What are the best apps for photographers visiting China?

You’ve got the gear to shoot scenics at the Great Wall… but is your phone ready for the Great Firewall? Pack these.

Photo planning apps

Reality bites… etc.

Apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills are handy tools – but neither work so well in China. Because they rely heavily on Google Maps and web services, you will run into some serious usability issues. Read more here: China’s Map Gap.

Gulou at night

Gulou at night. From the Photographers Field Guide to Beijing.

Handpicked travel apps

Keep it simple and try these 3 offline apps.

Even if you yank out your SIM card and leave your phone in airplane mode, it’s still a fantastic travel tool. Just prep your phone and a few offline ready apps before you arrive in China.

For right now, these apps are my favorites. Want to tell me about yours?

Google Translate

Google Translate Apple iTunes, Google Play is free and lets you download offline language packs.

Google Translate is easy to use and it mostly works as intended. The OCR function is useful for signs, but menu items generally get, ehm, lost in translation.

Explore Metro

Explore Metro Apple iTunes, Google Play, web will help you figure out how to get from A to B on Beijing’s 17 subway lines.

Explore Metro is barebones – the interface is just a map of the subway lines. Tap your starting location and then where you want to go. The app will display a route planner. Sure, you could stand in front of the giant maps posted in each station, but this is pretty comfy.

Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet Apple iTunes, Google Play is a simple, solid travel guide.

Lonely Planet includes a servicable map with geolocation, which is hard to find. The English-language map is simple enough to help you get a feel for the city without overwhelming you with unnecessary info.

Chat like a local

WeChat Google Play, Apple iTunes is the de facto social platform in mainland China. People use it to chat, get info, book a cab and pay for stuff.

Even if you only use it while you’re in China, the app is a good way to communicate with people on the ground.

Instead of asking Beijingers to call your international phone number, use WeChat 微信 to make voice calls or send messages.

What is the best maps app?

With 2 cavets, Apple Maps is your best option.

(Skip ahead to Android options.)

Right now, Apple Maps is your best bet. Assuming, of course, that:

  1. You use an iPhone.
  2. You’re willing to pop in a local, Chinese SIM card. (Ostensibly due to licensing issues, Apple’s China maps are only accessible from within the PRC.)
Screenshot of the Google Maps app showing no offline area warning.

The Google Maps app has some serious drawbacks for travelers in China. All Google services are blocked here, which means you’ll need to go offline. But you can’t. Worst of all, the map is offset – making navigation in a strange city even more …well, strange.

iOS only, tho

Once you load up Apple Maps on a local connection in mainland China the maps are detailed, kept up-to-date and accurate. Nobody else manages to do all that in English. (Not even if you pay for it.)

Apple licenses their China maps from AutoNavi 高德地图, but these maps will only show up when you connect within mainland China either from WiFi or via a local mobile network. Pick up a Chinese SIM card SIM卡 when you arrive.

Buying a local SIM card is covered in Section 1 of The Photographers Field Guide to Beijing. Plenty of travel blogs out there explain the process, too.

Android options

On Android, check out OSMAnd or Maps.me. Both are pretty good.

Download the offline map pack for Beijing and/or Hebei (the province surrounding the Beijing administrative area). Both apps rely on map data from OpenStreetMap.

Screenshot of the OSMAnd app’s language settings menu.

One of the coolest things you can do with OSMAnd is toggle map languages – sounds simple but this is the only app I’ve found that does it. It’s got some other tricks, too, making it one of my favorite travel tools.

What’s OpenStreetMap?

These apps, and many others (including PhotoPills and The Photographers Ephemeris), integrate maps from an organization called OpenStreetMap.

OpenStreetMap is overshadowed by Google, at least in the US. But OSM map data is widely used by industry and within consumer-facing products. It is worth explaining that OSM is community-driven and the quality of map data varies. Beijing is as good as anywhere else I’ve used it. Popular areas seem solid but there are occasional blank spots further out.

Cover from the book

You can read the Photographers Field Guide to Beijing for free. Get your copy before your flight boards.