By Elinor Bennett Markle
It used to be that when work slowed, I wished that I could get out to some recent job sites and make photographs to update my portfolio. Trouble is, my slow time is usually in December and January. The weather is typically dreary, many plants are dormant, and the daylight hours are few. It is not a good time for making good photos. However, the advent of the digital camera has helped me change my tactics, and I am doing a better job of documenting my projects from start to finish.
Photography is critical for those of us who want to describe our work. With a digital camera and simple photo editing software, we can edit and crop our photos before printing or placing on the Web. I carry my camera nearly all the time, keep spare memory sticks and a backup battery with me, and I take pictures of many aspects of my projects — not only the completed installations, but also the crews and individuals as they work. When I first arrive on the job site, the client and contractors have questions for me and I address their concerns first. When I have completed my conversations with them, I have time to look at the project with a different intention. Now I am able to walk around, look at the various elements of the installation, and take my time to compose the photographs. That is why we call it “making” a picture, rather than “taking” a picture.
I can store hundreds of images on the memory sticks. Then, when I do have time to work with my portfolio, the photos are made and waiting on me — not the other way around. Those photos may sit there on the spare stick for months, until a slow period happens along, but more and more often I make time to download and file them within a week or two. When real downtime comes along, I can choose which to use and edit. This step-by-step method makes the portfolio production process more manageable. Photographs in my brochures that show the process of installation and maintenance of past work give me talking points when describing how a future installation should proceed. If I can get back to a project two or three years after installation, my photos will show how the plants have matured and how the hardscape has weathered — illustrating my abilities as a designer.
I am always pressed for time, so to make good shots I rely on some techniques that do not require extra effort or expense. My favorite involves shooting with “lesser light.” Overcast skies generally show each feature of the landscape more clearly, when there are no shadows to obscure objects and no glare to wash out the colors and details of the scene. Therefore, I try to do photo shoots on lightly overcast days, and dusk is a great time for photos of landscape lighting because the lighting and other features of the landscape are both visible at the same time.
Next, I thoughtfully choose a focal point for the picture, and then I decide how to display that view. I also use the easy technique of “the rule of thirds.” Briefly put, this rule tells us to compose a photo with the horizon either one third from the bottom, or one third from the top of the frame. That keeps us from having the horizon right through the center portion of the photo, which is an uninteresting presentation. If you cannot do this when you snap the picture, use your camera or software editing features to give your composition interest after the fact. Don’t forget that you can also turn the camera vertical to get a “tall” view of your subject.
Another valuable tool in composition is “framing a view.” This is easy to do when sighting at your focal point through gates, overhanging branches, trees or other foreground elements. Include foreground images to create a sense of depth in the final photo. This conveys the impression that your project is rich in detail and is large enough for viewing from many vantage points. For example, in Photo 1, the brilliant red of the canna blooms in
the foreground frame the view, but the actual subject matter is the statue in the center of the space. The background plantings give us an understanding of the size of the area in which the statue is placed.
In Photo 2, diagonal lines lead our interest into a photo and give depth to the composition. Although it was not where we stood to analyze placement of the plants during installation, this is what the client will see while walking on the sidewalk. The diagonal/curved line of the path makes this a dynamic photo. And this viewpoint better
displays the sense of the place — and the textures and colors of the plants — than a straight-on view.
If photography is your passion, you know that these tips are mere beginning points for making images that create excitement about your work. If, on the other hand, you are a person whose best talents are getting a job done professionally, please take the time to stop and shoot the roses. It gives you something creative to do in January, and is helpful to your potential clients when selling your services. As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Finally, keep a copy of your portfolio in your vehicle at all times — for that spontaneous opportunity to show off your work.
Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org