I tend to arrive by 3am and circle most of the tidal basin before sunrise, capturing some unique images of iconic landscapes. It is a very peaceful and relaxing time to visit the DC Mall, and taking photographs at that time is almost therapeutic. When I started photographing the cherry blossoms in the pre-sunrise morning I saw no one around the tidal basin. Each year I see more and more photographers joining me in this seemingly crazy ritual. :-)
Therefore, I try to get out before the crowds and arrive long before sunrise. This not only alleviates having people in all of your photos, but it results in unique images few others will have or be willing to get. For example, this year sunrise as 6:40am. But to beat the sunlight altogether, you need to be out before 5:00am when the first signs of light start to fill the sky even before the sun crosses the horizon.
Since the word "photograph" has origins from the Greek words roughly meaning "drawing with light", you will need some soft of light. We are lucky in the downtown DC area that the major monuments are lit up all hours of the day. So taking nigh-time photos of these is trivial.
Sadly, there are few lights available for photographing the cherry blossoms themselves, and the results are not very impressive. Below you can see the results when additional light is added to what would normally be a disappointing photograph. Even with the first example, some light was available from giant industrial flood light behind me. Even these were not enough to add much life to the image.
|no flash - ordinary|
|with flash - extra ordinary|
You could bring a flashlight, or many photographers may have a handheld flash, a "speedlite"for example. My lighting weapon of choice is a battery power studio strobe -- Paul C Buff's Einstein to be exact. Powered by their Vagabond Lithium Mini. Its a few extra pounds of weight but the extra power and light coverage well worth it!!
|no flash - less than ordinary|
|with flash - extra ordinary|
At night, all photos will require long exposures. The wind will almost always be causing the cherry blossoms to move and sway throughout your exposure. Use of a flashlight will invariably result in a blurry mess by the time you're done lighting your scene.
Even a "speedlite" may result in poor results. You may need to pop off multiple flashes during the long exposure to light all of the cherry blossoms you want to capture. This will often result in multiply exposed blossoms, as they move in the wind and are exposed repeatedly in different positions by your flash.
If necessary, limit your field of view and increase your flash power as high as possible to allow your flash to fire only once.
As the sun rises and the sky lights up, you may run into additional problems but with a little care you can still use your flash. If your camera/flash has an option called High Speed Sync, it might help. But the effective distance diminishes so greatly, you're often just wasting your time!!
So be bold and daring, and set your clock for the wee hours. Relax and have fun before the "cherry blossom anti-vampires" feeding frenzy begins and you feel like you've just stepped into the Metro at rush hour.