Cherry Peeping

In the middle of a multi-lingual conversation about the proper way to enjoy sakura, my friend Ben Torode coined a new term: cherry peeping.

It’s a perfect word, and it was in a conversation where the perfect audience was there to understand the word, but it deserves some unpacking for the rest of you.

Pixel peeping is a term that photographers use to talk about looking too closely at photographs. In the modern era, people have the ability to look more closely at photographs than ever before. Every photographer working today is blowing up their work huge on their own computer screens, looking for the imperfections up close, and fixing what they can.

It’s lead to massive leaps forward in technology. Pixels peepers are the ones pushing the giant leaps forward in low ISO noise, in focus micro-adjustments, in lens sharpness, and in the great megapixel race.

The thing is, pixel peepers get obsessed with getting the best technical quality out of a photo, and they stop seeing the photo. There’s a sort of negative connotation to pixel peeping. Not a strong one, but a sort of cant-see-the-forest-for-the-trees mentality that causes people looking for a certain “best” to overlook things like Nikon’s 135mm f/2.8 Ai-S lens. It’s not the sharpest, but when you’re shooting a portrait, sometimes resolving every pore on someone’s skin isn’t the thing you want to do.

There’s an analogous idea among the Japanese about viewing sakura. The idea is that the true beauty in sakura isn’t up close in each individual flower, but when you back up and see the giant masses of flowers on one tree, or on large groups of sakura that the Japanese have spent probably literal thousands of years planting.

I think I can really understand that argument, but, there’s a catch.

Everyone loves sakura.

And in Tokyo, “everyone” is a lot of people. Literally tens of millions of people.

Shooting landscapes in Tokyo is hard. You’re always looking for that one angle that frames out that ugly building, or that avoids those power lines, or something like that. With sakura, you’re always figuring out how to cut out the admiring masses, or the blue tarps that people are picnicking on.

The problem is that, at a certain point, you start to wonder if all of this manipulating the scene and planning is a kind of lying. Creating those big landscape sakura shots without the distraction of people can be possible, and reflects the relaxing, natural ideal of sakura, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of the experience.

Perhaps other people are better at shutting the crowds and business out of their experience than I am, but I really only start to enjoy the experience when I can shut everyone else out by getting involved in the micro experience, not the macro experience.

I’ll admit it proudly. I’m a cherry peeper. I always have been, but it wasn’t until this term was coined that I really thought out why I was.

Certainly, the desire to shut out the crowd and focus on the beauty of the sakura in front of me is a part of it. But I think there’s another big piece to it, and it isn’t just sakura. It’s flower photography in general.

There’s a world of difference between a photo of a beautiful thing, and a beautiful photo of a thing.

I think that Robert Mapplethorpe had the right idea with his flowers. I know, that’s kinda a lame thing to say, like that Monet guy had the right idea with his water lillies. But bear with me.

We have been inundated with flower photos. They’re everywhere. Everyone has seen a million bad photos of flowers, and a million good photos of flowers. So when presented with a great photo of a flower, we’re able to grasp that it’s a great photo. But why is it a great photo? Mapplethorpe, working in studio, was able to change and control everything – the angles, the light, the background – to intellectually experiment with what makes a beautiful photo of a thing, because the beauty of the flowers was not changing. He was able to experiment, and for himself, create an internalized logical structure for what makes a beautiful photo under controlled circumstances, and then he applied that knowledge to his other work.

The thing about cherry-peeping is that there are so many beautiful examples of sakura. But only some of them are in places where the light and background can be made into a beautiful photo. There’s a lot of technical jiggling that goes into making that beautiful photo. Beyond selecting the sakura that are in the right light, you have to decide your depth of field, your perspective, what lens is the right one for the situation, all within the restrictions that nature, time, and budget, have given you. In the digital era, you get to take multiple shots at it, looking at your failures, and intellectually working through the process of what makes this a beautiful photo of a thing, because the beauty of the thing is a constant.

I find when I disappear into that process, I can forget all the crowds of the sakura season, I can block out all of the imperfections in the world around me, and focus on that one piece of beautiful nature. Even if I don’t come out with a good photo, I come out having enjoyed the process, and having learned something. It may not be the way I’m supposed to enjoy the season, but I’ll be a cherry-peeper for life.