16 Fan Ho photography techniques for strong narrative photography

Nobody exhibited urban street life the way Fan Ho did with his unique street photography ideas. Fan Ho photography techniques provide complete control over the street like a canvas – you can paint the whole story with natural light and shadow! Let me share how Fan Ho made some of the most incredible street photos and how you can also embrace these methods.

True photographs don’t come from the camera. It comes from eyes, brain, and heart.

Fan Ho

In the absence of his literature, which is not being printed or available online anymore, I had to research the web, YouTube, and other blogs regarding his work and thoughts. So, if you find any misrepresentation here, please let me know (https://instagram.com/i.ranjan) to correct it with the right version.

I got his photos from the most authentic source (with permission!): https://fanho-forgetmenot.com/. Please visit the website and support his artwork. Fan Ho is represented by Blue Lotus Gallery in Hong Kong.

Fan Ho Photography
Back to Back – 1949

About Fan Ho

Fan Ho was born in Shanghai in 1931 and moved to Hong Kong with his parents at an early age. He grew up in Hong Kong, where he spent most of his lifetime.

Fan Ho began his photography in his teenage years, with a camera brought by his father.

He was a self-taught photographer. He treated his own surroundings as a stage to unfold his narrative through the camera. He exhibited life in Hong Kong, which was going through a drastic change during the late 1950s.

He created a legacy of images of Hong Kong when it was going through a profound change and blending East with the West. There was a huge western influence on people’s lives, and the transition was not completed from the Eastern values. Fan Ho captured the contrast of lights and shadows and proficiently exhibited the country’s transition during the 1950-the 60s.

Later on, he switched to filmmaking and bagged multiple awards for both photography and filmmaking. But photography was closest to his heart. Even in his last days – he loved to talk about photography and curated his own photographs for display in public domains.

“Filmmaking requires coordination among lots of people, making the process complex. I love the freedom of photography which helps me tell the stories from my point-of-view”, he shared his preference for photography in one of the interviews.

Fan Ho pursued multiple art forms. Even if not actively seeking art, he used to consume and get inspired by poetry, music, fiction, and other forms of literature. Many of his photographs are influenced by the masters of poetry from a thousand years ago. Music helped him during his work in the darkroom.

I like the color black. It signifies power and mystery – that rules the world.

Fan Ho

Fan Ho photographed in color also, but black and white remained his favorite. He found colors distracting from the story he wanted to narrate.

On few occasions, he staged the street photographs. For example, his famous artwork Approaching shadow features his cousin. He also placed his friends in the street to complete the storytelling and make the composition come alive. He’s genuinely a director of streets.

He turned Hong Kong into a ‘living theatre.’ There’s always intent of storytelling in his photographs. The viewer wants to know what happened before freezing this moment and what happened after the picture was taken.

His masterpiece Approaching Shadow was sold at an auction in Hong Kong for a record price of $48,382 in 2015.  Fan Ho bagged over 280 plus international awards for his photography, filmmaking, and acting. He is featured in prominent news channels, magazines, and art galleries such as the ArtDaily and BBC News.

Fan Ho only owned one camera, a classic Rolleiflex 3.5 A (type K4A) used as a young man.

I try not to waste the audience’s time.

Fan Ho
Fan Ho Photography
Afternoon Chat – 1959
It feels like I should listen to what these women are talking about.

Fan Ho Photography Techniques:

1. Consume multiple art forms

Every art form – be it music, poetry, or literature – contributed to his photography. The basic rules of each artform remain common, right? You need a good composition. Tell a story. Captivate audience. Pursuing multiple art forms is not counter-productive. It’s complementing.

Chinese poetry and literature had a significant impact on his photos. He listened to music while working in the darkroom to keep his thoughts in harmony.

2. Leverage flattering light during dusk hours

The shadow cast by sunlight, during dusk and dawn hours, creates flattering light. The shadow creates another replica of humans or structures that attracted Fan Ho. He blended these lights with the smoke to further unfold the drama. He effectively made use of directional light to tell the story, depict the motion, or preview the stillness.

3. Make storytelling alive with humans

Humans and social drama remained key to Fan Ho’s photography techniques. He always imagined a scene by positioning people at a particular place. Then he either waited for people to walk around the area or placed his friends to tell the story. Making candid street photos is his strength!

4. Exhibit resilient urban life

The time of 1950s was a significant transition in the Eastern world. Hong Kong was also showing its resilience while adapting to modernization. Fan Ho exhibited this beautifully. You can view the contract and conflict in the photos. So real that you’d visualize yourself in the 1950s. His photos are a legacy to indicate the transition of the country.

Fan Ho Photography - Approaching Shadow
Approaching Shadows – 1954

5. Pursue narrative photography

The viewer becomes curious about what happened before the photo and what happened after the moment was frozen. You can make your own narrative of the photograph which Fan Ho had steered in a particular direction. You’d like to view the photos, and without any delay or without any help of caption, you’d make the story.

For example, Approaching Shadow exhibits that beauty and youthhood, like the shadow covering the body, are transient and fade with time. Everything will fade away. A universal truth is exhibited in a simple image.

6. Create geometry with urban landscapes

Composition remains the main attraction of his photos. He exemplifies how a well-composed photo, following the rules of composition, differentiates between a snapshot and an iconic photograph. His background, foreground, or middle ground leverages the urban construction and landscapes to make a great composition. The viewer gets to the point of interest immediately.

Fa Ho Photography
W – 1959

7. Define geometrical shapes with light and shadows

Like urban structures, Fan Ho also makes use of shadows cast by sunlight in his photography. He preferred to photograph during dawn or dusk so that the urban designs make a significantly long shadow that can contribute to his composition and storytelling.

For example, the image W makes a zig-zag line composition and becomes interesting because of the person crossing over one of the nodes.

Fan Ho Photography
Lonely Stroll – 1958

8. Blend isolation and humanization

Humans have always been the essential subject in street photography of Fan ho. He blended isolation with chaos, modernization with changelessness, and many more such contrasts with the help of spotting humans at the right place. The narrative creates conflict in the mind of a viewer, making the story even more engaging.

9. Create layers with double exposure and superimposed images

Fan Ho experimented with his old film photos in Photoshop to create double exposure to keep pace with new technology in photo editing. He added additional layers to his photographs by applying creativity that the latest technologies provided him

Few people may debate that it’s not authentic street photography. But in my view, the artwork is a point of view from an artist. It’s an output of the artist’s imagination. If it helps you with the story, don’t mind breaking the rule, changing the standard, or bothering about authenticity. Artists don’t have barriers or baggage.

10. Edit to visualize the imagination

Fan Ho enjoyed editing – cropping, superimposing, and playing with shadow and light in his darkroom. In his words, “I retain the side which has life. Crop the side which is lifeless.” His most iconic photo, Approaching Shadow, is made in his darkroom. There was no building in front of the wall. But his imagination of the narrative prompted him to cast a shadow during editing, and the result is a stun street photo!

Fan Ho Photography
Triangular – 1962

11. Pursue social documentary

Fan Ho’s photo series made a significant contribution to study social transition in the country and the Eastern world during his time. It depicts society’s struggle, conflict, and resilience during the end of one era to start a new period.

Fan Ho Photography
People crossing – 1957

12. Tell stories in a layered photograph

Fan Ho displays multiple layers in his street photography. Each layer contributes to the composition. Each layer adds to the story. If layers are in synchronization – it shows harmony. If layers are in contrast – it shows the conflict.

Visualizing each layer and making effective use of each layer require good practice and comprehension of the scene. Fan Ho mastered viewing the scene in a frame with loads of activities happening in each layer.

13. Display scale of life from a human’s reference

Depicting human figures against the grandiose of the structures – roads, walls, railway tracks, stairs, and other urban constructions.

Fan Ho Photography
Different Directions – 1958

14. Lit subjects from behind

While exposing the subject and overall scene, Fan Ho used to lit the subject from behind. The subjects were often in shadows, underexposed, without losing the essence of the action. Shooting during the dusk made him replicate this method again and again on various compositions and subjects.

Fan Ho Photography
Flare – 1966

15. Accentuate drama with smoke and light

Smoke remained his fundamental interest for Fan Ho. Maybe, those days cooking was not done on gas or electric stoves. So, buildings and houses used to emit smokes which Fan Ho used to lit with the sunlight during morning or evening hours. These smokes accentuated the drama.

Fan Ho Photography
Construction – 1957

16. Master high contrast

Even if he created very high-contrast images, the figures were exposed enough to guide you through the scene. He created layers with the help of high-contrast street photographs. The contrast was created to focus the story rather than getting distracted by the unwanted details in exposed areas. He retained just enough definition in mid-tones that the story didn’t lose its essence.

In one of his last interviews, Fan Ho recalls how he rediscovered his passion for photography with the help of his old negatives. He shared the portfolio with the world to finally gain the recognition and respect he was due for.


There are some books available. One of them is ‘Portrait of Hong Kong’ available here:https://bluelotus-gallery.com/shop/fan-ho-portrait-of-hong-kong

The Blue Lotus team is working with the family on a new book which will be available at the end of this year. 

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Author Bio

Ranjan Photography

Ranjan is a self-taught photographer with expertise in Portrait Photography and has passion of street photography. He has authored street photography book which was bestselling on Amazon.