Taking Pictures While Stuck on the Bus in Hong Kong

· 16.February.2020

One of the things I love about Hong Kong is public transit. There’s multiple ways to get from point A to B, it’s efficient, economical and convenient. I think people who choose to drive here are crazy. Other than taking in the sights and sounds (and smells) of this great city while traversing through it’s varied and often maze-like thoroughfares, taking public transit can buy you a lot of time. If you drive, you can’t catch up on email or reorganize your camera bag. Your focus is on driving. As a passenger on public transit, you can choose to do whatever you want to do to pass the time. For someone who is busy, this is a great luxury. The title of this article was meant to be tongue-in-cheek as I enjoy spending most of my time taking pictures while on public transit. I don’t ever feel ‘stuck’ while on the bus. It’s a unique way of photographing a city, especially if you get on a double decker. Let me take you through my process of capturing street style photography from inside the Hong Kong public transit system.

Let’s start with equipment choice. It’s practical to use a zoom lens while shooting from within a bus since you can’t really re-position yourself if the framing is off. Your perspective (your position in relationship to your subject) is fixed, based on where you’re sitting and the direction the bus is travelling. I would recommend the XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4, XF 16-80mm f/4 or the F 16-55mm f/2.8. From my experience, you will be within the 23mm-50mm range for most of your images. For myself, I thought I would add an extra layer of complexity by using the XF 35mm f/2 R WR for the majority of my images. I also used the X-Pro3 instead of the X-H1, so none of my images were stabilized. Finally I used Classic Neg for all of my images while in Hong Kong (although I shot both RAW + JPEG so I can experiment with different profiles in the future).

Now let’s move on to my shooting routine-ritual for this bus project. First of all the best type of bus to photograph from is the double decker, although the best transportation vehicle to photograph from in Hong Kong is still the tramway aka ‘Ding Ding’. Since I was photographing from 12 feet off the ground, it gave me a unique perspective that I couldn’t get while walking on the streets. Even if I had a ladder that could give me the height and shooting angle, I’d become a spectacle and would be stuck in the same spot. Photographing from a moving bus and from a high perspective gives me a variety of shooting scenes as well as a physical buffer between me and my subjects, allowing for discrete and natural images.

I also looked for the most interesting bus routes to take (via Google Maps) and the most ideal time of day. The morning after rush hour is best since there’s a better chance to getting the best seat on the bus: upstairs, front and the far left window seat. From this position you can see both the sidewalk when looking left (Hong Kong is left-hand traffic), as well as an unobstructed view of the road in front of you while in motion or when stopped at a light. The best way to guarantee you get this seat is to find out where the bus route begins and get on at that location. For me it was the number 41, 45, 6C or 6F bus from the Kowloon City Ferry Pier bus station in To Kwa Wan, a 2 minute walk from my mother-in-law’s apartment.

Once you’re on the bus I recommend to shoot at the highest possible shutter speed, which means bumping up the ISO. During the day and on the street, you may be able to get away with ISO 200, but since you’re on a moving bus, sometimes you need to bump it up to ISO 800. Because you’re shooting during the day, you won’t see a drop in image quality as most Fujifilm camera’s base ISO is between 640 and 800. Unless you have quick access to ISO, I would also turn on mechanical and electronic shutter (although it’s always best to use mechanical to avoid rolling shutter) since you will be hitting high shutter speeds due to your higher-than-normal daylight ISO setting.

You should also have face detection turned on, as well as AF tracking. It also helps to have touch focus and capture, but I found predicting where your subject will be and having the camera framed up is faster than clumsily tapping the screen on the X-Pro3 to lock focus and capture the image. However the X-T3 and X-T30’s touch focus and capture is pretty fast and ergonomically correct since the screen doesn’t have to be flipped down to do this, one inherent weakness of the X-Pro3’s unique hidden LCD screen. I also found manually focusing and using focus peaking is just as fast once you get use to it.

One final technical tip is avoiding reflections and dirt from the bus windows. Using a rubber lens hood helps to completely cut out internal reflections, or you can keep the lens as close to the window as possible and use your other hand to cup the lens. To avoid a dirty window, just shoot at a shallow depth of field (most of my images were captured at f/2). To be honest I don’t mind getting weird reflections and smudges off the glass either during the day or night. It adds to the layering of the image, and it’s a visual reminder that you’re photographing from inside a bus! While in post processing, you can also increase contrast and use dehaze since you often lose contrast when photographing through windows.

I’ve always enjoyed casually taking pictures from inside the bus while commuting in Hong Kong, but this was the first time I decided to make it into a personal project. I was curious how this would affect the outcome of the images. Will using a new camera body and film simulation change how my images will look? How about forcing myself to use a prime lens instead a zoom lens that would have given me more options? Initially I was frustrated because I kept missing shots because the bus was either moving too fast, too slow, or not moving at all. Losing mobility control is difficult for a street photographer. I also was limited to just a few perspectives from the top+front+left seat on a double decker bus. Would I be able to create enough variety in my images while sitting sedenitary on the bus?

Overall I’m happy with the images from this bus project. I maintained my overall aesthetics and style (the images still look like I took them), while adding a bit of flare to my photography by using a new film simulation and camera body. I’m glad I forced myself to shoot with the XF35mm f/2 lens, even though I captured less images. Shooting with a prime lens taught me to see in advance what I wouldn’t be able to capture, but also know quicker what I could capture within the limits of the equipment I had. On my next visit to Hong Kong I may loosen some of these self-imposed constraints by using an IBIS equipped body and a zoom lens. One thing that won’t change is my love of taking public transit in Hong Kong and my love for the top+front+left seat! Thanks for reading and happy shooting.

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