Are you interested in photographing the Portland Japanese Garden? If you have ever wondered exactly how to create stunning landscape pictures in the Garden, this article is for you. The article begins with a brief history of the Garden, then discusses photography logistics for landscape / nature photographers and concludes with a collection of tips to help you create compelling photographs in the Garden. The images featured here represent my very best work from the Portland Japanese Garden and each is available for purchase as a limited-edition fine art print.
Latest Conditions Report:
- September 4, 2023 - My "way too early" prediction is that the color change will occur in late October around the usual time.
- September 20, 2023 - Color is just starting to show up in the maples around Portland, OR. As of today, I'm sticking with my prediction of peak color in mid/late October. This is not a guarantee...just my best guess!
See the end of this article for information about what day the peak color change occurred during previous years.
Since my first visit to the Garden in 2011, I have been absolutely mesmerized by the place. Often considered to be one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan, the Portland Japanese Garden is a true gem in the city of Portland, Oregon. Although it’s located in the heart of the city, the Garden offers visitors a quiet place to find peace and serenity. It’s one of my favorite spots to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life and it’s a stunningly beautiful location for landscape photography. The Garden is delightful any time of year, but the explosion of color which occurs in autumn is truly exceptional.
Portland Japanese Garden Photography - Key Information
- Location: The entrance to the Portland Japanese Garden is located at 611 SW Kingston Ave, Portland, OR 97205
- Winter/Fall Hours: Wednesday-Monday 10:00AM - 4:30PM, Member Hours: 8:00AM - 10:00AM
- Summer Hours: Wednesday-Monday 10:00AM - 5:00PM, Member Hours: 8:00AM - 10:00AM
- Parking: Parking is available in Washington Park, just outside the Garden entrance or near the International Rose Test Garden. Between 9:30AM and 10:00PM you must pay for a parking space. Rates are $2 per hour or $8 per day. The Parking Kitty app (iOS & Android) can be used to pay for parking. The zone for Washington Park is 400. Real time parking information for Washington Park is available here.
- Shuttle: to avoid the stress of parking near the garden on busy autumn days, consider taking the Washington Park Free Shuttle, which runs daily every 15-30 minutes from 10:00AM – 4:00PM. Washington Park Free Shuttle information is available here.
- Wheelchairs and Strollers: The main path up to the garden is steep and not suitable for wheelchairs and strollers. For those in need, the Garden offers a free shuttle bus from the Welcome Center to the Cultural Village
- Tickets can be purchased online up to 10 days in advance. Make sure to reserve your tickets in advance, so you can skip the line and go straight to the check in podium!
- Ticket Prices (2023): Adults: $21.95, tripod fee: $10
- Portland Japanese Garden Membership Benefits: ($70/year or $120/2 years)
- Free admission
- Early access to the gardens before the general public (8:00AM - 10:00AM)
- Extended Member Hours on select days from 4:00PM - 6:00PM
- Member events, Garden Workshops, exclusive access to Art Exhibitions
- 20% discount when purchasing tickets for guests
- $10% discount at the Garden Gift Shop
- Photographer Membership Benefits: ($195/year or $350/2 years)
- Free admission and waived tripod fee
- Permission to sell photographs created in the garden
- Invitation to special Photographer Member Hours
History of the Portland Japanese Garden
In the late 1950s, Portland mayor, Terry Schrunk and the Portland community envisioned a Japanese Garden which would strengthen the cultural ties between Oregon and Japan. The creation of a new garden was also seen as a way to ease the strained relationship between the United States and Japan after WWII. The original design by Takuma Tono, created 5 different styles of Japanese Gardens (Strolling Pond Garden, Tea Garden, Natural Garden, Sand and Stone Garden, Flat Garden) spread out over 5.5 acres. This is a unique design for a Japanese Garden, since most gardens maintain a singular style throughout the grounds. After several years of planning and construction, the Portland Japanese Garden officially opened in the summer of 1967. In 2015, the garden was expanded and the Entry Garden and Cultural Village/Tsub-Niwa (Courtyard Garden) were added. Over the years, the Garden has become more and more popular and annual visitation has increased from ~28,000 in 1967 to ~500,000 in 2019. The 60th Anniversary of the garden is in 2023 and several exciting events will be held throughout the year to celebrate.
Photographing the Portland Japanese Garden
Before you start photographing the gardens it is important to get yourself into the right state of mind. This place is supposed to be relaxing, not stressful! Slow down, take a few deep breaths and then start walking around and see what subjects captivate you. When I arrive at the gardens, I usually like to take a quick stroll through all the different areas to see what catches my attention. Then I go back to the most interesting spots and start creating photographs.
Strolling Pond Garden
This is my favorite area for photography in the garden. The Strolling Pond is the largest garden and consists of the upper and lower ponds which are connected by a small stream. The Moon Bridge is located at the west end of the upper pond and Heavenly Falls flows into the lower pond. There are several impressive maple trees in this area, including one of the most famous Japanese Maple trees in the world.
The World Famous Maple Tree
One tree at the Portland Japanese Garden is so popular it deserves its own section in this article! If you have ever seen photographs from the Garden, you are probably familiar with this tree. Originally planted in 1968, this Laceleaf Japanese Maple tree showcases the eye-catching shapes and colors often seen in Japanese Maples. The scientific name for this tree is Acer palmatum (Garnet) and they generally grow up to 6-8 feet tall and 8-12 feet wide. Several years ago, a world-famous landscape photographer named Peter Lik photographed this tree and named it the “Tree of Life.” Lik’s fine art print of this tree turned out to be one of his most successful pieces of artwork and the limited edition of 950 is completely sold out. Although many had photographed the tree before him, Lik is the photographer credited with making the tree famous. Other names for the tree include, “National Geographic Tree” and the “Famous Maple Tree,” but more recently it has simply become known as “The Tree.”
This Japanese Maple is absolutely stunning, so all the popularity and fanfare are well deserved. The shapes and forms combined with the autumn color take this tree to a higher level. During the peak of fall color, there is often a line of 20-30 photographers waiting for an opportunity to photograph the tree. To avoid overcrowding, the Garden limits the number of photographers who can photograph the tree at the same time. They currently allow 2-3 photographers to photograph the tree for up to 15 minutes. I’m often asked if it’s worth it to wait in the long line. If you have never photographed the tree before, I do think it’s worth it. For anyone who has previously photographed the tree, I probably wouldn’t wait in line and would instead focus on another area of garden.
It’s possible to create compelling photographs of the tree during any time of the day. In the early morning, there is usually less wind and the light is the softest, especially if it’s foggy. If the sky is clear, midday can be great for catching a sunstar shining through the tree.
This area of the garden features several stepping stone paths which are lined with lanterns. It was designed as a place for thinking about how to live in harmony with nature. There are several colorful maple trees in this section of the garden along with the rustic Tea House.
Originally known as the Hillside Garden, this contemporary garden offers visitors a place to reflect on the brevity of life. Many plants not typically associated with Japanese gardens can be found here, including a collection of vine maples. The high density of trees and plants in this garden makes it challenging to find a clean photography composition.
Sand and Stone Garden
The raked sand and gravel in this section of the garden offers visitors a place for quiet contemplation. This style of Garden is often part of Zen monasteries in Japan. The Sand and Stone Garden is a great place for angular and structured landscape photography.
This style of garden aims to create of sense of depth in the space by balancing the flat plane of the ground with the surrounding stones, shrubs, and trees. Step inside the Pavilion and look out through the open doors to perfectly frame the Flat Garden. The open spaces in this garden make it a great place for mid-range and panoramic photography.
A small stream and collection of native Northwest plants welcome visitors to the Garden. In autumn, there are several colorful vine maples in this section.
Questions and Answers about Photographing the Portland Japanese Garden
When is the best time of year to visit the Portland Japanese Garden?
- The Garden is open year round, but the most popular time to visit is during the peak of fall color in autumn. Each season offers a different experience for visitors. Spring - the garden suddenly springs to life with a burst of colorful flowers and blossoms. Summer - the trees are almost every shade of green imaginable. Fall - yellows, reds and oranges emerge from the leaves on the maple trees. Winter - the inner beauty of the garden is revealed during the shortest days of the year.
When do the fall colors reach peak in the Portland Japanese Garden?
- The first hints of fall color start appearing in early October and usually reach peak by mid to late October. The exact timing varies each year due to differences in temperature, light and moisture / rainfall and it’s impossible to make advanced predictions. Wind is also a factor, since a big storm during the peak of the color can knock most of the leaves off the trees in a day. Consider following the Garden’s social media channels on Instagram and Facebook to stay up to date with the changing colors.
How tall is the world famous Japanese maple tree at the Portland Japanese Garden?
- 8-10 feet tall. Although ultra wide angle lenses make the tree look huge, it's actually only about 8-10 feet tall.
What are the health benefits of visiting Japanese Gardens?
- There are many health benefits including: decreased stress and anxiety, improved concentration and giving the immune system a boost. To learn more about the benefits please see this article titled, "Nurtured by Nature - How Japanese Gardens Support Our Minds and Bodies."
Are all of the trees in the Portland Japanese Garden from Japan?
- No. The original intent of the garden was not to simply transplant a collection of trees from Japan. The goal was to work with the character of the Pacific Northwest and create a garden inspired by the traditional gardens in Japan.
Does the Portland Japanese Garden allow portrait photography?
- No, the Garden does not allow portrait photography of any kind (engagement, weddings, head shots, proposals, etc).
Tips for Photographing the Portland Japanese Garden
- Recommended photography gear for enthusiasts and professional photographers - A mirrorless or dSLR body and lenses ranging from ~14mm to ~200mm.
- Recommended photography gear for non-photographers - Use the camera app on your iPhone or Android phone.
- Bring a tripod - The low light levels in the garden make handheld photography challenging. If you have a steady hand and in body image stabilization (IBIS) on your camera, handheld photography is certainly possible.
- Keep moving - There are so many good photographic subjects in the garden. It’s easy to get stuck photographing just one tree or scene, but you may miss out on other opportunities.
- Bring a polarizer - Consider using a polarizer to make the colors of the leaves pop and reduce reflections on wet foliage.
- Stay on the paths and off the moss - you must stay on the paths at all times and keep your tripod legs off the moss. The Garden staff strictly enforces these rules. Watch your feet and tripod legs so everyone can enjoy the scenery.
- Stormy weather - Rain and wind can make photography in the gardens extremely difficult. It may be better to pick a different day to visit, but you can always consider focusing on smaller scenes or creating abstract photographs of the moving leaves. One benefit of visiting on a rainy day is that very few people will be in the garden.
- Consider becoming a member - The ability to sell photographs from the garden and the early access from 8:00AM – 10:00AM are some the best membership benefits.
Timing of Peak Fall Color During Previous Years
The dates of peak fall color at the Portland Japanese Garden over the past 10 years are listed below. These dates based on my visits to the Garden and when I felt the color was at peak.
- 2022 - November 11, 2022
- 2021 - October 22, 2021
- 2020 - October 30, 2020
- 2019 - October 20, 2019
- 2018 - October 27, 2018
- 2017 - October 27, 2017
- 2016 - October 24, 2016
- 2015 - Garden was closed for expansion project
- 2014 - November 1, 2014
- 2013 - October 20, 2013
If you are ever in the city or Portland, Oregon, the Portland Japanese Garden is worth a visit. It’s a great place for nature photography, but also provides a tranquil place to slow down and relax. I hope the photographs and information presented in this article inspire you to get out there and enjoy the Portland Japanese Garden! If you have any questions or thoughts about photography in the Portland Japanese Garden, you can leave a comment below or contact me directly through this website. Thanks for reading!
Can't make it to the garden this year? Consider purchasing a Japanese Garden Fine Art Print from Scott Smorra Photography. These limited-edition TruLife acrylic and fine art paper prints look amazing on the wall and will a bring touch of the Garden to your home or office. The colorful and detailed prints will make you feel like you are taking a relaxing stroll through a beautiful Japanese Garden!
Updated: September 20, 2023