Cherry blossoms in Japan
It’s that time of year again. The cherry blossoms have arrived. For only a couple of short weeks every year, Japan explodes into pink and white. People here often picnic under the cherry blossoms and absorbs springs sights and sounds. The tradition is called hanami, cherry blossom viewing.
Cherry blossoms hold a special place in Japanese culture. Even as far back as a thousand years ago, old poems liken the short-lived beauty of youth to the short time that cherry blossoms are in bloom. The coming of spring is often seen as a bitter sweet event in that interpretation.
It’s not surprising, since people died much early in those days. People didn’t have a chance to witness the cherry blossoms blooming very many times in their life before they faded.
These days are different. We get to witness and capture the beauty of spring, and we have the opportunity to enjoy the rejuvenation of spring for many years. We can do with ease what few people could do in ye olden days: create a picture of the cherry blossoms. And create, we do. The question is: How do you take the perfect picture of the cherry blossoms?
How to Take Pictures of Cherry Blossoms
When taking pictures of cherry blossoms, it’s important to understand the different effects of hard and soft light.
Hard light, like on sunny spring days, will have the effect of creating hard shadows and high-contrast scenes. If you take advantage of the effects hard light provides, you can emphasize shapes using highlights and shadows. In the context of cherry blossoms, their petals are somewhat translucent, so you can also capture the effects of light traveling through layers of petals.
I enjoy the more dramatic, bright, bold look of hard light photography in general. However, what if you want to show cherry blossoms’ softer side with soft light?
Well, you have a few options. You can take pictures on a cloudy day. That is, in fact, one of the best conditions to take photos when you are newer to photography. The soft, weaker light on cloudy days is easier for cheaper cameras and smartphones to deal with. Soft light is also flattering to flowers, giving them a more feminine, calm atmosphere. Instead of accentuating shapes, lines, and shadows, soft light softens all of those and provides more even lighting. With the distraction of the small details, the atmosphere of the flower itself takes center stage.
Another option for taking soft light pictures is to use a reflector to reflect sunlight back on to the shadows of the flowers, softening the shadows. You can also use a diffuser to soften the light before it reaches the flowers.
You can also take advantage of shadows. Instead of taking pictures of cherry blossoms facing the Sun, take pictures of the ones in the tree’s shade. The ambient light will give you a nice soft light.
Natural vs. Artificial light sources
Most people will take photos of flowers under natural lighting conditions. Some people will take pictures of them early in the morning or late in the evening when lighting conditions are more interesting (due to the angle and color of the light at those times of day), but most people want to go out and take pictures of flowers on bright, sunny afternoons. Interesting photos can be taken during that time, but there are some limitations people put up with.
For one, you usually have to take pictures while facing away from the Sun. You do that because cameras can’t deal with the extreme contrast of the bright sun and the comparatively dark flower you’re trying to photograph. Either the sky will be well exposed and your flower will be pitch black (in which case, you might be able to make a cool silhouette), or the flower will be well exposed, but the sky will be pure white.
Another limitation of taking photos in the afternoon is that the angle of light is often less interesting. It tends to flatten all of the details of the background and foreground. That is especially true of cloudy days. If you’re taking pictures of flowers on cloudy days, usually you’ll want to zoom in close on the flowers and ignore the dull background.
People tend to want to see flowers contrasted against a beautiful blue sky, so if you want to take pictures of flowers with a blue sky in the background, you usually only have the option of hard light photos unless you get a diffuser or reflector. Even then, you’ll typically not be able to handle more than a small, hand-held reflector or diffuser by yourself. Reflectors and diffusers are a bit of a challenge to use in somewhat windy conditions. Here in Japan, wind is part of the opening of spring. Taking pictures with a partner who can hold your reflector or diffuser is very helpful.
What this all means is that, if you want to level up your cherry blossom photography, you’ll need to incorporate artificial light into your photography. With artificial light from a flash, you can shape the light, and thus the cherry blossoms, in the way you want. In the next post, I’ll give you an idea of what kind of gear you can use to level up your photography.