We feature some of the brightest Instagram storytellers in the Passion Passport community through our Instagram Spotlight series. This week, Derek Liang (@derekrliang) gives us a tour of the beaches, cities, and mountains that have caught his eye.

Southern California

From its palm-tree-lined beaches to its diverse cuisine and perfect weather, Southern California is truly a place like no other. Living in Orange County, I can either take a day trip up to Los Angeles and walk down Venice Beach and Santa Monica Pier, or head down to San Diego and visit the exquisite beaches and coves of La Jolla.

While photographing new locations is definitely exciting, one of my favorite parts about photography is rediscovering familiar places in a new light. Just a short drive from where I live, Newport Beach is home to beach-walks and an iconic pier, a place where you can catch the sunset at a minute’s notice.

As I walked around Newport Beach one evening, I came across the canals I’ve seen and driven by countless times. Then, from under the bridge came a gondola, sailing out toward the sunset, and knew I had to capture it.

Another day, when I had spontaneously decided to try and catch the autumnal colors of the surrounding area, I saw that Big Bear Lake was one of the few places in Southern California with actual seasons, so I packed my bags for the weekend. While it’s absolutely stunning in the winter, Big Bear Lake is just as impressive without snow in the summer and fall. I arrived in the early morning and flew my drone to catch the soft morning light shining on the lake. I will remember that peaceful morning with sounds of birds chirping for the rest of my life.

It wasn’t until I picked up photography about two years ago that I truly realized why people go to the beaches in Southern California. There is nothing more relaxing than going to the beach after a long day and unwinding to the sight and sound of waves.

Located below the tall bluffs of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel Resort at Salt Creek Beach has long stretches of beach for everyone to relax on, watch the sunset, and enjoy the sight of surfers catching waves. On one particular evening with a decent swell, I flew my drone out toward the surfers on the water. As the sun set, the golden orange hues reflected onto the incoming wave and the water behind it, meshing well with the blue hues of the water. It is moments like this that remind me to slow down and appreciate the sheer beauty of this world.

Maui

With my camera and drone packed for a week-long trip to Maui, I was ready to explore the island — from the peaks of Haleakalā down to the warm, crystal-blue waters.

Getting off the plane, I thought that if there was one photo I absolutely needed to take, it was a picturesque Hawaiian sunset. My first evening there was slightly underwhelming — I had begun to lose hope after several locals told me that the sunsets had not been great for the past couple of weeks — but to my surprise, the next evening’s display was absolutely incredible. The sky was scattered with vibrant colors, the water took on the very same hues as the sky, and the clouds rested majestically on top of Moloka’i. Though the next few evenings were also filled with breathtaking sunsets, that first one was the best sunset I’ve ever seen — and I have seen many.

While out and about, enjoying the beaches of western Maui, I saw a touring catamaran out on the water. With the sun setting quickly behind them, I took a second to compose my shot and capture it sailing across the channel.

On my second-to-last day on Maui, I went on a snorkel and sailing trip to Lanai, a small island just off the coast. On our way across the channel, we saw a large pod of spinner dolphins swimming with the boat’s wake. We stopped by Sweetheart Rock to snorkel, exploring the lush coral reef and admiring the diverse marine life below. With the prevailing winds on our side on the way back to Maui, we turned off the engine and set the sails loose for an exciting journey. This was definitely one of my favorite experiences in Maui.

On my last evening, I went to Baby Beach in Lahaina. Watching the sun drop below the horizon and hearing the sounds of a ukulele in the distance, I felt like I could stay there forever. I flew my drone out above the water to capture the island at twilight. It was a scene that stands out to me to this day.

Taiwan

Home to over two-and-a-half million people, Taipei is constantly buzzing with cars and pedestrians. But the city is also easily accessible by public transportation. What’s more, the food is both incredible and affordable. From the tender beef noodle soup found tucked around every street corner to the infamous stinky tofu you can smell a mile away and the sweet taro balls from the night market, the city has countless great places to eat.

As I rode the metro from the airport to Taipei, I could see the hustle and bustle of the city below the towering Taipei 101 and the rest of the skyline, along with its surrounding hills. The air was humid and warm, occasionally offset by an ocean breeze. On my first evening, I hiked up the steep stairs of Elephant Mountain, just outside the city, to catch the sunset.

Waking up early on another day, I flew my drone up to capture the city streets in the morning glow. With the highway lines leading toward Taipei 101 and the city center, and with the apartments in the foreground, it was a shot that I believe shows off the true essence of the Taiwanese capital.

As I walked the streets of Taipei at night, I couldn’t help but notice how amazing the city lights were. With this in mind, I woke up early the next day and took a cab to the city center, hoping to capture both the sunrise and the lights. Only the street lights were still on, but I flew the drone and snapped some great photos. A tip for fellow photographers: head over to Elephant Mountain, or a hill overlooking the city, wait for Blue Hour, and shoot away!

Farther north lies the city of Tamsui. Not realizing it was a national holiday the day I visited, I rode the metro north and found Tamsui swarming with people. At the far end of the city sits Lover’s Bridge, a tall white bridge that connects the two ends of the wharf. I flew my drone up, capturing the structure and the crowds of people from above. Seeing the sunset from the bridge was definitely one of my most cherished moments I had during my stay in Taiwan.

Japan

Japan had been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember — and it didn’t disappoint. From the down-to-the-second timing of its public transportation and the high-speed shinkansen bullet trains to the mouth-watering ramen shops of Ramen Street in Tokyo Station and the matcha ice cream shops scattered on every block, the country was a wonderland for me.

I headed to Japan in early October, hoping to witness its autumn colors, but I arrived a bit too early to see them in Tokyo and other major cities. Fortunately, when I went up to Mt. Shirane near Kusatsu Onsen, there were plenty of autumnal hues to be found, since fall arrives earlier at higher elevations.

As I rode the bus from Kusatsu Onsen to Sanroku Station, and then the cable car to the top of Mt. Shirane, I could see the colors gradually appearing. Toward the top, the autumn foliage was in full bloom, so I quickly snapped some shots from inside the cable car. At the very top, it was unbelievable seeing the colorful foliage all the way down to the mountain steps.

As a volcanically active country, Japan has many natural hot springs, called onsens. While staying in a famous onsen resort — Kusatsu Onsen in the Gunma Prefecture — for a few days, I was able to try various baths, including the outdoor pools of Sainokawara Rotenburo. I wanted to capture the large open area and to also encapsulate a piece of this ancient practice, so I flew my drone out early one morning before the pools opened to avoid any misunderstandings, as people bathe nude. Experiencing new, though quite shocking, cultural experiences such as this is what makes traveling such an adventure.

Probably one of the most well-known spots in Japan, the torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine in southern Kyoto are as beautiful in person as they are in pictures. Consequently, the site is extremely crowded during peak season, so I would recommend either going early in the morning or hiking up to the summit, which takes two-to-three hours round-trip, to avoid the crowds. While hiking down from the summit, I had an opportunity to quickly take a photo of Aman, my friend from Nepal, between the torii gates. Having seen countless photos of the toriis here, it was thrilling to capture one.

South Korea

Landing in Seoul on a chilly afternoon with an empty stomach called for a warm and comforting meal. I headed to Tosokchon Samgyetang for their famous ginseng chicken — I highly recommend it to anyone staying in the South Korean capital.

The evening after I arrived, I caught the sunset at Some Sevit (three man-made architectural islands) near the Banpo Bridge. As the sun tucked behind the horizon in the distance, the floating islands became illuminated, making them a great subject in front of the city’s skyline, so I flew my drone up to take several shots of the area.

There was traffic backed up from the Banpo Bridge, so I turned my drone around to photograph the cars below, along with the countless streets of identical apartments. Far in the distance, I could see another skyline, and then hills even farther behind.

Later on in my trip, I ventured out of Seoul and took the high-speed train to Busan, which was about a three-hour ride. Once I arrived, I headed to the Gamcheon Culture Village, a village built on a coastal mountain known for its vibrantly decorated houses, murals, and sculptures. Some time ago, it was a poor and forgotten slum where war refugees settled. It wasn’t until artists were hired to rejuvenate the neighborhood with a bit of paint that the area began to change. It is extraordinary how art can transform a slum into the place we know today as the Machu Picchu of Busan.

As the sun set over the village, I flew my drone up to capture the layers of brightly colored houses with the mountains, skylines, and clouds in the distance. With food on my mind, I headed to Jagalchi Market, a small fish market in the neighborhood of Nampo-dong. I would definitely recommend Jack’s Seafood for anyone in the area. With superb hospitality, the owner, Jacky, speaks fluent English and offers an amazing selection of seasonal seafood dishes. From there, I went to Spa Land in Centum City, which has 22 spas and 13 saunas, ranging from a cold ice room that cools you down to a Roman Sauna that recreates the ancient Roman baths with intense heat. It was quite the relaxing experience, and a great way to end a wonderful day

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Derek Liang
Derek Liang is a freelance photographer based in Southern California. He enjoys traveling to new places, discovering new cultures and inspirations. At the same time, he is also fascinated when rediscovering old ones, capturing familiar places in a new light. To see more of his work, find him on his Instagram, @derekrliang.