On a cold winter night in Fairbanks, Alaska, five UCLA students stood on top of a small hill, awaiting a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Freezing and convinced the lights would not make appearance that night, the students were ready to continue on with their trip when a strong wave came through and lit up the sky.
When capturing the fluoresce on camera, the group added their own light to the night sky: the glowing letters “UCLA.”
Zi Jie Tan, a fourth-year geography and environmental studies student, took this photo, which was featured a week ago on UCLA’s Instagram account. When taking the long-exposure shot, Tan had the group set their phone backgrounds to blue and instructed them to draw out the letters.
Tan’s personal Instagram account documents his travels from around the world. He has visited places like Machu Picchu, Peru to Cape Town, South Africa where he studied abroad. Intending to be a geography teacher, Tan said he posts pictures of his travels for his future students to refer to him and his adventures.
He is self-taught, improving his skills primarily by watching YouTube videos.
“(Photography) shouldn’t be exclusive. Anyone should be able to express themselves, and anyone can take a really good photo,” Tan said. “It’s just that if you want to be a professional, you need to do it on a consistent basis.”
While Tan does not intend to become a professional, he said his passion for photography has increased since arriving at UCLA. Originally from Singapore, which Tan described as a concrete jungle, he did not have the opportunity to photograph nature when he was growing up. However, once Tan moved to California for school, the scenic views on the West Coast inspired him to buy a camera and start traveling.
Traveling during and after his study abroad trip helped improve Tan’s photography skills, he said. While in Africa beginning in January 2015, Tan posted a photo journal for 213 days, capturing moving zebras and warthogs on safari.
Tan said the students at the college in Cape Town liked to take photos at night, where they would draw with light. They taught Tan the technique he used when taking the UCLA photo in Alaska.
In 2015, Tan also explored Tanzania, Canada and Alaska. Most recently, over winter break, he and a couple friends went to Hawaii, Kauai and Oahu.
For their trip, Tan asked Kristen Young, a UCLA graduate student from Hawaii, if she would show him and his friends around when they came during break.
Young said the group went on a hike called Stairway to Heaven in Oahu, which is featured on his Instagram account. The group spent 10 hours scaling and descending the treacherous mountain.
“The hike is actually illegal in Oahu, so what we had to do was go a back way up the trail because there’s a guard at the end of the trail,” Young said.
Edward Huang, a third-year electrical engineering student who accompanied Tan on the Alaska and Hawaii trips, said Tan makes the trips more than just a fun outing with friends — he makes them educational. Tan is able to provide information about the geographical formations of the area because of his studies in school.
Huang said Tan observed the surroundings better than others by pointing out animals that Huang did not see, which Huang attributes to Tan’s photographic eye.
However, Tan does not travel for the sole purpose of photographing.
“I tend to go to places where I view there is a stronger cultural element to (them),” Tan said. “And these tend to be less developed countries that are less globalized.”
Tan feels lucky to have travelled to places outside of his home country, Singapore.
“Traveling to different continents gives me an extra perspective,” Tan said.