A year review of Photographing South Korea
Byeonsanbandao National Park, Korea - 13 APRIL 2020: Naesosa is a small but beautiful temple tucked in a valley of Byeonsanbandao National Park.

A year review of Photographing South Korea

I came back to the US from my 4th trip to South Korea, and my longest at a little over a year, in June of 2020.

I’ve managed to hit just about every corner of the country, even with a few months of reduced mobility from COVID.

Overall logistics of being here are very easy. With a AAA international drivers license and working smartphone there is little you cannot accomplish through an app on your phone, whether it be renting a car, reserving an Air BnB (much better than hotels for price vs. location) or researching locations. If you want to use public trans then you can navigate that through apps as well. Uber even works in Seoul, although it is a little more expensive because they can only offer links to local taxis or Uber Black. If you can read Korean it will help tremendously, but even though I can speak it, I rarely had to rely on more than basic elementary-level usage.

There are “camera streets” in Seoul where every other shop is a camera store, specifically along the western areas of Myeongdong (a popular strip of street shops north of Namsan Tower). While the markup is a bit high (Seoul has one of the highest costs of living in the world), if you have anything break or go missing you can find a replacement.

The greatest challenge for those of you who like expansive views is the air quality. It was very rare that the horizon was clearly visible, let alone clear enough to get crisp colorful golden hour lighting. Despite being here for a year, I can only recall off the top of my head a handful of ‘expeditions’ where I felt really inspired by the light. I had to learn to look for more intimate, close in compositions that didn’t require good visibility. Nighttime became my best friend, as Koreans like to stay out late at night and popular locations are frequently lit up with dramatic under lighting. I would constantly watch air quality monitors and check webcams, waiting to head out until conditions looked good. So, while my specific photos I display might not look like the air is that bad, it is because I would wait for weeks sometimes for the conditions to materialize before I even got in the car to go shoot.

In the shot below, look at the hills in the distance behind the rock cones, and the overall “color” of the sky, or lack thereof. That haze is not really from the post-processing style, its just hazy gray air, which is pervasive on a daily basis in most of the country.

In this one, even with a very liberal dose of “dehaze”, Namsan tower is still noticeably desaturated from the atmospheric haze.

Given this, I often found that the haze created golden-hour like conditions at higher sun angles than normally expected. In this case, a relatively early shot with the sun quite high still produced a warm glow and diffuse light (first pic) whereas by the time the sun was in the typically more desirable lower position, the light was too diffuse and desaturated to create a vivid and dramatic image.

So bottom line, find webcams and an air quality monitoring app where you can better predict the visibility conditions to prioritize your time where the light will work best. If you don’t have a choice, consider getting there earlier than the usual “golden hour” and look for compositions that work with higher sun angles. Given the light pollution and air pollution combined, I would not suggest breaking up your sleep cycles for Astro here.

Another challenge in shooting here is that the idea of ‘free access’ to their wild/natural areas is not as prevalent as in the US. Most national parks and cultural/historic locations have hours, and unless you get a reservation in one of the limited backcountry shelters, you can’t be in a park outside those hours. Technically, even if you have a backcountry reservation you are required to “check in” to the shelter by a certain time and can be fined for being out hiking after those hours. Even in summer these times are rarely later than 7pm. I definitely stretched the limits of the permissible‚Ķand usually got away with it, but it only takes that one time.

99% of the time this will preclude you from getting blue hour, sunrise or sunset pictures from the ideal vantage points deep inside the parks. Provincial parks are usually less regulated, but are also not quite as dramatic, terrain wise, as the national parks. Furthermore, with the exception of some designated rock-climbing areas that can only be accessed off the trail, there is absolutely no off-trail travel permitted, so your options for moving around to get the ideal framing for a shot are few. I most cases it is so heavily forested that the furthest practical line of sight is 50 yards or less anyways.

In Seoraksan national park, the best spot for big landscapes, I really only got this sunset and sunrise at the summit because I planned my trip in the dead of winter so I could reliably get a backcountry shelter reservation.

All in all, I didn’t find the landscape/wilderness photography experience to be as rewarding as my trips in the US or Mongolian wilderness, where the only rule is just adhere to leave no trace principles. While I did not make it to Jeju, which I know has some coastal and waterfall opportunities, I would say that strictly in terms of nature/landscape photography, a trip to Seoraksan national park is the only one you need. All the others I went to (Juwangsan, Songnisan, Bukhansan Naejangsan, Byeonsanbando, Hallyeohaesang, Jirisan, also 3 other provincial parks, Saryandgo island, plus every mountain around Seoul AND the entire 100mile Seoul trail) could easily be described almost identically in terms of aesthetics. “Tree-covered big hills with occasional exposed rock outcroppings and a cliff or two.” Seoraksan is the most dramatic, has the most dynamic rock formations, juxtapositions of foliage and stone, shapes, shadow and light, etc. That would be my only stop for nature/landscape photography. There are different cultural and historic elements to each of the other parks, along with some differences in flora/fauna on a small scale, so I’m not saying they are all the same. They just look the same/have the same aesthetic.

This is a great shot of what I’m talking about. This is Juwangsan National Park. Its beautiful, certainly, but aside from the historic or cultural differences, the overall elements within the frame are common to the vast majority of mountainous national parks in Korea. Hills, Trees, Temples, and some rock faces. If you are really into checklists and want to hit as many as possible, go for it. However if you are tight on time, go to Seoraksan, maybe pick one other one, but there is nothing even close to the range of aesthetics between say, Zion NP – North Cascades NP – Great Smokey Mtns NP – Denali NP. This is of course logical and inevitable, given the physical size of South Korea vs the USA.

After this year, I’ve settled that the real photographic gems and best opportunities in Korea are found around the cultural, historic, and urban/street subjects.

If I were to list my top 5 places to go strictly for the purpose of creating a photographic series that captures the range of historic and cultural aesthetics of South Korea, it would be:

  1. Seoul and the surrounding area (Namhansanseong, Suwon) for urban, architecture and the 5 main palaces.
  1. Gyeongju for historic/archeological sites
  1. Daerengi – Gacheon Village, Boseong Tea Fields and Seonamsa Temple; close enough for the same day. Go for spring blossoms if you can
  1. Maisan Provincial Park and Tapsa Temple – It is just a really unique temple

And last but not least, Busan and Haedong Yonggungsa Temple

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