Photography Tips for Cherry Blossoms

Between March and early May, Japan’s sakura or cherry blossom trees open up to bring in one of the most colorful and beautiful times of the year. For both tourists and residents of Japan alike, capturing the beauty of the cherry blossoms in photos is a must. Time is of the essence, though, as sakura season is a short-lived spectacle in each area of the country. In fact, full bloom usually lasts only about two weeks. 
We asked Odigo staff photographer Nathan Hosken some questions to give beginner photographers advice on cameras and photography, and why using your smartphone for nature photography, in most cases, is perfectly okay. 

Cherry blossom close-up -- Photo by Nathan Hosken

Q: “How crucial is having a highly advanced camera? Can I still get decent shots of the cherry blossoms using my smartphone?”

A: High-end cameras are not essential for taking good photographs. The best camera is the one you have with you; in most cases, this will be your smartphone. Obviously, a smartphone camera is different than high-end cameras, especially when it comes to limited low-light capability and controlling depth of field. However, high-end cameras have many features that might overwhelm a beginner photographer. 

Q:  “Won't more features result in better photos? Why do these cameras have so many features in the first place?”

A: Well, I suppose camera manufacturers are in the business of selling cameras and include new features to differentiate each product from the previous model as well as the competition. Some of these features might come from the demands of pros, for example, higher frame rate for sports or better low-light performance. In any case, these features are not always needed from a pure image making point of view. Inspiration can come from working off a device's limitations. And in the right hands, and with good light, a smartphone can produce images that are of a similar quality to high-end cameras. 

Spring means sakura -- Photo by Nathan Hosken

Q: “Why can’t I get the shot that my eye 'sees'? Sometimes I see a scene and take a shot, and the photo looks too dark, or the colors are dull, not what I saw.”

A: This question is very relevant to sakura season, and demonstrates when knowing the capabilities of your particular camera pays off. For every shot, an optimum exposure exists. Exposure is a combination of three main elements: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. When in Auto Mode, the camera automatically calculates these settings. Smartphones do this automatically as well. If you aren't getting what you see, usually the scene has too much of a  difference between light and dark -- all cameras struggle here. My suggestions are to either change your angle so as to get a more evenly lit scene, or play with the exposure compensation. 
Exposure compensation is a dial or button with plus and minus options on the top of many cameras. On the iPhone, look for the sun (brightness) icon that appears when you tap the screen in photo mode. You can adjust the exposure by sliding your finger up and down. But having said all of this, you should also just go and take in sakura season while it lasts. Take your camera and enjoy the cherry blossoms. Photo opportunities will be easy to find as you explore. Sometimes location combined with a fleeting moment of light make the experience and the photography all the more special.

Cherry blossoms and perspective -- Photo by Nathan Hosken

Q: “What cameras do you typically use?”

A: My personal camera is a Nikon D750. I have a whole collection of lenses for it, and my Nikon is my go-to camera for when I want lots of features and the best image quality. I also use a Fujifilm XT1. TheXT1 has a lot of manual controls and dials, making it my favorite when teaching someone about cameras. The camera's design makes it very intuitive. This camera doesn’t perform quite as well in areas of low light as my Nikon but is a decent trade-off when factoring in weight and portability. I use the Nikon D750 for more challenging situations (low light and extreme weather conditions). I also use a Panasonic LX100. This capable camera is small enough to fit into your jacket pocket. I'd recommend it for times when portability and convenience are important. The LX100 does however have a fixed lens which makes it less flexible.

Q: “How might a beginner learn to use a professional camera?”

A: Experimenting with a camera’s features is one of the best ways to learn. All cameras follow the same principles based on both math and physics. The greater an understanding of these principles, the more the photographer can use them to a creative effect. For example, photographers can give themselves tasks to shoot, such as playing with alternating depths of field or slower shutter speeds at night. Practice and try new things.  Also, I recommend starting to learn about RAW files, as editing in the digital darkroom is also part of learning and finding your own style.

Cherry blossoms, exposure, and depth of field -- Photo by Nathan Hosken

Q: “What camera would you say is a ‘jack of all trades’?”

A: For me, cameras like the Fujifilm deliver the best overall results. Comparatively, this camera is small and lightweight, yet its advanced setup offers many of the features associated with a higher-end camera. In my opinion, the photographer has the best of both worlds with this camera, making it a fantastic choice. 

Tokyo is a great place for camera shopping. Check out Nathan's Camera Geek Trip!