Flags Above Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

The red communist China flag flies, above Tiananmen Square, from the ramparts of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

I made the above photo of flags above Tiananmen Square while in Beijing, China during the middle of winter. It was a bitterly cold day, around-10C, and I'd been through the usual security screens and checks to allow me and my camera gear into the Forbidden City.

Rather than continue to move with the crowd, I followed a sign which lead me up some steps to a balcony at the front of the complex where Chinese leaders, emperors and communists alike, had appeared to the masses over the centuries. The view overlooked Tiananmen Square and important public buildings. But, as I was looking pretty much directly into the sun, there wasn't too much worth photographing in that direction.

Photographing Backlit Subjects

However, on my way up the stairs I sighted several red flags flapping in the wind. They were backlit by very bright light and would have been silhouetted except for the fact that they were somewhat transparent. I composed my image around the flags and the shape of the sun. I had to wait until the wind was strong enough to unfurl the flags to such a degree that they looked interesting.

I'd have preferred to have made the picture without any people present. But then I realized that I could incorporate them into the composition and, at the same time, add something extra to the narrative being explored. It was then just a matter of waiting for the right moment when the shape and placement of the people (who form a triangle around one of the flag poles), together with the movement of the flags, produced the kind of decisive moment I was looking for.

From a technical point of view the burnt out sun is a problem. However, after careful processing, I was able to tone down its brightness and enhance its shape. Ultimately people will either find the result interesting or fake. But all I've done is made the best of an image with a Dynamic Range (i.e., contrast) beyond that which could be recorded with my camera in a single exposure.

Exploring Color Contrast 

The rich red color of the flags is enhanced by the cool cyan/blue sky. While not an easy image to make, I like it as it involved thinking out of the square and presents a somewhat unique view of the location. In fact the photo is really more about moment and symbol than it is about a particular place or event.

What Makes A Good Photo

This photo was made at 1/400 second exposure and contains a life-time of experience.

I think the fact that I've travelled to China on, I think, five occasions; have a basic understanding of its history; and have made life-long friends with local Chinese people has enabled me to perceive the scene in the way I did. Understanding how to use my camera helps, but art goes way beyond the tools we employ to make our photos.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru