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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

China: How to Photograph the Bund in Shanghai

Updated: Mar 8

Shanghai is a must-visit city for any photographer traveling to China. It's often the arrival point for international flights and serves as a gateway to many iconic regions for landscape photography. So why not take advantage of a few days in Shanghai to practice urban landscapes and capture the Huangpu River from the famous promenade "The Bund".


China: How to Photograph the Bund in Shanghai

This promenade is also called "Waitan" by the Chinese, which means “the foreigners' shore” in reference to the history of this part of the city. Indeed, the Bund is home to a number of buildings, banks, and colonial companies constructed in the 1930s.


The Bund is located in Puxi, east of the Huangpu district. It faces the financial and commercial area of Lujiazui, which is situated in the Pudong district and is photographed from the Bund.


This highly touristic spot is known for its 180° viewpoint over this part of the city and its famous towers, the most notable being the “Oriental Pearl Tower,” as well as the “Shanghai International Conference Center,” the “Shanghai World Financial Center,” the “Jin Mao Tower,” the “Shanghai Tower,” and the “Shanghai IFC,” to name just a few of the most important ones.

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Photographing the Bund during the Day

The dock that runs along the river at this location is endless. It offers photographers a multitude of interesting framing options. With a wide-angle lens attached to the camera, there's a wealth of choices. It's easy to spend several hours photographing this urban landscape, even if one has come to China to photograph nature and unusual landscapes. Whether in black and white or in color, everyone will find something to their liking in this fascinating landscape of water and buildings.


However, as mentioned in other articles, in China, one is never alone. Thousands of tourists visit these docks throughout the day, complicating the task of photography. It's better to go to the docks in the early morning, when the city is waking up (as much as it ever sleeps).


At that time, there is usually a longer moment of calm, away from the tourists who come to take selfies on the Bund and crowd along the railing by the river. Therefore, it's futile to hope to set up a tripod in the afternoon or at the end of the day.


China: How to Photograph the Bund in Shanghai

Finally, when I talk about a quiet moment, it's, of course, not considering the intense traffic of boats of all kinds navigating the river and passing in front of the lens at various speeds, making long exposures challenging.


One must arm themselves with patience and understand how the navigation works. After a few moments of observation, stopwatch in hand, one can determine the longest available moment without traffic and adjust their exposure times accordingly.


In general, one should not expect to be able to expose for more than 30 seconds. I've rarely observed a complete minute of calm at this location. The cargo ships move slowly through this river loop, so it's relatively easy to anticipate them. However, numerous small speedboats make their way at high speed randomly and without being noticed beforehand.


China: How to Photograph the Bund in Shanghai

Photographing the Bund at Night

At nightfall, this place is adorned with a unique magic of light. The buildings on the inner bank are then covered with gigantic advertising screens flashing in all directions or are abundantly illuminated. You certainly won't miss them. Despite these artificial lights that characterize the place, the nocturnal landscape becomes another source of inspiration for urban photography.


From this moment, the ships that ruined long exposures during the day suddenly become interesting elements in the compositions. Their constant lighting allows for the creation of long light trails in long exposures. This opportunity should not be missed. These welcome effects indeed accentuate the notion of time.


Graphically, they are interesting because they create a horizontal reference in the image. Skillfully used in compositions, this light reference adds a significant subtlety that harmonizes perfectly with the static background. It contrasts even more with the verticality of the buildings. Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict, and it's better to be prepared to make numerous attempts before achieving the shot that fully satisfies.


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Photographing the Bund from Above

Also, the positioning of the light trails in the image is important. Unfortunately, from the docks, the proportion of the river compared to the built elements is quite reduced, despite its width. It does not allow for the best representation of the desired balance between the horizontal and vertical contrasts in the composition.


Therefore, it's necessary to find a way to elevate oneself a bit to compose the scene more originally. Numerous hotels exist around the Bund and might be a solution to this issue. Let's explore where and how it might be possible to access the upper floors of one of these hotels and get to an outdoor terrace without glass barriers.


After several attempts, it was finally at the HYATT THE BUND hotel that I decided to go. This hotel has a bar (the “Vue Bar”) on the top floor and an accessible terrace free of any glass walls. Moreover, it is ideally located opposite the “Oriental Pearl Tower” and offers a plunging view of the river.


China: How to Photograph the Bund in Shanghai

Once you arrive at the top floor, you will need to leave your tripod at the guarded cloakroom. Indeed, it is not permitted to enter the bar with significant photographic equipment (be mindful of the size of your bag), and certainly not with a tripod. As is unfortunately the case in many other places, not just in China.


The reception hostess will remind you of this with a jubilant smile, as if she just deprived you of your most precious possession, making your photography work impossible. But against all odds, you'll thank her with an even more generous smile because she doesn't know what photographers do in these situations.

 
 

How to Take Long Exposures Without a Tripod

The trick is to always carry a mini-tripod that fits in your jacket pocket, as long as it's winter. If not, it's better to attach the mini-tripod directly to the camera before entering anywhere and hold the whole set by the legs without trying to hide anything. Generally, it passes off as a selfie stick (which the Chinese are fond of). In fact, I have never been stopped with a mini-tripod in hand.


My equipment: GITZO Mini Traveler. The ultra-stable and lightweight carbon mini-tripod.

Once on this terrace, which is completely available in the middle of winter, one can take advantage of the wide edges of the walls surrounding the terrace. They are built at an adequate height to place a mini-tripod while maintaining control over the aiming through the screen. An ideal spot to capture beautiful and unique shots of the Bund.


Then, all that's left is to enjoy a relaxing moment with a drink in this magnificent bar with its breathtaking view of the river and the Oriental Pearl Tower. After all, one has paid 110¥ for the right to access the bar. Might as well make the most of it. And on the way out, don't forget to warmly thank the hostess for keeping our precious tripod safe while we captured our most beautiful long exposures of the Bund.

 

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