Photographing the Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon

If you have ever visited the Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon you probably walked by a famous tree and did not even realize it. This little tree has been photographed by more people than any other tree. When I captured my photograph of this tree in 2015 I was not aware of how famous it was. I quickly learned just how famous it is!

Limited Edition of 50 Museum Grade, Fine Art Prints. This is probably the single most photographed tree in the world and yet...

Tree of Life

The Famous Tree

My daughter lives in Portland and every time we visit we try to go see the Japanese Garden. On our trip in May 2015, I was only aware of one other photographer who had photographed this tree, Rodney Lough Jr. I first found out about Rodney Lough Jr. when I walked into his gallery in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota in 2009. I was working for Fuji Film U.S.A at the time and had to go to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area on business. I was looking for a place to eat and wander around so I went to the mall. When I stumbled into Rodney's Gallery I was in awe. I spent an hour or more conversing with the gallery manager just soaking in Rodney's work. It was sometime after that I saw Rodney's image "Tree of Truth" on his website and started researching where I could find this tree. Rodney lived in the Portland area and my daughter had moved there. So on one of my trips to visit my daughter I found this little tree in the Japanese Garden and on May 21, 2015 I took my photograph. A number of years later on another trip to Portland I actually visited Rodney at his studio and we got a tour. It was an experience I will never forget. He is truly a master photographer.

I titled my image “The Tree of Life”, not even knowing who Peter Lik was or that he had an image of this tree titled the same. The tree of life concept runs very deep in my personal beliefs and choosing this name was natural for me. This little tree is only about 8 feet tall but when photographed from ground level looks like a giant. I was actually laying on the ground to get this photograph! The early spring colors really make the tree come to life with green, yellow, and red.

Peter Lik's image of this tree titled "Tree of Life" was awarded first place in the Windland Smith Rice International Awards in 2011 and was on display in the Smithsonian from April - September of 2012. From what I can tell Lik's exhibit is what began this tree's climb to fame. Although I did not find out who Peter Lik is until well after 2015.

Other photographers that have popular images of this tree are Aaron Reed, Timm Chapman, and Mickey Shannon to name a few. People travel to the Japanese Garden in Portland just to see and photograph this little tree.

Japanese Garden Portland Oregon maple tree


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As you enter the garden through the Nezu Gate stay to the right. The path will take you around the pond towards the Moon Bridge. The famous tree, a Japanese Lace leaf Maple, will be on your left not far from where you make the right turn towards the bridge. The picture above is of the tree from the path, you can see the Moon Bridge in the background. If you are not paying attention you can walk right by the tree because you cannot see the twisted trunk without getting down low to look in an opening through the canopy.

Exploring the Garden


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The Portland Japanese Garden was conceived in the late 1950's by Mayor Terry Schrunk and members of the Portland community when they had the idea of building the garden on the site of the old Washington Park Zoo. The site was dedicated in 1961 and Professor Takuma Tono of Tokyo Agricultural University was retained to design the Garden. In 1967 the garden formally opened to the public and that year more than 28,000 people visited before the garden closed for the winter. It was not until 1981-1982 that the Portland Japanese Garden was opened year round. This garden has been acclaimed as the most authentic Japanese garden in the world outside of the nation of Japan.


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No matter what time of year you visit the garden you will be overwhelmed by the serenity and beauty. This place is not for loud voices, laughter, or cell phone conversations. This place is a preserve of peace, nature, and thoughtfulness. Contemplate the care given to this garden by the caretakers. Ponder the years of growth, design, and patience such beauty requires. Respect each leaf, blade of grass, and drop of water for you have entered sacred ground. I have visited the garden at least a handful of times over the years and yet I feel I have barely scratched the surface of beautiful photographs that can be taken in this peaceful place. I am constantly drawn to the water features, the sound of splashing water, the reflections, and the green of the moss covered rocks.

pool in springtime at Japanese Garden Portland, Oregon

Serenity Pool

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Many people only visit the Portland Japanese Garden in the summer or fall. I find springtime to be one of the most rewarding times to photograph the Garden. The starkness of the bare tree branches accentuates the grace of every limb and the curve of every tree trunk. Spring is a time of abundant moss covered rocks, plants glistening with water droplets, and very few crowds. As you walk the garden listen for the sounds of nature such as the birds singing in the vegetation, the rustle of the leaves in the breeze, and the relaxing sound of running water. Exploring the garden in every season will help you see every tree and bush differently. You will find the light and shadows change throughout the year helping some subjects to come alive while others fall asleep.

Finding Perspective

stairs at Japanese Garden Portland, Oregon

Serpentine Stairs

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Search the garden for unusual perspectives. Do not be afraid to get down low and look up, or to get up high and look down, but always be mindful of the garden rules. Stay on the paths, respect others space especially if you are using a tripod, by not blocking paths and walkways. Look inward at yourself and see if you can find examples in the serenity the garden provides of how you can become a better photographer, a better person. Notice how the trees are pruned and directed to grow into certain shapes of twisted beauty, emulating the harshness of nature. Reflect on how you have been pruned and bent throughout your life but how it has changed you to become the person you are today.

racked gravel garden at Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon


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Look for the not so obvious perspectives when photographing. Try to find scenes and subjects you can isolate to only show what you want seen. Isolating subjects can remove items in the background that are distracting. Look for clean compositions and use textures and colors to make your images come alive with interest. When photographing a garden like this one, you want to capture the tranquility and thoughtfulness of the place. Take photographs that help the viewer feel as if they are there. Photographs that make them stop and contemplate the scene.

water fountain at Japanese Garden, Portland, Oregon

Serenity Fountain

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The Gardens Other Trees

There are a number of other wonderful Japanese Maple trees in the garden that can be very rewarding to photograph. Most photographers show up the end of October to photograph the fall foliage. Lines will form at the famous tree and it can be chaotic. I have never been in the garden in the autumn because I try to avoid crowds. Maybe one of these years I will go spend a couple weeks with my daughter and visit the garden every day to finally get some fall images. I personally think the colors can be beautiful in spring and summer because the leaves of the Japanese Maple trees have purple hue.

Japanese Maple, Japanese Garden, Portland Oregon

Tree of Knowledge

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I have spent a number of times visiting the garden just trying to photograph the various trees. Some are right off walk ways making it easy to see the twisted and bent branches, others are at a distance giving a nice composition of the form of the whole tree.

Tree of Love

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There is a tree in the Flat Garden area that I would love to take a closer look at but alas it is too far off the path and has not been pruned to have a place to view the trunk and branches under the canopy. I find each tree unique and promising with the moss covered limbs and graceful branches. Spending time studying each tree to find the perfect perspective and angle is well worth it.

Heavenly Falls-Summer

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The Portland Japanese Garden is composed of eight unique garden spaces. Some of my favorite areas are the Strolling Pond Garden with Heavenly Falls being the key point of interest. I also love the Flat Garden especially in the spring when the trees and flowers are blooming. The Natural Garden is another place I love because it feels remote and removed from the crowds of other areas.

When you decide to visit the Japanese Garden plan ahead and purchase your tickets before arriving then make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to just relax and take in the whole experience. You cannot see this place in a few short hours. Plan on at least four hours of wandering and exploring or better yet make a day of it and arrive at opening and stay until closing. Photographing places like this Garden takes time and patience. Find your compositions and then return to that spot when the light is better. The best light is always first thing in the morning or in the evening but at this garden the sun goes down behind the hill and there is no low afternoon light. Morning is the best time to catch rays of sun through the trees and longer interesting shadows.

Remember to respect this amazing garden and the years spent perfecting this peaceful place. Even though you may be tempted to step off the path to "get the perfect shot" DO NOT, to the gardeners this place is sacred ground. Enjoy your time but take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but your thoughts.