Three Weeks in China with Three Zeiss Batis Lenses

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I've traveled to many locales over the years, but a recent trip to China was about as far as I've ever been from home, and not just distance-wise. China is a place of extremes and this trip proved to be an amazing experience on many levels.

Photographs © Allan Weitz, 2019

China is a country of extremes and opposites. Shanghai (left) is a city that has experienced an insane level of growth with few structures older than 20-years. Guilin (right) embodies the essence of China’s more traditional old-world beauty.

Leading up to our departure, I wrote endless lists of what I need and don't need, always keeping in mind that once I arrived, I wouldn't have the option of dialing up B&H for little ditties I forgot to pack before we left. As a measure of redundancy, I packed three spare camera batteries, two battery chargers, multiples of all of my various cords, voltage adapters, several microfiber lens-cleaning cloths and, for keeping my camera sensor clean, a Photographic Solutions Sensor Swab ULTRA kit with extra swabs. A dozen various-size Ziploc™ bags were also stowed away if I encountered particularly nasty weather.

A fisherman crouches on a low stone rail at dawn (left) while nearby a woman sits in a pagoda peeling apple in Guilin, China (right). Both photos taken with Zeiss Batis 40mm f/2 CF

My choice of camera gear was a matter of internal dispute. I knew I'd be using my Sony a7R II, a workhorse of a camera I know inside and out. My lens choices were another matter. Part of me leaned toward two, maybe three zooms, while the other side of my brain leaned toward taking a few faster fixed primes. After reviewing my options, I ultimately chose three fixed focal-length Zeiss Batis lenses: a Batis 25mm f/2 wide angle, a Batis 40mm f/2 CF normal lens with the ability to focus as close as 9.4", and for distant subjects, a Batis 135mm f/2.8.

At left, taken in one of the few remaining "old city" neighborhoods in Shanghai, which is interestingly referred to as "Chinatown." At right, Tiananmen Square in front of the Forbidden City (both taken with Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2)

Though I like the flexibility of zoom lenses, I opted for these faster fixed primes based on my previous experiences with them and the knowledge that each of these lenses can stand up to the resolving power of my camera's 42MP imaging sensor. The lenses are also some of the most feature-rich available, and their relatively compact and lightweight designs are ideal for travel. They are very good, making the Batis lineup something you will definitely want to read about.

Because I was using a Sony a7R II, I was also able to take advantage of one of the camera's cooler shooting modes. Sony's Clear Image Zoom function is an amazing feature that enables you to "zoom in" up to 2x magnification with minimal image degradation. By engaging Clear Image Zoom, I was able to tweak my compositions when shooting subjects I couldn't physically back away from or get closer to. Essentially, my 25mm f/2 became a 25-50mm f/2, my 40mm f/2 became a 40-80mm f/2, and my 135mm f/2.8 became a 135-270mm f/2.8. Being a stickler for tight compositions, I was able to enjoy the combined advantages of fixed focal length and zoom lenses without making compromises.

The above photographs of a houseboat on the Li Jiang River in Yangzhou were taken from a fixed position with a 135m lens. The closer view was captured by "zooming in" 2x using my camera's Clear Image Zoom function, which doubled the effective focal length of my 135mm lens to the equivalent of a 270mm lens without the loss of speed or image clarity.

Like the Sony a7R II camera body, the Zeiss Batis lenses are weather-sealed, which considering how much damp, drizzly weather we encountered along the way, proved to be a welcomed attribute.

The right combination of lens (Zeiss Batis 40mm f/2 CF at minimum focusing distance), a ground-level point-of-view, a few wet leaves, and a few splashes of magenta on a rainy morning come together to create a tight, visually-dynamic photograph.
The right combination of lens (Zeiss Batis 40mm f/2 CF at minimum focusing distance), a ground-level point of view, a few wet leaves, and a few splashes of magenta on a rainy morning come together to create a tight, visually dynamic photograph.

When it came time to select the best camera bag for this particular trip, after carefully weighing my options I ultimately chose a Domke F-802 Reporter's Satchel shoulder bag, a camera bag I've taken along on many previous photo jaunts. Retrofitted with a padded, 3-section insert from a long-discontinued Tenba shoulder bag, I find Domke's F-802 to be a tough, weather-resistant, narrow profile bag that proved to be ideal when navigating the narrow, crowded streets and alleyways that are common to China. Another reason I chose my Domke's F-802 is that it doesn't look like a camera bag, which is something to consider when traveling with a bag full of pricey gear.

Mountain view, Longsheng, China (Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2)
Mountain view, Longsheng, China; Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2

A big problem when traveling in China is that access to the Internet and cloud storage, something we take for granted most everywhere else in the world, is severely compromised the moment you step off the plane. For this reason, I packed a 500GB Western Digital My Passport Wireless SSD mobile storage device.

Part of my daily routine was to back up my photographs to the drive and promptly lock it up in the hotel safe before heading out on another day's adventure. I specifically chose the WD My Passport Wireless SSD because of its ease of use. I could choose between transferring my image files by inserting my memory card directly into the drive or I could transfer them wirelessly. The drive is built like a tank and is covered by a shock-absorbing outer jacket. The drive's 10-hour power supply can also serve as a power source for my phone or laptop should the need arise (It didn't). For traveling I find WD's My Passport Wireless SSD to be second-to-none.

Smog (Shanghai) and Fog (Yao Mountains, Guilin) are inevitable when traveling through China. The trick is to make the best of it – embrace the challenge!

Our starting point was Shanghai, which is like Times Square on psilocybin-infused steroids, but unlike Times Square, it goes on forever. (It takes a lot of buildings to house a city of 25 million people.) At night there isn't a single building that's not animated by zillions of LEDs, with one being more insane than the next. But what I particularly enjoyed was traveling through the countryside, which is as mystifying and exotic as it gets.

Storefronts, Longsheng, China Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2

Rain and fog aren't the only atmospheric issues one must deal with when shooting in China. A bigger issue has to do with air pollution, which like the air quality of 1970s Los Angeles, can easily reduce visibility to a block or two in and around many of the larger, crowded cities. We found Shanghai to be best during the early morning hours and in the evenings if a breeze was blowing, especially along the pedestrian walkways that line the Bund area and the Yangtze River. The buildings literally come alive in firework-like displays.

How bad is the air in China? Let's just say at least one of the parks we walked through in Shanghai was hard-wired with an in-ground and tree-mounted Bose® sound system—the happy chatter and chirping of birds was prerecorded.

The Reed Flute Cave, located in the mountainous tea-growing region near Guilin, is chock full of amazing natural formations that are imaginatively illuminated by color lights. The main chamber has a reflective pond and because of its size and acoustic qualities is often used for live performances and concerts.
The Reed Flute Cave, located in the mountainous tea-growing region near Guilin, is chock-full of amazing natural formations that are imaginatively illuminated by color lights. The main chamber has a reflective pond and, because of its size and acoustic qualities, is often used for live performances and concerts.
Color lights in parks and along pedestrian walkways are not uncommon in many of the cities and towns we traveled to. The effects can be magical. The above photograph was taken along a pedestrian canal in Guilin.
Color lights in parks and along pedestrian walkways are not uncommon in many of the cities and towns to which we traveled. The effects can be magical. The above photograph was taken along a pedestrian canal in Guilin.

Amazingly, Beijing, which is notorious for its noxious yellow haze, was stunningly clear during the four days we were there, thanks in part to a steady southerly wind. Even the Great Wall, which can often be shrouded in a semi-opaque haze, was clearly visible as far as the eye could see.

The Great Wall of China on a rare, clear day
The Great Wall of China on a rare, clear day

From a picture-taking standpoint, the drizzly rain and fog that followed us throughout most of our trip was more often than not a gift. One of my initial concerns when planning this trip was that, because we would be traveling into the month of May, the high angle of the midday sun would be harsh and unforgiving. As it turned out, the ever-present misty conditions worked in my favor by providing even lighting, amazing backdrops, and truly cinematic atmospheric conditions along the way.

Though I'm a firm believer you can find amazing photographs within a block or two of your home, there's nothing like stepping off a plane in a foreign land and setting out to discover new, exotic places with a camera, with an equally curious and adventurous travel companion. What's the most exotic (or photographic) place you've ever traveled to? Tell us about your favorite travel adventures in the Comments field below and check out all our other travel-related content on B&H Explora.

2 Comments

Allan.....So great you were in China, it's a wonderful country! I moved here from Massachusetts 9 years ago. My wife and I live not far from Guilin which is fascinating as is Yangshuo although Yangshuo is growing in leaps and bounds like all of China. I've been down the Li Jiang River twice, both times on days with heavy overcast which I welcome for shooting, and it's magical. It was China that got me interested in serious photography as a hobbyist because there's so much to shoot here, so different from home in culture and landscape. I shoot with several cameras but my Sony a7R II is my workhorse and daily partner. 

Great article and photos. Thanks!

Tom Gorton

Nanning, Guangxi

Hey Thomas - Thanks for the kudos. I'm envious you can see those landscapes on a daily basis - they're totally magical.

Are you familiar with the photographs of Zhang Liping? He lives in (or near) Guilin and he has spent years photographing the region. I purchased one of his B&W photo books while i was there and found another book of his color work on Amazon. If you're not familiar with his work do check it out.

Many thanks

Allan Weitz

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