The Annual Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival in Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ is one of the most beautiful events in the New York/New Jersey metro area and a delightful photographic subject. Some choose to use the delicate white and pink cherry blossoms on display as a backdrop for memorable family portraits. Others simply want a beautiful photographic record of this lovely natural event. Here are a few basic tips to help you capture the best possible photos. By following these easy-to-use tips you may even capture a few images you will be proud to frame and display!
The cherry blossom portrait shown above was photographed in Branch Brook Park (Essex County, NJ) on an overcast day. I used a DSLR camera and telephoto zoom lens (Canon 55-250mm) at 250mm, F4.5 aperture. By close focusing to the blooms and using a wide aperture, the distant background elements merged into one blurred color.
It would seem to many that the best time for cherry blossom photography is on a bright, sunny, cloudless day. However, that is not normally true. Bright cloudless days, with direct overhead sun, generally do not offer optimum conditions for cherry blossom photography. Sunlight, especially during midday, can be quite harsh, creating strong black shadows and lots of glare. This sort of light is the worst for photographing people. The strong shadows can be unflattering, creating deep shadows and harsh glare both in portraits and in the delicate cherry blossoms.
Soft, overcast light can give your photographs of cherry blossom trees a gentler personality. The photo above, shot on Branch Brook Park’s Morris Canal was shot on an overcast, slightly misty day. The soft light enhances the mood of this image and softly illuminates the cherry blossom trees.
To get the best possible photos on a clear, sunny day, do the following: Shoot your photos early in the day, before 11 AM, and in the late afternoon, after 3 PM. The sun will be lower on the horizon, casting warmer, more diffused light with softer shadows and less glare. This tip will also give you the most pleasing results for portraits and family photos. Skin appears softer, more natural, and cherry blossoms benefit from the softer light conditions during these times of the day.
Ideally, sunny days with a combination of powder blue skies and fair weather cumulus clouds are wonderful for cherry blossom photography. Powder blue skies look very appealing as a background for cherry blossoms and the puffy cotton ball-like clouds act as giant reflectors, softening the sunlight’s glare and reducing harsh shadows in the landscape of the park. These are also great conditions for family photos, which brings me to my next tip.
If I had to make a single accessory purchase for cherry blossom/portrait photography, this would be it. A white or gold diffuser can make subtle but meaningful improvements in outdoor portraits of friends and family and in cherry blossom close-up photos. In fact, this will do more to give your photos a professional look than any other photographic accessory you may purchase. Photographic diffusers are sold in most good camera shops. They are lightweight, collapsible flat screens with a highly reflective white/gold/silver surface designed to bounce light on your subject. They soften shadows and add illumination, whether the subject is your child’s face or a pleasing cluster of cherry blooms.
The advantage of diffuser over using camera flash is that the light is softer and natural. You can spot a photo illuminated with a camera’s pop-up flash a mile away. The shadows tend to be harsh and details flattened. However, a white diffuser creates a very natural and soft form of illumination that flatters faces and delicate cherry blossoms.
Diffusers are available at most camera shops. Simply hold it so that it filters sunlight cast on the face of your subject or the blooms being photographed. It will soften harsh shadows and flatter your subject. And, it adds sparkle to the eyes in portraits. If you shoot a portrait in the shadows, then use it to bounce light on your subject and illuminate it. This is the single item I would recommend purchasing in addition to your camera that will truly improve your outdoor family photos. They typically cost about $10 to $25, and can be purchased at better camera stores like Adorama. Here is a great video from photographer Bryan Peterson (no relation) showing how to use a diffuser.
If you get light misty rain conditions while the blooms are in peak season (or even a bit of fog), run, don’t walk to Branch Brook Park with camera in hand! These light conditions often create a moodier, more romantic effect that makes for memorable cherry blossom photos. The softer light just after a gentle rain is perfect for close-up photos of cherry blossoms and romantic portraits. Your photos will have a soft, gentle mood and glow, with some lovely raindrops adorning the blooms in closeup photos. During this weather, the cherry blossoms are more photogenic than ever.
The weekends during cherry blossom season in Branch Brook Park are crowded and busy. It will be difficult to capture a photo that does not contain rows of parked cars, scores of visitors, and other signs of civilization. However, during the week, the park can be blissfully quiet, allowing for photos that show the cherry blossoms at their best. It’s also a great time to create un-rushed family portraits. If you must shoot on the weekend, the early mornings are generally the quietest (unless there is an event planned).
On early spring days in Essex County, cherry blossoms seem to be in constant motion. The breezes can seem unending when you’re trying to capture detailed, sharp images of cherry blossom blooms. Sometimes you can wait for the wind to die down, at other times the breezes are constant. If you have limited time for shooting, try this. Shoot three or more images of the same scene in rapid succession, and choose the one that has the least amount of blur caused by blowing winds. Digital photography allows you to shoot multiple images at no cost. So if you see a scene that you really want to capture without blur, it may require a bit of patience to wait until the winds subside for the best possible photo. Shoot multiple images, and choose the best of the series. Chances are that one of those shots will come out just about right. If you are shooting a late model DSLR camera, go to a higher ISO setting (400-800 ISO to ensure low noise) to gain a higher shutter speed. The faster shutter speed is more likely to freeze motion.
The background of your cherry blossom photos can often determine its appeal. When you compose your photo, look at the background colors. Are they complimentary to the overall image? Sometimes, simply by adjusting your angle or position, you can control what appears in the background. The soft blur of distant blossoms or powder blue skies offer appealing backgrounds that may enhance your overall photo. Also, be aware of busy backgrounds that have distracting elements. Simple backgrounds often work best. Try focusing close to the cherry blossoms while using the widest apertures your lens offers. This will result in sharply focused foreground subjects with blurred backgrounds (like the photo below).
Here is a cherry blossom photo from Branch Brook Park that I used for one of my website designs. This image was shot with a telephoto zoom lens (Canon 55-250mm). By focusing close to the foreground blossoms with a wide aperture, I was able to completely blur the background, adding a beautiful color palette in the background that really makes this image shine!
When taking cherry blossom close-up photos, you need to see what your camera lens sees, not your unaided eye. For example, the lens may blur the background in closeup images at wider apertures in a way that your eye cannot. Or it may distort the image in an unusual way. Judge and compose your photo based on what you see in your viewfinder.Exploit the characteristics of your lens for better photos. The image at the top of this page is a good example. My unaided eye would see everything in sharp focus in both the foreground and background. However, my camera lens, at its widest apertures, fully blurred the distant background in this photo, creating this beautiful wallpaper-like effect. I composed this shot to take advantage of how the lens saw the scene.
All of the photos on this page were captured with the cheapest DSLR camera made by Canon at the time (the Canon Rebel XS, which retails used now for about $150.00) and a Canon lens that can be purchased new for aprox. $150.00 (US), the Canon EF-S 55-250mm lens. However, I waited for the right light, waited for the wind to subside, and used a tripod to get the images I wanted. Learning to use the equipment you have will produce better photos than buying expensive gear without knowing the basics of photography. Besides, just being among these beautiful natural cherry trees is the best part of it all, whether you bring a camera or not! Enjoy the cherry blossoms!
That’s it! These tips can be used with just about any camera, and should help you to create memorable photos at this year’s Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival. Hope to see you there! —All Cherry Blossom Photos were shot in Branch Brook Park by Don Peterson, owner of this website.