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Colour and the City

Horns are honking, the air is thicker than smoke, and the streets are crowded. It is rush hour: a time during the day when traffic is at its heaviest, the city is noisy and commuters make their way to or from work. For most people, this is a stressful moment, but not for Eric Zhang. With his background as an architect, Zhang has a thing for urban landscapes. To him, rush hour is the ideal time to capture the colours of the city as that is when all the elements move in an intense pace, making the photos more vibrant and alive.

Zhang has an eye for spotting unique locations, which is helpful when working in popular destinations.

“When you shoot a scene that has been shot thousands of times before by other photographers, one of the biggest challenges is to find an original perspective. I try to look for spots where I can capture the complexity of the city or its distinct character.”

Zhang’s interest in photography has slowly evolved over the years. When he was 12, he played around with a film camera. When he went to university in the UK, his dad bought him a digital camera so he could send photos back to his mother. Back then, he only shot with the auto mode and did not pay attention to the photography techniques or settings.

Zhang’s attitude changed when he got his first DSLR camera in 2008. “Right after unboxing my Nikon D40x Digital SLR Camera with the AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II lens, I started shooting. But since I did not know much about all those important aspects such as aperture, shutter speed, etc., I got very disappointed with the results. I sat back and started to look at beautiful photos on Flickr, thinking: I want to learn how to take a good photo.”

The Beijing-born and bred photographer still finds inspiration on Flickr and also on other popular photography platforms like Instagram. Zhang also gets inspired from books, magazines and especially movies. “I do not have one particular style, and I find inspiration from many different sources. As a result, my portfolio offers a variety of photos.”

Zhang believes that there are more to one’s personal style than just techniques. “For me, style is also about having a very strong connection with personal experiences and about the way you see this world. These things change along with your age. Therefore, I have not defined myself into a certain style of photography as it keeps evolving.” Besides shooting urbanscapes and iconic architecture in the city, Zhang will occasionally press the shutter, capturing portraits and landscapes too.

Capturing colours in the city takes a lot of skill. Armed with his Nikon D810, Zhang prefers to shoot in maximum RAW format, which allows him to record the best quality with the best dynamic range. This gives him room to be creative and do some magic in post-production. “I find that if I set my camera into Adobe RGB mode and do the same settings in Lightroom and Photoshop, I can capture the best colour space.”

To Zhang, the most significant difference between shooting nature and city is the origin of the colours. In the wild, the colours are natural and pure. In urban locations, the colours are artificial and man-made.

Painted building fronts, manufactured metal facades and cars in different colours are just some of the objects that Zhang’s lens meets in the city. In between all the colours is the unnatural light, which can be tricky to handle. “The first thing I do is to balance the highlights and the shadows in the frame, as highlights from LED advertisements often appear overexposed while the darker parts of the city are left pitch black. During the night time, I enjoy shooting with the Nikon D810 because of its low ISO at 64, which allows me to do longer exposure to gain more light.”

Good preparation is key for a successful outcome. For Zhang, it comes down to three aspects: timing, weather and location. He likes to visit the site several times prior to a shoot in order to get a feel of the different atmospheres depending on the time of the day. There is no such thing as good or bad weather according to Zhang. The same scene can deliver completely different feelings depending on the season and weather, so a cloudy day does not result in a day off. Lastly, Zhang uses Google Maps to see the environment and to simulate the views he can get from different locations.  

As Zhang does not have a talent for getting out of his bed in the early morning, most of his photos are captured during sunset and blue hour. During sunset, the light becomes soft and has a magical golden colour, which casts stunning shadows on the buildings in Zhang’s frame. Blue hour is when the sun is at a significant depth below the horizon and when the residual, indirect sunlight takes on a predominantly blue shade. “You have to be quick, but it is worth taking the effort to catch this precious time as you get this marvellous blue light from the sky.”

About Eric

Eric Zhang was born and raised in Beijing. After studying Architecture and Industrial Design in the UK, he worked in Europe for a few years. Currently, he is back in his hometown working as a creative and a freelance photographer.