It was a rainy and unseasonably muggy afternoon in April 2016. My friend and I headed to Daedunsan Provincial Park and hiked through heavy clouds and mist to arrive at a partially hidden ridgeline halfway up the mountain. Just as we had put down our bags, the heavy whiteout fog began to clear around us, revealing beautiful conditions of floating mist and evening light that perfectly framed the pine trees and azalea flowers that grew seemingly right out of the jagged rock face. That evening led to what I still consider my “luckiest” shot, and--more importantly--began an obsession with Korea’s uniquely beautiful mountain pine trees. The process of searching out and capturing these trees has taught me many valuable lessons that anyone can apply to shooting mountain and tree subjects anywhere in the world.
Subject Centered Photography
Unlike some parts of the world with expansive wilderness and mountain ranges that offer sweeping vistas as far as the eye can see, South Korea provides fewer opportunities to simply show up somewhere in golden hour and shoot compositions that just present themselves. For one, South Korea is quite well developed for a country where mountains make up 70% of the landmass. Moreover, while the number of mountains and mountain trails is amazing, the vast majority are at lower elevations that rarely ever give true alpine experiences. This makes it difficult to scout out mountains ahead of time on google earth like many mountain photographers are fond of doing because the mountains themselves are rarely the subject and even when they are, the only way to get an idea of what is visible through the trees is to go there in person and see what sort of open viewpoints are even possible.
With that being said, how do I even go about finding subjects? For one, it always pays to keep an eye out for side trails while hiking, as quite often they lead to nice views or pine trees. This is how I stumbled upon that first scene almost five years ago. Other than simply getting lucky, the predominant way to find spots in Korea is through the web, mostly digging through hiking blogs looking at snapshots of hikers standing next to pine trees. Sometimes it really can be as simple as googling “nice mountain pine tree” in Korean into google! Fortunately, many of these hiking blogs also offer trail guides and even GPS tracks that one can follow along with using an app called tranggle. For pine tree photography in Korea at least, some degree of Korean language proficiency makes things immensely easier.
The Land of Morning Calm
Once you have a subject you would like to shoot, now it is all about waiting for the right conditions. Looking at the google earth snapshot above, you can clearly makeout roads, or buildings that could easily ruin an otherwise lovely pine tree scene. This is exactly why probably 99% of the photos I take in Korea are done at sunrise when the chance for morning fog blanketing the valleys and covering up the distractions is highest. The fog also helps to give separation for the trees against sometimes busy backgrounds. The gap between a perfect morning and a typical morning can be quite massive in terms of how nice a scene looks, so it is important not to get easily discouraged and to visualize the potential that a scene can have in the right conditions.
Getting the right Conditions
Luckily, predicting those conditions is not altogether impossible. Using the Korean weather service (https://www.weather.go.kr/w/index.do) and apps like windy, it can be possible to get a decent idea of when to go out. Normally, I am looking for significant overnight drops in temperature of around 10 degrees celsius or more and high relative humidity in the morning of 90-100% depending on the location. Also, wind should usually be below 2m/s or not only does fog rarely form here, but the trees become difficult to shoot at sunrise anyway. Also, on days after rain there can sometimes be wonderful conditions of low clouds that might be just below the elevation of the mountains, which is what I was lucky to catch on that first trip. These conditions can lead to a complete sea of fog that blankets everything below the peaks and often catches morning light quite beautifully. While these conditions are in general good for any location, the amount and type of fog that forms around specific mountains can sometimes be slightly different, so going multiple times to get a feel for where the fog forms and what sort of compositions become possible when it does is important.
High humidy, low cloud base, maybe even some fog predictions on Windy can all be good signs though certainly not perfect. Korea's weather site is great for radar images and weather reports for specific
mountains . Luckily in winter, the weather decisions become much more simple: chance of snow, better go!
The ol’ f8 and be there
Now comes down to the most important part--simply getting out. Sometimes--and I myself am most guilty of this--spending hours analyzing scenes and conditions can leave you too discouraged and burnt out to even get out and shoot. Sometimes it helps to just find a somewhat decent opportunity and just go out and see what happens. Since most of my images now are taken at sunrise, I normally head out the night before as I find nothing worse than hiking up a mountain at 3 in the morning. In my case, I like to hike up, set up my tripod in case anyone comes up to join me during the night and find a nice area to simply curl up in a bivy and get some sleep. Either way, I highly recommend getting there very early, as most of these spots have just enough space for a few photographers to shoot and if someone else shows up before you it can make it difficult or impossible to get a shot.