City Snapshot: 4 Instagrammers Share Their Tools and Tips

By Joshua Cawthorpe, January 20, 2023

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'City Snapshot' is a monthly feature where an Instagrammer tells That's about their foray into photography and the shots that inspire them. Here is a roundup of the Spring 2022 featured photographers.

The October Issue: @im_akimov

Ten years ago, Valery Akimov went to study Chinese during his university’s summer break. He chose to spend a month in Dalian as he had traveled there in 2004. He was astounded at how the city had evolved and by how safe and comfortable he felt being there. It was then that he chose to officially move to China. “I always liked photography,” Akimov tells That’s. “During my childhood, my father would let me use his film cameras.


In 2013, I studied at Jinan University and worked as a Russian-Chinese translator at the same time. With the first bit of money I earned, I bought a used Canon D500 and a portrait lens — I was incredibly happy. For me, photography has always been a way to disconnect from the outside world by concentrating on the process, you can say it’s a form of meditation. Even now it remains my favorite hobby.


Akimov believes the formula for a good photo is simple, you should have enough time to slow down, put aside all thoughts and feelings and just be ready to see the beauty of this world. Beauty can be seen anywhere and especially in a person. A photographer just needs to have a desire to establish a connection with this world, with the environment. When this is achieved, the contrasts, lines, colors, mood and light become noticeable. This means that the photographer was able to convey his state, the mood of thought through the picture. The main thing is the ability to convey and feel another person even without words.


The November Issue: @nikolaykruzhilin.nn

Nikolay Kruzhilin came to China 10 years ago to study. Soon after arriving, he and his girlfriend opted to drop out of university and get jobs. The couple moved from Dalian in China’s northeastern corner down to the rapidly growing city of Shenzhen and it was here that Kruzhilin uncovered a community of street photographers and his passion bloomed. Kruzhilin tells That’s, “I got into photography when I first got an iPhone. I thought it was amazing that such a tiny device could produce images better than most digital cameras of the era. So I started taking random snaps from my daily life and trips. Stylistically inspired by photos I was seeing on Instagram, I wanted to upgrade to something that could blur the background of my portraits. This inquiry sent me down the rabbit hole of photo forums — learning about sensors, lenses, the basics of camera settings and composition.”


“My true passion for photography started about six years ago,” he continues, “when I joined ‘booze & shoots.’” Kruzhilin dispels any excitement conjured by the name, saying, “it was just a bunch of like-minded people sipping beers and taking street snaps. There were amateurs like myself, willing to learn, and there were also many professional photographers that I learned a lot from.” The ‘booze & shoots’ community has since evolved into an organized body of street photography knowledge and resources. Now called Shenzhen International Foto Collective (SIFC), the group hosts lectures, holds competitions and curates photo exhibitions.


Kruzhilin is currently entrenched in a ‘365’ project where he publishes at least one photo or series per day. This pushes him to take his camera exploring on a near-daily basis. “Staying inside means running out of content,” he tells That’s, lamenting about the excruciating temperatures that this past summer brought. “We had a terrible heat wave in Nanning. It was over 36°C for more than a week and when I finally found the time for a photo walk, I was seriously considering not going out at all.” Assuming his fellow citizens of Nanning would also be trying to beat the heat, Kruzhilin headed down to the waterfront. “I decided to go to the river bank expecting to find some people swimming there. I was in luck as the place was full of people.


“A young man saw me on the promenade with a camera, swam to me, and asked if I wanted to take a photo of him jumping into the river. I agreed and he proceeded to do quite a few backflips. I believe he was a construction worker on his break. We chatted for a bit then he picked up his clothes, put on his yellow helmet and went on back to work. Absolute legend.”

There are two devices that Kruzhilin puts to work. His main workhorse is a Sony a7iii which he favors for the endless range of lenses available, but he also opts to experiment with compatible vintage glass. A more recent acquisition, he adds, is a 17-year-old Ricoh GRD 1. “It’s got a flash, a snap focus function and, having just an 8-megapixel sensor, the grain on it looks amazing when you take black and white images — it never leaves my pocket.” Regardless of location, Kruzhilin has reached a point where he takes photos every day.


“If I’m at home I take photos of my son and when I commute to and from work I often stop on my way to take some snaps of random people or things. Whenever I have some time, I explore gritty alleyways; hidden urban villages are full of character and kind people that never mind having their portraits taken. I’m afraid it’s a bit cliché, but lighting is the most important thing in photography. Whenever I see deep shadows or reflections of neon signs I almost instantly grab my camera, it’s like a reflex. Although street photography is my favorite genre, it taught me that there is the possibility of a photo absolutely anywhere.

You can be at a mall, in my mind the dullest place of all, and you can still find unique scenes to capture. The key is to train yourself to see possibility in even the most mundane places.

The December Issue: @dpmf0to

Tomasz Szmaja always wanted to live in Asia and, when an exciting job offer came his way in 2018, he quickly seized the opportunity. By 2020, while some people were learning how to make sourdough bread or filming home workouts for Tik Tok, Szmaja dove into his photography. It had always been an interest but he finally had the time to start really experimenting with his equipment.


Szmaja is based in Shanghai and, although photography is just a hobby, he manages to capture so professional grade snaps. Although he admits most of his photos are taken in Shanghai, his favourite place to photograph is Hangzhou. “That city has everything,” he exclaims, “from classic to ancient architecture, a modern cityscape, lakes, forests, hills — literally everything!”


Szmaja uses a Canon R6 + 24-105 lens, a DJI Mavic Air 2 drone and sometimes he calls up his old Canon M50.When asked about a favorite story about one of the photos, he recalls a trip to Dunhuang when tourists were sparse.


“The place was huge and kind of creepy because there were no people except for some other photographers and models. We were exploring the place and started taking photos when suddenly we were caught in a sandstorm. It wasn't a massive sandstorm but it was still very scary. For few minutes I wasn't able to see anything — only sand. Luckily I had sunglasses so I was somewhat protected and caught open my eyes a little. After the sandstorm passed by, some members of our crew were really shaken and didn't want to continue. Also, we needed to clean all the equipment, the drone especially required an intense cleaning after this adventure. The next day we returned to the same place and got beautiful photos without any problems.

The December Issue: @redflower_se1

Jay came to China as a professional musician in 2010. Through years of touring and gigs and odd side jobs, Jay can’t remember a time when he didn’t have a camera close by. He even recalls an old film camera that he treasured as far back as the age of 6 or 7. It wasn’t until 2015, however, that he determined to pursue photography as a career. That year he moved to Hong Kong and the bustling metropolises inspired him. Of Hong Kong, Jay says, “I can confidently say there is a photograph just waiting to be taken on every street corner, up every avenue and down every alleyway.” Starting from modest restaurant promos and a few wedding shoots, he eventually started his own art and photography company in Shenzhen. “I don’t accept photo jobs that hold little artistic value to me,” he tells That’s. “I leave those for photographers far more competent than I in commercial work.”


Around the spring of 2016, Jay wanted to join a like minded group of people passionate about photography. “I tried to worm my way into a couple of local groups, but it never materialized. I think it was more from concern of language barriers from their part than unfriendliness,” he admits. “So with necessity being the mother of invention, I started my own.”


“It began with 4 of us, organizing evening photowalks around Shenzhen, and the thing that held us together as much as the love of photography, was booze. We could be out until the wee small hours, occasionally even until sunrise, bouncing between convenience stores and snapping away like crazies. It was purely word of mouth that spread the group. I started a WeChat group, and within about a year we had 100 members.” The group now consists of more than 300 members, although Jay notes the transient nature of its members. “I’m extremely proud of how diverse our group is. A large percentage of photography groups are made up of the old elitist gatekeeper types, mostly senior gents who drag young models to parks to sniff flowers and the such.


Our group has no limits of photography experience, we have seasoned professionals and absolute beginners. We also have a large number of lady members, and quite often there will be more ladies than guys on our events and photo walks. We also have a beautifully eclectic mix of backgrounds and nationalities, all are truly welcome.” 


When asked about a photo that sticks out from the ‘booze and shoot’ excursions, Jay recounts a somber but beautiful image. “The photograph that truly sticks in my mind was also the photograph I probably regret taking the most. We were out around Gangxia, Shenzhen, and it was a national holiday. I saw a gentleman leaning over a wall, holding his head in his hands and talking on a phone. I strutted over, bold as brass, and took his photo without even asking. The next day when I checked the images on my computer, I realized that the gentleman was actually sobbing.


Imagine it being a national holiday, a time of families and joy, when a phone call brings you to floods of tears, and some moron walks over and rudely takes your photo. Unforgivable. I deeply regret taking that image, and it stays in my mind to be more considerate and thoughtful when I’m out with my camera. I wish I could meet that gentleman and apologize profusely.”

Here’s how the That’s Shanghai @thatsshanghai Instagram account works: users hashtag their images #thatsshanghai and we pick out the best of them to regram, tagging the original photographer.

[Cover image via @redflower_se1/Instagram]

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