Chinese Landscapes

“Mount Hallelujah” created in movie Avatar has its origin from three famous Chinese mountain regions: Huangshan, Zhangjiajie and Guilin. The image I will talk about in this article was made from Huangshan.

Mount Hallelujah

Mount Hallelujah

About the Location

Huangshan (黄山), also called Yellow Mountains in English, is a mountain range in southern Anhui (安徽)Province. For thousands of years Huangshan has been one of the most famous Chinese mountain regions, becoming a symbolic icon for Chinese poetry and artwork, especially Chinese ink painting. Nowadays, with its rich culture origin and incredibly beautiful landscape scenery, Huangshan has attracted countless tourists and artists every year.

Regarding its landscape, Huangshan offers three unique features that are rarely seen altogether anywhere else in the world: the vigor of the Huangshan pine trees growing straight out of the rocks, unusual rock formations, and the Sea of Clouds.

Access to Huangshan is generally not so difficult, and going by train or by bus is the most common way to get there. However, people should note that Huangshan is a large mountain area, trekking in the mountains requires certain physical fitness, especially for photographers carrying heavy camera gears. The above map shows the main trekking paths and trails in the mountains.

There are a few decent hotels in the mountains, which provide great convenience for people who want to stay there for days.


Photography in Huangshan

I started exploring Huangshan for landscape photography in 2008. Since then I have been to Huangshan six times. Taking nice pictures of Huangshan is everyone’s desire. Nevertheless, making outstanding Huangshan images is definitely challenging – you will need a lot of things coming together at the right time in the right place.

Generally, it is not very hard to find a location in Huangshan with a good composition for shooting photos. Locations for sunrise and sunset shootings are usually different, although this is not always true. Keep in mind, however, that to be creative, one does need a lot of effort to explore Huangshan thoroughly. For instance, Xihai Grand Canyon (西海大峡谷, also called the Grand Canyon of West Sea in English) (see the above trekking map) is a huge area in Huangshan, and there are infinite photography opportunities inside the canyon once the light conditions are right. In English, Xihai means West Sea.

During my previous five visits, I was unlucky and did not witness any impressive sunrises or sunsets. Most of the times the weather was rainy, heavily foggy, or just cloudless and sunny without any interesting skyscape features.

In January 2013, I decided to visit Huangshan during the deep winter season, and stayed there for six days. I thought this would give me more opportunities to encounter some special weather conditions. Indeed, Huangshan’s winter was simply beautiful, snowfalls were frequent, and the scenery was very different from the other seasons.

The Picture

This photo was taken in the afternoon on 22 January 2013, in Cloud-dispelling Pavilion (排云楼), the entry of Xihai Grand Canyon. It was a cold and overcast afternoon, and there was no sign that any impressive light was going to appear during the sunset time. But I still decided to go out to shoot something. Cloud-dispelling Pavilion was my favorite location for afternoon shooting because it faced west and from there one could view the vast open field of Xihai Grand Canyon.

When I arrived at Cloud-dispelling Pavilion, two photographers from Hong Kong were already there, waiting for the sunset. I joined them and set up my tripod and camera with a composition that I felt comfortable with for the shot. Since Cloud-dispelling Pavilion was a classical shooting location for Xihai Grand Canyon sunset, most people would use a wide-angle lens to shoot. But this time, I decided to use my Canon telephoto lens 70-200mm f/2.8L IS to try a different perspective.

After waiting 40 minutes, we saw no sign of any impressive afternoon light, instead, a strong snowstorm came suddenly. It was increasingly windy and a lot of hard snowflakes hit our faces and cameras. The two Hong Kong photographers could not stand such snowstorm, they packed up quickly and left.

Indeed, it was a difficult moment. But I clearly saw that an incredibly beautiful scene of Xihai Grand Canyon was appearing before me. I just started to shoot without any hesitation. My shooting lasted about 30 minutes until the snowstorm gradually ceased. By the time I left Cloud-dispelling Pavilion, I knew I had captured some dramatic images of Huangshan that rarely seen before.


Processing this image was quite straightforward. I first opened the raw file in Camera Raw 6.7, made White Balance adjustment towards a bit more bluish because I felt this was consistent with what I saw in the reality. I also made minimal adjustment by increasing both Clarity and Vibrancy to 12. After finishing these adjustments, I then loaded this file into Photoshop CS5.

In Photoshop CS5, the most effective method I used for enhancing my images was TK Luminosity Mask technique, by which I could locally adjust the colors, contrast, brightness and details on different tones of pixels. For this image, I mainly focused on various areas with mid-tones, and used TK luminosity masks to extract more details and increase the contrasts of the left side mountain walls, then used Light tone mask to make those snow flakes pop up.
After these adjustments, I then increased the overall image Vibrance to 10 and Saturation to 12 (I never increased Saturation over 15).

I saved the image to psd format including all adjustment layers so that I could make improvement later easily if necessary. Depending on how to display the image in a final form, I usually used different methods to sharpen the image and produce jpeg file. For instance, to produce a web display image with the longest size of 1200 pixels, I usually used Unsharp Mask, with Amount of 140, Radius 5, then Fade Unsharp Mask to 85.


I was very satisfactory with the final image. Since it was published on 1X, it has become one of my most popular images in my 1X gallery. It won 1X Curator’s Choice and was selected in 1X 2013 Yearbook Passion. More recently, this image has received “Highly commended mentions” in the category “mountain Landscape in the 24th Memorial Maria Lusia International Mountain and Nature Photography Competition.


I have written a few blogs on this topic. Since I have received more inquiries about Li River photography in last a few months, I decided to write this article to provide more detailed information on the locations, times, and transportation in relation to making pictures of Li River. Some contents may be similar to my previous blogs.

For many years, Li River has been viewed as an iconic symbol of oriental beauty. It is one of those a few places of China that is so popular by attracting lots of tourists every year but still remains its natural purity. When I first visited Li River in 2006, I was convinced that it is a place I should come back constantly. Since then I have been to the region of Li River five times in last a few years.

During my Li River photography experiences, I have been lucky enough to be able to make some nice photos of Li River, which have won some prizes, and quite a few of prints have been sold to various clients.


In this article, I would like to share some of my photography experience with people who are interested in doing landscape photography around Li River.

(1) Photography locations – getting there

There are several places that people should remember if they plan to do photography in Li River area. Firstly, Guilin (桂林) – one of the two major cities in Guangxi (广西) Province, is the first destination for most people coming from either overseas or other places in Mainland China. It has an international airport that connects Guilin to the rest of the world without many difficulties.

Then the best location for Li River photography is actually a small county called Xing Ping (兴坪),where your real Li River photography journey starts.

There are two major ways to get to Xing Ping from Guilin: by bus or by taxi, both take about 2 hours. I never took bus to go to Xing Ping, as it usually quite crowded and uncomfortable. More importantly, you would have difficulty to carry all your luggage and camera gears onto the bus. So I usually took private taxi to go to Xing Ping, it costs Chinese Yuan RMB from 300 to 500 (equivalently, USD$50 – USD$90) depending on how good you are to bargain with the driver.

Shooting along the river

Once you get to Xing Ping, you will be amazed with the beauty of Li River. Xing Ping is such a place from where you can easily access to many excellent photography locations along Li River. In the following I list four well-known photography locations. But people should keep in mind that they should free themselves to identify some new points on their own discovery.

Both Luo Si Mountain (螺丝山) and Yuan Bao Mountain (元宝) are just 10-20 minutes by boat from Xing Ping, and are ideal places for taking sunset pictures.

Huang Bu Reflection (黄布倒影)is another well known place in Li River, which is 40-50 minutes by boat from Xing Ping. It is a perfect location for sunrise shot, especially for a clam day, as the mountain reflection will be stunning during a good sunrise time.

Finally, Xia Long (下龙) is an excellent location along Li River, and it takes 60 minutes by boat to get there. Most people take sunrise shoots at this spot, but I have found it could be also interesting to take late afternoon or evening shoot. The following image was taken in this location (early morning).


One thing that photographers should remember is that in general Li River is a busy river channel for local people for their business and daily life. The scenes only become attractive when the river is in a calm and peaceful mood. So for morning shooting, people should get to the location pretty early.

Shooting from the mountains

While taking pictures along Li River is quite convenient and thus is the major photography way for most photographers, making Li River images from the top of surrounding mountains, on the other hand, is much more challenging and also more fruitful sometimes. For the majority of local photographers, as far as I know, they probably are more preferable to take Li River photos from the top of mountains, as that will give you very wide perspective of the whole Li River and surrounding scenery.

However, taking Li River pictures from the mountains demands some physical fitness for photographers. For sunrise shooting, for instance, you will need to get up quite early, taking 40 – 60 minutes boat to get to the mountain area, and then spending another 40 – 120 minutes (depending on which mountain you want to get there) to climb the mountain in the darkness. For most mountains, there are no trails for hiking at all. People will have to use their two hands to climb from time to time.

The following image was taken from a mountain near Li River.


(2) Having a local guide is essential

For most photographers from outside Li River region, having a local guide is important in order to access those photographic spots either along Li River or on the mountains. A good local guide will take you to the right spots at right time. I would suggest not to choose those general fishermen as your guides because they usually have little photography knowledge that may result in missing some important photography opportunities.

(3) Good seasons and times for Li River photography

There are good seasons and bad seasons for Li River photography. Local people told me that in general, April and May are preferable for Li River photography, because during these months, water level in Li River is relative high, and it has less foggy weather. From June to August, there are usually have heavy rains and floods around Li River. Weather during September and October is usually quite nice from a photography viewpoint, but water level in Li River during these months is pretty low, which may result in a less impressive effect if you take pictures from the mountains. Then from November to next year March, I was told that foggy weather is too often around Li River region.

Nevertheless, I should indicate that all such weather and time information is not absolute. Exceptions always exist. In fact, during my several years Li River photography experience, I have never been able to travel to Li River during April and May, but I still made some nice images of Li River, as the above three links show.

One thing is important: rains play a critical role to generate dramatic weather conditions for Li River region. Generally, if there is a change between raining and sunny weather, for example, having 2 or 3 days rains and then turning to sunny days, then dramatic sunrise or sunset will likely occur in the third or fourth sunny days after the rain.

(4) A final word

I have a passion for Li River. My journey of Li River photography will continue. If you like to know more information about photography in this region, please feel free to contact me through my photography website:

For many years, Li River has been viewed as an iconic symbol of oriental beauty. It is one of those a few places of China that is so popular by attracting lots of tourists every year but still remains its natural purity.


Li River Sunrise

Li River Sunrise

This photo was taken in Xingping County along Li River on 11 October 2011. The local photographer said that it was not an ideal time to make pictures of Li River from October to April of the next year because an overcast weather over Li River was very common during this period. But there was an exception this time. I was told that it had been continuously raining for an entire week but just stopped on that day when I arrived in Xingping. Then I knew I probably would be lucky enough to witness some beautiful sunrise and sunset moments during my this trip. Indeed, on the third day, I encountered a spectacular sunrise over the beautiful Li River.

The image was taken with my Canon 5D Mark II camera and 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens. I used tripod Gitzo GT2531EX CF6X Explorer 2 (BH-55 Ballhead) to support the camera and lens, and a RC-1 canon remote release to trigger the shutter.

To balance the light between the sky and foreground (river), a Lee .6 GND soft filter and a Lee .3 GND hard were used. I found that this filter combination provided the best effect without causing any visible grey line between the water and mountains.

This image was also a result from blending three successive shots within 15 minutes. When the sky was getting to dance, I made a shot with aperture f/22, focal length 29mm, ISO 50 and shutter speed 20 seconds. This long exposure made the river have a peaceful and tranquil feeling, where the cloud reflection was also showed in the water. Soon after this shot, I found the clouds became even more dramatic, so I made the second shot focusing on the sky with aperture f/10, focal length 29mm, ISO 100 and shutter speed 1.3 second. Then a few minutes later, something interesting happened: a fisherman suddenly rowed into my frame – this was completely out of my expectation! I quickly made the third shot: aperture f/8.0, focal length 29mm, ISO 100 and shutter speed 1/13 second.

The first two shots were well planned, but the third shot was by chance, which eventually played the most significant role to produce the final image.

I opened three images raw files in Camera Raw 6.3, made a small adjustment for each of these files by just filling a bit light for the first two images increasing both clarity and vibrance to 12. Then I loaded them into Photoshop CS5.

In Photoshop CS5, I first blended the first two images together: the intermediate resulting image combined the first image’s water reflection (lower part) and the rest parts of the second image. Then I further blended this intermediate resulting image with the third image by carefully painting the fisherman and the associated water reflection into the earlier combined image. In this step, localizing the fisherman and his reflection was critical. Paint opacity should be not more than 5%, and gradually painting was carried on until the fisherman (reflection) smoothly appearing and merged with the rest part of the image.

After three images were carefully merged, a standard Photoshop processing was carried out. As an additional yet important stage, I further applied Tony Kuper’s mask luminosity technique to select “Expended Mid-tones Pixels” in Channels, and then select Curve to create a Curve layer. By adjusting this curve I could further enhance the contrast on expended mid-tones pixels, which made the overall image pop out nicely.

I was satisfied with the final image after processing. I think blending three images together was an important step to make an image illustrating such a beautiful scene of Li River that I have had in my mind for a long time.

On that day early morning, I traveled by a small boat for one hour to get to this location when the sky was still very dark, so I had plenty of time to set up my tripod and considered various compositions. From the dawn to sunrise, the light changed dramatically, and also local people started to work on their boats in the river. Under this situation, the first shot was critical to capture the stillness of the water when no one was there. To me, the impressive sky and its reflection in the water were the primary feature I wanted to capture, while the unexpected fisherman captured in the third shot just added an exceptional highlight to this image.

Overall, I believe that the following three things are important to make a good landscape photograph:

– Persistence. If you find a wonderful place to photograph, you probably have to visit there many times. In the last five years, I visited Xingping four times, and went to this specific location seven times. Only this last time I got the wonderful light. Visiting Li River also meant that I have to travel far enough each time (from Australia to China).

– Patience. In that morning, I thought I already made the best photos after the first two shots, while two photographers nearby started to move to another location. Luckily, I stood there a bit longer without moving my tripod, so that I could capture the third image with the fisherman coming to the right spot with the same composition.

– Always try different compositions if you have time. I believe that this is quite critical to achieve the best outcome. In that morning, after I made these three shots, I also took several landscape-oriented shots. It appeared to me that both compositions were equally impressive.

Visit Yan Zhang Photography for more images.

In my earlier blog “Yangshuo – A Wonderland of China”, I have described the beauty of Li River. Li River is a typical place that presents the true beauty of oriental landscapes. When I first visited Yangshuo in 2006, I was convinced that Li River is a place I should come back constantly.

A while ago I accepted friends’ suggestion to have a personal landscape photography exhibition sometime in 2012, with the theme called “East, West” to exhibit the beautiful landscapes from both East and West. To fulfill this big project, the first thought come to my mind was to go back to Li River to explore new scenes around Li River. At the end of August 2010, I arrived in Xing Ping (兴坪) – a county 30KM away from Yangshuo. I was told that Xing Ping is one of the best locations to view many stunning scenes of Li River.

Luo Si Mountain Sunset

I stayed 4 days in Xing Ping, and lived in a clean and economic hotel called Wang Jiang Lou (望江楼)- its English meaning is A Hotel Facing the River. With the help of the hotel owner, I was able to find good local guides and access to several nice locations along Li River .

Yuan Bao Mountain

Both Luo Si Mountain (螺丝山) and Yuan Bao Mountain (元宝) are just 10-20 minutes by boat from Xing Ping county, and are ideal places for taking sunset pictures. The image of Yuan Bao Mountain also appears in the 20 Chinese Yuan Note. While these are well known sunset locations for photography, it is essential to fully explore them in order to capture something unique. When I took the above Luo Si Mountain shot, other two photographers were also at the same location. The actual sunset was not so attractive. Soon after sun went down, those two photographers left as they thought nothing was special. I decided to stayed longer with a hope to witness something interesting. Indeed, 60 minutes after the sunset, some warm tone was across the sky for just several minutes. Though not so obvious to our naked eyes, a magnificent scene was precisely captured in my camera via a long exposure.

Huang Bu Reflection

Huang Bu Reflection (黄布倒影)is another well known place in Li River, which is 40-50 minutes by boat from Xing Ping county. The above picture was taken in an overcast morning. The perfect reflection and interesting cloud formation in the sky illustrate some unique features about this classical scene. After viewing this image, a local photographer mentioned to me that this was one of the very special shots he ever saw about Huang Bu Reflection.

Xia Long Finsherman

Xia Long (下龙) was the last destination for my 4-day photography expedition in Xing Ping. It was a challenge to travel to Xia Long in the morning as it was not close to Xing Ping. Together with my local guide, we started at 4.00am, and traveled one and half hours to arrive at Xia Long, while the sky was still so dark at 5.30pam. When I was busy to search for interesting compositions and viewpoints, the guide started to sleep again in his boat. Around 5.45am, things became more visible and some fishermen started to work in the river. Although we did not meet a dramatic sunrise morning, I was still happy to capture these two peaceful images of Xia Long.

Morning Mist in Xia Long

Since 2006, I have been to Li river for three times, but my passion for Li River will go forever. I plan to explore some new locations and scenes along Li River in 2011, and hopefully to capture more interesting images of the beautiful Li River.

This is a long-delayed travel note that I should have finished much earlier. I thought I had a chance to visit Yangshuo recently, and I was hoping to come up with more information and photos to put in this note, but unfortunately that plan has been changed.

Yangshou (阳朔)is a small county near Guilin (桂林) along Li River (漓江). I first heard about Yangshuo in 1996 from a friend who sent me a self-made photograph postcard from Hong Kong. I was surprised with the stunning scene of the postcard and asked where the place was. I was told “this is Yangshuo”. Since then, I remembered a place called Yangshuo.

Yulong River

Many years have passed. Now Yangshuo has become a hot-spot for tourists from all over the world. When you are in those busy streets of Yangshuo, you would not feel that this is a place people would call “Wonderland”.  But once you get out of Yangshuo’s downtown, you will no longer doubt Yangshuo’s reputation.

I first visited Yangshuo in 2006 when attending a conference in Guilin. The most recent visit was in 2008 with my family. We stayed there for three days. It was a very short visit, especially from a photographer’s point of view, but that visit definitely convinced me to come back again someday.

West Street (西街)

West Street is the busiest street in Yangshuo. It is only 1 km long, but full of shops, restaurants and hotels. If you are not keen on taking landscape photos, staying in West Street is the best option for your visit.  Some motels provide very cheap accommodations. For instance, one room suitable for a couple or a single person, may cost around 60 RMB per night, which is less than US$10.

Moon Rise over West Street

There is a creek on the other side of West Street. On one early morning, I went there and experienced a wonderful pre-dawn and sunrise scene.

Near West Street

Yulong River (遇龙河)

Yulong River is a tributary of Li River, about 40 km from Yangshuo. This is a popular spot for photography. During our stay in Yangshuo, I only went there once to take couple of shots. The hotel owner told me that he once sent an American photographer to Yulong River almost every morning during his one month stay in West Street.

Yulong River

Around Yangshuo

Yangshuo is a wonderland of China. Its unique landscape provides infinite photography opportunities as long as you stay in Yangshuo long enough and get to know the place well.