How to take an original Shanghai travel photo

How to take an original Shanghai travel photo

Photographer Franc Peret shows how to capture the heart and soul of China's busiest metropolis

We’re not saying you should dodge all those touristy Shanghai spots -- leaving here without one photo on the Bund might just look odd -- but roaming downtown and getting lost with your camera in the real Shanghai may be the best thing to happen to you and your Flickr album. That is, if you’re well prepared.

Shanghai-based French photographer Franc Péret provides some top tips on shooting everyday Shanghai. 


1. The Bike Photo

Central XujiahuiCentral Xujiahui (meeting point of Hongqiao lu, Caoxi Lu and Huashan lu), adjacent main pedestrian tunnel.

Xujiahui, Puxi’s bustling southern hub, caters to a constant wave of fashionistas, foodies and tekkies, leaving no lack of stories in their wake.

Although ultra-modern in every sense of the word, a juxtaposition of old and new can still be found among a rare pocket of calm, quietly housing hints of an endless commercial buzz, as here via the reflection of a 1920 vintage bicycle.

Péret's pointer: Sometimes less is more when it comes to getting that perfect shot.

Keep it simple, use a hand-held (never use a tripod as it greatly reduces the freedom of your composition and slows down the creative answer to your visual feelings), keep your ISO low and most importantly, learn how to lock your body to shoot.


2. 1,001 Shanghai Nights

Shanghai walkwayPedestrian crossing at Huashan Lu and Yan'an Zhong Lu in Jing'an district.

An everyday pedestrian bridge is rendered sci-fi funky thanks to the dazzling blue rays of the towering Yan'an Lu freeway.

One of the city’s, if not Asia’s brightest thoroughfares, this flashy freeway has been made even brighter.

Surely no fun to its next-door neighbors, but inspiration and lighting galore for the city’s nocturnal shutterbugs.

A nighttime photo-enthusiast, Péret encourages photographers to hit the evening streets where -- thanks to Shanghai’s many illuminated landmarks -- that perfect night lighting is never too far away.

Péret's pointer: The city’s nighttime lighting can transform some of the most ordinary 'original' designs into ‘old fashioned futuristic’ visions of Shanghai.

Whether day or night, taking a picture is like making orange juice. If you only squeeze a bit, you’re wasting precious juice, but if you are truly inspired, you squeeze and squeeze until not a drop is left and your fingers are raw.


3. The Shanghai Metro

Shanghai metroShaanxi Nan Lu Metro station on the crossroads of Shaanxi Nan Lu and Huaihai Zhong Lu.

There’s never a dull moment to be found with the non-stop hum of cars and credit card machines in one of Shanghai’s main shopping locales -- Huaihai Zhong Lu.

Just steps away, many note the temporary walls while hardly breaking stride. Only a few will brave the dust, concrete and debris for a better look. A pity.

Péret's pointer: Photographers should never avoid construction areas, especially the ones around the growing Shanghai metro system.

Like cities inside the city, they’re a great way to witness Shanghai’s many microcosms and are constantly changing and evolving -- a lot like Shanghai itself.

Nighttime is always more discreet allowing you to enter the intimacy of the 24/7 construction microcosm.

4. Signs of the Times

Shanghai signRandom light fixture at the corner of Maoming Nan Lu and Changle Lu.

Some of the most inspiring city shots can be found just above your head.

Living double lives, many of these silent metallic structures escape our attention by day, but by evening reign supreme, beckoning regular and would-be potential customers back inside with their irresistible, fluorescent lure.

Péret's pointer: Sometimes it’s good to just stop walking and raise your face up toward the sky; you might see things differently. This is especially true in Shanghai where advertising signs are everywhere. 

Another way to refresh your mind (and photos) is to lie down on the grass in a park and shoot the city rising up around you through the leaves.


5. Life’s Basic Necessities

Shanghai alleyAn alley near Fuxing Zhong Lu and Jiashan Lu.

A rare and colorful case of everyday-life-meets-old-time-Shanghai captured on film.

Back in the day when indoor plumbing was considered a luxury, traditional wedding sets included a washing basin complete with marital bed pan.

If so inspired, vintage geeks can buy their own version down this very street at one of many mom-and-pop stores. If you paid more than RMB 15, you probably paid too much.

Péret's pointer: Always seek out combination of colors in your photos.

Although, you’ll find nature often automatically does the job, as with this random display of life’s most basic necessities. Nature isn’t just trees and rivers; it’s how everyday items are positioned.


6. Shanghai Construction Zones

Shanghai construction workerYongkang Lu, between Yongjia Lu and Taiyuan Lu.

With a little time and patience, there’s always inspiration to be found among the city’s few remaining shikumens (石库门).

Péret's pointer: Lighting is and will always be key; don’t chase the subject, chase the light.

When shooting alleyways or any narrow passages, always aim for midday when the sun’s at its highest.

Also, be patient. Position yourself according to the available light and then sit and wait for something to happen (focus, pre-set and wait) and let Mother Nature do her job.


7. Yongkang Lu

Yongkang LuYongkang Lu, near Jiashan Lu crossing.

Although its buildings remain standing, this once bustling, open-market street -- one of many on the city’s smarten-up list -- now boasts a fashionable shopping strip.

Although its old Shanghai soul might be long gone, it skeleton remains, and with the right light and photo passion, can still inspire many an old-time muse.

Péret's pointer: Don’t fear the sun. Almost face it so you can capture its special reflections giving a more 3D aspect to your picture.

Each time you face the sun for your shot, you’ll have more contrast, longer shadows, a mix of hard light and deep shadow that really help to shape your subject.

8. Mom-and-Pop stores

Shanghai convenient storeA mom-and-pop store on Yongkang Lu.

No animal lover’s collection would be complete without a critter pic or two. Also, this type of shot, of traditional family-owned convenience stores, is a piece of living Shanghai history.

The mom-and-pop convenience store -- complete with telephone service, snacks and nocturnal mousers -- were once lifelines of the community generations before FamilyMarts and 7-Elevens became household names.

Péret's pointer: When taking wide shots, it’s important to include only what you want in the photo.

It’s a matter of choice -- be careful about your background -- and don’t forget to preset your focus and your exposition on your target, in this case, the kitty.


9. Community is in the Colors

Shanghai laundryInside a shikumen lane on Yongkang Lu.

If only that kitty could point and click, perhaps this is what the world would see.

Another site sadly overlooked is the colorful medley of everyday sights, sounds and smells from the most ordinary of Shanghai neighborhoods.

Fortunately, with the right angle, light and perseverance, a good rendition can be captured on film.

Péret's pointer: Always balance your shot’s colors (like red and blue above) as much as possible. And always be aware of the sky and how much presence it has, especially if it’s overexposed (too bright equals no color). 

Position specifics: This all depends on your position to the sun. If the sun is at your back, the sky and your landscape will be bathed in same amount of light which helps to get a right exposure (and details) everywhere, from your subject up to the sky. But if you’re positioned towards the sun, your main subject might be under shadow and the sky will, most of the time, appear colorless as it will be overexposed.


10. Go Green

Shanghai treeYongkang Lu near Xiangyang Nan Lu.

Embrace your inner tree-hugger by paying photographic homage to some of the city’s most deep-rooted residents.

Many of these gorgeous, leafy greens were transported as seeds from France before making their home (some over a century ago) in the former French Concession.

Péret's pointer: Never neglect any parts of the photo. If you want to do a close-up, always be vigilant about your background. 

Sadly, many city residents underestimate the importance of the city’s trees. But they deserve their moment on film just as much as anything else.

Got a question for Franc Péret? Email him at Looking for the perfect gift for a camera junky? Shanghai is the place. Check out our gift list for camera lovers.
Stephanie Thomas is a freelance writer of all trades based in Shanghai.
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