Photo Essay – Fall: A Golden Season

Words and photographs by Nathaniel Merz

In landscape photography, the golden hour refers to that beautiful hour each morning and evening surrounding the rising and setting of the sun. During this short period of time, the light can take on a quality that can turn an otherwise ordinary scene into something magical.

If there were to be a single season in Korea with similar transformative power, it would have to be fall. Not that the rest of the year is not equally beautiful. The features that made me fall in love with the Korean landscape in the first place are the flowers blooming in spring; the lush forests and tumultuous skies of summer are certainly hard to beat; and also the stark beauty of snow covered mountain ridges in winter. Nonetheless, fall is especially beautiful in a way that showcases the best that the Korean landscape has to offer.

Traditionally, landscape photography often focuses on big, sweeping scenes made all the more dramatic by intricate compositions with pleasing foregrounds set against expansive mountains and dramatic skies. To put it simply, this style does not quite suit the landscape here in Korea.

The mountains here are undeniably beautiful, not for the glacier-carved peaks and photogenic mountain tarns magcampingreflecting high mountain alpenglow, but for their seemingly endless layers and the way the light interacts between them. To that end, there is not a better season to showcase this beauty than the season of fall.

In Korea, the beginning of fall means more than just the changing foliage. Fall is a season of low-lying fog in the valleys as well as rising mist from lakes and rivers, winding across the country as the still, warm sunlight reflects off their surfaces. This combination of fog, mist and morning light often creates an almost dream-like atmosphere that accentuates everything I love about the landscape here in Korea. What Korea lacks in defining landmarks, it makes up for in essence that is difficult to put into words, except that it is unmistakably Korean.

In fall, there really is nothing better than hiking to the top of a mountain ridge and being greeted by a beautiful pattern of hills and valleys below as the fog flows over them like waves over stones on a beach. Better still is the way this scene changes as the sun peeks over the horizon. Before coming to Korea, I always expected the best moments of a sunrise to happen well before the sun actually made an appearance, as the sky would light up in shades of reds, pinks and magentas. In Korea, however, the most beautiful moments often happen after the sun is already in the sky and creating rays of light over the mountain ridges as it cuts through the fog and mist.

Even outside of the mountains, these conditions can come together to create some amazing moments. The second series of photos here were taken near Daecheong Lake just outside of Daejeon and they showcase a bit of what makes this time of year so special. Even on mornings where the fog is thick enough to block out the sun, something beautiful can be found in that surreal atmosphere. Just like in the mountains, the most beautiful moments come when these elements all harmonize together.

Beyond this dreamy quality of the season, fall has plenty of beautiful elements that further accentuate everything that makes Korea’s landscape special. The fall colors are of course a major attraction, but even once all the leaves have fallen and the trees are bare, the ridges take on a bristle-like appearance that not only adds texture to the lines but also accentuates each and every curve of the hills.

And finally, any discussion of fall landscape photography in Korea would not be complete without a human element. While the hot humid summer weather and bone chillingly cold winter weather — by Korean standards — keeps the crowds down for most of the year, fall means an increase of photographers and backpackers alike as everyone tries not only to make the most of the season but also get out for some fresh air before the long winter ahead.

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