Greetings from Baoji, China

Today’s Post by Ken MacAdams

Reclined in my seat, I spot a scrolling marquee at the front of the coach spelling out, in English, “Speed 250 km/h.” I’m flying low across China on one of their high speed trains. This network of high speed rail lines brings many of the far flung cities of rural China within reach of each other. The dedicated, elevated tracks, not shared with the common freight or local passenger lines, are smooth, straight, and whisper quiet.

I’m headed to the city of Baoji, some 150 miles west of Xi’an. A student has extended an invitation to visit the Bronze Museum, located in this bustling city of one million. When we arrive at our destination, Jerry (most Chinese adopt a Western name!) gives us a warm welcome and drives us to the museum. We get further acquainted as we walk up the winding half-mile road leading to the museum, situated on a high point overlooking the Yellow River. On an adjoining hill, a Buddhist temple shares the view.

The museum houses an amazing collection of area bronze artifacts. For thousands of years farmers unearthed bronze artifacts when they plowed the land. It wasn’t until 1975 that a farmer, digging into an earthen wall, dug into a cave-cache of bronzeware, yielding some of the most magnificent and valuable examples of handiwork from this era. The museum now houses about 50,000 beautifully preserved period pieces, some which have been buried for 2000 to 3000 years!

In the same time period – circa 3500 BC – that King David was leading Israel to its zenith, a thriving civilization existed here in the Wei River Valley. Following the Neolithic Age, where the tools of early man were wood, stone, and vessels of clay, a mixture of small city-states, trading and often warring against one another became unified under the control of the Zhou dynasty. It was under this dynasty that the Bronze age came to be. Bronze is an alloy created by combining molten copper and tin. Early on, pots, drinking vessels, tools and weaponry were fashioned out of bronze. With the development of the wheel and chariot, axles, bearings and harness components were also forged. Later sophistication brought intricate detail to the casting process, and then came the development of the bell.

During the middle Zhou period into the Qin Dynasty, it became apparent that the display of bronze bells and other intricate bronze vessels was an indicator of wealth or political status. The melding of music and metallurgy, with bell sets of up to 65 bells is thought to be part of a ritualized form of court music that included strings, percussion, and wind instruments. During this same time the Chinese also developed and perfected the manufacture and firing of porcelain. Porcelain cooking and drinking vessels, however, were reserved for the lower classes.  

On this visit, I experimented with camera settings. Like many museums, tripods and flash photography are prohibited. While this would have been the exact low lighting environment to utilize a tripod, it was a perfect time to explore limits of the camera. I’ll be the first to tell you, don’t try experimenting with your camera when you’re in a once-in-a-lifetime situation but living here, if it all went bust, I’d return and re-shoot!

I had the camera set on Auto ISO, with a limit of ISO 3200, and never altered that. Reading my metadata, I found it ranged from a low of ISO 1250, to the limit I’d set of ISO 3200. The images display minimal noise, and impressive clarity. My Aperture was set at f/3.5, shooting hand-held from 1/20 sec 1/50 sec. Depending on the lighting, I would flex from -1 EV to + .5 EV but most shots were set at the 0 EV the camera metered. I initially set white balance to AWB, but discovered that the oxidation of some of the ancient bronze pieces in combination with their lighting, displayed a greenish hue. I overcame that by switching to the incandescent setting.   On several other instances, I activated the in-camera HDR and with the camera secured against a column or handrail, fired a two image sequence. Some images taken in this mode were more successful than others but for this environment, I found taking a single frame, and altering my EV was more effective. I found it very useful in this low light situation to manually scroll the +/- EV settings before taking a shot to see if I felt it had an advantage over the metering the processor dictated.  

I don’t spend a lot of time chimping in normal situations, but with the challenging lighting situations presented, I checked both my histogram and image frequently. In the 2.5 hours I was shooting, I exhausted the first battery in the battery grip. which left me with another charged battery in the body of the camera. I left the museum with a set of images that are pleasing to me. It’ll be a while before I get back to the States, where I can make some 13″ X 19″ prints and pass final judgment on the shoot!

All images were shot with the Panasonic Lumix G85, and G Vario 12-60mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH Power OIS lens