18 October 2019
Francis So bagged four awards in the fourth Finisterra Arrabida Film Art and Tourism Festival in Portugal with his time-lapse video Seen By My Eyes. Photo: HKEJ
Francis So bagged four awards in the fourth Finisterra Arrabida Film Art and Tourism Festival in Portugal with his time-lapse video Seen By My Eyes. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong’s fading beauty breaking the heart of Francis So

It wasn’t long after Francis So watched a time-lapse video of New Zealand’s breathtaking landscape that he became a convert to the art form.

“I was stunned,” he says of the spectacular scenery that unfolded before him one frame at a time.

Two years later, So is an award-winning time-lapse photographer, having bagged four awards in a recent international competition in Portugal.

He topped the mountain tourism category, took second place in the time-lapse and historical places sections and third in nature and wildlife photography.

So took up photography in 2004 when his father bought him a camera to take pictures of his sister’s graduation.

But his award-winning run did not begin until he read about time-lapse photography on the internet.

He decided to give it a try by shooting the Hong Kong scenery, a 13-month effort that produced a five-minute clip which he titled Seen By My Eyes. 

The video was well received by netizens but little did he know it would take him places.

So entered the fourth Finisterra Arrabida Film Art and Tourism Festival in Portugal by chance when its director, Carlos Sargedas, posted an invite in the comment section of a YouTube video of his work.

Interestingly, So was a full-time designer when he took up time-lapse photography as a hobby.

“I would take pictures of sunrise before I would go to work and some night photos whenever I could,” he says.

“I didn’t have much time to photograph sunsets because I always ended up working overtime.”

Timing is everything because this kind of photography depends on changes in the scenery.

When the weather is humid and the wind is feeble, the probability of having a sea of clouds is high.

However, you have to see for yourself whether the scene has time-lapse potential, he says.

Hong Kong’s spectacular cloud formations never fail but they could be rare.

“Once I visited Sunset Peak three times a week but I could only get the right cloud formation once.”

For night shots, few can beat Po Toi Island where a shooting star would send his heartbeat racing.

“I love staring at the stars. They make me happy.”

Another favorite spot is Pak Lap Wan in Sai Kung where So often gets his fill of sunrise and starry nights.

So and his group of photography enthusiasts have been moving farther afield to catch the stars because of Hong Kong’s worsening light pollution.

That is how they get the most of an ethereal coastline in Sai Kung East. Few people go there because it’s not marked on many hiking trails.

A time-lapse video is created by combining thousands of individual frames at different fixed time intervals.

“To create a one-second video, you need 24 photos, so a 15-second clip needs 360 photos,” he says.

Daytime shots can be taken every three seconds but it takes 18 minutes to make 360 photos.

By contrast, each individual picture of a starry might require longer exposure, which means a 15-second video will take two to three hours to make.

“When it comes to post-editing, people tend to hang back,” he says.

But So credits time-lapse photography for changing his attitude toward time.

“When I was working as a designer, my life was always hectic. I would be handed customer requests at the last minute.”

In time-lapse photography, you can’t be rushed and you need to be patient, he says. 

So has been to many places, notably Switzerland and China’s Huangshan mountain range, but none of them compares with Hong Kong, with its skyscrapers and green hills making for an interesting patchwork.

“That’s Hong Kong’s unique feature. Most other cities are built on plains. Although they might have some similar scenes as Hong Kong’s, Hong Kong still comes out the best,” he says.

So laments the erosion of Hong Kong’s natural beauty from the encroachment of urban development, particularly a planned third airport runway, the Lugard Road hotel project and redevelopment of some country parks.

“All I can do for Hong Kong is to record its beauty for posterity,” he says.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 15.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Francis So took up photography in 2004 and has not looked back since. Photo: HKEJ

Lion Rock is immersed in a sea of clouds in this shot from Francis So’s portfolio. Photo: HKEJ

Francis So says Hong Kong is losing its natural beauty to overdevelopment. All he can do is record it for posterity. Photo: HKEJ

Francis So and his group of photography enthusiasts often go to the countryside for the best subjects. Photo: HKEJ

A stunning starry night shot taken by Francis So at Sunset Peak. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal