Standing in the heart of Beijing for over six centuries, the Forbidden City is a cultural beacon for the entire Chinese nation. Solemn, magnificent, and full of cultural significance, the Forbidden City represents the ups and downs of history with its graceful and elegant red. In the eyes of Su Tangshi, a photographer who focuses on ancient architecture, the beauty of the Imperial Palace can be found around every corner, even from seemingly normal perspectives, where views are formed by shadows, bricks, buildings, and colors without excessive decorations.

CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 4/21

In the past, the palace was an imperial residence, a political center, an embodiment of supreme power, and a witness of radical change throughout history and time. Most of all, though, it is a gem of the nation’s wisdom and culture. As one of the world’s largest and most well-preserved palace complexes, the Forbidden City has been standing for more than 600 years. Today, it stands as [an example of] cultural heritage for the entire human race, inspiring awe in visitors from all over the world. It also has a new name: The Palace Museum.

At the end of 2013, I visited the Palace Museum by chance and have been mesmerized ever since. Over the past six years, I have traveled all the way from my hometown to Beijing, visiting the palace more than 40 times to capture it during all four seasons, compiling my images into a photography book titled Insight, a Different Palace Museum.

I never got tired of capturing the Palace Museum. My latest visit took place during the winter of 2019, and this time I brought along a Hasselblad X1D II 50C.

CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 4/21
CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 2,8/135

It is never easy to capture the best of the Palace Museum, especially considering how many visitors are often there. The palace remains a popular tourist destination all year long, and visits only decline slightly during winter, which is the best time for shooting. If you can ignore the biting cold of a winter morning in Beijing, arrive at the Palace Museum 40 minutes before opening and you will likely be the first visitor inside. To capture the palace and all its tranquility, you’ll have to walk fast and be efficient with your shots before other visitors show up.

Setting Sun, Soft Flakes, and Red Walls

It is said that ‘architecture is the container of light.’ When winter comes, every building in the Forbidden City becomes a kaleidoscope, where sunlight shines in freely through the doors and windows. The Yueshi Building, which sits across from the performance stage of Changyin Pavilion, is so abundant with light that the opera characters drawn on the screen are clearly visible, just like watching an opera show through time and space. Get close to the window and press the shutter. A photo with lasting appeal is captured where the reflection of Changyin Pavilion is overlaid with the opera character.

CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 2,8/135

In terms of light, winter is still the best time to photograph the Palace Museum, where oblique rays of sun shine throughout the day, creating stark contrasts between light and shadow, a perfect way to present the color and texture of any architectural structure.

Speaking of color, the most iconic one in the Forbidden City is red. Since it was selected as one of the theme colors of the Chinese imperial palace, red has carried on the royal solemnness and the weight of history for 600 years. The red coloring of the Forbidden City is deep, profound, saturated, but not overly bright, which is often difficult to accurately capture with a camera.

However, I was surprised by the first photo I shot with Hasselblad. It was unbelievable how precisely the camera records color. The elusive ‘palace red’ seemed to reveal its true colour through the Hasselblad lens and convey its subtle charms.

Medium format provides such a huge space for post-processing and adjustments don’t lower the image quality. Colours are reproduced accurately enough with the Hasselblad camera to save time in post-production. It is a wise decision to capture the Place Museum in winter with Hasselblad, thanks to its superb imaging capabilities.

CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 1,9/80
CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 2,8/135
CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 2,8/135

When it snows, the ‘palace red’ that usually dominates the scene becomes concealed in an overwhelming white. Covered with snow, the red walls and green tiles create a unique look for the Palace Museum.

CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 4/21

Fine Views Everywhere

In addition to colour expression, details and space are also important aspects in ancient architecture photography. Considering this, I always carry multiple lenses for the trip.

Since most of the ancient architecture features a compact layout with buildings located quite close to each other, an ultra-wide lens like XCD 4/21 is enough to meet my needs. For interior details, XCD 1,9/80 helps create a soft bokeh, separating visitors from the background and highlighting the subject in the frame. In addition to all kinds of objects, the exterior decoration of the Palace Museum is also a unique aspect. To capture the upturned eaves high above the roof or the stone columns off in the distance, I would use the XCD 2,8/135 with X Converter 1,7.

You need to be thoroughly prepared in order to capture the dazzling architectural combinations.

CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 4/21
CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 1,9/80
CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 2,8/135

A Narration of Seasons

The beauty of the Forbidden City not only lies in its ingenious architectural design and magnificent beauty, but also in the unique charm that each season brings.

Trees in the north are bare in winter, and those in the Palace Museum are no exception. Instead of feeling bleak, these skeletal trees are perfect decorations. Without luxuriant foliage blocking sights in the frame, the palace looks more solemn, with shadows cast sparsely on the walls.

A palace wall under the sky cut apart by dry branches sings a sad song of centuries-long vicissitudes.

CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 1,9/80

From ornately decorated halls to stone carvings, from rare treasures to bare trees, the Forbidden City is an endless source of inspiration. As a cultural symbol of China, the Palace Museum embodies the ancient philosophy of ‘the unity of man and nature’ and the nation’s spirit of ‘inclusiveness and harmony without uniformity.’ The beauty of the Forbidden City is so unique and immense that even those trying their best to understand it can only get a fleeting taste of its grandeur.

Whenever I take a stroll along the stone road in the Forbidden City with a camera in hand, I can always hear the stories whispered by those red walls about the past, the future, and everything in between.

CAMERA: X1D II 50C
LENS: XCD 4/21

About Su Tangshi

Su Tangshi is an ancient architecture photographer, member of the Chinese Photographers Society, member of the Chinese Society of Cultural Relics, and the author of Ancient Architecture Photography Techniques and Practice, and Insight, a Different Palace Museum.

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