Photographing outdoor projects requires highlighting a careful balance of design, use, and context, while working with the natural benefits, and minimizing the limitations, of shooting in the natural environment.
The four-county, central Puget Sound region has gained more than 440,000 new residents since 2010, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council. To accommodate all of these folks, it’s no secret that the Seattle area has been on a massive building boom. What this means for design professionals is plenty of new and renovated apartment towers, commercial office space, restaurants, schools, cultural places, and homes to work on. But for landscape architects, urban planners, and others focused on outdoor environments, it also means tons of newly-created, and newly-reconfigured, outdoor spaces, too.
I’ve been shooting land design projects since the late 1990’s. My very first clients upon moving to Seattle in 1998 were landscape architecture firms like Berger Partnership, Brumbaugh & Associates, Charles Anderson, and Hough, Beck, & Baird, now HBB. Many of them started out as clients of my annual group sessions of aerial photography to feature their larger land design projects, like Cal Anderson Park on Seattle’s Capitol Hill shown at right, and have hired me back again and again to highlight the same, or other, projects from the ground as well. It’s a privilege I do not take lightly to have been trusted with photographing so many of these landscape architecture and urban design projects over the years, for a variety of firms, and to showcase the design, use, and context of each.
These are the most obvious attributes of a project to photograph – what it looks like.
When it comes to Design, elements to photograph include everything that make the project look like it does: form and volume, shape, texture, spatial relationships of one object or space to another, hard and soft materials, plants, fixed site elements like benches or lighting, etc. These are the most obvious attributes of a project to photograph – what it looks like. Photos of Design should be a mix of wide shots and details to provide visual variety for all kinds of future uses.
A specific design style that has gained popularity in outdoor spaces in the last 5-10 years is one that mimics wild, dynamic landscapes in the midst of designed, urban environments. Maybe it’s a desire among all of us to reconnect with the natural world, maybe it’s a recognition that the natural world often gets it right all on its own, who knows. Green roofs, rain gardens and bio-swales, water elements, native plants, and natural hardscaping are just some of the design elements being used to blur the boundaries of natural vs. designed that I concentrate on integrating in to finished photos when they present themselves.
Showcasing a project in use means communicating the client’s need, the designer’s intent, and the contractor’s execution, all of which must come together for a successful completion.
In the Use category, ultimately every project in the built environment is designed and constructed to be used – somehow. Showcasing a project in use means communicating the client’s need, the designer’s intent, and the contractor’s execution, all of which must come together for a successful completion.
More bodies closer together throughout our Seattle / Northwest region means more need to easily move people from place to place; it means more need for places to gather, celebrate, and communicate; and it means more need for spaces for folks to spread out and recharge. And different uses require different kinds of images, shot at different times of day, and with different planning, all depending on what we’re trying to communicate. Sometimes the ultimate Use photo of these spaces isn’t a single photo, but actually multiple images that show off a variety of uses; sometimes it’s a continuous sequence strung together in a short time lapse video; and sometimes it is just a single image that captures a moment of pure, descriptive joy, as at left at the spray park at Seattle’s new Yesler Terrace Park. Regardless of how it’s achieved, showcasing Use is one of the more challenging, necessary, and oh-so-satisfying-when-you-know-you’ve-got-it goals for a successful set of finished images.
Showing a project’s context helps locate it in the viewer’s mind, it says that my client understands that projects are built to be used and that they aren’t built in a vacuum.
Finally the Context of the project is so vitally important to show off too, since context photos show that my client understands that designs without limits are usually just for academic exercises and probably aren’t practical or buildable in the real world.
Context is all of the external factors, tangible and intangible, that influence a certain project. Tangible contextual factors might be the surrounding landscape or urban environment, neighboring buildings or roads, such as from the rooftop deck at a high-rise apartment complex on Seattle’s beautiful waterfront shown above, in addition to existing local flora and fauna. Intangible contextual factors could include prevailing weather, local culture and customs, and even political factors like zoning or covenants. Showing a project’s context helps locate it in the viewer’s mind, it says that my client understands that projects are designed to be used and that they aren’t built in a vacuum, and it helps their prospective clients to see how a project settles in to its surroundings.
Wrapping up …
Photos of what a project looks like are the most obvious, and most fun, to create, but they’re not enough by themselves.
While photos of what a project looks like are the most obvious, and most fun, to create, they’re not enough by themselves. A complete set of professionally-photographed marketing photos of outdoor projects needs to showcase the reasons and the intent behind a project, plus the limitations that were overcome or incorporated in to the finished project, as well as the way the final project looks. With more than 20 years’ experience photographing landscape design and urban design projects, I understand that designers and creators of outdoor spaces hire me for a reason — to show off their finished projects and ultimately generate more work. Thanks for reading, and please be in touch with questions or to talk about a project. Have a great season!
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