Photography in the Abstract: Small Photography

Welcome to the 5th post in Photo Series 3: Photography in the AbstractToday’s topic is pretty damn cool. It’s about “small” photography, i.e. the kind of photography that looks better when viewed as small. Up until this point, all of the pictures on this blog have been presented in “large” form: as large as can be while still being able to see the entire picture on a single computer screen. Today there will be no large photos, only small. First, we’ll ask our classic Photography in the Abstract question: what are the different ways that you can compose small photography? Then we’ll find out the optimal technique to take small pictures. Then we’ll expand that optimal small system to optimal systems for any given mode of photographic presentation. It’s a long post (but worth it, I swear). Let’s go!

How do you compose a great small photograph?

There are many ways to take a great small photo. Today we’ll just talk about photos in which the smallness helps the subject (rather than the composition [the whole]). And remember, these are photos in which the smallness actually helps the picture — merely looking good while small is not enough. It must be the case that [small photo] > [big photo]. To truly be convinced, I recommend clicking on the photos to see them in their ugly, large state.

Smallness Turns Small Dots into Smaller Dots


Instead of seeing a bunch of individual Christmas lights, we see a sky of stars. [Victoria Peak, Hong Kong, China]


Like the picture above, the density is emphasized by small spaces becoming smaller, by the lights at the far end nearly vanishing. [Chengdu, China]

Smallness Creates Correct Zoom Level For Texture


When this picture is full size, you can distinguish individual fish a bit too well. When small, this picture instead shows a wall of fish. See Finding Nemo’s school of fish: [Panda Zoo, Chengdu, China]


The reflective texture on the lightbulb wants this level of detail. Too large and you can start to pick apart its imperfections. [My House, Fenyang, China]

Smallness Emphasizes Correct Part of Shape


The key visual idea here is how the triangles are stacked on the straight line. This level of abstraction is exactly what we want. Triangles. Lines. Black. Detail would be counterproductive. [Bridge Across Frozen River, Harbin, China]


These are strange objects. The left seems to desire the right. Perpetual motion spurred by want. When zoomed in, we start to see the texture and need to move our eyes in order to see the two objects. Both of these hurt the emphasis on pure form. Thus, small > large. [Chongqing, China]

Smallness Emphasizes Shape of Human, Rather Than Face


Much like the category above, the subjects in these pictures are doing something defined by a zoom level OUT. The kid here is interesting because of the excitement conveyed by his body position, not his face. [Public Fishing Pond, Chengdu, China]


Many empty seats. Guard. Straight back. Hands behind back. Dark clothes. Chinese Red. Hat. None of those words are face. QED. [Shanghai Basketball Game, Shanghai, China]

Smallness Emphasizes Groups of Color


The idea here is that there’s a blob of color. Blobs are amorphous and are therefore helped by the ambiguity as a result of smallness. The particular pic is pretty ridiculous. Person biking with 100+ balloons. Can’t even see him/her. [Dongguan, China]


The idea of color, rather than specific colors themselves. This picture has 3 sections of color: umbrella and two reflections. [Shanghai, China]

Smallness Allows Blurry Mist


Mist/pollution/smoke is difficult to take pictures of, especially in the dark. It’s possible, but you need to increase the camera’s ISO level, creating gross pixelization. Viewing the picture as small keeps the best parts of the air — the aura of gradient light, while reducing the worst — blurriness. [Shanghai, China]


See that non-blurry reflective fog! [The Bund, Shanghai, China]


Love the lighting here. Dust clouds illuminated in the night. [Chongqing, China]


Same foggy night as pictures 1 and 2. [Shanghai, China]

Finding a Small Creation Medium For a Small Consumption Medium

Now that the types of small pictures have been outlined (above, dummy), let’s look at how to take small photographs. To understand how to create this work, we need to look at how it will be consumed. And that’s in small form. You (the viewer) look at it here, on this blog, as a 400×225 pixel image. I want it to look good in this medium. To look good here, I should try to take 400×225 pictures. Creation medium = consumption medium. Take small pictures for a “View As Small” medium.

I didn’t do consciously do this. I just took pictures “through” my LCD screen on my camera. I use the LCD screen as my viewfinder for other reasons. Creating “View As Small” pictures was an unintended consequence. It happened as I was going through my 10,000+ China photos. My sorting process was dictated by the goal — “Find Patterns” (those patterns have turned into the posts that you’ve read on this blog). I started to notice a strange pattern where my positive expectations for a given picture were shattered when I looked at the picture full screen. I’d get pumped by the thumbnail, only to be disappointed by the fullscreen photograph. It only happened with horizontal photos (see all the photos above) where the difference between thumbnail size and fullscreen size was greater (width is 6x greater * height is 5x greater = 30x more area for horizontal pictures vs. 1.5*2 = 3x more area for vertical pictures). Pictures were no longer “trash” if they looked bad big, they were just “View As Small”-ers. Like the runt of the litter. Just different.

And there were a lot of runts (nearly 50 high-quality photographs). Why did I take so many “View As Small” photos? It’s because every picture that I took was a “View As Small”. Here’s an example. I’m trying to get a sweet picture of a sea of white Christmas lights in Hong Kong.  I move a bit. I stretch my arm to the left. I look at it my LCD viewfinder. And…..yeah! That looks pretty damn sweet! Click. But it only looks sweet on a 400×225 pixel screen. Who the hell knows if it’ll look good at 1600×900? Boom. View As Small picture taken.

Creation Medium = Consumption Medium

I was on a backpacking trip with my brother a month or two ago and was telling him about my View As Small blog post (this). He was hatin’ on me for using the LCD instead of the stick-your-eye-to-it viewfinder. I was trying to convince him that the LCD viewfinder must be optimal for, at the very least, View As Small pictures. He wasn’t quite convinced until I gave him the larger implication: the consumption medium should always dictate the creation medium.

This idea affects the simple size of the photo. Small dictates small. Large dictates large. But we should definitely go further. If I know that my pictures are going to be viewed on a computer screen at 400×225, then I should create that environment when I take the picture. My camera should look like this:


If I wanted to shoot optimal [View As Small + Be Viewed On This Blog] photography, I should take pictures using the camera interface above. (You can imagine a WordPress iPad app that has this functionality.)

As another example, let’s pretend we are Tim Cook (Apple’s new CEO) and are planning for this year’s Apple Event. We are going to showcase the new photo roll screen. This:

camera roll screenshot

If we assume that we will only see the photos in thumbnail form, then we should take the pictures with an LCD screen that looks like this:

camera roll screenshot

To go one step further, we shouldn’t take the pictures on a normal iPhone. Instead, take the pictures on an LCD that looks like this but is huge and projected onto a screen (like at the Apple Event).

This may seem a bit extreme. But I think the original concept (medium = medium) still holds and should be applied more often. To push even more to an extreme, we’d start to address the environment outside the screen. e.g. Most people read this blog listening to music through headphones while sitting on a couch, petting their cat. I need to recreate that situation to take the optimal picture (some kind of weird wheelchair contraption with a very well-trained [or well-A.I.-ed] kitty).

Another implication of this medium = medium idea comes by solving the equality from the other direction. Until now we have let the consumption medium dictate the creation medium. Instead, let’s construct the consumption medium from the creation medium. For my point-and-shoot, the blog would look like this:


And the blog would be much much lamer.

Until Next Time

I usually try to keep my blog posts to about half of this length, so I’m especially interested in your feedback on a long-form article like this one. Let me know what you think! Also, stay tuned for the second View As Small post. It’ll be more pictures and less theory.

Thanks for reading!

– Rhys

American Culture, Chinese Style

Yo! Welcome to the 3rd post in Photo Series 2: Understanding ChinaToday, we’re going to look at how different parts of American (and I do mean specifically American, not Western) culture have been translated in China. And we’re going to keep it light, i.e. we’re not going to talk about how capitalism/progress has affected China. That’s later. Translation happens in five ways: exaggeration, idolization, “Yeah, that was a couple decades ago.”, poor execution, and “This could only be China.”

Cool? Cool.


America is ridiculous (caricature of itself?). China emulates. But sometimes China overshoots the “American-ness”. It’s more understandable when China does so (“you don’t know me!”), but it’s also more funny (for reasons I don’t quite understand).


The caption says “Don’t be a vegetarian.” 2 brats, 2 patties, 2 buns. 0 lettuce, 0 tomatoes, 0 pickles. Reminds me of KFC’s Double Down. [Suzhou, China]

Chillin' With The Watsons 227

“To punish and enslave.” Word. Transformers 4 made $320 million in China and only $240 in America. Multiply that by a PPP of 2.5 and you have a movie that made 3.33x as much in China. That (and this car) is (are) devotion. [Taiyuan, China]


Chinese people are all kinds of respectful to their guests. Foreigners are guests. When China is constantly “looking up” to America, an idolization complex begins to occur. Strange example below:


In a small-large town-city (a good combo to describe Chinese urbanity btw), a jewelry store manager was offering a single US dollar in a lottery giveaway. THE CROWD WAS MASSIVE. I tried to get a good picture that captured the dollar and the crowd but crowds are big and dollars are small and after 15 pictures it was awkward. [Kaiping, China]

“Yeah, That Was A Couple Decades Ago.”

This phenomenon is a pretty well known developed-developing country interaction. For various reasons (geographical distance, decreased cost/desire of old items, blah), American pop culture 25 years ago is found in greater numbers than modern American pop culture. Or maybe China is just retro.


Kenny Rogers, Backstreet Boys, Usher. All the jams. All in one place. [Hong Kong, China]

Poor Execution

Sometimes though, the love is there. And it’s modern. And it’s not an exaggeration. But ya know, the execution just doesn’t quite get there. Exaggeration is one step too far. This is one step to the side.


This was in the Chinese version of Disneyland. The “M”, “m” and “i” are still correct I guess… [Shenzhen, China]


Same theme park as above. High Spongebob is hiiiiggghhhh. The kids love it! [Shenzhen, China]

Picking Dates 020

A student’s shirt at my school. uu, ee, ee. Jew-stin, buy-ee-beer. I feel like if I was making a shirt, I’d make sure I was spelling everything correctly. [Fenyang, China]


Basketball! Lakers! Red Bull! Games! It’s got all the right pieces but all the wrong vibes. [Chengdu, China]

This Could Only Be China

These conversions are China-specific. i.e. I never saw this type of conversion in Nepal/India and would be surprised to see it outside of China.

Xian 172

Green Tea DQ. Unrelated: my foot looks tiny. [Xian, China]


Pizza Hut pizza. Crust has shrimp and scallops. Delicious? Of course. [Xian, China]


Creepy Mickey characters populate the family-filled old streets in China. China is particularly comfortable with pushing the non-historical into the historical. Skyscrapers surround temples in Beijing because the people need space to live. Animated characters tromp the cobbled pathways of ancient districts in Xian because the kids need to enjoy the vacation too. [Chengdu, China]

Until Next Time

You know what’s crazy? All of the Chinese in my town thought that Americans all used MSN. M. S. N. I don’t know a single American who uses (or even used) MSN. This is the cross-cultural transmission phenomenon. I don’t know how they came to believe this social media fact, nor do I know how they came to believe that the Spongebob character above should look like he just took a bong rip. But somehow in these ideas were produced in China. It’s worth noting that China is more likely to have these mutations as a result of state-sponsored internet censorship that lessens their connection with America/West/Rest. No Google, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Wikipedia, no Youtube. Hell, they don’t even have Bing! In any case, I wish I knew/investigated more about which ideas are more likely to be disfigured/exaggerated/idolized.

Finally, I’d also love to see a Chinese-written “Chinese Culture, American-Style”. The biggest surprise for me was how little rice the Chinese ate. I thought, China –> rice. In fact, only southern China eats rice. Northern China eats primarily noodles. I probably ate rice less than 10 times (out of 6 x 30 x 3 = 540 meals) in northern China.

Hope you enjoyed my first article about the intersection between Chinese and American cultures. There’s a funny translation post coming soon, in addition to one about capitalistic progress. See ya then!

– Rhys!

Rafts and Rock Climbing in Guilin

I have visited more than 80 countries and over 100 cities. I have found that no city can surpass the beauty of Guilin. Guilin is really a bright pearl in China.” — Richard Nixon

Word up bro. Guilin is, as they say, “the shizzle”. If you like water/mountain combos or rock climbing read on! For reference, this post is the 2nd in Photo Series 1: My Stories From China. So get outta here abstract photo composition theory! Let’s just talk. For double reference, Guilin is located in South Central China so it feels much like the Southeast Asian countries (Thailand, Vietnam, etc.). The geographical closeness to SE Asia + nature combo makes it a tourist hot spot. Let’s check out why:

Relax, You’re On A Raft

After a night in Guilin, I took a couple-hour raft ride down to a nearby town of Yangshuo. One of the top 10 most relaxing chunks in my life.


My feet, relaxed. 2-person raft made out of PVC pipe. Other person (and shoe on the right) is a 35-year-old MBA’ed Dutchman. [Li River, China]


Others chillin’. Perfect temperature. Perfect sun. Perfect sounds from flowing water. [Li River, China]


Chinese tourists tour too! (And for some reason buy the kitschy flower headband.) I like it when people hold their legs like this. [Li River, China]


Wedding photos are a BIG DEAL in China. High-class folks (土豪呢?) get the best photos. [Li River, China]

Water-Mountain Reflections


The water was damn clear. Reflection looks like shark teeth. Or stalagmites/stalactites with the y positions flipped. [Li River, China]


Love this picture. Bubbles in top dark water look like stars in space. [Li River, China]

Whaddup Local Old Folk?

Old people often retire and don’t go back to work. But in Tourist China, it doesn’t make enough financial sense for old folks to stay in retirement. These guys told me they work a couple hours a day, make mad bank and can still get their chill on. The life.


My raft ores-man had a ridiculous stutter. And it was awesome for me. Most Chinese would speak too fast, but this guy spoke at perfect speed! e.g. “Where are you-oo-oo-oo-oo from?” [Li River, China]


The local fisherman train cormorants to pull fish out of the water and bring them back to the fisherman. Cray. Now it’s just a tourist show, but still damn cool. [Li River, China]


Pulling a fish from the bird’s mouth. Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Surround that man with tourists and he’ll also pay for his children’s college tuition. [Li River, China]

Karst Rock Climbing

With the raft ride over, I got into Yangshuo for a 3-night stay. This place has a bunch o’ karst rock formations. It’s real good for climbing. Best in China good:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 12.11.25 AM

The Rocks


Moon hill. Some climb (I hiked) to the top. [Yangshuo, China]


I like when plant life scales the rocks. [Yangshuo, China]

I Climb, Hard


I’m on the wall. My belayer was pro. Climbed 5.13a with flip-flops. Disgusting. Love the colors in the foreground. Pic taken by Jose Luis (friend I met from Luxembourg). [Yangshuo, China]


Ugh. So much more rock to climb. Pic attribution to Jose Luis again. [Yangshuo, China]


Proud resting on my 5.small. Props to Jose Luis again. [Yangshuo, China]

Real Climbers Climb Real Climbs


Maneuver on Moon Hill. [Yangshuo, China]


Pants blend in. [Yangshuo, China]


3 blues. He’s paying attention to the guy above (in real life and on this blog post). [Yangshuo, China]


The photographer from above (Jose Luis) leads a 5.10.


I like her angle, especially with respect to the rope above.

Until Next Time

Some people spend weeks in Yangshuo. Others arrive and never leave. In many ways, it’s the perfect getaway. Touristy enough for partying/English. Nature-y enough to retract into the countryside. Highly recommended. When you go to China, go off the beaten path. But also, go to Yangshuo.

Silhouettes Part 2: Buildings Down and Sky Up

Welcome to Photo Series 3: Photography in the Abstract! Last week we looked at Silhouettes Part 1: Humans and Non-Buildings. Today we’re going to look at how buildings and the sky interact in silhouette photography. It might seem strange to talk about the sky (the non-silhouette) in an article about silhouette photography. But, unlike with human silhouettes, building silhouettes are always composed against the sky. Up. The sky is half of the picture.

And the building is the other half. Therefore, I have a small conundrum. I need to examine two independent parts of a photo: the building and the sky. I could judge which part is more important/prototypical for a given photo and then choose that bucket (building or sky) for that photo. 1 photo, 1 bucket. It’s what I’ve done in the past in classifying my photography. Or I could show each photo twice, once by building and then by again sky. Neither option is great. The first ignores a crucial part of each picture and the second is too repetitive. Instead, I’ll classify pictures by building during your scroll down. At the bottom, I’ll tell you a couple defining features of sky. Then you can scroll back up, looking for those features, scavenger hunt style. Sound good? Cool. Again, the question I ask is:

What are the ways you can use silhouettes to take great building photography?

Full Building

Some buildings outlines are just cool.


I like the bonus outline on the pagoda. [Fenyang, China]


Front wall of an old Portuguese church. [Macao, China]


Intense. Chinese Tower of London. [Taiyuan, China]

Towards a Vanishing Point

Classic perspective technique. Big to small. Nice angles.


This old city wall surrounds the world’s first bank. We can see the vanishing point. [Pinyao, China]


Between 1 and 2, lots of space. Between 2 and 3, top circle touches but space still holds. Space between 3 and 4 doesn’t exist. [Guilin, China]


Buildings are built by humans and we love symmetry.


An abandoned yurt in the grasslands. [Xilamuren Grasslands, Inner Mongolia, China]


Again, the bonus outline is key here. [Chengdu, China]


A flip of the classic building symmetry. The lighting on the building keeps it from true symmetry but I actually like the effect. Side note: Once you get in the groove, it’s amazing how quickly you can take pictures that hit the geometry you’re trying to achieve. See top corners. [Pinyao, China]

Geometric Shapes Combined

Besides skyscrapers, buildings are rarely just a box. Instead, they are the combination of multiple geometric shapes (like tangrams).


Far right is tangram-y (triangle popping up is key). Stairs are stegosaurus-y. Low left is rocky. Many shapes here. [Macao, China]


Two rectangles intersect in bottom left. Duct forms triangle and loop. [Chengdu, China]


Teacher’s Day. Bottom left has top right corner of an octagon. Triangle flag. Humans break the exacting nature. (See last week for more of this.) [Fenyang, China]

Building Adornment Pop

Cool buildings have cool adornments on their corners. Think gargoyles.


Abstract animal? [Pinyao, China]


Ah, I love the bonus outline. [Pinyao, China]


Stadium lights are technically not an adornment but it’s the same general idea. i.e. There’s an object that is interestingly shaped and is therefore the object of the viewer’s attention. Bird is the perfect balancer. [Fenyang, China]


Building silhouettes are usually solid swaths of black (see all categories above). This category contains buildings (or parts of buildings) where this is not the case, where there’s sky inside.


Construction, abandoned. [Harbin, China]


That chain mail fence is up. [Pinyao, China]

The Sky Is Up

Now that we’re done with classifying building silhouettes, it’s time to scroll back up, looking at the sky rather than the silhouette. But before we do that, I want to say that I especially enjoyed writing today’s article. Structuring the two-featured pictures was probably my most difficult problem thus far in my writing. I think my solution (scroll down, scroll up) is fine, but not great. Wish I had the time to code the webpage such that text appeared different on the way down than on the way up. Alas. Let me know if you liked this system! (Though you will need to scroll back down to do so.)

On your way up, look for varying degrees of sun in the sky. At the most extreme, you can see the full disc of the sun. In pictures with less intense sky, the sun is hidden by some object, making its glow the defining feature of the sky. In the least extreme case, the sun is off camera providing a light-to-dark gradient across the sky. In essence, look for: sun disc, sun glow, sun gradient. Enjoy!