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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Photographing Solo Sakura Trees: 3 Techniques for Impressive Pictures

2024-04-08
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1.02 k

Lone-standing sakura trees in full bloom can be just as magnificent as an entire boulevard full of trees. In fact, many of the ones in Japan have a unique story, and may even be historically and culturally significant! Here are some ideas and tips for getting a beautiful shot of them, using examples of famous solo sakura trees. (Reported by Jiro Tateno, Chikako Yagi, Digital Camera Magazine)

In this article:

 

1. Underexpose the shot slightly so the pink tree stands out

EOS R5/ FL: 31mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/9, 1/25 sec, EV -1.0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight/ Photo by: Chikako Yagi
Tree name: Komatsunagi no Sakura (Sakura of Komatsunagi)
Location: Achi Village, Nagano Prefecture
Best time to see: Mid April to early May

About the tree: Komatsunagi no Sakura (駒つなぎの桜)
This tree is said to be 400-500 years old. The name “Komatsunagi no sakura means “the cherry tree to which one ties their horse”. Legend has it that this was the tree that the famous samurai Minamoto no Yoshitsune tied his horse to when fleeing his jealous brother’s persecution.


Before: Shot with a brighter background

The tree doesn’t stand out that well when the background is too bright.

 

Techniques: Expose to the left + composition

  • Low-angled sunlight (close to sunset)
  • Underexpose slightly below “correct” exposure (expose to the left)
  • Keep the sky out of the frame as much as possible

Light shining through sakura petals gives the tree more dimensionality and brings out details. However, if the surroundings are just as bright, the tree will simply blend into the background! I decided to increase the tonal contrast between the tree and the background so that the tree stands out more. This was achieved through the time of the shoot, exposure settings, and composition decisions.

Lighting angle
I chose to shoot close to sunset, where the light shines from a lower angle and creates a spotlight-like effect on the tree.

Exposure settings
Shooting in aperture-priority AE mode at f/9 to keep the detailed blossoms in sharp focus, I used negative exposure compensation to underexpose the shot slightly so that the elements surrounding the tree became silhouettes. As the sunlight was on the sakura petals, they remained bright even though everything else around the tree became silhouetted.

Pro tip: Don’t underexpose too much. Keep some of the shadow details so the surrounding context is still visible!

Composition
The bright sky will compete with the pale sakura petals for viewers’ attention, so I tried to keep as much of it out of the frame as possible.


Recommended lens: A standard zoom lens

Try: RF24-70mm f/2.8L IS USM

If you’re using an EOS R system camera, consider the native RF mount version of Canon’s popular 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. Its wide maximum aperture provides extra flexibility even when the sky turns dark, and it weighs only around 900g: a good deal for the zoom function and low light capabilities!

 

 

More about the Komatsugi no Sakura

The tree is lit up at night, and looks elegant against the mountains and night sky. A nearby rice paddy means you can also get an interesting reflection shot if the conditions are right.

Address: Chisato, Achi Village, Shimo-Ina Province, Nagano Prefecture, 395-0304
More information: https://zekkeijapan.com/spot/index/1025/

 

2. Go low angle and fill the frame with the tree to show scale

EOS R5/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/8, 1/160 sec)/ ISO 200/ WB: 4,900K/ Photo by: Jiro Tateno
Tree name: Miharu Takizakura (The Waterfall Sakura Tree of Miharu)
Location: Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture
Best time to see: Mid to late April

About the tree: Miharu Takizakura (三春滝桜)
This “Waterfall Sakura” is a weeping sakura tree estimated to be over 1000 years old. It is possibly one of Japan’s most famous solo-standing sakura trees, and was designated a natural national treasure in 1922.


Before: The tree looks underwhelming

An overview shot captured from a higher position and angle. The space around the tree makes it look small.

 

Technique: Camera angle, position, and composition

  • Low position, low angle: camera tilted slightly upwards
  • Fill the frame with the entire tree; minimise empty space

This national treasure is also one of Japan’s three biggest sakura trees. It stands at around 13.5m tall and its branches span around 25m wide in both the north-south and east-west directions. That majestic size and presence were what I wanted my photograph to capture.

Camera angle and position
Just like photographing humans, you can make a tree look more impressive and imposing and imposing by shooting with the camera below eye level height and tilting it up slightly, which is what I did to capture the “After” image.

Focal length and lens
For this shot, I wanted a more natural effect so I shot at 50mm, which is known for a neutral perspective. You could also pair the low position and camera angle with a wide-angle or fisheye lens—the perspective exaggeration on these will give a very unique look.

Also see:
Composition Techniques for Wide-Angle Lenses
Photographing Cherry Blossoms: Should I Shoot Wide-angle or Telephoto?

Composition
The more space you put around the sakura tree, the smaller it will look. I composed the shot so that the entire width of the image was filled by the tree, with no empty space to the left and right. If you use a wider lens, step closer so the tree fills the frame!

 

Bonus technique: What if I want more sky?

EOS R5/ RF15-35mm f/2.8L IS USM/ FL: 21mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 15 sec)/ ISO 2000/ WB: 4,000K/ Photo by: Jiro Tateno

The Miharu Takizakura is lit up at night. That’s nice to see, but if you stay until after the lights go off (after 9 pm according to previous years’ schedules), you can take a beautiful photo of the tree against the starlit sky. Here, both the tree and the sky are important so I’ve created a minimalistic shot where the sky fills two-thirds of the frame. At the same time, I’ve still filled the bottom third of the frame with the tree as much as possible to keep its impact.


Recommended lens: A wide-angle zoom lens

Try: RF15-35mm f/2.8L IS USM

A wide-angle zoom lens will help you capture stunning, immersive shots of grand scenes unfolding right before you, like the massive Miharu Weeping Sakura pictured above. Get one with a large maximum aperture and you’ll be well equipped to capture scenery against starry skies, too!

 

More about the Miharu Takizakura

Be prepared for crowds during full bloom as this is a very popular tree. There is a 500 yen entry fee.

There are many other flowers in the same area, including other sakura trees and yellow rapeseed blossoms. In fact, the entire town of Miharu is a popular sakura viewing spot.

Address: 296 Takizakurakubo, Miharu-cho, Tamura-gun, Fukushima Prefecture, 963-7714
More information: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e7792.html
Official site: https://miharukoma.com/experience/183 (Machine translation)

 

3. Balancing a solitary tree against equally impressive scenery

EOS R5/ RF70-200mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 200mm/ Manual exposure (f/4, 1/100 sec)/ ISO 200/ WB: 4,900K/ Photo by: Jiro Tateno
Tree name: Inai no Ipponzakura (The Lone Cherry Tree at Inai)
Location: Hachimantai City, Iwate Prefecture
Best time to see: Late April to early May

About the tree: Inai no Ipponzakura (為内の一本桜)
Located on top of a small hill with Mount Iwate visible behind, this tree is a popular photography spot and filming location.

 

Technique: Telephoto compression and time of the shoot

  • Use telephoto compression to make the mountain look bigger
  • Shoot in the evening for the “spotlight” effect.

The highlight of this shooting spot isn’t just the solo sakura tree, but also the view of Mount Iwate behind it. The spot is some distance from the tree, and the mountain is over 10km away. There are a few ways to compose the shot depending on what you want to emphasise. I wanted the sakura tree to be the star of the image. The mountain should complement it, but without making the tree look too small or insignificant.

Lens and composition:
You probably are familiar with the technique of showing a tiny human against a much larger structure to emphasise the scale of the scene you’re shooting. But did you know you can also play with perspective and compression to make something small appear larger?

When I used a telephoto lens, two things happened:
- I could fill more of the frame with the Inai sakura tree even when standing further away.
- The telephoto compression effect “pulled in” Mount Iwate and made it look closer and bigger.

Now, the sakura tree looks nearly as big as the huge mountain!

You might have to experiment a little with your shooting distance and focal length to find the ideal framing.

Pro tip: Your focal length and shooting distance will change how large (or small) the tree and mountain look relative to each other. For example, with a longer focal length such as 400mm, you could pull in the mountain so much that it fills the entire background, which would change the effect altogether.

Time of the day

Here’s what I got when I shot at around noon:

The sun is high in the sky and lights the entire scene, so the mountain is well-lit, too. It makes a nice shot, but I felt the sakura tree didn’t stand out as much as I would have liked.

Just like the photograph of the Komatsunagi sakura tree shot by Chikako Yagi in #1, my main shot of the Inai sakura tree was taken in the evening where the light fell on just the tree, with no light on the mountain slopes. The spotlight effect helps to make the tree stand out better.


Takeaway: Pay attention to lighting angles
Beautiful “spotlight” lighting can be predicted! Study the angle and direction of light at different times of the day. Apps like Sun Surveyor could help. Surrounding structures and landforms such as mountains might also act like natural black flags or snoots at certain times of the day, creating a beautiful spotlight effect.


Recommended lens: A telephoto zoom lens

Try: RF70-200mm f/4L IS USM

Ask any nature or landscape photographer, and they will probably tell you that a telephoto zoom lens is one of their essentials especially when visiting places with hills and mountains. The RF70-200mm f/4L IS USM provides good balance between portability, ruggedness, and performance—perfect for treks and hikes.

 

More about Inai no Ipponzakura

While the pathway to the tree is carefully maintained by the villagers, the land is privately owned so be careful and show respect! The people in Iwate Prefecture call the tree the “final station of spring” as it blooms later than other sakura trees in the city due to its location at a higher altitude.

Address: Tameuchiyama, Noda, Hachimantai City, Iwate Prefecture
More information:  https://www.tohoku-sakurakaido.jp/en/sakuratourism/view/96

 

About the Author

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Jiro Tateno

Born in Tokyo in 1975. From around 1990, he came into contact with nature through fly fishing, and took up photography. From 1999, he travelled around the country taking photos with the theme of "Natural Beauty". He currently supplies photos for magazines, books, posters, calendars, and so on. He held an "Okinawa" photo exhibition in 2010, and "Northern Lights - Journey of Light/ Iceland" photo exhibition in 2017.

Chikako Yagi

Chikako Yagi was twenty when she started teaching herself photography using a film SLR camera. She left regular employment to become a full-time landscape photographer in 2016. An apprentice of renowned photographers such as Kiyoshi Tatsuno and Tomotaro Ema, she is a member of the Shizensou Club, which was founded by the former and is one of Japan’s most famous landscape photographers’ clubs. In 2013, she was selected as one of the Top 10 Photographers of the Tokyo Camera Club.

www.chikakoyagi.com
Instagram: @chikako_yagi

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