Japan under the Cherry Blossoms

Rejuvenation of the Soul

Depending on where you live or are, the seasons of the year have a profound effect on people’s mood and attitude. Spring is a time of rejuvenation, where after the many months of winter’s doldrums, the natives come out of their metaphorical hibernation and reacquaint themselves with all life has to offer.

In Japan, this celebration of life coincides with Cherry Blossom season which, in Japanese, is referred to as Hanami, the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers, referring to those of the cherry – Sakura. The season usually begins in late March and extends to early May depending on the location. Schools are off for several weeks, families are on holidays and for the many who are obsessed, it is selfie heaven.

Our first exposure to the flowers, was actually indoors at the infamous Sony showroom in the heart of the Ginza neighbourhood in Tokyo. Way before there were any Apple Stores, this is where geeks and electronically obsessed people indulged in gadget heaven.

The mini cherry blossom trees inside the multilevel display served two purposes: 1) To show the spirit of the season 2) Sony has emerged as a camera manufacturer powerhouse, with the emphasis on mirrorless cameras (a major shift from the traditional DSLR cameras) and the flowers gave potential clients an interesting subject matter to test the cameras and lenses on.

You can see in my photos  (I use the Fuji mirrorless system), by selectively focusing on the flowers in the store, the background is just that, a background, something to give context but not distract the viewer.

The next day, we took the amazing Shinkansen, or bullet train, from Tokyo to Kyoto. The train travels at about 320 kilometers per hour (about 200 MPH) and is smooth and quiet. In fact, you can get a limited duration (one week) Japan Rail pass that gives you unlimited trips on any train in their system.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, until the late 1800s when it was moved to Tokyo. The city is a study of contrasts between the old and the new. When you see the women dressed in the traditional Kimono, while taking selfies on their smartphones, that distinction couldn’t be clearer.

From the train, we took the taxi to the road that leads to one of the UNESCO Heritage sites of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The walking road up to the top of the hill is loaded with touristy type of shops, featuring souvenirs and green tea ice cream. You will also see photos from the Osaka Castle and the Shinjuku Gardens in Tokyo.

The cherry blossom season came early this year and many of the trees had already lost their beautiful leaves. As a travel photographer, one of the first and important lessons is that there are many more things that you can’t control in the environment than you can control.

Obstacles include the weather (sunny or not, raining, windy etc.), access, throngs of people in popular destinations, the light (natural and artificial), length of daytime, safety, family obligations etc, etc.

Some photographers will only shoot during the golden hours (dawn and dusk) when the light Is as perfect as it can get, and the early shift solves the people issue in many cases. However, when you have a limited time in a special place, those constraints really limit your creative potential. In fact, if you limit yourself in this way, your work will tend to look the same in many different ways.

For me, the challenge and thrill, is to throw myself into an environment where my control is limited and to still “Capture the Unique, while Exploring our Global Village”.

So, how does that work from a practical standpoint? Well, the first requirement is to have some sort of photography equipment that will do the best job possible. This could range from a smartphone to the most sophisticated camera gear. Which equipment to use, while preserving a certain simplicity, is the challenge. I will be exploring this in greater detail, in other blog posts. Suffice it to say, the best camera is the one that is with you, and in today’s technology that is pretty good.

The most important aspect of photography that is universal to whatever systems you are using is composition. At the end of the day, no matter how many bells and whistles your gadgets have, you are the one who decides how the image is framed and composed.

Not knowing what I am going to see, I look at photographing the cherry blossoms as an assignment. What can I show that isn’t just pictures of tress or people in front of the blossoms that would make it more interesting, based on the constraints I mentioned earlier?

Some of the ideas that came to mind, that I will share with you in words and images were:

– Close ups (macro photography) that show the details of the flowers with the background blurred.

– Silhouette photos by shooting directly into the sun and lowering the exposure.

– People interacting with the flowers, by taking photos of the cherry blossoms, themselves with the flowers as background/foreground and playing with them.

– Flowers mixed with Architecture. Focus on the foreground blossoms with the architecture both blurred and in focus in the background.

– Scale. The photos of the park guard near the trees give a sense of how large the area was.

– To get some of the images, without many people, I made sure to be at the farthest end of the park, near closing time and walked backwards while taking images as the guards guides us towards the entrance. I do this all the time in public places.

– Never put your camera away. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was finished and then saw something interesting to photograph. Many times those are my best shots.

Back in the day, when I shot film, every time I pressed the shutter, I thought about the 25 cents it costs to purchase and develop the film, with no idea if the images were even good.

In today’s digital environment, not only can we experiment to our hearts’ delight at no additional cost, it is also simple to review our photos and see which lenses, settings were used and what can be improved the next time you are in a similar situation.

Hopefully, by employing some of these techniques and using your own creativity, you can also Capture the Unique.