Since I came to Korea in 2008, Gyeongju has been one of my absolute favorite places to visit. The mix of natural and man-made beauty whose historical ties go back over a thousand years makes me excited every time I’m there. Add the fact that it’s now only 2.5 hours from my town (reduced from 3.5 due to newly built roads), it’s not uncommon for me to just get up and go.
Recently, I made another weekend trip to Gyeongju. A family friend was kind enough to lend us their apartment while they were away for the weekend (thanks, Mijin!). Not only did this save on lodging costs, but their apartment’s location was also within minutes of all the spots I wanted to photograph. I’m really lucky to have access to a friend’s place, but if you are thinking of making a trip there, Agoda and Airbnb have a wide range of hotels and guesthouses to choose from.
I went to Gyeongju with three very specific locations in mind. Planning ahead and doing your research beforehand will usually make your trip much smoother and help you manage your time. Also, don’t overload your list. Just pick a handful of places that you really want to visit and spend quality time there. For this trip, my must-visit places were Woljeong Bridge (월정교), Daereungwon Tomb Complex (대릉원), and Samreung Forest (삼릉숲).
When photographing landscapes (and most other things), the softest, most beautiful natural light happens around sunrise and sunset. We arrived in Gyeongju around 11AM, so I used the time before sunset to enjoy the day with my family. The hours of harsh sunlight in the middle of the day are great for visiting indoor locations, enjoying food, and doing more touristy things.
Sunset came around and it was time to do some work. I dropped off the family at the apartment and headed over to the centuries-old and recently restored Woljeong Bridge. Here is the image I got from there:
Fujifilm X100S + TCL telephoto converter: f/16, ISO 200, 10 Seconds, tripod
The bridge’s position makes it a little tricky to get a good foreground. I really wanted to include the waterfall in the shot, so I made my way through the tall grass and bushes along the riverbank and found my spot. This shot was taken about 30 minutes after sundown, during “blue hour”. I chose a 50mm equivalent lens to add a bit of compression and emphasize the bridge. Remember, landscapes aren’t always about wide-angle lenses.
After Woljeong Bridge, I decided to head over to Daereungwon Tomb Complex. This is where you can find many of Gyeongju’s famous royal burial mounds. It’s only about 500 meters away from the bridge, so it was still possible to catch the last bit of the blue hour. I always prefer a bit of blue in the evening sky as opposed to a totally black sky. I had never been there after sundown and I was pleasantly surprised by the totally different feel of the park. The light and shadows are intense and make for dark, contrasty images. Here is my favorite image from Daereungwon:
Fujifilm X-E1 + Samyang 12mm: f/11, ISO 200, 27 seconds, tripod
This time, I opted to go wide to capture the sweeping lines of the royal tombs. I really like the play of the tomb’s shadows and the trees that were lit by lamp posts.
The next day, it was time to hit my last destination of Samneung Forest. This area is full of ancient, twisty pine trees. Photographers come here in droves, searching for the elusive shot of sun rays piercing through the misty forest. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much fog and rays of light that morning, but I made the most of the situation by using composition, shadows and inducing some starbursts by closing the aperture of my lens:
Fujifilm X100S + TCL telephoto converter: f/16, ISO 1600, 1/60 Sec., handheld
Honestly, I found it a bit tricky to photograph this forest. There is an overwhelming number of interesting trees and I didn’t know where to start at first. In situations like these, just try to find the most interesting light, compositions, and elements within the frame that you can use as ‘anchor points’ to make a stronger image. In this case, I was drawn to the shape of the trees and the position of the sun.
When I go to a location, I usually already have the landscape “trophy shots” planned in my head. However, all throughout the trip and between my main destinations, I always keep the camera on hand for a bit of spontaneous street photography. Here are some shots from the streets of Gyeongju that weekend:
Bonus Section: Food
What’s a trip without some great food? Here are a couple of recommended spots to grab a bite to eat:
Dosol Maeul (도솔 마을) – great, affordable, traditional Korean food. I recommend the “surisan jungshik” (수리산정식). For 9,000 won you get a spread of Korean “banchan”, rice and soup. The sweet and sour crispy rice “nurungji” is excellent. You can also ask for side dish refills.
Hwangnam Bread (황남빵) – the famous red bean-filled Gyeongju bread is great for a quick snack or for taking a box or two home.
Wonjo Kongnamul Gukbap (원조콩나물국밥) – whether or not you have a hangover, kongnamul gukbap, or bean sprout rice soup is a delicious and affordable Korean morning meal. As an added bonus, the restaurant is also located in the downtown area (not far from Daereungwon) where many foreign grocery stores are located. You can get your street photography and shopping fix after breakfast.
For your reference, here is a map with all the landscape and food spots I talked about in this post (click/tap to open the interactive map):
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little piece about Gyeongju and maybe even picked up a couple of photography tips. This city is picturesque, rich in culture, and full of endless possibilities. What I’ve shown you is just a small fraction of the things you can see and do there and I will definitely go back. Check it out for yourself!
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