Chinese New Year, on film

Chinese jet and Chinese boy, through a travel agency window

Chinese New Year is a big deal in any city with a sizeable Chinese community. Not just cities in Asia but anywhere with strong connections . The New Year is rung in with gusto everywhere from Bangkok to Vancouver, San Francisco to Wellington, New Zealand.

And to that list you can add London – there’s been a Chinatown somewhere in the city since the late 19th Century. Since the 1970s the heart of London’s Chinatown has been in Soho, the city’s one-time dark underbelly, filled with drinking joints, sex shops, peep shows and brothels. Now Gerrard Street, just a few paces from London’s world-famous Leicester Square, is full of Chinese restaurants and supermarkets. This is where the Chinese New Parade ends up, having started in Trafalgar Square and snaked its way up through the streets.

Like anything in London that doesn’t cost any money to enter, the New Year celebrations draw a massive crowd. So big that it can be almost impossible – unless you’re one of the early arrivals – to see much of the actual event. So capturing the atmosphere of an event like this is about finding interesting elements from the sidelines  – even if they’re not the trademark Chinese dragons and acrobats people might expect.

This year the New Year celebrations were blessed with plenty of sunshine – and record crowds (the crush in the centre of Gerrard Street was worst than a rush-hour Tube carriage). But it’s events like this that give you so many opportunities for street portraits and snapshots of city life.

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Face-painted flavour

Picking my way through the crowd led me to seek shots from the side streets. Some photographers would stick a telephoto on to pick out candid portraits, but I’m trying to boost my street photo confidence, sticking to a 50mm or a 35mm for most of my shots. So many people have their phones and digital cameras out that you draw attention not because you’re taking pics but because you’re taking pics on a film camera.

At this time of year the sun disappears around 5pm; the days are bright, with rich reddy-gold light as the afternoon sun starts setting. It’s great for shooting with slide film, which picks those rich colours up so much better than most print film, especially Kodak Ektachrome, which was sadly discontinued a few weeks ago. My freezer is heaving with dozens of rolls of old Ektachrome and Elite Chrome (the cheaper, consumer-grade version), and they’re particularly good teamed up with a Pentax ESII and Takumar lenses (check out a previous post on using this combination in Istanbul). But with this kind of photographic opportunity, I like to mix things up, shooting on expired film especially.

My old Zenit 3M is great for shooting old slide film with – the pic you see below is on a roll of Fuji Sensia 100 expired by at least half a decade. The film is in pretty good shape, but the Zenit’s lower-contrast lens gives that retro look that’s such a bonus with shooting old cameras – when you get happy accidents, you’ll never use those pesky Instagram filters ever again. Little about that picture tells you it was shot in 2014.

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Framed in the crowd, shot on an old Soviet Zenit 3M

I ended my day’s wandering crossing the Thames via The Strand to visit the book market on the South bank. It’s a place I shoot often, because there’s always a tonne of people around, and many of them using cameras. These were shot on another roll of Agfa Optima – it expired in 1999 but still holds up well, especially with blue and gold tones. I might not have found anything particularly in keeping with the Chinese them (apart from the lady in the red hat) but any day that ends shooting the book fair in twilight is good with me.

Happy Year of the Horse, everyone.

Check out more of the pics on my Flickr set.

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Blurry Boris Bike bokeh
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It’s not all about dragons and acrobats; look for all the other little details too
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A map of the acupuncture pressure points on a model in a shop window
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A flash of red on the South Bank
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Billboard stare on expired film; the colour shifts can create an interesting look

4 Comments

  1. I’ve also been trying to boost my confidence with street photography– it’s so hard to be subtle with a big camera. I use my iPhone as a crutch but I’ve been trying not to!

    • It really is a a case of practice, practice, practice. My old boss from the BBC News online pics desk is a master at it. It’s all about smiles and eye contact.

  2. Just got a roll of HP5 back from processing; London’s south bank with an old Olympus 35SP rangefinder. Makes a nice change from machine-gunning everything with a digital.

    • Hey John… The 35SP is something I’ve been itching to shoot with for some time. Looks like a seriously good camera. Must be a definite change of pace for you.

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