Flags Above Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

The red communist China flag flies, above Tiananmen Square, from the ramparts of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

I made the above photo of flags above Tiananmen Square while in Beijing, China during the middle of winter. It was a bitterly cold day, around-10C, and I remember passing through the usual security screens and checks to allow me and my camera gear into the Forbidden City.

Rather than continue to move with the crowd, I followed a sign which lead me up some steps to a balcony at the front of the complex where Chinese leaders, emperors and communists alike, had appeared to the masses over the centuries.

The view overlooked Tiananmen Square and important public buildings. But, as I was looking pretty much directly into the sun, there wasn't too much worth photographing in that direction.

It Can Be Hard Making Photos Of Backlit Subjects

However, on my way up the stairs I sighted several red flags flapping in the wind. They were backlit by very bright light and would have been silhouetted except for the fact that they were somewhat transparent. I composed my image around the flags and the shape of the sun. I had to wait until the wind was strong enough to unfurl the flags to such a degree that they looked interesting.

I'd have preferred to have made the picture without any people present. But then I realized that I could incorporate them into the composition and, at the same time, add something extra to the narrative being explored. It was then just a matter of waiting for the right moment when the shape and placement of the people (who form a triangle around one of the flag poles), together with the movement of the flags, produced the kind of decisive moment I was looking for.

From a technical point of view the burnt out sun is a problem. However, after careful processing, I was able to tone down its brightness and enhance its shape.

Ultimately people will either find the result interesting or fake. But all I've done is made the best out of an image with a Dynamic Range (i.e., contrast) beyond that which could be recorded with my camera in a single exposure. You could call that photography 102.

How To Make Better Photos By Exploring Contrasting Colors 

Notice how the rich red color of the flags is enhanced by the cool cyan/blue sky. While not an easy image to make, I like it as it involved thinking out of the square. I feel the result presents a somewhat unique view of the location.

In fact the photo is really more about moment and symbol than it is about a particular place or event.

What Makes A Good Photo Even Better

This photo was made at 1/400 second exposure and contains a life-time of experience.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

The fact that I've travelled to China on five occasions; have a basic understanding of the countries history; and have made life-long friends with local Chinese people helped me to perceive the scene in the way I did. Understanding how to use my camera helps, but art goes way beyond the tools we employ to make photos.

The more interesting your life the more interesting your photos are likely to be.

It's True, Your Camera Does Look Both Ways

Your camera looks both ways. It's both a window onto the world and a mirror reflecting our viewpoint of that world. Our life is a collage of many, many things including the following:

  • The books we read
  • The movies we watch
  • The music we listen to
  • Our background including our ethnicity; parenting; education; and where and how we lived
  • Our religious and/or spiritual belief system
  • Our politics
  • Our travels, both near and far

It seems to me that the best travellers and the best photographers share common traits that include the following:

  • Our ability to interact with others, particularly those who are unlike ourselves
  • Our connection to the Human Condition and our ability to empathize with the plight of others
  • Our ability to make the most of the situation we're in and to enjoy the journey, despite the obstacles that appear along way.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru