A Weekend of Photography in Nanjing

5 spots and first-hand experiences

"A forgotten capital", as true as BBC describes Nanjing is, the charming city is somehow outshone by Hangzhou and Suzhou. Few cares to dig deep yet Nanjing is always generous to those who do.

Why You'll Love It

  • Lonely Planet : "Nanjing boasts a rich and impressive historical heritage" which we believe is not shy of charm to anything you've seen in Beijing and Xi'an, plus a more relaxed atmosphere.
  • Frequent high-speed trains bring you from Shanghai, Suzhou or Hangzhou within 2 hours, ideal for a weekend break.
  • Most tourist crowds are drawn to the nearby Suzhou or Hangzhou, leaving the city less trodden, quiet and clean for most time of the year.
  • Set on the lower bank of the Yangtze River, geographically wide-open vistas, naturally bright, good for photos in different seasons.

5 Best Photo Spots in Nanjing

We have spent a week in Nanjing and come to the conclusion that if you only have two days, you should definitely choose some from the following spots. We also have some tips under each spot. If you are bored by Shanghai or whichever city you are staying, flee away to Nanjing this weekend!

City Wall of Nanjing 南京城墙

Every ancient capital has its own city wall, which is kinda like a package deal. Nanjing is no exception. An astonishing fact is that the City Wall of Nanjing is so far the best persevered one, even in better shape compared to Xi’an’s city wall. The biggest draw for photographers, however, has nothing to do with its historic significance. This place is a platform for cityscape photography. A large number of ancient buildings in the Old West Gate area can be seen from the wall and with a long-angle lens you can even take the details of the roof and more. 

Gatsby's Insider Tips: 

  • Get up to the top at Zhonghua Gate (中华门) and this is the best spot for photographing the city outlay at your feet. Best time: spring or autumn in late afternoon or at night. 
  • Opening hours at Zhonghua Gate: 0830am to 0830pm. Ticket: RMB50/person. 
  • Zhonghua Gate is located at the south point, sunrise photos can be impossible due to the opening hours, but at sunset you can take in the skyscrapers with a backdrop of the ancient brick wall at the west. 
  • Dabao’en Temple (大报恩寺) is at the feet of the Zhonghua Gate, one of the most famous temples in China yet if you are not a temple frenzy you can be driven mad by the crowds. It looks more beautiful from the city wall as lighting up at night, and free.
  • Lens advice: wide angle, 24-70mm 

Jiming Temple 鸡鸣寺

Dating back to the year 557, Middle Age in European history, Jiming Temple is the oldest temple in Nanjing and also the most vibrant one. Just like any other temples in China, it is always smoky and crowded, which is kinda dull to a photographer. What makes it one of our best picks lies outside of the temple. As it is situated on a small ramp by the main street and surrounded by countless cherry blossom trees, some local photographers make reward-winning photos in spring night shooting. The temple is relatively less crowded during weekdays after October and autumn is also a good time to shot for yellow gingko trees against the red wall. 

Gatsby’s Insider Tips:

  • Best time: cherry blossom season is during late March to early May but avoid days with wind and rain. Many local photographers would come before 0300am and shot till sunrise, which is the best time if you want the streets to be without a soul. For autumn colors, we would recommend clear days during late November to mid-December (snow comes afterwards); yet try to avoid the 1st and 15th on Chinese Lunar calendar when believers are piled up to burn incenses.
  • Opening hours: 0730am - 0530pm daily, ticket: RMB10/person
  • Best spot is the street side in front of the temple. The temple is set at the east point, perfect for sunrise gleaming on the temple exterior. The best spot for sunrise photo is from the city wall nearby: enter through Taiping Gate (太平门) before 0600am. 
  • Nanjing’s autumn comes during late October and lasts till mid-December however, more rain during October and November and it can compromise your experience. Better weather and less people in early December. 
  • Lens advice: 55-200mm, tripod and long exposure for nighttime and you can get beautiful light tracks by the passing vehicles

Greenland Square Zifeng Tower 绿地广场紫峰大厦

Proudly Jiangsu’s highest building, Greenland Zifeng Tower is actually just one of many photographic skyscrapers at the heart of Nanjing. Unlike the concrete jungle in Shanghai, New York or any other metropolis, massive green land and smaller residential buildings in vicinity exalt its prominence. Visible from almost any direction within Gulou and Xuanwu districts, there are several nice photo spots. This means you don’t need to stretch your budget for an ultra wide-angle lens as long as you are in the right place.

Gatsby’s Insider Tips:

  • Photo spot-01: on F42 of SEG Electronics Market building (赛格数码广场) , you can get a close shot at the tower using a wide angle lens facing north. Before or after stormy weather always makes great photos, so does late afternoon with layers of clouds. Getting there: Metro Line-1 at Zhujiang Road Station (珠江路站)  and walk for 900m.
  • Photo spot-02: Sun Palace (太阳宫) by the lakeshore of Xuanwu Lake (玄武湖) in Xuanwu District. There is a wooden trestle stage over the water facing directly to the tower. August, the typhoon season, is always an ideal time and you can also take in lotus in full blossom. Trees turn red in autumn and lake water is calm as a mirror, also good for reflection photos. Getting there: Metro Line-3 to Gangzicun Station (岗子村站) and walk for 1000m to Sun Palace by the lake.
  • There are also other spots that only locals have access to, which either involves talking to the building manager or transposing and we don’t really suggest you take the risk. The two spots above are perfectly ample to kill one day. 
  • Sunset glory brings out the best of the tower. If you are planning for a sunset outing, visibility is vital. Check if you can see any buildings about 5km/3mi away from your window. Yes means you can get a clear shot standing afar so take the lakeshore; if no, then get up to SEG building (don’t worry, yes they have elevators). 
  • Lens advice: ultra wide angle, 10-140mm and tripod 

Linggu Temple 灵谷寺

If you have been living in the city for long enough, you will probably forget the last time that you marvel at night sky full of stars or fireflies in a summer night. Rekindle this childish dream in Nanjing. Linggu Temple belongs to the Zhongshan Scenic Area (钟山风景区), which also includes the famous Mingxiaoling Mausoleum (明孝陵) and Sun Yatsen Mausoleum (中山陵). It is more worthwhile than the latter two, trust us. During summer, you can make surreally magical photos with fireflies among the tress after nightfall; compared to summer, winter in Nanjing is better for star trails and you may go further to the nearby Plum Blossom Hill (梅花山).

Gatsby’s Insider Tips:

  • Opening hours: 0700am - 0630pm, ticket: RMB32/person. As it’s a massive ground, you’d better enter in the late afternoon and find yourself a good spot, shooting can last till 1000pm. Nobody will toss you out even during night but you may need a headlight to find your way back.
  • Shooting for star trails can be done either in Linggu Temple or Plum Blossom Hill, the latter one has wider and higher ground and the tree twigs will create a more mysterious vibe. However, trees in summer might be too plentiful to see the sky, winter is a better choice, especially with some snow.
  • Fireflies are at their most active during 0700pm to 0900pm and go quiet afterwards. No wearing of perfume or mosquito repellent or use of flashlight or lighter.
  • Both firefly and star trail shootings require extreme long exposure and aperture as big as possible (at least 2.8). You may also turn up IOS and exposure within one minute, or taking at least 100 pictures within one minute, both of which will require more photo stacking to reduce noise.
  • Lens advice: 12mm F2.8 or 16-35mm, tripod is a must

Qixia Mountain 栖霞山

Qixia Mountain is truly a treat for photographers who fancy a perfect intertwine between men and nature. Located in the northeast part of Nanjing, about 90 minutes by car from downtown, it can easily make a one day trip and totally worthy. It sees the biggest volume of visitors during late November to mid-December when maple and ginkgo tress dye the mountain in lovely red and yellow. Not necessarily on the radar for first-timers, who would probably stick around in downtown, you see less people even during its busiest days. Qixia Temple, which you will find as a surprise bonus, is one of the three major temples in Nanjing. Monks here are wearing different robes, longer and more-wrapped on the shoulders like a cape. This temple can be a good break at noon when the sun gets too bright for landscape photos. 

Gatsby’s Insider Tips:

  • Opening hours: 0630am - 0720pm, ticket: 40RMB/person during the Red Maple Festival (time is different each year)
  • There are more rainy days in November and December you will have brighter and cloudless sky, perfect backdrop for the firing maple tress.
  • Considering the distance, you’d better set off before 0900am. Have a vegetarian lunch served at Qixia Temple (time-limited offers, first come first served) and take some photos of the monks in their daily routine. Do some climbing in the afternoon and you will have 2 hours of sunlight before it dims out at 0430pm.
  • The best transportation would be hiring a private car and you don’t need to worry about the last bus and carrying all the camera gears.
  • Lens advice: 24-85mm or 35mm for both landscape and portraits

Not Everything is So Magical

During our 5-day stay, we have checked out most attractions in Nanjing. Despite of being the must-sees, some venues are cast to our “15 Most Disappointing Photo Spots in China”. If you have time to spare, you can do them, but if you are going after some masterpiece then you will probably leave with frustration.

We haven’t set up a team in Nanjing for photography for the moment, but hopefully what we are suggesting here enlightens you differently. For more questions, please feel free to contact us.