Tea Leaf Nation

How to Take Great Photos While Surrounded by Chinese Smog

A tongue-in-cheek article from Chinese media offers tips to aspiring photographers.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

If you can’t beat it, photograph it.

With choking smog once again descending upon China’s northeastern cities, that seems to be the message of an anonymous article widely reposted around the Chinese Internet over the weekend. The seemingly tongue-in-cheek piece offers tips on how aspiring photographers can use China’s thick haze to aesthetic advantage. Suggestions, accompanied with sample photos, include “using a slightly longer exposure time” to “capture subtle shifts in the smog;” hints for what to look for, such as “the reduced visibility on smoggy days can create delicate layering patterns;” and a reminder to “check the PM2.5 level before embarking — if it’s too high, visibility will be limited.” (PM2.5 is a measurement of harmful, small particulate matter in the air.)

This collection of tips and photos may seem to rank alongside the Dec. 2013 article in the state-run Global Times that offered five reasons why smog was actually a tactical boon for China’s military defense. The poorly considered article — seeming to casually dismiss smog’s genuine toll on human health — was quickly removed after an online backlash. But this smog photo post, artsy and hopeful, seems to combine both understated satire with a genuine attempt to make the best of a bad situation. Its final suggestion is to use photography as a means to express emotion about smog, declaring, “Since we live in it, let us at least make good use of it!”

Among the article’s tips to photographers in smog-choked lands:

Use a simple subject to express a simple theme. The art of photography often utilizes large swaths of blank space to emphasize an abstract concept. Smog naturally creates monochromatic backgrounds, highlighting the main subject of the photograph.

Smog makes birds-eye panoramas even more stunning. When swathed in haze, a cityscape shimmers like a mirage, or a scene from sci-fi film. Just remember to check the PM2.5 level before embarking; if it’s too high, visibility will be limited to about six feet, and you will have wasted all that effort climbing up to that perfect perch.

Shooting traditional Chinese architecture. Using a slightly longer exposure time will capture subtle shifts in the curling smog, and photos of traditional Chinese architecture will be filled with fantasy.

Look for layering effects. The reduced visibility on smoggy days can create delicate layering patterns if you know where to look. Trees work well, though very leafy branches may obscure the layering effect.

Make use of strong light sources. Thick smog can cover color, brightness, and shape, and it’s easy for photos to turn out an indiscriminate mass of gray. To counteract that, look for strong light that pierces the fog, creating a dramatic effect. Morning and evening sunlight are ideal.

Scenes with stark light/dark contrasts.  Black and white photography suits smoggy scenes, creating a distance between the photograph and reality of a colored world. Post-processing into black and white tones can create a simpler, more expressive image. But be sure to pay attention to contrast, contour, and texture.

Roads make great props for the imagination.  The ambiguity of a road whose end is just out of sight leaves a vast free space for the human imagination.

Don’t forget to find a splash of color. A strong color, such as orange or red, in the foreground can make for a great effect.

Express the smog, don’t conceal it. Everyone has emotions about smog. Since we live in it, let us at least make good use of it! Let your smog photography be filled with playful humor, frustration, complaints, and even hysteria.


Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola