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Photographing Sakura in Japan: Scenic Spots & Pro Photography Tips (3)

In this part, we not only introduce famous sakura viewing spots in Japan that are ideally visited in April, but also share some composition, lighting and multiple exposure photography tips that will increase the splendor of the sakura. (Reported by: Hidehiko Mizuno, Komei Motohashi, Michiko Kaneko)


1: Uji Park (Kyoto Prefecture, Western Honshu)

To bring out the intense colours of sakura, choose lighting appropriate for the colour tones

The belt that connects Tou-no-shima Island and Tachibana Island has many sakura trees. It bustles with sightseers in the day, but crowds are sparse from evening onwards where some of the trees are lighted up. When I visited, it was not yet fully dark and there was a unique balance in brightness between the sakura and the sky, which was still a little blue.

The trees are along the river, which makes the spot windy. To capture a fully still image of the sakura, I increased the ISO speed so that I could shoot with a faster shutter speed. I shot with WB set to ‘White fluorescent light’ to obtain an image that was somewhat close to what I had in mind, and then corrected the colour temperature during RAW image post-processing.

This sakura appears very pale when photographed under the sun. The pale pink colour becomes more obvious only when illuminated with artificial lighting, so during post-processing, I adjusted the picture to bring out the reddish tones in the petals for more intense colour. The light source was very powerful, so I also adjusted my shooting position, making use of the pillars supporting the sakura to block off some light and soften its effect.

The image I wanted to create had the entire sakura tree in full bloom, spreading branches bursting with dazzling pink blossoms, radiant against the evening sky as its backdrop. I chose to shoot at 35mm, and in landscape orientation with a composition where the entire frame was filled with the sakura tree and its surroundings. The light from the light-up was not strong enough and could not illuminate all parts of the tree, so I set a LED video light onto a travel tripod and shone it such that it created fill lighting on both sides of the tree. By illuminating dark areas with the warm-toned LED light, I managed to obtain an image where the entire tree was softly but well-lit.

If there are other photographers around when you are shooting, do make sure that your tripods do not get in their way.

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 35mm/ Manual exposure (f/5.6, 0.4 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 1600/ WB: 4,200K
Photo by Hidehiko Mizuno/ Location: Uji, Uji City, Kyoto Prefecture
Best viewing time: early April/ Shooting time: 6:30 pm


The LED video light that acted as my supplementary light source

The video light that I used for this image is a 130-watt LED with 800 lumens.


Negative example: Direct front lighting causes harsh contrasts

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 55mm/ Manual exposure (f/5.6, 1.6 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 400/ WB: Manual
Photo by Hidehiko Mizuno

This image was shot using an external flash mounted onto the camera. The direct, head-on lighting made the fence and stone base appear brighter than the sakura, and caused obvious and distracting shadows and contrasts.


2: Hikone Castle (Shiga Prefecture, Western Honshu)

Making use of the mirror-like water surface to showcase the beauty in symmetry

The moat around Hikone Castle is a wonderful spot for enjoying the sight of sakura in full bloom reflected on the water surface, regardless of day or night. But to capture the most impressive images of the sakura, night is best. If you want a shot where the subject and its water reflection are beautifully symmetrical, then you must ensure that there is absolutely no wind.

To create volume in the sakura that cover the stone castle walls above the moat, pay attention to the edge where the walls meet as it can make or break the balance in your image. If this edge is even just a bit off the centre third, the proportions of the image will shift and the resulting photo will not look as good.

More sakura trees are to the right of the image, and also to the right but in the distance, you can see the castle keep. Make sure not to include too many elements in the image frame as that will distract viewers from the sakura.

EOS-1Ds Mark III/ EF28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM/ FL: 28mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 1/15 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: 3,500K
Photo by Komei Motohashi/ Location: Hikone Castle, Shiga Prefecture
Best viewing time: early April/ Shooting time: 5:30 pm


Note:  Attention will no longer be on the sakura if you include the castle keep in the frame

EOS-1Ds Mark III/ EF28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM/ FL: 28mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/8, 20 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Manual
Photo by Komei Motohashi

In the actual setting, the lit-up castle keep was visible to the right in the distance. Putting it further inside the frame, like in this image, would shift the point of interest and therefore weaken the impact of the sakura water reflection.


3: The Weeping Sakura of Shinoi (Tochigi Prefecture, Eastern Honshu)

Layer two shots to create the illusion of abundance

As there was no wind and the branches of sakura blossoms were still, I took two shots with the multiple exposure function: A sharp first exposure, and a second exposure that was out of focus and blurred. By layering the two exposures, the shidare-zakura (weeping sakura) appeared to have a thicker coverage of blossoms, and even looked dream-like. The images were captured in the evening using side lighting so that the sakura would look a shade pinker.

This spot is near some country houses, so if you are shooting in the morning, try to do it quietly. The sakura tree is surrounded by rice paddies. Take care not to step into the paddies, even if there is no water in them, and also avoid walking on the ridges between the fields.

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM/ FL: 150mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/5, 1/100 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 450/ WB: Daylight
Photo by Michiko Kaneko/ Location: Shinoi, Utsunomiya City, Tochigi Prefecture
Best viewing time: early April/ Shooting time: 5:00 pm


Tip: For the first exposure, use a shutter speed that freezes the branches swaying in the wind

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM/ FL: 150mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/14, 1/13 sec, EV+0.7)/ ISO 450/ WB: Daylight
Photo by Michiko Kaneko

This is the first exposure. I tried out increasingly faster shutter speeds until I found one that could freeze the branches swaying in the wind. This speed depends on how strong the wind is.

Where the spots are located:


1: Uji Park (Kyoto Prefecture)
2: Hikone Castle (Shiga Prefecture)
3: Weeping Sakura of Shinoi (Tochigi Prefecture)

Regions coloured in blue have been covered in Part 1.
Regions coloured in green have been covered in Part 2 (which also introduces another scenic spot in Kyoto)


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Komei Motohashi

Komei Motohashi

Born in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture in 1945, Motohashi learned about dark room technology at the Tokyo College of Photography. He is working on a collection with the theme "Breath of Nature", which came about from the climate and natural features unique to Japan, based on a perspective of nature he acquired in the mountains.

Michiko Kaneko

Michiko Kaneko

Born in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Kaneko started to engage in photography activities after chancing upon a deeply inspiring shot in Okunikko in 1987. She studied under the late renowned photographer, Shotaro Akiyama, before setting up a photo studio and becoming a freelance photographer. Fascinated by the beautiful colours of nature, she travels around Japan in a car, to capturing soothing shots of landscapes in the different seasons as well as photos that feature both trains and landscapes. A member of Japan Professional Photographers Society (JPS) and Japan Society for Arts and History of Photography (JSAHP).

Hidehiko Mizuno

Hidehiko Mizuno

Born in 1968 in Kyoto. The works he has released centre on the beautiful scenery, and also the shrines and temples of Kyoto.