The results weren’t great, but I suppose they were probably better than I expected. I simply plonked my camera down on a mini-tripod, set the timer, and went back indoors for a few hours.
The next day, I used StarstaX to piece it all together. Unfortunately, despite it having been a really clear night, a few clouds moved in for about half an hour in the middle of my shot, and sort of ruined it. Oh well, try again another day. Here’s what I got:
You can see in one photo I have just made do with the clouds obscuring much of the sky, while in the other I pieced together what I could minus the cloudy photos.
My roof proved actually quite interesting (it’s a new house for me, so that was a surprise) and so I grabbed my DSLR (a Nikon D5600) and tried a few shots:
After a good few failed shots, I figured out how to focus on infinity, and managed to get a decent picture of the sky and the (telephone?) aerial. For the second picture, I lined up the shot and then walked around flashing my phone light on the ground. The slimy green goo on the concrete (after it had just rained) looked pretty damn cool.
Post production was a bit tough, as it always is (for me, at least) with night shots. I fired up Lightroom and tweaked a few settings, but it was hard to get the stars to pop while also reducing the nearby light pollution. I think these two pics came out ok.
Finally, I got a selfie with my GoPro. I took one with my DSLR but it didn’t work too well because the mosquitos were biting me and so I moved ever so slightly, blurring the picture.
Actually, I took another, but for this one I went a bit overboard editing it on my iPhone… I look like I am about to be abducted by aliens.
I first moved to China in 2010, and six days ago I left for the last time. I am currently back in Scotland, where I intend to spend the Christmas holidays, before finding a new job in the new year.
It is lovely being back home at this time of year, and it is always a pleasure to get out of China’s vast smog banks. I have spent this week as I intend to spend the rest of my month back home: seeing family, walking in the hills, and practicing my photography.
The first morning I arrived back, I was shocked to find that the sun only rose around 8am. Having spent so many years out in Asia, I was accustomed to sunrise being a rather difficult and unpleasant phenomenon to experience. It usually involved waking at 4am if you wanted to get a good picture set up.
Instead, I casually strolled out into the fields and shot a couple of pics:
I have since been out on many long walks around the hills, and even to the beach at St. Andrews. Around Balmullo, the wildlife is rather impressive these days. There are innumerable deer and many large birds of prey. I don’t remember so much life when I was going around as a child. Maybe it’s flourishing now, or maybe I wasn’t paying attention back then.
In any case, my photos of the deer and birds were pretty unimpressive as I’d forgotten to charge the camera I generally use for wildlife. I did, however, get a nice picture of a girl riding her horse through a field, with St. Andrews in the background:
Finally, I have always wanted to do more night photography, but the air pollution and light pollution in China has made it virtually impossible. My summer in Southeast Asia saw dark enough skies, but it was rainy season and those skies were filled with heavy clouds.
Last night, there was no moon, and only a little cloud cover. I walked up the hill (scared stupid by deer jumping about in the dark forests) and set up my cheap Chinese tripod in a field. It was pitch black except for the village about a mile below, and St. Andrews some miles further on than that. I shot a few pictures, and was reasonably happy with the results. They are certainly nowhere near professional quality, but for someone who so seldom gets to practice, they’re not bad.
You can see more of my photos on Instagram. Since leaving China, my handle has changed from “huainanman” (which was a stupid name anyway) to “davidswills”. Not very created, I know.
After spending a little time in Lijiang and Shangri-La, my girlfriend and I took off for a more remote part of China. We were keen to see something different and to get away from the crowds. To use an old cliché, we wanted to get off the beaten path.
From Shangri-La, we took a four hour bus ride up into the mountains. Shangri-La is already at a high altitude. Walking up a flight of stairs there is enough to leave you severely winded unless you’re used to breathing such thin air. But the road north-west leads quickly up into the mountains. It’s slow going on the narrow mountain roads that wind up through the jagged hills. But it’s scenic and the time slips by easily enough. For much of the journey you are following the Jinsha River, which is an early incarnation of the Chiangjiang River (better known in the West as the Yangtze). However, soon this is replaced by the Mekong. I’ve seen the Mekong many, many times in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia, so seeing it here in the high Tibetan Plateau is just bizarre.
Our destination is uncertain at this point. My girlfriend has found a mountain online that seems to hold a peculiar allure, and so we’re going close to it and hoping that there’s something to do in the area. We certainly can’t climb the mountain. Aside from being about 7,000 meters high, it’s actually never been climbed before. Well, not successfully. In 1991, a team of 11 Japanese climbers attempted to summit Meili Xueshan but were all killed by an avalanche. Some Chinese climbers attempted to climb it five years later but failed, too, although they at least escaped with their lives. The mountain has been closed to climbing ever since as it is considered sacred to the local Tibetan Buddhists. This makes it the first and only mountain in China that’s entirely closed to the public for cultural or religious preservation.
Our bus took us to the tiny city of Deqin, embedded in the side of a mountain. It is a remote city and one that looks precariously balanced – in threat of falling thousands of meters down to the river below. The people there look as tough as mountain goats and the buildings suggest that they may indeed have been replaced every few years after falling into the valley. When our bus arrives, we expect to take a car to the nearby town of Feilaisi, but the bus driver tells us he’s going that way and we can just give him 5rmb to stay on.
Soon we arrive in Feilaisi, a tiny tourist town comprised almost entirely of hotels. It’s also built into the side of a mountain, and exists almost entirely because it offers a perfect view of Meili Xueshan. Or rather, it would were it not for the massive cloud bank that engulfs everything around us. Instead, we are stuck in a tiny town with nothing to do, in a grossly overpriced hotel, looking at the inside of clouds.
We take a walk around the nearby hills but the stunning views are entirely hidden. A lonely path takes us on a long walk through a forest. As we get to the farthest points, the winds pick up and the temperature drops suddenly. Then the rain begins to fall hard around us. It is a tough environment here in the mountains. You can’t breathe, can’t see anything, and it’s freezing cold. Yet, as we found out later, despite the cold it’s incredibly easy to get sunburned.
We debated what to do next. Meili Xueshan seemed to have been a waste of time. The stunning mountain views were nowhere to be found. Even the locals told us that it’s very rare to see the mountain. A man in Shangri-La told us he’d taken five spiritual pilgrimages here and never once seen its peak. I decided what we needed was to get closer. Feilaisi was famous as the best place from which to view Meili Xueshan, but if even one of the mountains was enveloped in clouds, there was no view to be had. It made sense that we ought to be closer, even if we ended up viewing the damn things from the bottom.
The next morning we stood with a small gathering of tourists (most of whom had large cameras mounted optimistically on tripods) at 5am, looking out at where the mountain should be. Meili Xueshan’s sunrise is supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in all of China. Alas, we could see almost nothing. We stood around in the freezing morning air until it was apparent that there would be no sunrise of any kind, and then headed for our bus.
The next destination was Yubeng, a tiny village near to Meili Xueshan. I didn’t know where exactly it was, and there wasn’t an abundance of information available, but we had found a man driving a minibus that way for just 20rmb, so we hopped on. They say that Yubeng was closed off to the outside world until a man one day appeared and no one could figure out where he came from. They followed him back through the mountains and found his home under a rock. That story pretty much tells you how easy it is to get to Yubeng.
Our little minibus wound its way down almost 2,000 meters in an hour and a half, along some sickeningly steep mountain roads. At more than a dozen places, the mountain had collapsed and consumed the road, and some of these seemed to have occurred in the last few hours. We came to a bridge that had also been hastily constructed to replace the other, just fifty meters away, that had collapsed into the Mekong. When we finally reached a place called Xidang, and were told it was our final destination, we were glad to be off that death trap bus.
Unfortunately, given the lack of information available, we had failed to realize that Xidang was the final stop on the road to Yubeng, and that the rest of the route was done on foot. This was a 12km hike over a mountain – another few thousand meters up and down. The trek would take some six hours and I did it with two people’s luggage on my back. It would have been a beautiful walk, but in fact it was excruciating.
At about 3,800 meters up we summited our own mountain and began the walk down into the valley where Yubeng was located. At this point, the agonizing journey became entirely worthwhile. The clouds that had covered Meili Xueshan broke and we were in a perfect place to soak up the view. What appeared in front of us was a perfect snow-capped mountain and a lush green valley. It was straight out of a picture book.
We stumbled down the hillside to Upper Yubeng (the village is divided in town, on either side of a river) and tried to check in at our hotel, Lobsang Trekkers. It went something like this:
Me: Hi, I have a reservation…
Owner: Oh, is that from Booking.com?
Owner: Oh, well we don’t accept those bookings.
Me: Yes, you actually did accept it. See, it says here you confirmed the booking.
Owner: We meant to stop using Booking.com a few months ago but we never actually got around to doing it.
Me: I made this reservation yesterday. You confirmed it. You agreed to it. You have to let us stay here. We just walked six fucking hours over a mountain to get here!
Owner: I’m sorry, we’re full.
It went on like that for a while but there was no reasoning with these bastards. They had sold out all their rooms and refused to let us stay. We ended up at a shitty guesthouse a mile down into the valley. Granted, this new place had a stunning view, but it lacked just about every other feature you’d expect from a hotel.
We wandered about the village but by now it was late afternoon and the sun was already going down over the mountains. There wasn’t much to see, but it certainly was quaint. Little mud or wood shacks were tiled with wooden slats for roofs, and people lived together with their horses and pigs. Everything was on a slope going down to a raging river, and walking what would have been 200 meters as the crow flies could take half an hour or more of climbing. We sat and watched the sun go down over the mountain from Lower Yubeng and then called our bus driving friend about how to get out of Yubeng after another day.
There was some bad news: We simply wouldn’t be able to get back to Lijiang in time for our return flight several days later. We had to leave first thing the next morning.
Now this was extremely difficult news to take. We had spent days travelling to get here, not to mention a six hour hike over a mountain with heavy luggage. My legs were dead weight and the thought of climbing back over to Xidang was too much to bear. We weren’t even going to get to explore the valley. There were waterfalls and glaciers to see… but all of that required at least 4-5 hours solid hiking. Yet we had to get out at first light and make a break for the morning buses in Xidang.
The next morning we woke in bad moods anticipating a difficult journey back to Xidang. However, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise:
After that, we started up the side of the mountain. We got only a short distance before I said, “Fuck it, let’s hire horses.”
That wasn’t as easy as you’d think in a village filled with horses. For some reason it took a good two or more hours to get horses, and they weren’t much faster at going over the mountain than we were. I suppose, in fairness, they were actually more like donkeys than horses. Worse, my horse/donkey was incredibly aggressive and kept making sharp runs towards the edge of the path, threatening to throw me over a thousand meter drop. It took four hours to get back, and it was far more exhausting than walking. And besides, we’d missed our damn bus.
The horses cost me 900rmb and our only option for getting back was a mini-van full of idiots that cost me another 300rmb. Thankfully, though, it drove us all the way back to Shangri-La. After a quiet night there, we got another bus to Lijiang and the following morning headed to the airport for the flight back to Hefei.
The trip was quite exhausting but absolutely worthwhile. It killed me that we didn’t actually get to spend any time exploring the Yubeng valley, especially considering it took us so many hours flying, driving, and walking just to get there… but the views were stunning and most people simply never get to see that when they visit. I’ve done a lot of travelling during my time in China and the lesson I normally come away with is that it’s just not worthwhile… it can be too stressful and crowded and you just come to some disgusting, expensive, polluted shithole in the end. But this time it was different. Meili Xueshan was a real challenge to see, but it was by far the most beautiful place in China I’ve visited.
Earlier this year I posted a photo I took in Southern Africa of the night sky. To some of you, seeing the stars at night – and I mean thousands of stars – is probably something you take for granted. And yet, for most people on this planet, they are disappearing. If you live in or near a city, chances are that your night sky looks pretty dull. Perhaps, on a clear night, you may see a handful of stars.
Yet this is not what we are, as a species, accustomed to. Since long before we knew what a star was, we have wandered the world, looking up and navigating by the stars, speculating upon their role in our world, making up stories about them… They are a part of us, and we are losing them to light pollution and smog.
In Eastern China, where I live, the stars are a rarity. Granted, this year, with government efforts to reduce pollution, we can see more than in the previous five years, but nonetheless it makes for pitiful viewing. As I wandered the plains of Africa last winter, I marvelled over the incredible number of visible stars, and lamented the fact that I know so little about them. In the Philippines, many years ago, I remember floating out at sea in the middle of the night, drinking rum and being circled by curious thresher sharks, staring up into the innumerable stars as a bright blue lightning storm exploded on the horizon. The whole Milky Way seemed visible. Years later, I stared up at the stars from a mountaintop in California with the coyotes and cougars and bears… The stars seem paradoxically part of this natural world, and yet they are so alien that they captivate me whenever I’m lucky enough to see them.
On my trek through Southeast Asia this year I paid attention to the skies and even used an app on my iPhone to learn some of the constellations and star names, and was surprised to find that from most rural locations, at least several planets were visible. Bobbing on the sea at night in a small boat, I experienced the incredible sensation of being surrounded by stars from horizon to horizon. Then, on Gili Trawangan, I finally managed to shoot a decent photo of the Milky Way – something I’ve wanted to do for years. Hopefully you will be able to zoom in on this photo like I can on my computer (unfortunately, the mobile version of this site doesn’t allow for that) and see more stars than you could ever count.
A few weeks ago, while I was staying at St. Lucia, I took a trip through iSimangaliso Wetland Park at night. On the night safari we saw a leopard, owls, a porcupine, some hippos and buffalo, and various other interesting animals. On the beach we were tracking turtles but found only their nests. The honey badgers had gotten to them first.
What stayed with me from that night, however, was the night sky. The density of stars, so easily visible, stunned me. Only in the Philippines had I seen a prettier view of the cosmos.