I have had on my bucket list since my first go-round that I wanted to capture the Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak one more time. Another attempt to deliver the drama, depth, grandeur and scale of a magnificient city that never stops filling the eyes with imagery and is the source of a lot of my inspiration and lessons in photography. Hong Kong is my city of dreams. It’s a modern city full of tradition that delivers a visual assault and is a photographer’s dream. Whether you’re into street, landscape, architectural or people photography, Hong Kong delivers variation and challenges in spades. Above the hustle and bustle of the city though is a viewpoint offering a peace from the organized chaos below, Victoria Peak stands high above the city offering the tallest vantage point, spectacular scenery and a wonderful photography challenge in how to present such a massive city and preserve its scale.
Over the course of the last few years, I have to be honest in every cityscape and landscape shot has been taken partially as a mental exercise in preparing for another run at The Peak. Exposure, sharpness, light metering – every technical detail poured over in every shot to maximize quality, refine technique and mentally note how to push harder and be better so that when the opportunity presented itself, I would be ready. Even the gear has changed – upgraded to withstand the weather, offer steadier support systems and most importantly, deliver a cleaner and more detailed image. Hundreds of hours of practice, thousands of dollars in upgrades all for a personal project that has both excited me and tormented me every time I think about it. It’s been 3 years since I lugged my gear up that mountain and me oh my was I ready, besides, what could go wrong? Well, apparently, a lot…
Bumming around Taiwan & Hong Kong for a few weeks already helped to acclimate to the heat and humidity of summer – 32 deg Celsius and 85% humidity were the order of most days and by the time The Peak presented itself, I had already survived the grueling, not to mention vomit inducing climb of Elephant mountain in Taipei. Elephant mountain was the practice round on this trip – a few weeks before my Victoria Peak attempt, it provided many similarities and familiar challenges. The heat of the day lead to the consumption of almost 3L of water on the 300m ascent and more than a few breaks along the way as 50lbs of gear takes its toll much faster on the body in the heat & humidity of Taipei compared to the refreshing cool of the Canadian Rockies. “Photo breaks” along the way were my excuse of keeling over trying to catch my breath and downing water just to keep temperatures down. Not gonna lie, there were more than a few times the thought of turning around popped into my head.
The trek up to here sucked- I would put it in my top 5 worst physical experiences and above breaking my thumb golfing, but there was a rewarding feeling now that I stood above it all. The winds gave their blessing upon reaching the summit as they stuck around to cool and dry me off while subsiding to a light breeze once the camera equipment got unpacked. A few hours later and a number of shots snapped off and I walked away quite happy to present a panoramic view of Taipei, Taiwan with Taipei 101 proudly standing against the setting sun;
Mental Confidence Level: 10. Physical ability level: 10 (ok maybe an 8 since I had to stop so many times). Equipment confidence level: 10. Bring on Victoria Peak! Well, they say you pay for it when you get cocky….
Unlike the last photo from 2009, this Peak photo was going to be made away from the creature comforts and stable platforms offered by The Peak Tower and Dragon’s Lookout. This time, the vantage point was a 2km walk around the mountain side to an outcropping offering a more open view of the buildings below, the surrounding harbours and deep into Kowloon & the New Territories. Epic was the challenge and so was the vision. I knew this project was going to involve more challenging conditions the moment I stepped out of the comfort of the nicely air conditioned car. Unlike Taipei where the height above the city gave a cool & refreshing breeze, The Peak had some other ideas and quickly delivered the message “I don’t want you here”. The humidity was so dense that clothes, my backpack and certainly all my gear were damp to the touch. The wind was hot and the resulting heat haze hid most of the Kowloon peninsula behind a layer of horror movie mist.
Did I mention the 2km hike? Well, that’s also out of a friggin horror movie – dense jungle, sporadic lighting, random gated & heavily guarded private properties. Yep, not fun when you’re alone and far away from the tourists, lights and sense of safety. I didn’t care about being mugged or murdered actually, I was worried of running into a random evil monkey, or worse yet, a Japanese girl with long black hair (Ring 3D is playing here in HK).
So half an hour of walking (even more stops and more water than the Elephant mountain trek) and I haven’t been killed by evil Japanese school girl or beat up by mr evil monkey. I get to my spot, setup and pray for the best due to the mist. As tonight is a scouting trip (it’s 1030pm) and far too late for the Golden Hour for sunset drama & blue hour detail, my goal is simply to find the right spot, determine the angles and then head back home to compile it and plan for the full multi-hour timelapse, panorama, every last bit of memory card I have with me assault on The Peak. Night successful.
Mental Confidence Level: 9 (getting a little scared of the task before me). Physical ability level: 9 (boy I thought I was in good enough shape…) Equipment confidence level: 10. Excitement over this successful scouting trip is tempered by my personal pressure to deliver something which has consumed me for the last 3 years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy to finally get this chance, but by golly was I ever worried about disappointing myself, even if it was beyond my control…
The sun rose and excitement and anxiety grew with every passing minute. The schedule was set – ascend to The Peak at 4pm, grab an afternoon snack, setup at 5pm and capture through the blue hour until it was time to meet Ms Maegan for dinner at 8. Straight forward I thought. 3 years of learning, refinement, new gadgets and every technical preparation I could do led to this. Autopilot time – batteries? Yep, 4 fully charged sets. Lenses cleaned? Check. Tripod & Ballheads tightened? Check. Weight ballast to help keep everything firmly in place? Check. Everything was going to plan for the first 2 hours. The timelapse was going well with a nice dramatic sky moving towards me, lots of activity in the harbor and a dancing light moving across the city and highlighting the different buildings of Central. I was getting giddy and ready to do the happy dance. So far so good and now the countdown to golden hour & blue hour begins. And so does a physical experience worse than climbing Elephant mountain. You see, in my enthusiasm for the good clear weather and lack of heat mist today, I didn’t really bother to check the weather forecast – the one that said a typhoon was moving in around dinner time…. here’s the shot from a previous post – the clouds had come in so low that they were obscuring the top 2/3 of International Commerce Center seen in the left hand of the frame.
These two frames above are separated by 30 seconds according to the time stamps.
Well, just as the lights started to turn on and the sunlight faded behind the horizon, I got walloped by a wall of wind and water that I have never experienced before. My tripod (with my camera still attached as there was no time to react), blew over even with a 30lb ballast suspended to keep it from doing just that. My camera back was soaked faster than I could pull out the rain cover, and me? Well it was summer right? T-shirt and shorts for me. I was soaking wet from head to toe in a matter of seconds. The wind was so fierce and the water like shards of glass that I contemplated leaving the equipment out and making a run back to the safety of The Peak Tower. Stupidity prevailed though and I went to retrieve my camera and tripod which had moved the better part of 15ft from where I was and held on for dear life against the iron rails of the lookout. The only thing that helped to reduce the onslaught of wind & water was an umbrella I picked up the previous day from the Heritage Museum (worth a visit btw). I thought to myself that it wouldn’t last very long and that I would get a reprieve soon enough so that I can make my way back to The Peak Tower. Nope. Not tonight. It wasn’t a few minutes, it was an hour and a half until the weather broke and the rain & wind slowed to a drizzle that I could safely open my camera bag to start packing my equipment up. This wasn’t simply about getting wet – it was the possibility of destroyed equipment, high potential for physical injury if I stood up and got caught in the wind, or worse yet, if this didn’t let up before I mentally broke. I honestly wasn’t sure for that hour and a half if I was getting off the mountain with my sanity intact. This was 3 years of buildup brought down by a torrent of wind and rain to remind me that it’s not the things you control which makes the difference, it’s the things that you have to compromise with the environment so that it allows you to take your picture.
I walked out to the outcropping with about 50lbs of gear between the lenses, cameras, tripods and supports. I brought all of that back plus whatever water weight all my gear bags and clothes could bring with it. I’ll be honest in saying that part of me was worried I was going to meet Ms Maegan for dinner looking less than presentable, but moreso I was gutted that this perfect opportunity with no smog, relatively low humidity and a wonderfully clear view of Kowloon and the New Territories was stopped dead in its tracks by the fierce weather. Such clear conditions are becoming less frequent and I wasn’t sure if I had enough frames to put together the panorama I wanted. Worse yet, I didn’t know if I’d get the opportunity to get up here again on this trip with such (until the typhoon part) clear conditions available.
Having a number of missed and out of focused shots with Mr Teddy didn’t bother me as I had hours in a relatively controlled environment to try again and I was successful in navigating the settings and the enclosure to get the shots I wanted. Taipei was a physical challenge to get to the vantage point but once I got to the top, things ran like clockwork. Even sunrise and winter photography although presenting unique environmental challenges, were shooting opportunities which I was able to overcome and deliver the images I wanted. Tonight at The Peak however, was a challenge that presented an insurmountable obstacle. As time passed over dinner and I started to review what frames I did have. I became sad. Not because I didn’t have a panorama that I could be proud of, but because in the end, the image that I’d dreamed of with the city powering up during the blue hour and the lights extending far into the horizon was actually before me and I didn’t get the opportunity to capture it. Weather presented a challenge to me that I couldn’t get past – it took too long for things to die down and by then, the details in the buildings began to fade into the night. The lingering storm front also began to obscure the distant lights of Kowloon & the New Territories. I was soaking wet from head to toe and I wasn’t really sure if my gear was still in working order after it smacked the rocks and took chucks of paint off (not to mention gallons of water falling on it for such a continuous period).
Somewhere behind that water on the lens is Hong Kong….
Mental confidence 4. Physical confidence 5. Equipment confidence 5 (I don’t know if anything is damaged).
Over the next few days, I moved on to complete other work in the city and tried to distance myself from the sadness of that evening on The Peak. It was hard and it did take some of the heart & enthusiasm out of an otherwise very successful photography trip. Even as I write this, I dwell on that evening as a failure of my ability to overcome the weather and get the photo. Logically, I understand that it would not have been possible. Physically it would have been incredibly dangerous to try again. Personally however, it was a defeat of the spirit more than anything else. 3 years of anticipation and buildup, an hour and a half of getting knocked off your totem pole hanging onto an iron fence like a helpless kid.
It’s been a week now and I’ve finally had a chance to start looking at the images and begin production of the panoramas. What I set out to do on timelapse and the daytime GigaPan came out a roaring success. My nightscape of the city didn’t turn out as I planned, but now that I’ve assembled it, I’m happy to have captured the drama of the storm front moving in. This personal project provided me with both the greatest technical and physical challenge Ive yet faced. Although I’m still saddened by the opportunity taken away from me by the weather, I’ve finally come to be grateful for the lesson I received on that outcropping – never give up. It’s the challenges and difficulties that form the stories and backdrop for the images we deliver. The images we share are born of the experiences we endure behind the camera and it’s these experiences which bring meaning and depth to our images. It’s a lesson that I’ll bring back with me to The Peak when I’ve recovered, learned a little more, gotten a little better and perhaps be a little more prepared so that I can capture my dream photo when I’m ready and the mountain is willing.
Until next time, I present Hong Kong 2012 – two gigapans from the clear afternoon skies and the calm before the massive storm on the horizon;
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