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Snap happy

By Ruth Slavid
Landscape architects tend not to spend money on photography, but their ability to communicate their work suffers as a result.

You could argue that nobody really needs a landscape architect. Architects can think about the surroundings of their buildings, a drainage engineer can ensure the water goes away, a decent contractor can lay some paving and as for soft landscape – well, we can all do a bit of gardening, can’t we?

Are you feeling irate yet? Landscape professionals have of course a great deal to offer, and we should not presume that others can do their jobs just as well. Yet many in the profession are guilty of the same kind of blinkered thinking when it comes to photography. Digital cameras and simple manipulation tools have raised the standard of photography at the bottom. Whereas once many people took really awful pictures, today most people’s are OK. But there is a great difference between alright and the best. Your family snaps probably don’t look much like professional portraits, so why should you expect your snatched photos of your landscapes to look anything like the work of a professional photographer who has the time, the experience, the skills and, if chosen correctly, the eye to show off your work in the best possible way?

It costs how much?
The only real downside of using a professional photographer is that it costs money. It might look like a lot, but just think what you are paying for – even discounting the intangible cost of the photographer’s skill. They may well have travel expenses, which will tot up in terms of time and money. They will probably take a lot of pictures, which takes time, and they will hang around for the best light and conditions – possibly even coming back on a better day.

Architectural photographer Guy Montagu-Pollock says, ‘One difference between an amateur and a professional is the amount of time that you are prepared to spend. A good architectural photographer will look at maps and do a recce. And they may wait 30 to 40 minutes after they have set up a shot before they take it.’

This also means that they can’t always work – weeks of torrential rain will mean that they do very little. They need to update equipment regularly – not only cameras, but also computers and software. And they will spend time correcting your photos – even supposedly unaltered photos need quite a bit of work. Photographer Nick Harrison estimates that for every half-day shoot he will spend a day getting the best out of the pictures in Photoshop.

But it is worth it
Photographs play a vital part in winning work. The higher your profile the more likely you are to win work. Even when entering large competitive situations you have to remember that the judges will have the near-impossible task of looking at a vast number of entries very fast. A good photograph may catch their eye, or they may recognise your work because it has been published in a magazine or on a website or a blog – and good photography is going to make that far more likely. Similarly you can use the photographs for entering awards, on your website, in brochures, on newsletters or to give presentations. Unless your work is in a very prominent place, potential clients are unlikely to have seen it. It would be great if they did visit – but what is most likely to persuade them to do so is the photography.

Andrew Grant, founder of Grant Associates, says, ‘When we realised that Gardens by
the Bay [the practice’s multi award winning project in Singapore] would be really important to us, we paid more attention to how we promoted ourselves and our marketing. We were told that we needed to get into the habit of commissioning proper professional photos. If we want a project to be publishable, we will commission photos.’ Grant said that at first it felt as if they were spending a lot of money but now he just sees it as one of the costs associated with the practice’s work. ‘When you are faced with the bills you think, can we afford it, but you get to the point where it has to be affordable.’

The trouble with landscape
The difficulties with photographing landscape are not technical. A good photographer with sympathy for the subject will be able to do a good job. The problems are more structural and financial. If there is any media interest in a project, and if there is going to be any money available – for example, a commercial client putting money up to promote a building that they want to let or just add to their portfolio – then that will be at an early stage, usually as soon as the building is complete. At that stage, it will be smart and shiny and unsullied – in fact looking its best. But the poor old landscape will certainly not be established and planting may not even be complete.

There is a good reason why the Landscape Institute stipulates that projects entered for its awards have to have been open for at least a year. On the one hand, any planting should at least have started to mature; on the other, any mistakes with quick fixes are likely to have appeared. But in terms of photography, even a wait of a year is likely to be too long for other members of the team, let alone going back after several years to see how the scheme has developed. So, if you want to share photography costs your only chance is likely to be right at the beginning of the project. If you want to go back later on, you will be on your own and paying your own bills. You may however decide that it is worth it. Andrew Grant for example says that his practice is planning to embark on a project of re-photographing older landscapes. It will be asking photographers who will be travelling to newer projects to take in some of the older ones as well – a way at least of cutting down on travel time and costs.

One reason why the practice is doing this is that it is coming up to its 20th anniversary – a good time to take stock and look back at the portfolio and forward to posterity.

Chicken and egg
Because few landscape architects commission photography, there are very few photographers who are dedicated to the subject. Whereas there are plenty of specialised architectural photographers, working either on their own or represented by agencies such as Arcaid and View, pure landscape photographers are rare. (I am talking about photographers who record the work of the profession rather than those who photograph beautiful natural landscapes as art). Nick Harrison, who is based in the northwest, is not only a landscape photographer but also a landscape architect who worked for Salford council for 26 years. Always enthusiastic about photography, he started photographing the projects that his team was working on and now is a full-time photographer. But this is the exception. A good architectural photographer will have a great eye for architecture but may be less clued up about landscape. In which case briefing, always important, will be vital.

Piggy backing
If you don’t have much money and want to share the architect or the client’s photography, you have to hope that this is a project on which the architect appreciates the importance of landscape. ‘Landscape is becoming more part of the currency of any scheme and its completion,’ says architectural photographer Tim Soar. ‘This is particularly so in education.’ Different architects will have different views about the importance of landscape, he says, and this will affect his brief. ‘But if the idea is to think about the landscape it will be very much in terms of how it relates to the building,’ he says.

Good time, bad time
One of the problems may be that the best times and conditions for photographing buildings are not always the most appropriate for landscape. Guy Montagu-Pollock, an architectural photographer who is represented by Arcaid, has on occasion been asked to take some extra photographs by a landscape architect on a project. ‘Harsh lighting may allow you to take a dramatic photograph of a building, but it will not be at all suitable for the landscape,’ he says. Nearly always an overcast day will work best for landscape, and the softer light that comes between seasons or at dawn or dusk. ‘I think that landscape is even fussier than architecture about the kind of light,’ he says. In his experience, ‘When architects give me an incredibly detailed brief, the landscape scarcely features at all.’ 

At the computer
Just as using a camera properly takes skill, experience and time, so does manipulating photographs. Nick Harrison uses Photoshop or Apple Aperture to get the colour and lighting balance right, and to take out small unfortunate elements. It isn’t about lying, or about pretending. Indeed Harrison is very much against making images supersaturated so that they seem unreal. ‘The problem with digital cameras,’ he says, ‘is that they don’t take a photo as you see it. It is toned down. It is about recreating that impression you have when you look at the landscape and what you want to convey.’ Occasionally he will do something more technical, such as stitching a number of photos together to create a panorama, but normally his work at the computer involves selecting the best images and then getting them to look as good as he can.
Harrison has been using Photoshop for years. He compares it in complexity to AutoCAD. ‘I would say to become proficient in Photoshop takes 6-12 months of constant use,’ he says. Yet another reason to leave your photography to the professionals.

Points to consider when commissioning photographers
• Find a photographer whose work you like.
• The nearer the photographer lives to the project, the less the travel costs will be and the more likely they will be to go back.
• Only commission photographs of projects of which you are really proud.
• Give the photographer a detailed brief
and tell them how you plan to use the photographs (web, print, boards etc.).
• See if you can share costs with an
architect / client.
• Try to find a way of going back to your earlier jobs, perhaps as part of another assignment.
• If you really can’t afford a professional photographer, get the best camera you can, allow as much time as possible, take a lot of photos and learn to use Photoshop.

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