Chinese New Year

A couple of weeks ago (January 23rd to be exact) was Chinese New Year. The following Sunday, London’s Trafalgar Square played host to celebrations to mark the event. Having attended International Paralympic Day there back in September, and knowing that Chinese New Year celebrations would probably be awash with colour, I decided to head down there and try to get some interesting photographs.

This was an interesting trip, because the day itself didn’t really go all that well. For a start, I left one of my SD cards at home, halving the amount of photos I would be able to take. The day was overcast and grey, making the light pretty terrible. It was unexpectedly cold, which I wasn’t suitably dressed for. And there were a lot more people there – many of whom with cameras – making experimenting with positions and angles and different types of shot very difficult.

Ultimately, then, this post turned into a post-processing project, in which I took the couple of hundred shots I’d taken, and tried to breathe some life into some of them.

My first few shots are unfortunately sullied a little by the prominence of the company who had slapped an advert on all of the lanterns that adorned the Square.

Exposure 1/250sec, f/3.5, ISO 100, 18mm focal length
Exposure 1/250sec, f/4.5, ISO 100, 35mm focal length
Exposure 1/1600sec, f/3.5, ISO 100, 18mm focal length

These three images are some of the very few images from this set that were not the recipient of some sort of digital jiggerypokery. I had begun to experiment with using digital processing to create intriguing shots out of otherwise bland ones in my post of shots from around London. In that set I used selective chromatic removal (that is, removing certain colours entirely) to bring out solid elements like phone boxes; I also selectively desaturated sections of some images in order to highlight certain elements. I know it can be a little clichéd to use the trick, but the times I have used it I can categorically say that the end result is better than what it otherwise would have been.

Exposure 1/80sec, f/5.6, ISO 100, 62mm focal length

For this image, I’ve desaturated the background in order to emphasise the dragon; I’ve also tweaked the colour temperature, tint and contrast in other to bring out its colour which was a little flat in the grey light of the day. I’d probably rather have slightly higher contrast for the background, but I’m not entirely sure how to do that without affecting the foreground, which looks about right to my eyes.

The amount of colour on show was often a problem; as my movement was very restricted I had few angles I could shoot from, so there was often a colourful subject with an equally colourful background, making for a cluttered looking image. That was the issue with this next shot, which ultimately isn’t all that good, but I include it for discussion (plus I spent all that time doing the colour/black and white thing).

Exposure 1/160sec, f/5, ISO 200, exposure bias -0.33, 52mm focal length

To give you an indication of the colour problem I was having, here is a shot of all of the mascots together. Note the monkey copping a feel of the tiger.

So you can see what I was working with at this point.

Fortunately, not all of the mascots were so brightly coloured.

Exposure 1/80sec, f/5.6, ISO 200, exposure bias -0.33, 100mm focal length

Looking back, it’s easy to forget just how cold it was. We ended up standing in the same spot in the crowd for over an hour waiting for the main show to begin. During that time, I inevitably took a bored photo.

Exposure 1/15sec, f/4, ISO 200, exposure bias -0.33, 18mm focal length

For some reason, I find this image really appealing. Maybe because it could be anywhere, maybe because it’s actually in focus, which an alarming amount of my shots from the day weren’t (I’m blaming the cold and the light for that), but I love this image. The lack of colour definitely helps in this one, it strengthens the timeless nature of it.

After that hour of standing around waiting for things to start, someone finally lit a firecracker under the event. Almost entirely literally, apart from the ‘under’ bit.

Exposure 1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 250, exposure bias -0.33, 69mm focal length

I really like the dark plume of smoke in this snap. The firecracker ‘display’ went on for a good five minutes, giving me an opportunity to have plenty of goes at catching an ideal freeze-frame.

Exposure 1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 250, exposure bias -0.33, 120mm focal length
Exposure 1/1250sec, f/5.6, ISO 250, exposure bias -0.33, 75mm focal length
Exposure 1/800sec, f/5.6, ISO 250, exposure bias -0.33, 75mm focal length

I love how the debris from the firecrackers has been frozen in time, sometimes backlit by explosions. I did take near enough a hundred shots in order to be able to catch these ones, which is perhaps a little excessive. Not as excessive as the mess that had to be cleaned up afterwards.

Next up in the celebrations was a lion dance. This is a traditional dance performed by two insane people in a lion costume, as far as I can make out.

Exposure 1/200sec, f/5.6, ISO 320, exposure bias -0.33 (+0.23), 85mm focal length

This guy caused some more problems; the costume was a bold yellow colour, meaning a lot of the clarity in his fur is lost in the photos. This is partly why I have turned him black and white in this image. I’ve also added a vignette which has further brought out some detail, although I think some of its effect has been lost as I’ve also cropped the image from landscape into portrait.

Adding a vignette is a technique I don’t often use, but it is one I have employed quite a lot in these shots. I find it helps frame the shot and adds a bit of contrast and definition, as should hopefully be seen in this next shot.

Exposure 1/400sec, f/5.6, ISO 320, exposure bias -0.33 (+0.15), 135mm focal length

Okay, maybe you can’t see it that much.

These guys were mental. They were jumping across these little plinths like it wasn’t even a thing.

Exposure 1/125sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, exposure bias -0.33 (-1.71), 92mm focal length

It was like something out of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon only without wires. There wasn’t even enough safety mats, they had a team of other guys moving the mats around depending on where the lion was. Despite this, it didn’t look all that pleased.

Exposure 1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 320, exposure bias -0.67, 113mm focal length

After the lion dance, there was the dragon dance. Wikipedia says they’re slightly different; the lion dance is two guys inside a costume, and the dragon dance is loads of people outside a costume. Looks like the Wiki was right on this one.

Exposure 1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, exposure bias -0.33, 135mm focal length

For that shot, I tried something different, and selectively blurred the background more than as shot, in order to bring out the foreground a little more. I also tweaked the white balance a bit to make it look a little warmer. This is where Aperture’s ‘Detect Edges’ feature came in handy; without it doing this sort of thing (and the selective mono chroming in some of the other shots) would be a very fiddly affair. There seems to be a few close edges I’ve missed (I’ll have to go back and see if I can fix those), but overall I think this shot is far better than the original, as-shot master.

I made a few attempts at photographing the dragon dance. It was quite fast action but was happening closer to us than anything else so I had several chances to grab some well-framed action.

Exposure 1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, exposure bias -0.33, 135mm focal length

I added a vignette to this shot as well. In fact, I added one to just about every shot in the rest of this set. This image, however, only needed this a a bit of a boost in colours to make it a serviceable shot.

This next photograph needed a little more work to bring out the subject from an otherwise cluttered frame.

Exposure 1/500sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, exposure bias -0.33, 135mm focal length

Initially, I desaturated the background, and left the boy and all of the dragon in colour. However this didn’t solve the main problem, which is the dragon’s tail very close to its head. So I desaturated the tail as well, and this was an improvement, but the tail was still quite prominent; to fix this I blurred it and the guy holding it, further exaggerating the foreground action. Much better, but still a little cluttered.

I’m very aware that this sort of treatment of a picture can be overused. I know some people hate it as a technique, but I think it has its place. Just about every wedding photographer has probably produced a black and white image of the bride and groom with coloured flowers at some point in their career. That sort of thing is so incredibly clichéd nowadays but it’s still done, and those wedding photographers still find work[citation needed].

I’m quite pleased with the results I’ve gotten by selectively monochroming a handful of shots in both this selection and my earlier shots of London post. I don’t use the technique all that often but there are just some shots that scream out for it, and I’m proud of the finished products in those instances.

Whilst I was having this revelation, in another temporal plain the dragon dance was continuing.

Exposure 1/640sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, exposure bias -0.33, 135mm focal length

After the dragon dance concluded, we were allowed to move forward into the dragon’s performing area (I say ‘allowed’, the flow of people gave us no choice in the matter) and the stage area became home to a dance troupe. This presented a new challenge – being tightly squeezed into a space and trying to shoot over peoples’ heads onto a stage lit by coloured lights made getting results tricky. The results haven’t come out too bad, but they are perhaps a little blurry. But then, I was holding the camera above my head and shooting with the LCD, which isn’t always the best thing (it bypasses the more advanced autofocus sensors in the eyepiece making focussing slower and not always as accurate).

Exposure 1/200sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, exposure bias -0.33, 135mm focal length
Exposure 1/200sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, exposure bias -0.33, 135mm focal length

After the dancing finished, the cold finally got to us, and we made our way home to the warmth.

I think part of the reason why this trip didn’t go as well as I’d hoped is that I wasn’t really prepared for it; I had only found out about it a few days prior, and I had no idea what to expect, so I didn’t have any specific shots in mind. I had expected the day to be full of vibrant colour and action; I was hoping to get the sort of shots you see in camera adverts. But I didn’t. There was so many people there, many with cameras, so there wasn’t the opportunity to get around and try interesting angles or positions. The light, too, was not entirely in my favour, although I think I’ve managed to counter this with some careful tweaking of the temp ‘n’ tint.

A lot of the photos, as shot, looked a bit dull an unexciting. By sitting down and playing about with the various capabilities of my post-processing software I’ve managed to salvage some of the shots which would otherwise have been deleted. Maybe they’ve ended up more interesting than a successful non-processed shot, that’s not for me to decide.

4 thoughts on “Chinese New Year

  1. You got some incredible shots! Looks like a lot of fun.


    1. Thanks for commenting! I’m sure it was quite a lot of fun, but because of my apparent lack of preparedness, I was more worried about my fingers freezing off, my legs seizing up or my testicles receding fully into my body. This has definitely taught me to double check before I head out for a specific event (I’m pretty sure I said the same thing after having my face burnt off by forgetting sun cream at the Bournemouth Air Festival last year, however, so please do not quote me on this).


  2. Nice work, every post is different!


  3. I think the selective colour post-processing certainly has a place, and it’s certainly very effective for making your subject stand out from a cluttered background. My favourite is the stage dancer though, excellent shot!


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