The cherry blossoms hold a special place in the heart of the Japanese people. These elusive little flowers known as sakura have a deeper meaning in Japan where, as the country’s national flower, they have become a cultural icon known around the world.
In Japan, from the end of March to mid-April, families and friends across the country ceremoniously gather in large groups for “hanami“, these cherry blossom-viewing parties and elaborate gatherings with music, food and drinks under giant canopies of soft pink and white flowers. They are not just celebrating the return of the spring, they are honoring the brilliance, fragility and transience of life.
Tied to the Buddhist themes of mortality, mindfulness and living in the present, Japanese cherry blossoms are a timeless metaphor for human existence. Blooming season is powerful, glorious and intoxicating, but tragically short-lived — a visual reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting.
Hanami in Japan isn’t just any springtime activity, it’s a national pastime with deep cultural and religious roots. When the Japanese gather under the cherry blossom trees every year, they’re not just admiring the aesthetic attributes of the flowers. Over tables of sake-filled glasses and bento boxes, they’re seizing the day. They’re showing their appreciation for the beauty of life.
The springtime bloom is a wonderful spectacle but it is especially brief. The show may only last for a couple of weeks or sometimes even only a few days, and a rainy or a windy day may be enough for the flowers to suddenly drop to the ground and wither. But in Kyoto, this doesn’t mean one only has these few days to capture photos of their beauty and the atmosphere for there are many varieties of cherry trees, early blooming ones, regular ones, and of course, late-blooming species. A little study of these and the locations they can be found will help a long way to provide more time and more opportunities for us photographers.
But of course, in Japan, spring is not always the time of the sunny blue skies we hope for. There are many rainy days as well as cloudy ones. We need to adapt to capture these photographs we’ll be pleased to share or hang on the wall. The subject is varied and offers unlimited options. Here I’d like to share a few tips I have found useful.
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The landscape photographer will be delighted with a scenery that includes a whole tree in full bloom or even better, a temple entrance or courtyard with various trees. The banks of the Kamogawa river for example offer a beautiful view with flowers of various colors. I found a 24-70 mm f2.8 zoom usually perfect for this. In a few cases, I also used a super-wide lens, namely the 14-24 mm zoom. The distortion that is inevitable with the super wide focal may be used for interesting effect.
The flowers are perfect for macrophotography, and I often bring my little 60 mm f2.8 macro lens with me. But I also use a 70-200 mm f2.8 zoom to capture isolated flowers or groups of flowers high on their branches. The large aperture enables me to limit the depth of field and even include some bokeh in the frame.
Yes, there are these little birds flying and jumping around the flowers. The most common ones are the so-called “mejiro” or warbling white-eye. To capture these, you’ll need luck and a long lens. I usually use my 70-200 mm zoom, sometimes with a 1.7 teleconverter lens for this purpose. Don’t forget that these little birds move a lot and you’ll need a fairly fast shutter speed.
But as photographers, we should not forget that the Hanami is a social thing in Japan. There are always a lot of people gathered around the locations with the largest, most popular or most luxurious trees. And nowadays, just about everyone is taking photos, with a camera or smartphone. Now, we’re talking “street photography!” I used to capture a lot of photos of the joyful parties and smiling faces, and I enjoy the various strange poses people take when taking a photo. Unfortunately, this year, the parties are limited and the spirit isn’t the same.
Minus 2 stops
Plus 2 stops
On a sunny day, the brightness of the white petals together with the environment may be a challenge. Indeed, one would need a given exposure for the blue sky, and another one for the white or pale pink flowers. I got used to bracket my photos with +/- 2 stops in addition to the normal exposure. At home, I either simply use the HDR technique or simple masking on different layers to achieve the look I am after.
Sure, a tripod is best for such exercise, but I got used to simply shoot three frames in the highest continuous mode my camera offers. Any small discrepancy will be taken care of by today’s software.
An accessory I often use for this type of photo is a simple CPL filter or Circular Polirizer. These filters are used to eliminate unwanted glare and ghosting and are really useful when shooting reflective surfaces, water, windows, etc. They also help in improving color saturation, something that can prove really useful for a sky with clouds, with the bright blue taking on a deeper hue.
Quite a few people think that with Photoshop or other post-processing software, such filters are not necessary anymore. I still bring mine and use it quite regularly.
As mentioned, it rains quite a lot during this period in Japan and while the conditions are more difficult and not as pleasant, I also like the quietness and beauty of the flowers under the rain or with droplets on them.
In addition, numerous places, parks, temples and shrines offer night illumination during this time. Unfortunately, tripods or monopods are usually not allowed.