Chinese Masks -
Digital Photography Tips & Tricks

Chinese masks (called bian lian in Mandarin) are an important part of China's culture and visually very striking so I thought I would share a couple of shots of different types of mask which I made on my travels through China in 2007.

The name bian lian  means 'face changing' and they are often worn by actors, particularly for Chinese opera, and they are usually brightly coloured, with striking expressions.


Opera Masks

The first shot I made was in the foyer of Pingyao Tea House Theatre. The reference to 'tea' is because you can have a meal (with tea) while a performance is taking place. I didn't eat a meal when I went there but the combination of drama and singing, in a series of tableaux, was delightful and fascinating.

Above: Opera Masks by Anne Darling

Shutter Speed 1/50 s, F-number f/3.5, ISO 800, Focal Length 18 mm

The masks you see in the photo above were actually hanging over wash hand basins in the foyer of the theatre, presumably where dinner clients wash their hands before being seated at their dinner table.

The different colours used in theatrical Chinese masks denote different emotions so the audience is in no doubt whether the character is a goodie or a baddie.

Digital Photography Tips and Tricks

Notice that the ISO is 800 because I didn't want to use flash when I was in the foyer. I also opened up the aperture to 18 mm, partly to include as much of the scene as possible and partly to maximise the available light. A shutter speed of 1/50 second is fine (unless you have shaky hands), and the small F-Number of 3.5 works well enough as the subject (masks and wash basins) are on a fairly  narrow plane. So no need for a large depth-of-field.

Venerable Chinese Gentleman Masks

The second shot was taken near the Great Wall at Badaling which is fairly near to Beijing. There were market stalls set up for the tourists and this one caught my eye. These are not Chinese opera masks and I don't know what their function is but there is probably some hidden meaning... answers on a postcard please!

Above: Chinese Masks by Anne Darling

Shutter Speed 1/320 s, F-Number f/13, ISO 400, Focal Length 88 mm

I think the whole shot is just so Chinese, with the large traditional writing characters in the background, the strong colour red (Chinese people absolutely love red and use it whenever possible), the parasols which many women in China use to protect their skin from the sun, and those ancient, wise gentlemen whose faces have been depicted smiling so gleefully.

I have no idea what these masks are made of - usually they are wooden but light weight - and as for the beard... anybody's guess! They do look venerable though, with their bald heads and wrinkled lines around the eyes. The smile too is captivating and I think perhaps they are Taoist in origin - perhaps there is some ancestral link with the past. 

Digital Photography Tips and Tricks

The shutter speed of 1/320 s is quite high because I was roaming the streets at the time and I like to have a high setting sometimes in order to capture the action of spontaneous events.

The ISO and F-Number are also quite high. This reflects one way of working which works well for street photography as you can be sure that you are prepared for most things with settings like these.

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