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Early Spring On Red Land

by BJ Yang 

A cold, foggy morning in western China turns into more than any photographer could possibly wish for shortly after sunrise. This is the photographer's impression of a breathtaking scene and the hard-working people who live there that, at the time, simply could not be captured in one frame.

This is a photomontage of a shot taken at Dongchuan Red Land, about 25 miles (40 km) away from Kunming, Yunnan Province, in southwest China.


Canon 350D · Canon 24-105mm f/4L · f/10 

Extending over a rough circle about 30 miles (50 km) in diameter, this is the most concentrated and typical area of its kind on the Yunnan Plateau. Because of the warm and humid climate in Yunnan, iron oxide deposits have, over the years, gradually turned the brown soil into many shades of fiery, brick-red or purplish hues.

In May and June every year, when the white rape flowers are in full bloom and the golden wheat is ripening, the scene is much more colorful than the greens and reds that are visible in this image. From September to December — the harvest time for rapeseed, potatoes and buckwheat and the time for the winter wheat to sprout — the poplars turn yellow and the lacquer trees turn red, providing an entirely different and magical scene of spectacular colors.

"Due to the poor quality of the red soil, the farmers have to exhaust every possibility in order to use every inch of land, and some fields are no bigger than a bed, or even a table."

Although I was there at its low season, when the early February colors are not as extraordinary as they are in autumn, I was still amazed not only by the craftsmanship of nature, but also by the hard-working people toiling ceaselessly on this land. They have transformed their environment and created life. Due to the poor quality of the red soil, the farmers have to exhaust every possibility in order to use every inch of land, and some fields are no bigger than a bed, or even a table. It is very rare to see this kind of hard work anywhere else the world. Their tireless cultivating skill is a true art form.

At an elevation of 6,600 feet (2,000 m), it was very cold early that morning. When I left the village with my guide, the nephew of the guest house boss, we found ourselves enveloped in heavy fog. So heavy, in fact, that I was not so sure the fog would lift after sunrise. The guide told me not to worry, that we would drive through the fog and come out over the clouds. He was right. The moment I saw this view, I got head-to-toe goosebumps. There was nothing more a photographer could hope for.

Normally I shoot in RAW format, which allows the maximum latitude in post-processing. I first open the RAW file in Digital Photo Professional (DPP), and if necessary, I adjust the brightness, sharpness and sometimes reduce the noise if the image was shot with a high ISO. I also crop the image at this point if I need to, and then I export it to Photoshop.

This picture has been processed and published many times, and this time I wanted to show a different interpretation. Instead of simply documenting the area and the scene, I decided to make a creative edit to emphasize the perfection of the landscape, which better illustrated what I experienced that day.

This is the original image.

1)     In DPP, I cropped out the strong top light to create a smoother atmosphere across the entire canvas. I also cropped out the transmission tower on the right side, which definitely disturbs here.

2) The fields in the foreground were not as well-groomed as the rest, so they needed some improvement. In Photoshop, I selected an attractive area in the foreground using the Lasso tool, selected Edit > Copy, and then pasted the selection onto the area that needed improvement. Using the Clone Stamp tool, I retouched the pasted selection's edges so they blended into the scene and looked natural.

3) When I took this shot, there was a farmer working on my right side. I photographed him in his field, but the field's shape and color, as well as the light in that area, were not as appealing. I used the Quick Selection tool to carefully select the farmer and his ox-drawn plow from one of those images and then dragged-and-dropped the selection onto this canvas. I added a layer mask and used the Eraser tool to clean up the area surrounding the farmer and plow.

4) At the end, I used the Dodge tool to slightly lighten the dark, shadowed areas, making sure I didn't overdo it in order to maintain the soft light effects.

This is the final image

1)     I did a lot of research before I went on my photo journey. I studied the weather, geography, people, culture, history, traffic, food, habits, religion, etc. I carried the most important notes in my photo bag for the entire trip. I made it my practice each night to not only look through the images I shot each day, but to also read over those notes. This was a good way to refresh my memory, familiarize myself with the area and prepare for my next day of shooting. Being well prepared makes it easier to build contacts with local people, get help if you need it and find information in the local people’s guide. It also helps to know in advance how to behave in certain situations so you can avoid being offensive when you're faced with unfamiliar ethnic customs.

2) In case of sudden, unexpected incidents, I always have a Plan B to fall back on if Plan A fails. For example, if there is a chance that a road could be inaccessible due to heavy rain or mud slides (which happens quite often deep in the mountains of western China), I make sure I have an alternate route to take.

Several years ago I left my home in Beijing and followed my German husband to Europe. The change of environment liberated me from the tension caused by the breakneck pace of life and work in China, and I was finally able to slow things down. My unaccustomed leisure gave me the opportunity to take up my hobbies again. With camera and pen in hand, I began to do what I had always enjoyed: take photos, write and travel.

I had traveled widely throughout the world, but I had never truly investigated my own homeland — China. My first target became China’s west: a land that I had always hankered for, but never spared the time to visit. And thus my determination to get to know my own country took root.

As scenes from my childhood geography textbooks unfolded before my eyes, I suddenly awoke to the understanding of what a wonderful land it is — a land of heroes, a land of vastness and beauty, and a land of mystique and unique cultures. Humbled by the seemingly boundless skyline, the mountains brought home to me the tiny worth of all my gains and losses, and the heartfelt smiles of strangers on the road brought the simplest and purest happiness and peace to my restless soul.

Photography has become a part of my life. It makes me happy, creative and active. I cannot imagine living without it ever again.