Now that cherry blossom season has finally come, everyone's already planning hanami picnics with friends and family, as well as trips away from Tokyo to snap the perfect sakura photos! We sat down with Timothy, one of Live Japan's editors and photographers, who shared his advice on how to get the right shot in.
1. Start with the right equipment
If you're planning to shoot with just your smartphone, consider downloading an app like VSCO, Slow Shutter or Camera+ which will give you more control over what you're shooting, especially factors like white balance, ISO and shutter speed.
Also don't forget your tripod for use at night (to stabilize your phone/camera at longer shutter speeds), and if you're using a digital camera, also consider bringing or buying a circular polarizing (C/PL) filter to help colors pop—and/or a neutral density (ND) filter to slow down shutter speed, which can help you magically blur (and even remove) people from your photos. Finally, don't forget your power bank!
2. Time yourself around sunrise and sunset
There are many varieties of sakura, with flower colors ranging from white to pink and virtually every shade in between. Since regular daylight can wash these colors out, look to early morning and late afternoon, when the angle of sunlight is low and the blossoms will really pop. Also, you will find there is greater contrast between the blossoms and sky at these times as well, making for a great shot. Don't be afraid to play with manual white balance levels to dial in the kind of color you want. This can be found in your camera settings—there are modes for situations like "cloudy" and "sunny."
3. Plan around overcast weather
Early spring in Japan is usually accompanied by wind and clouds, which can make snapping photos of the light-colored blossoms against a light-colored sky quite challenging. Look for chances to contrast sakura petals against something darker in the background. Also consider using a higher ISO level (or a burst mode) to help reduce movement blur on the windier days.
On these days, lower contrast can also mean it is more difficult for your camera or smartphone to focus on flowers—especially when you're looking for macro shots. A simple trick: hold your fingers near the blossoms you want to snap, and lock the focus on your fingers and adjust the exposure settings until the blossoms are at the right style you want.
4. Plan around people
Cherry blossom season is one of the most popular times for visiting Japan, and the main sakura spots in Tokyo will be packed. Many visitors are surprised by the sheer numbers of people. Photographers can sometimes be frustrated by always having a crowd in the background. Be patient and keep moving around: you're bound to find a good angle.
One thing to keep in mind: flower viewers will often use blue plastic groundcloths, which can add a bluish hue to the light-colored blossoms. Using a sheet of white paper to block this and reflect light up to blossoms can be one workaround—especially with closeups. Another is to adjust manual white balance and exposure settings.
5. Make the dull days work for you
Inevitably, it'll go from clouds to rain at some point in the blossom season, but don't let this discourage: sakura can be quite beautiful even at this time. Even if it doesn't rain during your stay, especially on a blue-skied day you can achieve some incredible effects with a spray bottle.
6. Wait for night
At night, blossoms become magical—especially when there's a full moon. Pinkish light from lanterns set around the blossoms can also add an unexpected hue, and trees seem to layer much more upon each other, adding incredible depth to scenes. Be prepared to use this ambient light instead of using a flash, as generally the latter will over-saturate the scene.
A tripod can be particularly helpful here, especially if you decide to use a slower shutter speed. If you forgot yours, you can pick one up at a shop like Bic Camera or Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku, Shibuya or Akihabara. Note that not all places will allow tripods for safety reasons—look out for signs indicating whether they're discouraged from use.
7. Share the season with others!
Cherry blossom season is all about getting outside and enjoying the magic with friends and family—both in person and online as well! If you're looking to share on Instagram and other social media, popular tags include #sakura, #cherryblossom, #spring, #fullbloom and #hanami. (And in Japanese, #桜, #さくら, #お花見 and #花見 are particularly popular.)
Keep in mind that while it's fun to share photos using hashtags, you can also use tags to discover new gorgeous spots that aren't necessarily in the guidebook. Enjoy a happy hanami!