In 8 pictures: National Geographic prize-winning teen Hong Kong photographer’s stunning journey to success

Student Kelvin Yuen reflects on winning a regional Nat Geo contest having first picked up a camera just 18 months ago, and on the feelings landscape photography has given him for Hong Kong’s countryside

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 January, 2016, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 January, 2016, 6:40pm

Hong Kong teenager Kelvin Yuen Sze-lok spent the first hours of 2016 in the city’s Sai Kung district, waiting to photograph the sunrise. It ended up an eight-hour trip, but the 19-year-old only had around 30 minutes to compose the shot, and it didn’t turn out as well as he had hoped.

Still, the second-year student at Hong Kong Baptist University is getting a lot of recognition for shots that did turn out well; last month he won first prize and an honourable mention in the youth division of the Taiwan section of National Geographic’s International Photo Contest 2015. His prizes included a smartphone and return air ticket to the United States. The Hong Kong Observatory used one of his pictures for its 2016 calendar, and musical productions and a university have paid him for landscape and architectural photographs.

The winning picture for the National Geographic contest is one Yuen took from Kowloon Peak (Fei Ngo Shan) in East Kowloon, which is close to where Yuen lives. He said he spent about a month planning the shot before he took it.

“The tent and the cliff represent the natural areas of Hong Kong, and I had the city in the background, so the contrast shows the close relationship between Hong Kong and nature.”

His title for the picture translates to “a child’s pursuit of a dream”, and he says it’s partly a lament that not a lot of people can see the work he and his fellow photographers do.

“Me and my friends often go out to take pictures, and we realised that young people like us might put a lot of effort into doing something, but there aren’t a lot of artistic outlets for us to show our work. Not a lot of people can see the work that we put so much effort into,” Yuen said.

He says he can share his work with photography groups, but ultimately there aren’t a lot of outlets for him to get his work out to a wider public.

Yuen entered the Taiwan section of the photo contest after National Geographic staff there told him they could get him entry to the global contest, but then discovered there was no youth category (for photographers under 20) in the global contest.

Yuen started taking photos in earnest around a year and a half ago when his parents bought him a camera. Initially he didn’t use it that often, then one day he went hiking, came across a sea of clouds, and realised that the camera wasn’t really up to the task of recording what he was seeing. So he bought another one and started doing more landscape photography.

He says that once he has a spot in mind, he will go there when the weather isn’t good and scope out possible positions from which to take pictures. He says he can focus more on the locations when the weather isn’t ideal. Then he’ll go back with his whole set-up and get the shot he wants.

At first it wasn’t easy; Yuen says he might take 10 pictures and only one of them would be good. One major hurdle for him was learning about the weather.

“I took some pictures of the starry sky, but I didn’t know anything at first. I couldn’t tell north, south, east, and west. I didn’t know where the stars would be … I didn’t know that the sun appears in different spots at different times of the year.”

One memorable experience was going to Shek O on Hong Kong Island last March to photograph the sunrise. As he recounted on his Facebook page, he took the last bus there, and it started pouring with rain sometime after 2am; a red rainstorm warning was up at one point. He writes that Shek O was deserted, with no one around and no way out of the village. He sheltered from the rain in the changing rooms on the beach, and photographed the lightning while he waited.

“Getting this close to lightning was scary, so I just wanted to leave,” he writes.

Of all the places he’s been, Yuen says he likes going to High Island Reservoir in Sai Kung, because it’s in a country park so there’s no development, and because there are “weird rocks”. Being far from urban areas it’s a good place for pictures of stars.

“Before I started taking pictures, I rarely paid attention to news about developing the countryside. But later, after I had spent nights in those places, I began to pay more attention and I lean towards opposing development in those areas,” he says. “I’ve probably spent a night on most of the hills in Hong Kong.”

Yuen says he’d like to pursue photography as a serious career, but acknowledges that there’s not as much demand for professional landscape photographers, so he might work in environmental conservation, which is what he’s studying in university.

On Monday he will go to Taiwan to do some photography. He says his dream location for photography is Iceland, because he could photograph the Northern lights and snowy landscapes.