I’m not going to pretend that my version of this beautiful Japanese maple tree is unique. Just Google Portland Japanese Garden and you’ll see dozens of similar images of this very tree. And a search for “most photographed tree in the world” will surely include this tree somewhere on the list. But the story of its capture—which includes elements of discovery, insight, surprise, awe, and even a little resourcefulness—is different than the story of any of my other images, making it one of my favorite images of the year despite its lack of uniqueness.
As anyone who has tried to combine a family vacation with a photography trip can tell you, the best time for photography is pretty much the worst time to be outside: sunrise happens when most people would rather be asleep; sunset almost always interferes with dinner; night photography is cold and keeps you up too late; and wild weather (snow, rain, fog) can make pretty much everyone cranky. Conversely, a warm and sunny afternoon, when everyone (without a camera) is awake, fed, and longing to enjoy the outdoors, is just about the worst time to take (good) pictures.
I’ve learned (and observed) that trying to mix serious photography with a family/friend vacation leaves everyone dissatisfied. That’s why, before departing on any trip, I decide whether I’m going to be a photographer or a tourist—one or the other, never both. On trips when I’m a tourist, with the prime goal to relax and and enjoy the sights with the people I love, I just leave my camera home and simply bask in Nature’s splendor. My lights-out and rise times are determined by comfort and enjoyment—my own and those with me—while my forays into Nature consider only convenience, and are timed for the most pleasant conditions to be outside. Following this approach keeps my body and mind fresh, my loved ones happy, and gives me a relaxed perspective that ultimately benefits my photography.
Last week my wife and I drove to Portland to visit friends, taking the long way to enjoy a three-day scenic drive up the California and Oregon coasts. Despite the undeniable beauty I knew we’d find on our route, my camera bag stayed home, and we enjoyed a truly great trip—relaxing, rejuvenating, absolutely gorgeous, and lots of fun. I think I can add enlightening as well, because whatever I lost in images was more than made up for in insight and perspective that’s only possible with no camera between me and Nature. (Photographers: try this sometime.)
One of the many highlights of our trip was Friday’s visit to the Portland Japanese Garden, a location I’ve long known of but never visited. The entire garden is beautiful and worthy of photographing, but its Japanese maple is probably the most recognizable specimen there. This beautiful tree has been featured in National Geographic magazine, and, as a classic “trophy shot” in every sense of the word, graces the portfolios, walls, books, and galleries of many (many) nature photographers.
Like most landscape icons, this maple’s beauty completely justifies the attention it receives, so even without my camera I was anxious to put my own eyes on it. Fully embracing vacation mode, before our visit I did zero research on the tree, and knew only that it was in the Portland Japanese Garden. Strolling the garden late Friday morning, I scanned for what I imagined, from the many photos I’d seen, what the tree must look like: maybe 20 feet tall with a symmetrical 25-foot spread, alone and dominating a grassy hill, and likely surrounded by gawking, selfie-seeking tourists.
When I found nothing of the sort, I was mildly disappointed, but simply shrugged and prepared to exit the garden for lunch and the rest of the day’s activities elsewhere in this beautiful city. But when my wife detoured into the garden’s gift shop before our departure, I opted to take one more shot at finding the tree. And for the first time all week, I set aside my tourist perspective and allowed myself to start thinking like a photographer, trying to see each tree the way a camera might see it. That’s when it occurred to me (duh) that a wide angle lens positioned low could create an illusion of size that doesn’t exist, and the object of my quest may in fact not look anything like I’d imagined it. Armed with that mental reset, I retraced my steps through the garden, reevaluating the trees I’d previously walked right past.
I’d only made it a couple hundred yards (on a trail I’d already traveled a couple of times) when I came across a smallish red maple on a grassy slope, protected by a (very) short wood fence, sharing its space with a few nondescript shrubs, and sporting a dense canopy that dropped to just a couple of feet above the ground. At first glance there was nothing to distinguish this tree from any other maple in the garden, a fact underscored by the scores of tourists walking right past it without so much as a glance.
But something about this tree tweaked my photographic Spidey-sense, so I approached the fence and ducked under the leafy canopy. Instantly I experienced something akin to what Harry Potter must have felt when he slipped into the Weasley’s tent in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”
Quite simply, this was a different world. And even though at first glance it didn’t look at all like the pictures of the tree I’d seen, as soon as I saw it through the wide angle lens in my brain, everything fit into place. At this point, now hopelessly in my photographer-mind, I registered the tiny leaves, illuminated by sunlight gently filtered by thin clouds, and the way they radiated a diaphanous glow that emphasized their rich red. Next my eyes landed on the spiderweb shadow pattern cast on the lawn by the tree’s twisted branches.
Some things are just so beautiful they must be preserved, but instead of being frustrated that I didn’t have my “professional” camera, I whipped out my iPhone (14 Pro), switched its camera to the widest lens, dropped to ground level, and clicked one frame. At that point I had no plan to do anything more with my image than share it with my wife and save it as a keepsake of our trip. But when I showed the picture to my wife, she was especially excited and wanted to see the tree with her own eyes. So back we went.
In the 2 minutes it took us to return to the tree, I mentally critiqued my original capture and identified a few things I’d like to do differently. Then it occurred to me that this might be a great time to try out my iPhone’s raw capture feature for the first time (a raw image is unprocessed image data that requires a little more processing, but offers more flexibility and creates a better quality image). Back at the tree I took 6 more pictures, each in raw mode, each from a slightly different perspective. In the process, I used a variety of canopy/shadows ratios (lots of canopy, lots of shadow, and equal amounts canopy and shadow).
Importing and processing the Apple ProRAW images was no more difficult than with my regular cameras’ raw images—I simply AirDropped the files onto my computer, imported them into Lightroom, then processed them as I would any other image. And I’ve got to say that I was blown away by the image quality—both the detail (some of which is lost in the jpeg and web upload compression of the image I share here), and the dynamic range.
My final thought on this experience goes to something I write about a lot: the differences between human vision and the camera’s vision, and how to leverage those differences to create an image. Often my thoughts emphasize framing, subject relationships, and what I call photography’s “Creative Triad”—motion, light, and depth—that can be controlled with the exposure variables. But one more creative tool that can enable photographers to create something vastly different than the human experience is focal length.
A long focal length can compress the distance separating near and far objects, while a wide focal length can open up a small space to make it look much larger than it is (a feature used without shame by just about every real estate photographer). To illustrate how much the 13mm full-frame equivalent focal length of my iPhone exaggerated the size of this tree, I commissioned a lovely 5′ 3″ model (aka, my wife) to stand in front of the tree and allow me to photograph her using the phone’s 24mm full frame equivalent focal length. Hard to believe they’re the same tree, but I promise they are.
This trip was an excellent reminder that you don’t need a camera to be happy on vacation. I’m not saying I’m ready to throw away my professional cameras, but there’s peace of mind knowing that I can go out sans camera and tripod and still capture something I can share and print without apology.
Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE
Both a wonderful few images and a tremendous story. I have also known of this tree for years, but have never visited the Japanese Garden during any of my visits to Portland. Other folks had told me that it was small, so I was not surprised by your description and picture.
Thanks so much for sharing your perspectives on vacations/trips as well as the images, Mark
Excellent food for thought, Gary. And what a fantastic image and example of working a scene. 🙂
As a former student of yours, and 76 years old, I too have shed the weight of most of my equipment for an IPhone 14 pro, and am amazed at its capability. You are absolutely right though, it’s the creative mindset that captures great pictures, not necessarily the equipment.
But wait! No tripod?? 😉 I remember you making one of our group go buy a tripod at Yosemite if he was going to take the class.