Even though the Sakura, Japanese Cherry Blossom, is in flower for a little over a week each year, their image seeps into the Japanese psyche like a dream. It is a highly anticipated, omnipresent experience that has become a peak of the Japanese calendar. With cafes and restaurants selling Sakura flavoured sweets, people adorned in pink petal patterns, advertising, literature, film and television saturated with the image; it can become a little overwhelming. But when you step back and breath out, you can admire the moment for what it is. Walking along a river path, or catching the view from the metro window, the entire country explodes with colour, vibrant shades of pink drip from every corner, and you understand the national obsession with such a short fleeting moment in time. The flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.
There are some great places outside of Japan to join in Hanami or Cherry Blossom viewing, so you don't need to be jealous of all the images you see on Instagram from Tokyo. I'll mention my favourite places at the end of this blog, but first I wanted to share with you a few tips on how to get the best photographs of Sakura wherever you might be in the world.
Have a focal point
Pointing your camera into the heart of the tree might give you the most petals per pixel, but it will leave your eyes scanning over the image but seeing nothing. It might leave you with the sensation you can’t see the wood for the trees. Instead, try to create a strong visual focal point in your image. Focus on a bunch of petals, or a lantern or use the branches to act as leading lines in your focus.
When shooting the blossoms close to the camera and with a large aperture, like ƒ/2.8, you will most likely get pleasing bokeh (the rendering of the out of focus parts of the image). It is a great way to separate and isolate your subject from its background and correctly done will enhance the colours and aesthetic of your image. To minimise your depth of field and maximize the aesthetic, use the largest aperture you can - ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/1.4 for example (this will change depending on the ‘speed’ of your lens), use a telephoto lens - the effects appear amplified when zoomed in, and get close to your subject.
You don’t need to be wide open all the time though. Have a play around with different aperture values and see how they affect your image. Figure out where you think the perfect spot it for each image. If you have a depth of field preview button, this is where it comes in handy, as it will show you how your depth of field will look before you press the trigger button.
Cherry Blossoms are quite light, and they're usually filling most of your screen. Your camera will want to pull down the exposure because it doesn't understand what you are shooting and thinks you want a grey image, so it will make the photo muggy and dark. Overexpose by one stop to keep the petals looking bright and white - but check your histogram regularly to make sure you aren't blowing out your highlights by accident.
Most of the time I suggest shooting in Auto White Balance because it usually selects the setting better than you will, but with Cherry Blossoms your camera might confuse the subtle pink hues in the flowers as a technical defect. When it does this, it will try to correct them by increasing the greens, sucking the life from your image. Set your camera's white balance to the appropriate setting, daylight, cloudy, etc. and keep the internal green to magenta settings as is, or play with them until the images look like a true and accurate representation of what the flowers really look like in reality.
Shoot at night
You won’t need to pack your camera away when the sun goes down; it can look beautiful illuminated at night too. So beautiful in fact, that the Japanese even have a specific word for it: Yozakura. Many places, such as Naka-Megeo in Shibuya, or the Tree outside Senso-Ji in Asakusa are illuminated at night which can create a dramatic scene to shoot. You might need a tripod, but don’t leave the shutter open too long as the wind might blur the details in the trees.
There are many ways to shoot Cherry Blossom, and I recommend you shoot them all. Have a selection of close up shots with nice bokeh, shoot pink, white, magenta, and violet coloured blossoms. Then shoot wider shots, encompassing the overwhelming feeling; the weeping trees along the rivers or the crowd of people strolling or picnicking under them. Then get creative, Sakura makes the perfect backdrop for creative conceptual photography, or classy portraiture.
Where to shoot
In Tokyo, you only need to throw a stone to hit a Sakura tree. A few of the most popular places to shoot are Ueno Park, Asakusa and Sumida Park in Tokyo's northeast. The canal between Ichigaya and Iidabashi, as well as the streets around Yasukuni Shrine and the picturesque gardens at Chidori-ga-fuchi in Chiyoda. In Shibuya, Yoyogi Park is a popular place to picnic, and the canal along Naka-Meguro is illuminated at night. Most everywhere with blossoms, you will find street food, and alcohol flowing freely.
The best place to view Sakura in Amsterdam is in the large forest on the edge of the city called Amsterdamse Bos. In the west of the city in Westerpark, there are over 400 trees planted by the Japanese community to commemorate the lives lost in the Tsunami.
The former Berlin wall has made way for Cherry Blossoms at Mauer Weg. One is located around Bornholmer Straße and the other around Lichterfelde Süd Station.
Whilst not as plentiful as Japan, Hong Kong still has a few spots to check out, such as Rotary Park in Tai Mo Shan, Kwan Kung Pavilion in Cheung Chau, Kadoorie Farm and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Kew Gardens is hands down the best spot to view Cherry Blossoms in London, and they justify the £15 entry fee. Otherwise, for some free parks, try Kensington Gardens or Greenwich Park. Not that good for picnicking under, but the most iconic shot in London would be the trees surrounding St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London.
In Paris, Parc de Sceaux has a large collection of Cherry trees, perfect for picnicking or shooting. While you will find a few trees at most parks, like Bois de Vincennes, Notre Dame, the largest collection in central Paris are located around the Eiffel Tower in the Champs de Mars. For more details on specific Paris parks, visit our blog Top 10 Spring Parks in Paris.
You don't want to miss Petrin Park where there are hundreds, if not thousands of Cherry Blossom trees.
Anywhere in the world (well, where they are blooming now at least), Aperture Tours know where to go and how to make sure you take the best images of the Cherry Blossom. Join a professional photographer in over 15 cities from Tokyo to London and perfect your photography skills.
Author: Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.