Photographing the Giant Pandas in China
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
As soon as I found out there is a direct flight from Prague to Chengdu, there was nothing to stop me going to see the Giant Pandas!! We booked our trip with Sichuan Airlines for as cheap as 400 EUR for a return ticket just two months before our travel.
It takes a while to plan the itinerary and arrange the Visa, but with the fantastic help and support from Yuki from Windhorse Tour https://windhorsetour.com, we were able to prepare a private UNESCO World Heritage oriented 10-day trip in no time! This was a tailor-made trip designed around the World Heritage Sites including the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries. We said which Sites and in which order we wanted to visit, and Windhorse Tour arranged the accommodation and a private driver. Not many speak English in Chengdu area, so it is definitely a good idea to ask for assistance. Yuki was perfect, and the price was also very reasonable!
We visited three Panda locations: Wolong Panda Center, Dujiangyan Panda Ark and Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (Chengdu Panda Base). All three were very different! There were much fewer visitors at the Wolong Base compared to Chengdu, but in Chengdu, I could see more Panda babies!
The main rule is - go early! As early as you can. The Giant Pandas spend most of the day sleeping. They are the most active in the morning at around feeding time, and afterwards, they are playing for a while. You don't want to miss a chance to capture them chewing on bamboo or climbing up the tree!
Wolong was ours for almost two hours after the opening. This base is in a beautiful natural environment, and you can spend the whole morning here. We had our private driver arranged by Yuki as part of our package - picking us up at our hotel early morning and waiting for us at the sanctuary (our driver gave us his second mobile phone, and all we needed to do is to ring him when we finished. Super cool and efficient! This way we arrived before the busloads of tourists.
Cute Panda babies
The sanctuaries open at 7.30-8.00am and some pandas were already asleep at around 10.00am.
So trust me, you have to get there early for any action-filled pictures! The panda babies were the most active of all the pandas, rolling around, following the caretakers cleaning their cages. Cute!
Be patient and have your camera ready. Once you find a convenient spot fighting through the noisy crowd, wait for a while. There was a split second when a caretaker turned up with these two fluff balls! Aww!
A few words about the camera settings: a telephoto zoom lens 70-200mm or 100-400mm on a Full Frame will do a great job! Low aperture helps to achieve nice background blur, and a higher ISO should enable you a reasonably fast shutter speed (at least 1/200th of a second based on the movement of the panda). Yes, you may need to increase the ISO above 2000! The lower the ISO, the better, but not at the cost of an unsharp photo. Don't worry, you can fix the noise afterwards in post-processing. You also need to consider the background. The conditions are quite challenging and very similar to a ZOO: fences, glass barriers, plastic tree covers and buildings around. All the strange stuff you don't want in your shots! Move around and try various compositions and angles. Shoot through leaves or through a tree to blur the often messy surrounding area. Be creative!
Forget the tripod, you won't have space to set it up, especially in Chengdu. You could probably use it the other two mentioned Panda Bases, but there are too many people walking around bumping into you. Speaking of the crowd...
Yes, right there! I know, it may look desperate with the number of people... That panda was about to move soon (the fresh bamboo just arrived), and I had to fight through the crowd! I had mixed feelings all the time. People are shouting, ignoring the signs, climbing on the fence... Although the pandas did not seem to be bothered, I believe people should show much more respect to China's National Treasure!
Getting the desired Panda portrait
Take your time and try to ignore the people around you. Don't let them push you away. I was waiting for about 10 minutes for this baby to do a little pole dance show climbing down the tree!
This was the pose I was waiting for.
At Dujiangyan Panda Base there is a volunteer program you can join and prepare food for the pandas and clean their cages, but I didn't do that. Maybe next time! Observing their behaviour and taking pictures took much longer than I anticipated.
The three days in these three sanctuaries were unforgettable but definitely not enough to capture a large variety of compositions and panda activity.
I have selected some photographs, which I converted into black and white and printed on Alu Dibond in square format and they are hanging on my wall now and making my days brighter!
I recommend Saal Digital for high-quality wall decorations and fast delivery time.
Seeing so many pandas in one place is a truly unique experience and with the other beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the area - The Terracotta Army, Leshan Buddha, Mt. Emei, Mt. Qingcheng and Dujiangyan Irrigation System - the visit to Chengdu will definitely exceed your expectations!
I visited China in November 2018, and all the above mentioned will probably change soon! China is building a 'Panda Capital' that's 110 times the size of Disneyland!!! Read more about it here.