Korea, Mountains, Urban Walking
Comments 22

The Haunted, Frightened Trees

I was in class a week or so ago when someone appeared at the door and my co-teacher went out to check. Then I was ushered out, mid-sentence, to receive a package from a courier — yes, a courier in Korea.

I knew what it was but I was surprised at how quickly it had arrived from Hong Kong. And I was, well, briefly flabbergasted that my $1,200 lens had just become $200 more expensive thanks to some kind of Korean import tax. But whatever — it was here. I reached for my credit card…

I was talking to my friend Greg at Hiking Fiasco about photography and walking the other day: the way your priorities can change if you enjoy taking pictures in the outdoors. You start off just grabbing a cheap point-and-shoot to document your walks, but after a while, perhaps, you start to love the photography side of things more, and you upgrade to a better camera, something appropriate for the wilds and the inevitable rough treatment it will endure.

For many (the lucky bastards), that’s where it ends. But some of us end up looking at other people’s pictures, teaching ourselves a few things, and really starting to think before we shoot. We start to — gasp — use manual settings. We get a real blast of pleasure when we capture a memento that really does the scene we witnessed some justice. More gear, more money — and a tonne more fun.

The ultimate stage of this illness, we agreed (apart from spending an hour per day reading photography forums dedicated to your camera — preferably in work time, heheh) is when you start choosing destinations based on the pictures you imagine yourself taking there, or returning to a place because you weren’t happy with your shots the previous time…

Buying my Sony Nex 5N just before I left Australia was a rare display of good sense. I have come to love this little beauty. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get technical here — there’s plenty of online information out there about mirror-less cameras, and I’m not qualified yet to talk the talk.

These photos are also relatively unprocessed — because I don’t know how. A brief fiddle with iPhoto is all. I dread the inevitable move to Aperture or Lightroom soonish…

But I spent months researching before I bought the Sony, and haven’t regretted it yet. In fact I love it more all the time — it’s not waterproof, but if it was, it would be just about the perfect camera for “enthusiast” outdoor photographers who want a powerful, large-sensor camera that can fit in a jacket pocket.

At least, it did fit in a jacket pocket till the new lens arrived.

That lens is the Sony/Carl Zeiss 24mm F1.8, one of the handful of NEX-specific lenses on the market at present. It got rave reviews everywhere (believe me, I read them all — in work time, heheh) but many decried its price tag. However, I reminded myself, I don’t drink or go out, don’t run a car or a girlfriend, and A Man Needs a Hobby.

The big plus of this lens is that it’s great for low-light, handheld photography. It’s extremely fast and needle-sharp at 1.8, produces lovely bokeh — my favourite photography word ever — and on the NEX has the added bonus of auto focus. I am something of a midnight rambler and a dawn patroller, and I often wish the whole damned world would recede into pleasantly configured background blur. It’s just perfect for my needs.

A couple of days after it arrived, I finished work at 4:30 and decided to wander into the woods and play with the new combo in the late-afternoon light. I’d been sick and was hopelessly out of form, and I was wearing jeans, which are horrible to walk in, but soon found myself climbing steadily into the hills near my apartment, the foothills of Bulmo-San, following a path I found by chance one day near the local reservoir.

It was a beautiful afternoon. The woods were almost deserted, birds were chattering, unseen, above me, a nearby stream, unthawed, was trickling, and the cool air that descended as the sun sank was no longer the killing chill of just a week or two earlier.

I was vaguely aiming at a wonderful string of little cairns uphill a ways (as they say in the States), but I felt weak and the path was steepening. I settled on trees and branches and chestnuts and leaves. I wish I could name them, but northern-hemisphere trees are not my strength.

Even in the viewfinder (I blew another pile of cash on the amazing external viewfinder) I could see how special they looked, even bare-ass naked. This place will be gorgeous in fresh green leaf.

Almost deserted, yes. But a flash of purple between the trunks behind me and a track-suited ajumma came into view: one of those formidable, tough-as-nails middle-aged women you encounter in the hills over here (the Japanese equivalent would be nicknamed an obasan).

I felt self-conscious, as I suspected the sight of a westerner back here in the woods would be cause for some apprehension. However, we greeted each other politely when she passed, and I focused as innocently as possible on a tree stump as she continued uphill.

She passed me again later, as she came down. This time she spoke in Korean.

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean,” I replied. “Do you speak English?”

She paused, gave it some thought, and answered, “Sun…” And then she held her hands together, leaned her face onto them and very sweetly mimed “sleep”.

I smiled. This was one of the very few times a woman has attempted to talk to me while out walking in Korea.

“Thank you, I’ll be okay.” It was twilight alright, but I always carry a headlamp.

I spent five minutes crouched down over this cicada shell…

…and reluctantly turned to head for home.

I didn’t need the lamp.

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


  1. a strawberry patch says

    Beautiful photos and fascinating blog! I am just beginning to show symptoms of this illness 🙂

    • Thanks so much. Well, you can either try to stop now, or just roll with it. I recommend the latter course. A photographic obsession nicely complements a gardening habit as well, and you obviously have the latter equally rewarding bug…

  2. Thanks for the ‘dancing spell’ of your photo-text sequence, Goat! Yes, you are well and truly hooked. (I MUST NOT GO THERE — note to self …)

    I didn’t know ‘formidable, tough-as-nails, middle-aged’ Korean women turned you on so much, my friend! (The tree stump? Wasn’t sure if this was intentional or not… ;))

    BTW, off to Nottingham to see Joan Baez tonight…

    • Haha, I am such a babe in the woods. I didn’t even notice that! Now the Benny Hill theme music is playing in my head for some reason. You naughty Brits!

  3. I recognise some of the leaves as broad-leafed oak, probably related to the chestnut (the one that we call kunugi over this side).

    I already have camera envy – trying to photograph birds with a mobile phone is ridiculous.

    And I love the potential of “a career as a carrier or courier in Korea”!

    • Andrew, I don’t know how you persist with that phone camera! Mind you, even phone cameras/camera phones are getting pretty gutsy.

      I’d love to find a Korean version of one of those ‘Wildlife Around Tokyo’-type books. I did enjoy my recent trip to Gyeongju in part because many of the trees were labelled. I took copious notes!

  4. That’s an interesting looking forest and I can imagine it would be a little weird at night! Under a full moon with the tripod set up I think you could come up with some interesting photos.

    I’m impressed with your new lens and I’m afraid you may officially be a ‘pixel peeper’! 1.8 is pretty special and I can see some brutal bokeh coming through in some forthcoming posts. I’m feeling a little envious, seeing how my main lens cost me $330 and as a result I’ve just surfed a few camera websites!

    You do realise the next step is Lightroom? You’ll be totally out of control when that’s the case. Just don’t get my illness where walks I’ve done in the past don’t count because I didn’t use a decent camera at the time! Oh yeah, thanks for the mention as well!

    • No worries, Greg. I’d sooner lose a limb than become a pixel peeper, but I reckon I’m different to many of them in that I actually take the odd picture! I know I have to move into real post-production but even then my goal is to spend less than five minutes on a shot. I really am too busy and I’d rather be out there taking photos. It is addictive though, as you know, and so rewarding. And it’s nice to have an official “reason” to walk when you can’t really come up with a rational one…

      • Yes, you won’t see me spending more than five minutes per photo in post-production. If I have a hundred photos, I usually only process about twenty or whatever looks good to start off with. Who has the time otherwise? Maybe if I didn’t work. Actually work is interrupting my photos, writing, walking and sitting on the couch…

      • Actually, that might be good for me. Though I cull a lot of photos after a walk, I’m sure I can/should delete a lot more…

        You have a COUCH?! I’m typing this sitting on the floor, as ever.

  5. She paused, gave it some thought, and answered, “Sun…” And then she held her hands together, leaned her face onto them and very sweetly mimed “sleep”.

    Lovely post from walking in a late winter forest, as seen through your new lens. Going far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow!

  6. It is amazing that what appears to be a brown, barren forest can provide so much in the way of visual variation. I use Aperture, but as Greg says no more than a couple of minutes is spent on post production, as I quickly scan and decide what is important from my perspective. I have enjoyed your tales of wanderings (explorations) of your locale, keep them coming.

    • Thanks, Nielsen! Yes, at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s amazing how much more you notice when looking at a place “photographically”. It’s funny you should mention Aperture as I spent an hour last night perusing tutorials about it, and I think I’m just about sold on it. I use a Mac and am well used to iPhoto, so it should be a pretty painless transition. It’s also pretty cheap! Shooting in RAW will be a major step into the unknown for me, but I’ve been putting it off long enough…

  7. You’ve just described my life. I’ve been in thrall to photographic equipment since I was given my first camera around the age of 13 (yes, it was a Kodak brownie – a 127). I can’t even face the thought of beginning to count the number and variety of cameras and lenses I’ve toted round the world making photographs since then – but it’s been worth it, a great and enduring pleasure (as it is looking at your pictures).

    • Thanks for your comment, Nick. I appreciate the feedback. Photography is such a rewarding pastime. For me it’s the ultimate counterpart to a walking addiction. I never get bored with it — though it’s not the cheapest of hobbies…

  8. My first time to visit but looking through your incredible lens at the sepia-toned forest, I feel right at home. I like the lace bark tree and also the tree bark that reminds me of elephant skin. I use 2 Sony cameras and have a friend who just bought the Sony Nex 5N. I also use Aperture, but wonder if Lightroom might offer more if you want to get into things like layering or textures. Aperture is pretty straight forward and doesn’t offer a lot of creative elements. But, I’m just a beginner and still practicing both with the cameras and with editing. I’ve enjoyed reading and viewing your post.

    • Thanks, Barb, always great to have a new reader! Glad you liked the pictures; I liked the way the colours in that rather “drab” (at first glance) setting came to life in the pictures, and I too thought that bark rather elephantine.

      This is my third Sony after two Cybershots. Great cameras of their type, and I still have a working waterproof model which has served me very well. One of my main reasons for upgrading was to give me more practice with manual settings and also control over depth of field – and especially limiting it. So I’m more than happy at the moment.

      I suspect you’re right about Aperture, but maybe it’s a good place for me to start. And actually I prefer a relatively “natural” look at this stage; I enjoy looking at some other people’s heavily textured shots sometimes but don’t know if that route is for me — or maybe I’m afraid I’ll like it too much and won’t know where to stop!

      Even the thought of using RAW is very intimidating, but it can’t be THAT hard…can it?

    • Oh shutter up, Frank! Honestly, I don’t think we’re on the same focal length sometimes. You need to take a good hard look aperture self.

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