The Secrets of Aerial Photography in Tibet——SkyPixel Exclusive Interview: Li Hang

Li Hang was born in the 1980s and always dreamt of being an architect. In 2013, he left his day job to pursue photography full time. For Li, photography and design are both inextricably linked; both are ways in which he can express his feelings of the world outwardly through creativity.

“I love the outdoors and being creative,” Li says.

“That’s why I love aerial photography. Nowadays, photos are heavily homogenized and kind of look the same. I just hope I can create something stunning and worthwhile with aerial photography.”

Li now lives in Lasa, Tibet — “It’s peaceful with wide open spaces,” he says — a place full of introspection and self-discovery. In this exclusive interview with SkyPixel, Li talks shop about life in Tibet and his precious aerial photography.

SkyPixel: When did you first fall in love with aerial photography?

Li: [Laughs] I’m still relatively new to flying drones! I didn’t even own a drone until the beginning of 2016. That’s when I got a DJI Phantom 4. Before that, I’d only seen other people flying drones but was immediately in awe of the beautiful aerial images they produced.

Li: As a kid, I was drawn to aerial modeling, but my parents’ financial situation quelled my interest, so I wasn’t able to fly. Weirdly, I’m making my dreams come true now. I still remember the first time I tried to fly a Phantom 4 in Tibet. I was so entranced at the images that I just wanted to go deeper.

SkyPixel: Can you describe your photography style in three words?

Li: I’m not sure I’ve been doing this long enough to have that much of a distinctive style. However, if I had to choose, the three words to describe what I’m currently doing they would be Simple, Objective, and Unique.

Li: Aerial photography zooms out to give us a Simple understanding of ourselves and the world below but from a brand new perspective. For me the act and result of aerial photography filters out the mess and chaos we have to deal with on the ground. Maybe it’s because I used to be an architect that I love documenting life from great heights so much. It’s just simple.

Li: I think my style is Objective because most aerials are about the landscape but I’m a firm believer that the medium itself is there to help document the changing world around us. That’s the real value of photography in my opinion. I used to be an architect so paid more attention to buildings and urban development than nature. But now I’m a photographer, I love using my camera to document the changes happening within the cities. Aerial photography is perfect for this. That’s what I’m doing, just collecting materials. I only hope I can record all these changes continually but objectively. It’s better than shooting landscapes for the sake of it, I feel.

Li: Last but not least, I’d say my style is Unique. I mean, you can pretty much go anywhere with modern transportation now so everywhere is accessible if you want to get there. But because I wake up here every day, I have time to learn more about my surroundings and make them work for me. That gives me a unique advantage. For example, most other people like to shoot snowy mountains or starlit glaciers. But now I know the place better because I live here so I can find ways to make my shots more unique by adding lighting effects to the frame, which would be more challenging for others to capture.

SkyPixel: Among all your creations, which one do you like the most and why?

Li: I guess all of them are my children, so I love them all the same! But if I had to choose, it would be a photo called The Earth, which won an award in the 2016 SkyPixel Photo Contest. I like this one because it has all the above elements. It’s Simple, Objective, and Unique. I also love it because I had to earn it. To capture it I had to prepare everything, manage my time well, navigate the weather, set the scene, and even shape the sparks you see in the photo and arrange the person who is throwing them, etc.

Li: It was shot during the gloaming, that time just after sunset and just before nightfall. I chose the dunes in Tibet because they created a clean, minimalist view. The dark blue color covering the dunes generated an abstractionist feeling, yet it would be dull if there was nothing else in it. So I asked a friend to spin some steel wool for me. Meanwhile, I operated the drone and set the shutter speed to 6–7 seconds before capturing the moment. I was lucky with the weather too because it was still and calm, a rare thing in Tibet, especially after sunset. Doing long exposures in windy weather is impossible.

SkyPixel: Apart from the relative solitude and peace of mind that that brings, what else keeps you staying in Tibet?

Li: It’s a multifaceted thing. Of course, there’s the vistas and views, culture, snow-capped mountains or teeth as I like to call them. Lakes, glaciers, and the religion. These are all the attractive things any curious newcomer would trek thousands of miles to see maybe just the once.

Li: Stay longer, and Tibet’s true flavor unravels, the stories behind the landscape and cultural sites. The ghosts of history present themselves, and you start to go deeper and become more inspired. The essence of these things enhances my approach to my art, and the more I come to understand them, the more the landscape works for me. It’s a give and take thing.

Li: Like the rest of China, Tibet is witnessing significant changes. Development, urbanization, and generational clashes between traditional and modern culture, the very thing I want to explore and document in my work. Of course, Tibet still has a romantic, spiritual feel about it but I think the real Tibet is the one that’s changing. And that’s worth documenting.

SkyPixel: Where are the best places in Tibet for aerial photography?

Li: The plateau lakes for sure. On the ground, they’re the purest blue, but if you see them from above, wow! The colors are multilayered, and this is especially true of the shorelines, which are sinuous and great for aerial photography when combined with different layers of blue.

Li: Also, the river systems in the river valleys are braided. With water flowing gently and trees decorating each cross of the rivers, it’s a breath-taking view, especially in autumn.

Li: Glaciers and snow mountains are also great for aerials, though it’s an effort to get there. To get the best view of a snow mountain, you can’t shoot from a distance; you have to climb it yourself. In late autumn, the mountaintops in Tibet offer views of the cloud cover from above, which is just the best for aerial photography.

Li: Lastly, mountain passes and temples are excellent choices, too. There are many mountain passes in Tibet, some of them even feature tens or even a hundred turns, which look stunningly complex and detailed from an aerial perspective. The mountain temples look like toy pagodas from above but incredible all the same.

SkyPixel: Can you recommend a travel route for newcomer aerial photography enthusiasts visiting Tibet?

Li: Sure! I would recommend this travel route: Lasa à Shigatse à Lhatse à Saga à Lake Manasarovar à Zhada à Gerze à Nima à Bangor à Lake Nam. This route contains all kinds of plateau lakes of different shapes and sizes. Lake Yamdork, for example. If you’re interested in forests, then go to Zhada where the forest is astounding from above. Glacier lovers can always go to Shigatse.

*Please follow all local laws and regulations when flying in Tibet. Pay attention to and respect local customs. Check the aircraft before taking off to ensure safety when operating at high altitude at low temperatures.

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