Apr. 2 2015

How to Take Better Cherry Blossom Photos

Who doesn’t want to take better cherry blossom photos?

Strike a pose that recalls Sailor Moon-level coolness while the dreamy petals drift around you. Now, how do I get these camera settings right?

Selfie in Japan!

So here’s the thing: I take a LOT of cherry blossom photos.

When I was traveling through South Korea, my boyfriend got used to traveling very slowly as I crept from tree to tree with my camera.

He would tell people who stopped to look that I was on an important Canadian mission to document every cherry blossom tree in the country (I didn’t really stop at every one… just every third or fourth, really. So dramatic).

Know How to Use Aperture to Your Advantage

As a disclaimer, all your photos will get better if you learn about ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, plus all the functions and buttons on your camera (but I digress).

To understand aperture, think of it as the pupil of your camera. When you’re adjusting your aperture, you’ll be doing it in terms of F-Stop (“What’s your f-stop?” = “What aperture are you using?”), a.k.a., the number that comes after the ‘___mm’ part of your lens. ex: “50mm 1.4 lens” means that that the widest aperture you can use is 1.4 (the smaller the number, the wider the pupil). When people refer to shooting “wide open”, they mean they’re shooting with their aperture at the lowest possible number. What does this mean for your photo?

Aperture controls your depth of field (“DOF”). Your DOF is the amount of photo that’s in focus at any given moment. A ‘shallow depth of field’ means that there’s not very much in focus. A ‘deep depth of field’ means that a lot is in focus. You may want to use either of these techniques to make your cherry blossom photo. The important thing is that you understand how to use each. Using a low F-stop (or shooting ‘wide open’) will give you a shallow depth of field, like this (Shot at F1.6):

Shooting with a higher F-stop will give you deeper DOF (‘more stuff in focus’), such as this (Shot at F16):

DOF can also be controlled by altering your distance from the subject (closer = shallower; farther = deeper).

The other thing aperture does is let light into your camera. The wider your pupil, the more light gets in. Think cats at night. If you’re shooting in really dim conditions and already have your ISO pretty high, and don’t want to risk getting a grainy photograph, you can open your lens up wide by using a lower F-Stop and take a brighter photo. This can be to or against your advantage, depending on your shooting conditions.

Here’s an example of one problem you might run into with using a wide aperture:

You’re outdoors, on a bright, sunny day. You crank your F-Stop down to F1.8 to get a nice, shallow DOF. Your ISO is at 100. Your shutter speed is around 200. You take the shot… It’s completely washed out and overexposed. You don’t want to change the aperture, since you want a shallow DOF, you can’t lower your ISO any more, and even when you crank the shutter speed up to 4,000 (the max, for most DSLRs), the photo still comes out overexposed. It’s just too bright out.

One fix: Try shooting at a different time of day, or from another angle

Another fix: Try shooting with a neutral density (“ND”) filter. ND filters are great for allowing you to shoot wide open in bright light scenarios (they’re also amazing for long exposure photos, but that’s a whole other post). ND filters essential add ‘darkness’ (density) to your photos, so you can shoot without overexposing. They come in all different densities. Personally, I have this one that I can twist to fade from lighter to darker, so I don’t have to carry more than one.

Shoot With the Light (The Light is Your Friend)

Imagine a river. The current flows away from the source. You could jump in and swim against the current, but it would be a lot of hard work. Or, you could flow with the current and have it pleasantly carry you along. In a way, light works the same. Imagine the sun as the source of your light (cuz, y’know, it usually is). Light flows from it in a certain direction.

You’ve likely taken this photo before: where your subject’s back is to the sun, and all you can see is a silhouette with no detail and wonky exposure.

That’s not to say you can’t get some cool results from shooting into the sun, but it’s always worth paying attention to your light source. It’s a good idea to move around and take a couple test shots so you can see where you like the light. I promise, after you do this long enough, you’ll know exactly where to stand without even taking any test shots. You’ll find the light by reading it from doors left ajar, overhead windows, a diffused curtain, and synthetic sources.  You’ll be able to ‘see the light’.

Against the light =

With the light=

Try Shooting in Different Kinds of Light

Cherry blossoms at dawn vs. cherry blossoms at noon vs. cherry blossoms at dusk are all very different things. Try ’em all and see what suits you.


Don’t Think You Need a Fancy Lens or Equipment

It’s crazy how many people don’t think they can take a good photo before they even try.  I’ve actually heard people say ‘I need a macro lens to take really good cherry blossom photos’. Most of the ones here I took with a 50mm or 85mm lens, and I’m pretty happy with how they turned out.  Cherry blossoms up close, far away, seen from an average distance, they can all be great. Don’t feel limited by your equipment. You are only limited by your mind.

I’ve seen photos taken with an iPhone look nicer than one taken with my D800. If I had to give a number to this entirely un-empirical experience, I would say that 97% of the enjoyment of a photo is composition and reading light. This applies to all photos, not just cherry blossoms.

Learn How to Use Your Camera’s Focus Points

Focus points are one of your biggest allies in the fight against out-of-focus photos.

The beautiful thing about focus points is the freedom to choose exactly what you want in focus.  Most of the time, people use their autofocus by holding down the shutter halfway, waiting until their camera fixates on something (usually whatever stands out, or is in the  in the middle of the frame), and then take the shot.

My friend, if this is you, then using focus points will help you take the leap to becoming a composition master.  Choosing a single focus point is especially useful when shooting cherry blossoms because when you point your camera at a large mass of tiny, moving pink petals, it has a really hard time figuring out what exactly you want it to focus on.

Depending on what camera model you have, switching to single-point focus mode will be a bit different (but hey, that’s what Google’s for).  Moving the focus point is usually toggled by the D-pad or arrow keys on the back of your camera body.  Move your focus point around until it’s resting on exactly the cherry blossom that you want.  You win.  Bam.  Get that flower in focus.  Every.  Single.  Time.

In the photo above, I’m focused on the blossom in the upper right quadrant. It would’ve been a lot harder to nail if I’d had my camera on general autofocus, and praying my camera knew where I wanted it to look.

Have Patience (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Photographer)

Cherry blossoms move so easily in the breeze. It is more than likely you’ll have to adjust your settings, re-focus, try again and again before you get one shot that’s really ‘perfect’, or at least ‘good enough to satisfy me for now’. Take your time, go on a walk by yourself with the sole intent of photographing a really good cherry blossom.  Take a break, grab a coffee from a nearby café, come back and try again.

One does not become a cherry blossom master overnight. Don’t beat yourself up if the photo you’re taking doesn’t match your expectations. Lower your expectations. Know that you are getting better with every photo. The pursuit of the perfect cherry blossom photo is a lifelong one.

Remember, as Ken Watanabe says in the penultimate scene of The Last Samurai while collapsing against Tom Cruise on the battlefield,  staring into the swirling zephyrs of cherry blossom petals surrounding him, “they are all perfect.”

Have any camera questions? Shoot them my way in the comments below. Ways you think this tutorial could have been even better? Also put it in the comments!

Now you know my dirty dark secret: ;I’m addicted to taking fanciful cherry blossom photos while my boyfriend rolls his eyes at me and drinks his coffees. There. Now you know.