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The Qinghai-Tibetan Photo Story by Photowriter Celia Cheng

Travel photos are just a record of the memorable moments to most people; but to photowriter Celia Cheng, they are also a record of the stories she encounters on travel. Celia revisited Qinghai and Tibet a while ago and used her camera to capture stunning photos of Lhasa, Nyingchi, Qinghai Lake and Chaka Salt Lake during her 11-day trip. Would this inspire you to explore the world with your camera like Celia at the time you read this article?

Picturesque Qinghai-Tibetan Scenery

Celia loves travelling, writing and taking photos, and was the owner of a shop selling European handcrafts. She took photos of the handcrafts and wrote descriptions and stories about them. It was just so happened that she turned into a photowriter. Having been a photowriter for some years, Celia explores the world with Canon cameras and still finds it so much fun to travel and photograph. The hardest thing though is the planning before the trip. “As I mostly travel on my own without travel agency, I have to spend a considerable amount of time to plan the itinerary,” she explained.

Celia prefers travelling to rural or even desolate areas to developed countries. “You can really feel the kindness and hospitality of local people there. If you can stay longer and spend some time to talk and interact with them, not only you can find the happiness from within, but also more willingness of them to be photographed. Then you can take photos that are natural and harmonic.” Celia had spent a month in Tibet before, and was really amazed by its uniqueness so she revisited there again. “Tibet is a picturesque place with rich history and culture. You can easily find a lot to photograph.” She continued, “I also travelled to Qinghai such as Chaka Salt Lake during this trip. I’m so lucky to have visited the two places that are known as the “Mirror of the Sky” on earth – this one in Qinghai and also Bolivia Salt Flat in South America that I went before.”
The use of 70mm mid-telephoto length led the eyes of viewers to the bos grunniens and Tibetan mastiff while excluding the sellers in the composition. This also helped closing the distance between the foreground and the Yamdrok Lake in the back, creating a simple and clean composition that told a better story with the magnificent lake view as background.

Photo by Celia Cheng
EOS 5D Mark IIIEF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM • 1/50s • f/11 • ISO 200
Potala Palace is the landmark in Lhasa. We can make use of the seasonal scenery to add a seasonal touch to the photo. This trip was done in August when yellow chamomile flowers were in full blossom. So I took this shot by half kneeling on the ground. With the exaggerated perspective of an ultra-wide angle lens, the flowers resembled a carpet in the foreground with splendid architecture and blue sky in the back, resulting in this vivid and lively shot of Potala Palace.

Photo by Celia Cheng
EOS 5D Mark IIIEF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM • 1/400s • f/8 • ISO 160
This close-up shot of Genghis Khan statue was taken at the observation deck using an ultra-wide angle lens. With the traditional yurts in the distance and the use of back lighting, the statue showed depth and magnificence.

Photo by Celia Cheng
EOS 5D Mark IIIEF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM • 1/160s • f/13 • ISO 100

Move Around to Take Portraits

During the 11 days in Qinghai and Tibet, Celia was most impressed with the visit to Sera Monastery in Lhasa. “Buddhist debate is a tradition in Tibet. Monks usually gather under the trees in the square to debate. I had to move around in the square to search for the best location to shoot with the best lighting. It took a lot of time and effort to get a satisfactory shot.” One thing that surprised Celia was that when she looked at the old photos taken 3 years ago in Tibet, she found the same monk she photographed in trip. “It is fate that we see each other again! Next time when I visit Tibet, I will definitely give him his photo I took!” Of all the photos she had taken in Qinghai and Tibet, one that captured monks debating was Celia’s favourite. “Monks in red robes standing under a big green tree, the light and shade through the branches, the laughers and the look in their eyes all depict the close and harmonious relationship among them.”
Three monks doing debate under the tree looked harmonious with the smiles on their faces.

Photo by Celia Cheng
EOS 5D Mark IIIEF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM • 1/160s • f/5.6 • ISO 640
Bakor Street in Lhasa is a shopping district in the downtown. This photo captured two elderly ladies talking leisurely while an old man sitting next to them smiling happily. With all subjects in the photo looked very natural, this photo showed a glimpse of the daily life of Tibetan people. A sense of intimacy can be found in this photo by kneeling down a bit to shoot at the eye level of the subjects.

Photo by Celia Cheng
EOS 5D Mark IIIEF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM • 1/160s • f/8 • ISO 640

Large Aperture to Capture the Mongolian Starry Sky

Another photo that Celia liked most was the one that captured the Mongolian starry sky. “It was such a harmonious scene when the yurts, Milky Way and bolide all came in the composition. There wasn’t any light pollution and the sky was clear without clouds nor smog. The totally dark sky made the perfect backdrop for the stars to shine.” To take photos of the starry sky, a tripod is of course indispensable. Celia recommended to use a low ISO setting to minimize noise and thus a large aperture lens was key. Use a short exposure time if you wish to capture the tiny spots of stars without any trail.

Besides, Celia suggested to use Manual mode when shooting. “Some people may use infinity focusing when shooting stars. But I would suggest using the camera’s Live View mode to shoot as there is difference in distance between the earth and the star we shoot. Simply focus on the brightest star and check and confirm the focus in magnified view. Then adjust the horizontal level and press the shutter release button to take a picture.” Celia continued, “Take this Milky Way photo as an example. Adjust the ISO setting to anywhere between 1600 and 3200, set the aperture at f/2.8 and switch to Bulb mode. With exposure time of around 15 to 20 seconds, photo showing sharp and clear sky and landscape can be created without the need of filter.”
This shot taken by Celia while staying at the home of nomadic people in Mongolia used EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM large aperture wide angle prime lens and without any filter. A relatively short exposure time was used to prevent turning stars into star trails.

Photo by Celia Cheng
EOS 5D Mark IIIEF 24mm f/1.4L II USM • 15s • f/1.4 • ISO 1600

Develop an Eye for Photography and Use of Different Photographic Equipment

Being a photowriter, Celia takes photo quality very seriously and equipment plays an important role in this. In this trip, she brought with her two cameras and six lenses, including EOS 5D Mark III, EOS 80D, EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM, EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM, EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye and EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, plus two tripods to accommodate various needs and topics from photography, videography, landscape to portrait. “EOS 5D Mark III is an all-round performer with accurate focusing and nice control on shadow area and high ISO noise. It is good for portrait, landscape and nightscape shooting. I also brought EOS 80D with me this time so that the two cameras can be flexibly used to take photo and video simultaneously and without the need to change lens or camera’s setting that often.”

Celia also suggested to draft a plan of what to shoot before departure. “Bring an ultra-wide angle lens if you plan to take landscape and a lens with Image Stabilizer for portrait to reduce the chance of hand shaking when shooting handheld.” Make up your itinerary to see what photographic equipment you should bring. In addition to equipment and skills, Celia believed that an eye for photography was even more important. “Photography is not about quantity. You may not find a satisfactory shot even if you take ten or more photos at the same location. An eye for photography is therefore very important. Stay curious and keep observing the surrounding environment to see how you can take a unique shot of a place or photos that tell a story.” Celia also shared her tips to developing an eye for photography, “Watching movies or visiting a gallery helps. Observe the framing used in movies and drawings and pay attention to the light and shade. See and learn when and where a back lighting or side lighting is used. Train your eyes and be sensitive to the framing, lighting and composition. You can then develop a shooting style of your own.”
The colorful prayer flags are commonly used for blessing by Tibetan people. The difficulty of this shot was that it was taken on a crowded street. You have to be patient to wait for the best action to happen and an optimal distance between you and the pedestrian, as well as an acute sense in composition so that you are responsive enough to shoot when it comes.

Photo by Celia Cheng
EOS 5D Mark IIIEF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM • 1/200s • f/8 • ISO 160
There is musical fountain on the square of Potala Palace every night at a regular time. However, the place is chilling cold at night and the floor gets dry quickly due to the high altitude. So have your tripod set before shooting and get close to shoot immediately after the fountain stops.

Photo by Celia Cheng
EOS 5D Mark IIIEF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM • 0.8s • f/16 • ISO 1600

Visiting Tibet Again with New Travel Companion

For those who plan to travel to Tibet for shooting, here are some tips from Celia. “It is important that you pick the right month to go. Weather in Qinghai is good from April to October, and this is an important factor for landscape shooting. If you go during summer holidays in July or August, the place would be crowded with tourists and local people, making it harder to take pictures. If you are going in the peak season, I would suggest you to arrive at the scenic spots early or choose a location away from the crowd to shoot.” In addition, you can go with the like-minded people and form a photo trip. “Go with friends who are also fond of travel photography as it takes a long time to search for the best spot to take a perfect photo. There might be a lot of problems if going with friends who prefer sightseeing.” Shortly after her 11-day trip in Qinghai and Tibet, Celia is going to take photos of maple leaves in central Japan and Korea soon. This time she is going with EOS 5D Mark IV as her new travel companion, and she is very excited to see how the new camera performs in continuous shooting and its photo quality!
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