Hello, 2021! Oh, and hello pandemic… You’re still here? No, I have not been in a cave all this time, I’ve just been really, really, really busy. When I last checked in, in 2020, I was waist deep in a personal project that had me photographing around where I grew up with a film camera and developing said film at home in my kitchen sink (more on that in the future). Fast forward almost a year, which I bet most of would have loved to literally have done last year, and things are getting back to somewhat normal on my end. There is so much to share but I wanted to start with some time sensitive information. Specifically, the cherry blossoms in Pittsburgh and how/why I tackled them this year.
If you have followed PhotolisticLife here on the site or over on Instagram (@PhotolisticLife) for a while now, you probably noticed that I tend to steer clear of super popular scenes/subject matter. Now, I’m not on some sort of high horse here… In fact, I’ve never ridden a horse. Unless you count our families Golden Retriever when I was a small boy, when I wasn’t riding around on her back she would be dragging me by my cowboy boots through our front yard (while my mom used the massive camcorder to record it between wiping the tears from laughter out of her eyes… We’ll see who’s laughing when she is elderly… I’M KIDDING!).
I digress. I simply don’t get much enjoyment out of photographing something I’ve seen a million times and I figure many super talented photographers have them pretty well buttoned up. I get my excitement from chasing down new perspectives and subject matter. So, needless to say (which means someone is about to say) the Cherry Blossoms were pretty far down on my shot list. However, it was a windy day and I’ve been wanting to do some long exposure images with some flowers moving around to create a bit of an abstract image so I hopped in my car and the rest is history… That I’ll write about below.
The morning I created these images, as I’m having my coffee at about 4 a.m., I’m thinking I’ve only got about an hour to figure out where I want to be when that giant ball of hot plasma in the sky starts to make it’s way around to me. For the past year or so I’ve been heading out well in advance of sunrise to take advantage of low light photography while my energy level is near 100%. I love shooting sunsets and into the wee hours of the night but my energy is generally sapped by then and I tend to find excuses not to (unless I’m working on a commission). I began thinking about the cherry blossoms about a week ago when they started to pop up all over my Instagram feed. In fact, there were so many of them popping up it was a bit annoying. So, at about the same time I had an image in my mind of the flowering tree outside of our kitchen window that I wanted to create when the late afternoon sun was streaming in. And then, BOOM! The weather snapped and dropped below freezing and I woke up one morning to a tree full of flowers that looked like a bear used them for toilet paper (they were now mostly brown). Then I remembered the copious amounts of images of cherry blossoms downtown and figured I’d just move this party there.
Originally, I had planned on using my Leica M and a 50mm for the kitchen window image but since I was heading downtown where I’d be shooting through trees, I grabbed the Nikon Z7 and the 24-70mm for maximum versatility. At the very least I thought the 70mm end would help me to compress the foreground of the flowering trees into the background of the city and/or bridges. What I didn’t want was the mess of an image that a wide angle gives with buildings and bridges leaning into one another (I think those shots look like garbage and are easily avoidable if you know what you’re doing… Mainly, keep your camera level with the horizon) so I figured anything under 35mm was out of the question. I guess if I were sharing a lesson here I would simply say that for every subject or scene there is a perfect lens, it’s up to you to figure out which one that is though.
Like the table and chair, which God hid in the trees for man (or woman -mankind? Still sounds sexist.) to find, subject and scenes have beauty that photographers want to find. If you don’t use the right approach and the right tools, that beauty stays hidden. It’s as simple as that.
When I arrived, I parked about a mile away so I could slowly walk into the scene and try to approach it with fresh eyes. Sometimes I feel like the more images I see of a particular subject or scene the more closed minded I get. I see the things I like and the things I don’t and if I’m not careful it can put me in a box. Once there, I spent about 30 minutes walking in and out of the trees, photographing from every angle. Finally, once I settled on the shot I wanted, I set up my tripod and took some test shots. In my mind, I wanted to create an image with the cherry blossoms as the main subject, filling the frame around other subject matter for added interest. I did not want to have another image of the city with cherry blossoms off to the side or around the top like they’re just an extra in the show… They were the subject. Additionally, for my long exposure shot to be effective it didn’t make sense to have a pink smudge in a small area of the frame, that would look accidental. No, the tree needed to be the majority of the frame to get that painterly look with the flowers bobbing and weaving in the wind.
Once I did some test shots I adjusted my tripod to a few different places to get the bridge where I wanted it in relation to the tree and then I slid the Big Stopper (10 stop ND filter) in front of my lens to get the shot above. I took a few shots at varying shutter speeds (adjusting the aperture to allow me to speed up or slow down my shutter speed without changing the ND filter) and ended up liking 30 seconds. You might be wondering why this wasn’t taken at sunrise but the answer is simple, the harder light was needed to emphasize the colors. At sunrise and/or sunset I find that it’s more difficult to capture the color accurately one subject matter like this. This image is hardly edited and I didn’t need a doctorate in color science to “make” it look beautiful.
The end. Just kidding. I guess I ended up re-learning a recurring lesson in my life. Popular spots, “over shot” spots are often the most beautiful spots. Just because millions of others folks have already been there doesn’t mean there still isn’t a “chair” for me to pull out of the tree (this won’t make sense if you didn’t read the entire article). Also, I think the long exposure version isn’t necessarily better than the regular version at the top of the page, it’s different which makes me like it slightly more. Either way, this is one of my favorite images I’ve taken in Pittsburgh in a looong time and it wouldn’t have happened if Mother Nature had not killed all of the flowers on the tree in my yard. So, special thanks to the crazy weather in Pittsburgh.
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below and follow me over on Instagram @PhotolisticLife. Thanks for reading and I sincerely wish you the best.