There are plenty of wanderers who Instagram their travels, but few have as specific an aesthetic as Hong Kong’s Karen Ng. Her stark, contrasting photos, often in monochromatic tones, are entirely unique. In a world of travel Instas of people sipping drinks in a pool at sunset, Ng takes an entirely different approach to her photography. As she travels the world, she captures the places she visits through her own special filter. She’s drawn to simplicity, architectural details, and patterns. And it’s hard to not immediately be drawn to the striking quality of her art. There’s nothing quite like it.
Ng’s photos take on a sort of meditative quality when you look at them. They’re gorgeous, sure, but don’t let that be your only takeaway. Take a moment for your eyes to adjust. It’s almost a test of patience to truly see the detail and subjects within. Objects blend into a a swirl of the dark and light. Busy patterns are mixed with stunning simplicity. When Ng goes to a new country or city, she finds the places and architectural details that most tourists would overlook in favor of drawn splashy colors and bright landscapes. But Ng likes showing the world moments of beauty on her own terms.
I caught up with Ng on Skype recently. It was nearly midnight her time! And after we chatted about her travel and her work, she was kind enough to share some of her favorite photographs with us. So turn away from the bright, frenetic world around you, and take a moment to let your eyes adjust and refocus on the simple and quiet beauty of Karen Ng’s photography.
When did you first start taking photographs?
I was still quite young, like seventeen when I got my first camera. It wasn’t a very pro one, but I could take pictures of anything I liked.
Your style is so unique. What inspired you to take travel photos with the stark contrast of black and white? What brought you to that aesthetic?
When I first started Instagram, I was trying out different things, like colorful pictures or anything I just liked. But I wanted to do things with one tone, more minimally. Like with architecture and nature, but I keep them all in the same colors for order.
Your photography goes hand in hand with your traveling, which you do a lot of. What do you love about traveling?
I used to study in the UK, so I liked traveling around Europe when I studied there. I just fell in love with knowing different peoples of different places. I like to talk to the locals, understand cultures, and I try to learn their language, which is very hard, but I just like it. [And with photography] I capture something different in the way I look at it. Sometimes, people just do photography like a postcard, but I want to do it in my style.
When you’re searching for those high contrasts, how long does it take you to find a picture and set it up?
Oh, sometimes I just walk around and don’t just take my minimal pictures. I’ll just take anything, like snaps and miniatures. But, sometimes, when I walk past something, I’m just like, “Oh, this is quite special.” I know [other] people won’t take pictures of it this way. But I take a long time to pick photos for my Instagram.
Do you have a favorite place to take pictures?
I like some of them from my hometown, Hong Kong, because I think that’s where it’s special. And I try to look at my city in my own way compared to other people. I like to take [photographs of] the architecture, and all the buildings around Hong Kong in a very minimal way because more people are taking pictures of the sunset. Or I take [photos] sometimes with a friend being my model and with some unique buildings — like by some residentials in Hong Kong — which I think are quite special.
What’s your favorite place to travel?
I quite like Japan because Japan is so different. All of the cities look different. And they’ve got really nice nature. I like traveling in China as well. It is quite special, and they’ve got some quite historic stuff and quite modern stuff as well. But Japan is very clean, and it’s quite easy to get directions. I can’t speak Japanese, but I can find my own way, and it’s very nice.
Outside of traveling and instagramming, what do you do for work?
I’ve got a few jobs! I do freelance design and market design, photography, and I have a job that is like finance, but it’s not full-time. So I get some time for traveling and then I spend my time on different careers.
So your work is flexible enough to allow for travel. Do you save money to travel, are you able to work while you’re abroad?
I do save money for travel, but every time I travel I do so affordably. I won’t spend tons of money on a very nice hotel, or a taxi or anything. I just try to find the local ways of how to do it and eat the local fruits and stuff.
How many countries have you been to?
I’ve been to 36 countries and 145 cities. There are a lot left. I traveled with my parents when I was quite young to the U.S. I always want to go back, but it’s a bit far away. But it’s quite different there. I think it would be different if I traveled again there now. I’d see things differently.
What would you say has been the most challenging country for you to visit?
I don’t know, because I just get used to going to different countries and deal with all the problems. I think it’s actually not that hard for any country. Some people, maybe they want a more luxury holiday, so when they go, they think, oh it’s quite tough. But I think it’s fine. You get along with all the people. Like I went to … I can’t remember the English name, by Thailand… it’s like Myan … There are lots of temples and stuff.
Yes, some people from my country don’t like it because it’s really hot and you need to take off your shoes everywhere, and cover your shoulders and knees. But I think, “Oh, it’s fine,” because it’s their culture, and I need to follow them. It’s really nice there.
What kind of camera do you use when you’re shooting?
I recently got a Canon 5D IV, because my 6D doesn’t work properly. I’m going to start doing some videos now. I’m not very good at taking films so I’m learning it now. But it’s a bit hard.
Is that how most things with photography have been for you? Have you mostly taught yourself?
When I was young, and got my first camera, one of my parents’ friends was not a professional but they did photography as a hobby. And they taught me the basic stuff. But I started learning more by myself, like on Youtube, and from different friends. I think it’s really hard to just go to a lesson and learn everything about photography. It’s quite a lot to block out what you see and what you capture. Photography is more than the function of things.