Li River Cruise

From Zhu Jiang Dock to Yangshuo

Reflections in the Li River at the base of Bat Hill
If Shanghai was the starter then LI Jiang was the main course and desert all in one, and I feasted for the whole four and a half hours. The cruise passes through landscape lifted straight out of a Chinese scroll painting. The shallow river meanders between sheer-sided, 300 metre high karst peaks, interspersed with villages and bamboo groves.

It's a region I could easily spend weeks, if not months, exploring and photographing. There was no way I could do justice to this place stood on the deck of a boat cruising along at an average of 8 mph.

The haze started to burn off within an hour of setting off on our cruise

The start of the cruise wasn't very promising as a heavy blanket of mist covered the river (due the very high humidity), but I was assured by our guide that it would clear within the hour - and thankfully it did.

My only problem then was how to cope with both the highlights in the sky, the deep shadows in the karst hills, and the reflections from the river? The books always say use a graduated ND filter to avoid blown highlights in the sky but in this case with the massively irregular horizon I decided it was out of the question - I could do a better job post capture in NX2. I settled on UV and polarising filters - however I admit to forgetting to adjust the polariser for half my shots!

Post Capture: in Capture NX2
For all photos - In the Camera Settings I switched to Picture Control Landscape and reset Sharpening and Brightness to 8 and -1 respectively. In Quick Fix I reduced exposure to bring out detail in the sky and increased Shadow Protection to bring out shadow detail. This left the images looking a bit too dark so after I had finished any cropping I set a White Point in the brightest area of cloud and adjusted luminosity until I had just the right level of overall brightness. (Generally setting the white point to a bright white part of the clouds - that isn't a true white point - makes the image too bright. You are then able to adjust overall brightnes down to the required level using a simple slider).

A scene out of Edgar Rice Burroughs' the 'Land that Time Forgot'. A fantastical land of lush vegetation where dinosaurs might still roam.

An alternative, more flexible, way of travelling down this amazing river.

We were met at Yangshuo by the Cormorant fisherman from the HSBC advert.

To download the GPS track or view on Google Earth follow the link: River Li at EveryTrail alternatively a larger selection of my photos (and locations) can be viewed on the map below, (clicking on Full screen opens a new window)


  1. Hi J Blagny,

    Thank you for your wonderful trip down the Li River. I will make that same trip this March after I visit my ancestral village for the first time in ZhongShan (Chung Shan).

    I do have a couple of questions regarding the river trip and some photographic insights.

    What wide-angle zooms did you take the pictures with?

    Have you tried Photoshop/Lightroom RAW processing. I see it will be challenging to capture the highlights/foreground. HDR doesn't seem to be an option, even with travelling 8mph!

    Were there more sites on the left or to the right of the boat? Could you set up a tripod, or were there too many people--or maybe the motor on the boat vibrated too loudly.

    Sincerely, Wei Chong

  2. Wei to answer your questions:

    1. I took just one lens, my Nikkor 18-200mm f3.5-5.6G AF-S DX VR. A Vibration Reduction (VR) lens is essential given that you are constantly moving.

    2. There was always plenty of space on the boats observation deck, but its not really suitable for a tripod. A monopod might be better. You'll find yourself shoooting more like an Action Photographer than a Landscape Photographer. The composition has to be framed and shot in an instant - 8mph is surprisingly fast when the subject matter is so close, (it took just seconds for the composition to change). Its non-stop action for the full 4+hours - on both sides of the deck. At the end of the cruise I was mentally exhausted and unfortunately was left feeling that, from a photographer point of view, the journey had been quite superficial - just a series of snapshots. If you have the time it would be well worth investing in a tour aimed at the photographer, e.g. The area is truly magical and deserves to be taken at a much, much slower pace.

    3. Finally, re. Photoshop and Lightroom. Yes I used to use them before I switched from Fuji to Nikon cameras. I was never happy with Adobe Camera RAW and after a trial with Nikon Capture NX I was hooked. Now I find the Nikon toolset perfect for my workflow:

    - Nikon Transfer (free) to transfer from camera to PC and to add initial meta data, e.g. copyright. This then launches,

    - Nikon ViewNX(free) which allows me to directly transfer data from my Garmin GPS and geotag each photo. I then use the programs batch processing feature to apply Nikon (Landscape) Picture Control to my RAW images - these Picture Controls are available in camera, on Nikons professional DSLR's but have to be applied as part of the RAW processing in either ViewNX or Capture NX2 on my D80. However they're not available in Adobe Camera RAW.

    - Nikon Capture NX2 is then used for further post processing using Nik softwares unmatched selection Control point tool - this facilitates complex masking jobs and has been so popular that Nik Software have spun off NX's control point technology to create Viveza - a plug in for Photoshop. Now the sort of complex masking jobs demanded by, for example Ansel Adams' Zone System, are within the reach of poor amateurs like myself.

    No, I find it hard to imagine myself ever going back to Photoshop having experienced NX2 - which also means I'm effectively locked in to Nikon camera's too.

    Please, after your trip post a message on the blog giving a link to your photos - that way I'll be able to re-live the trip of a lifetime.




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