Cherry Blossom Photography Tips: Shooting in the Dark

Cherry Blossom Photography Tips: Shooting in the Dark

The conditions are often ideal during the night and very early morning for creating a mirror-like surface on the water fo the Tidal Basin.

The cherry blossoms are certainly pretty in the daylight, but you don’t have to confine yourself to daytime shooting. There’s 24-hour, unfettered access to the Tidal Basin, and some beautiful shots to be had after the sun has gone down and before it comes back up again. I’m particularly a fan of the period just before sunrise when the sky starts to lighten up.

A tripod, of course, will come in very handy. There are lots of good tripods out there for all different styles and price points. Here’s the one I use as my go-to travel tripod. An external shutter release, whether cable, infrared, or smartphone, will also help minimize movement of the camera and help with tack-sharp photos.


At one time, the cherry trees were lit up at night.[foot]Ann McClellan, *The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration* (Piermont: Bunker Hill, 2013) p.40.[/foot] They’re not anymore, but the Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, and MLK Memorial are lit up.

Cherry Blossom Photography Tips: Shooting in the Dark

This shot was taken with a tripod, a long exposure, and touch of flash dialed down low. The long exposure creates a little soft motion blur in the leaves, while the flash gives the flowers some definition without washing them out and making them too bright. It was also a bit misty, which is why the Jefferson Memorial and the area next to it on the far shore look a bit soft.

By the Light of the Moon

There’s not going to be much in the way of moonlight to work with. During the likely peak bloom period, the moon is going to be a waning crescent rising around 5-8am. But if the sky is clear and you’re there in the wee hours, it’ll be possible to get a shot of the moon rising directly over the Jefferson Memorial if you’re standing over on the southeastern bank of the Tidal Basin near the FDR Memorial. You’ll really need a pretty long telephoto to get the moon to figure prominently in the shot.

Cherry Blossom Photography Tips: Shooting in the DarkIf you want to get serious about night photography, this book by Lance Keimig is a very useful resource with some beautiful photos.

Using a Flash

By all means try a flash. I’m not much of a fan of on-camera flash for anything, and with the cherry blossoms it tends to flatten the perspective and wash out the colors. If on-camera or built-in flash is the only option you have, you might get better results turning it off.

You have a lot more control, of course, if you can get the flash off and away from the camera a bit. If you can dial down the intensity, that can be helpful in preventing the flowers from just becoming a block of bright white or pink. Fill flash on the flowers with one of the illuminated monuments in the background can be a very effective shot. It’s worth experimenting, especially if you can control the level of flash output.

Cherry Blossom Photography Tips: Shooting in the Dark

In this pre-dawn shot, the rising sun, still below the horizon, is creating gentle hues in the sky. The type of lights used on the Jefferson Memorial make it show as green. You could adjust the white balance of the whole photo to make it look neutral, but that would throw off the other colors. And you could adjust just that section of the photo with a mask, but I prefer to keep manipulations like that to a minimum.

[dropshadowbox align=”center” effect=”lifted-both” width=”75%” height=”” background_color=”#ffffff” border_width=”1″ border_color=”#dddddd” ]Local Tip: I’ve always been amazed at how safe the National Mall is. You don’t tend to get panhandlers or touts like you do at most other tourist sites the world over, even though the visible police and ranger presence is actually pretty light (although they are there). Especially in the middle of a major city that has it’s fair share of crime issues.

That said, if you’re heading down to the Tidal Basin after hours, use common sense. Doubly so if you’re carrying expensive camera equipment. Be aware of your surroundings. Trust your instincts. Don’t go alone if you can help it.

The Tidal Basin is in a fairly remote and isolated area. You will have a bit of a walk to and from your car. Passing cabs will be few and far between. There are no stores or vendors nearby (during the day, there are a few small kiosks, but they’re closed at night). There’s not much, if anything, in the way of a security presence after hours.

So long as the weather is nice, there’ll likely be people around admiring the cherry blossoms up until at least 9pm. There’ll be some turning up just before dawn. In between, there might not be much of anyone around. That might be good for photos, but it’s less than ideal in terms of personal safety. So stay safe.[/dropshadowbox]

Cherry Blossom Photography Tips: Shooting in the Dark

A combination of long exposure, still conditions, and faint predawn light come together in this shot.

More in this series: Cherry Blossom Photo Tips

« Cherry Blossom Photography Tips: Avoiding the Crowds9 Tips for Taking Cherry Blossom Photos with Your Smartphone »



  1. Madge says

    I was there this morning before sunrise with a group of other photographers, and got a few nice shots. It’s just too bad that the weather has been so cool preventing the buds from opening fully. Nonetheless, I’m glad I went despite the cold weather.

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