Story & photos by F. M. Kearney
To celebrate the nations’ growing friendship, Japan gifted the United States with a little over 3,000 cherry blossom trees in 1912. Considered the national flower of Japan, these trees were planted in New York City and Washington, DC. Since then, thousands of other trees have been planted in several other cities – delighting millions of admirers in annual Cherry Blossom Festivals across the country.
Of course, a subject this popular has been photographed a countless number of times, and it’s easy to see why. These trees are often planted in tight, regimented formations. With the addition of their bright, vivid colors, they are an irresistible lore to anyone in possession of a camera. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York hosts one of the foremost cherry-viewing locations outside of Japan. Cherry Esplanade is home to seventy-six double-flowered Prunus “Kazan” trees. I shot the opening photo on film in 2006. It’s one of my favorite images of this site, mainly because it hasn’t looked that way since. Nowadays, the field between the two rows of trees is filled with large white tents where plant sales are conducted – great for people who want to buy plants… not so good for photographers. I consider this photo a testament to the importance of never assuming that you can shoot something “later.”
At peak bloom, cherry blossoms provide such a dazzling display that they may seem a bit overwhelming. A photographer might feel like a kid in a candy store, because there are so many potential compositions. I find the physical location of cherry blossoms particularly appealing. Since they grow on trees, it’s very easy to include the sun in the shot.
Like adding salt to a bland meal, the sun can spice up just about any outdoor nature photo. I shot the image just above at 70mm. It’s a somewhat pedestrian view of the sun shining through the tree. If you want to try something a little more daring and dramatic, use a longer lens and single out an individual bloom. At 200mm, the image just below is definitely more daring. Each time the wind blew and shifted the bloom slightly to the left or right, I would get blasted with the blinding light of the sun. Thankfully, since most of it was blocked by the bloom, I never received its full intensity. Although a bit dangerous to shoot, these types of backlit shots can provide a beautiful rim light around the blooms.
If you want to include the entire sun in the photo, it’s easier and safer to do it very early or very late in the day. The sun is lower on the horizon and not quite as intense. I shot the sun rising above a cluster of Yoshino cherry blossoms at 200mm in the image below.
Unless your aim is to create a silhouette, additional light sources are needed whenever you use the sun to backlight your subject. Reflectors are simple to use, but you may need an assistant to hold it if you’re hand-holding the camera. Since most of my work is done on a tripod, I use reflectors quite often, but I prefer the versatility of a flash in most situations. A flash can modify the light in ways a reflector cannot. I’m able to adjust the intensity of its output as well as its area of coverage by manually adjusting the zoom head. I used a flash for all three of these photos, but I especially needed it for the Yoshino cherries. My challenge was to select an aperture that gave me enough depth of field to maintain sharpness on most of the bloom, but not so much as to alter the shape of the sun. The wider the aperture, the more round the sun will appear. I settled on f/8. After checking my depth of field preview, I was delighted to see that the sun remained relatively round. However, the resulting shutter speed was 1/4000 sec. With the sun quickly rising, I didn’t want to waste time fiddling with ND filters to knock the speed down to a more “flash-friendly” setting. Fortunately, most pro flashes today are equipped with another great feature – making them even more versatile. “Hi-Speed Flash Sync” enables you to shoot flash photos at the highest speed your camera offers. Gone are the days when one would be limited to shutter speeds of 1/250 sec. or slower. Even at a blistering 1/4000 sec., I was still able to maintain a proper flash exposure.
There’s something indescribably beautiful about delicate pink and white blooms against a clear blue sky (see photo above). But the show isn’t over if the sun hides behind the clouds. Cherry blossoms are one of the few subjects in nature that can be photographed equally well on both sunny and cloudy days. A friend of mine recently posted an image on Facebook of a large cluster of white blossoms against an overcast sky. The predominant white tone gave the photo a romantic, elegant quality – something you might expect to see adorning the walls of a wedding reception hall.
If you don’t want to include any traces of white sky in your photo, just shoot tight, intimate compositions. The soft, even lighting is perfect for images of this type. I shot the Japanese Flowering Cherry Blossoms above under such conditions. I normally carry a small water bottle to spray plants and flowers in order to simulate dew drops. But it wasn’t necessary in this case because it had rained the night before. I captured an interesting arrangement of water droplets in the photo just above. If you have a macro lens, you would be able to get even more interesting photos by coming in for an extreme close-up of the tiny images reflected in the drops. Also, look for combinations of “young vs. old” (photo below). Depending on the point in the season when you plan your shoot, you may see many young buds surrounded by fully opened blooms. A shallow depth of field may be necessary to isolate intimate these details from busy backgrounds.
As you can see, there’s much more to cherry blossoms than meets the eye. Once you get over the initial “shock and awe” of the grand view, move in for tighter shots and more compelling compositions. No matter what type of lighting conditions you’re working under, there’s a myriad of possibilities available.