Photographing Northern Taiwan

Taiwan shares its ancestry with its behemoth neighbour China, but the compact island nation has a personality all its own. A traditional legacy resides in the hearts of the older generation and the cultural heritage of Taiwan explicitly reflects this tie to mainland China. Simultaneously, an independent spirit courses through the veins of the younger generation looking to get out from under China’s shadow. The two influences blend to produce a country whose riches include centuries-old temples, the world’s tallest building, and some of the friendliest people you may ever meet.

It’s these warm and avuncular people that, above all else, can make Taiwan a joy to photograph. The capital city, Taipei is decidedly international and foreigners are not uncommon. Even so, the Taiwanese people are quick to recognize a foreign face and welcome you to their country.

As a traveller, this means you’ll always have someone to happily point you in the right direction when you’re lost and someone to recommend the best sights the area has to offer. As a travel photographer, this means your requests to take photos of people will rarely be met with a brusque wave of the hand and a dirty look. Instead, you may often find people are flattered by your desire to include them in your compositions.

Taipei’s temples offer a fantastic opportunity to experience this hospitable character in picturesque settings. At the top of the list of temples to see in Taipei is Longshan temple. Almost always bustling with devotees, the incense smoke is invariably thick inside this ornate Buddhist temple. Both the temple itself and the flurry of human activity within its decorated walls make for great travel photography opportunities.

Other temples worth a visit include busy Bao-an temple, Xingtian temple where women clad in blue robes dispense incense to worshipers, and the comparatively spartan Confucius temple. At the last of these, I had the opportunity to photograph a group of local musicians playing children’s songs for a group of primary school students. The young girls and boys were just learning English and were more than happy to try out their limited phrases on me. Hardly different from anyone else in Taiwan, they revelled in the opportunity to have some fun with a foreign face.

But the sights in Taiwan are certainly not limited to temples. The sensory overload of the markets is another must see/must experience when visiting Taipei.

Asian markets aren’t for everyone. Every major city on this continent seems to have some narrow road where hawkers, vendors and customers converge in an effort to both exchange goods and to cram as many people as possible into one constricted space. Agoraphobics beware.

Taiwan is no exception, but the night markets of Taipei take the phenomenon to a new level. The usual items show themselves in plentiful numbers: knock-off designer handbags and athletic shoes, souvenir teapots, cheap watches and so on. So far, the crowded Taipei streets can hardly be differentiated from Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, but that’s not good enough for the Taiwanese.

They have a number of tricks up their sleeves to imprint themselves in the memories of their visitors. Perhaps at the top of the list are the snake handlers of the Snake Alley night market. Men wielding microphones will casually tap cobras while exhorting you to sip some snake’s blood. It’s probably an acquired taste and no one will force it upon you. Nor will you be forced to watch the extrication of the aforementioned blood. Again, that’s not a sight on the top of everyone’s list. Just note that these are examples of the visuals you may encounter at certain markets.

And these visuals are examples of what a travel photographer might be able to put in front of their camera lens – just don’t get too close to the live cobras. And do note that certain stalls do request that no photos be taken. Some vendors waive this rule if you ask with a smile to take a photo, but if they waive you off, don’t push the matter or you may end up the next meal of a boa constrictor.

If the vegetarian in you doesn’t find the animal handling and mystery meats to be appealing subjects, other more tame markets await you. One example is the Dihua Street market (most active during the afternoon) whose primary purpose is the vending of sundries and candies. Friendly vendors there will often let you include them in a shot of their goods. Sometimes you may even find people are flattered that you chose to include them in your travel photograph. If that isn’t reason enough to check out Dihua Street, a walk up and down this market may very well leave your pockets full of free samples of candies – some delicious, some simply bizarre.

Shooting the night markets can be tricky business. While plenty of colourful lights will illuminate your subjects, they are not always as bright as you might prefer. There is hardly a patch of ground you can claim for yourself to set up a tripod, so you may find yourself relying either on a higher ISO or on a faster lens. This is especially true if you intend to photograph the people of the markets as a faster shutter speed is necessary.

That doesn’t mean you should be leaving your tripod at home. Taipei has plenty of other subjects available for night shooting. The Xinyi district glows at night with illuminated modern high-rise architecture topped by the massive Taipei 101. Currently the tallest building in the world, Taipei 101 is an impressive architectural feat that will have you gazing skyward with your jaw agape and forcing you into shooting vertical shots – you can hardly fit this mighty edifice into a horizontal frame unless you’re far from its shadow.

Other potentially fruitful subjects for night shooting in Taipei abound. The Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and surrounding buildings are lit up and the enormous arch at the entry blazes white in the darkness. Many of the city’s temples are open well past sundown and long exposures inside these buildings can look unreal. The neon-lit city streets are also worth a long-exposure or two. Bright signs and endless streams of traffic mix together in colourful compositions.

Of course, Taipei has a lot more to offer than what has been covered so far, but it isn’t the only place worth visiting in Taiwan. You could spend a week exploring the Northern half of the island alone while being continually kept interested by a wide variety of subjects and destinations.

My trip took me first to Lugang (also called Lukang), a centre for traditional streets and buildings. Surrounded by generic Taiwanese buildings, the town centre retains a taste of old Taiwan with its perpetually curving, narrow alleys, old, character-filled temples and craftspeople who have mastered Taiwanese arts. Both Longshan and Matsu temples are worth a visit while the twists and turns of Old Market Street and Nine Turns Lane will disorient and amaze you.

Nearby Changhua’s main attraction is its enormous great Buddha statue seated on a hill overlooking the city. Also a relatively non-descript town unto itself, the hill named Baguashan features the 22-metre high Buddha, the Nine Dragons Pond, a pair of white pagodas and a multi-storey Buddhist temple.

Changhua is the jumping off point for the nearby Jiji Small Rail Line where you can make stops in small, rural towns and take in some of Taiwan’s countryside. The towns of Ershui and Jiji are the most fruitful locations for sights and in both you can rent a bicycle to explore the nearby paths. My personal favourite location along Ershui’s many roads was the Monkey Protection Area where groups of macaques emerged from the bamboo forest to try to goad visitors into supplying some food.

One way back to Taipei from the Jiji rail line is to pass through Shuishe Village, the main jumping off point to explore Sun Moon Lake. A popular honeymoon spot for the Taiwanese, the sparkling blue waters of the lake make a beautiful foreground to the hazy mountains surrounding it. Among the top sights in addition to the landscapes surrounding the lake is Wenwu Temple, a colourful, multi-tiered Buddhist temple overlooking the azure waters.

Only a week in Taiwan seems too short. In addition to the above locations, extra days in Taipei, a visit to one of the island’s best known attractions, Taroko Gorge, and a trip to Tainan would be welcome additions to the agenda.

Travel Photographer Tips

The gear I used was relatively simple: Two bodies and two lenses (one long zoom and one wider-angle). At the temples, I sometimes found myself using both cameras at once. The energetic activity at a place like Longshan temple in Taipei changes quickly and trying to keep up with it while switching lenses would have gotten tiresome. But other than that, you could make due with one body and just choose your lens based on the situation.

As I mentioned, a tripod is a welcome addition to your gear. Ample opportunities for night photography will make you regret it if your tripod doesn’t accompany you. In fact, I accidentally left my tripod behind while running for a train and lost it. Thankfully, Taipei is one of the better places to find camera gear and I had almost the exact same model replaced within a couple hours.

A polarizing filter may help to cut down on the effects of Taiwan’s pervasive haze, but it will often also aid you in capturing the brilliant orange of the temple rooftops. Without a polarizer the shiny roofs may blind your meter.

As for when to visit, summer typhoons can put a damper on travel photography, so it might be wise to schedule outside of the summer months. I visited in January and except for a ubiquitous haze, the conditions were wonderful – not a drop of rain to be found and the temperatures were comfortable as could be. That said, getting such good weather in Taiwan may be more a matter of luck than planning – other than the typhoons, the conditions are relatively unpredictable.

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