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Maximizing Exposures
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Maximizing Exposures

200306DT0

200306DT0

I take a lot of pictures of my work – so many, in fact, that friends and colleagues often tease me about it.

Chief among those antagonists are my Genesis 3 compatriots, Brian Van Bower and Skip Phillips, who have a running joke about how I always have a slide show ready, whether it’s two in the morning in my home or off in some location far removed from classrooms or offices.

And it’s true: Because I shoot 35-mm slides of every aspect of every one of my projects, I usually do have sets of project shots cued up in slide trays, ready for viewing. And also I love displaying and talking about my work, so it doesn’t take much to get me to put on a show.

That said, what may seem like an obsession to others seems like good, commonsense business practice to me. In fact, I believe that every single designer and builder involved in the creation of quality watershapes should record his or her work photographically – and should make a point of doing so in a way that reflects appropriate levels of quality and professionalism.

VISUAL DESCRIPTIONS

I also believe that the adage that says “One picture is worth a thousand words” is probably truer for the watershaping trades than any other I can think of – and that it’s tough to overstate the importance of photographs when it comes to working with clients, potential clients and other design and construction professionals.

And with clients in particular, my portfolio is an integral part of the discussion surrounding each and every job I do – without exception!

That is so because I can’t spin out words that come anywhere close to capturing the visual nuances, textures and colors of my custom watershapes and landscapes. The language is simply inadequate to convey the information a customer receives by viewing a well-composed, well-photographed image on a quality photographic print.

There is simply too much going on in and around the water for words in English or any other language to capture the entirety of that visual experience. Drawings can do most the job if you have the required skills, but the usual run of overhead site plans and/or blueprints don’t help much at all, because the average person can’t translate those documents and visualize what a pool and its surroundings will look like.

With photographs, however, you don’t have to be able to draw well to give those clients a complete sense of space, color, visual weight, balance, and perspective and enable them to use these images in building a vision of how their own backyard might someday look.

And it’s not simply the finished “beauty shots” that come into play in this visualization process. On projects where a design team of some kind is involved, for example, there are real advantages to firing up a slide projector and giving one and all a detailed visual description of exactly what is involved in building an ambitious design.

With those professionals and homeowners alike, such presentations of construction and engineering details make it clear why a project might cost more than anyone at the table initially thinks it should. When they see what I’m describing by way of piers, grade beams, cantilevers, structural decking, soil retention and the like, they understand more fully what I mean and gain an appreciation for the level of sophistication of the work that’s being planned.

COMMUNICATIONS 101

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I find distinct parallels between the process of teaching in the classroom, where I often use slides as an educational tool, and the process of working with clients and other professionals.

The fact that I take voluminous photos of every aspect of all my projects has given me a keg of resources that I can tap as needed to inform design students, bring clients and subcontractors up to speed on a process, develop articles for publication in magazines such as WaterShapes and participate in compilation of books on watershape design. In all contexts, the images provide information that can’t be gained strictly by speaking or writing.

Safe Keeping

When it comes to using photography, I work in two ways: First, there’s my formal portfolio of finished shots; second, there are dozens of boxes of construction and in-process shots I take along the way.

My current portfolio, which I carry to all initial client meetings, consists of three leather-bound volumes holding approximately 125 prints made from slides. All of the images are of the same size, and they’re arranged as a presentation so I can walk my clients through a progression of ideas and approaches. You won’t find anything loose or any 3-by-5s thrown in for effect. You also won’t find dog-eared pages or shabby mounting.

As for my slides, beyond being the point of departure for my portfolio, they provide me with a vast storehouse of information about my work and the way I want it done. I segregate slides by project, each in its own labeled carousel. The boxes don’t take up much room – and they always seem to be in use, either for presentations to classes or for work with subcontractors and design teams.

— D.T.

Of all those applications, however, the one that’s had the greatest value to me in my business is my ability to use photos to educate my subcontractors.

I don’t know too many others in the trade who do this, and I can’t help thinking that those of you who don’t use this tool are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to clarify tricky construction issues before a project ever gets going. To be sure, my California subcontractors, many of whom have worked with me for upwards of 20 years, know what’s to be done and don’t need the tutorial. But in New Jersey, by contrast, I’m using slide shows of past projects as a training tool in preparing subcontractors for a million-dollar project we’re about to start.

My slides let me walk these subcontractors, who have no familiarity with the sort of construction process they’re about to get involved in, right through the procedures we’ll follow, step by step. In that sense, past projects become templates for current work and help me make certain everyone – clients included – is on the same page.

There are still other reasons for recording what you do: A record of a project’s construction can come in quite handy, for example, if you’re ever called to remodel an old job or perform major repairs. And, although I’ve never had to use my slides in this context, I’ve always known that if I ever found myself in a lawsuit, I’d have the visual proof of exactly how the project was constructed, in amazing, bullet-proof detail.

Finally, there’s much to be said for maintaining a record of your work for its own sake.

In fact, if you’re in the business of creating works of art and water, I’d say you owe it to yourself and anyone who might seek to know more about your work that you have a permanent visual record of your projects. You never know: Someday you might become famous and someone might want to assemble a book about your work or stage an exhibition.

Until that day, you can create an exhibition of your own in your office or studio or showroom. You can even adorn your home with images of your finest work.

IN FRAME

As with so many of the skills associated with being a professional watershaper, photography isn’t something that comes naturally. In other words, you need to learn how to do it, either by teaching yourself or by taking classes.

To do it well, you need to understand visual balance as well as perspective, line, light, texture and a dozen other basic visual characteristics that should be familiar to competent designers. It also helps to have a knack for it, but, truth be told, there’s no substitute for an educated eye.

When you’re taking pictures, it’s like painting on a canvas: Just like a painter in a studio, you decide what to place within the frame. You have to understand how to bracket images to correct for lighting conditions. You have to apply what you know about proportion, you need to exploit line value and geometric references, you need to visualize the outcome of the image you’re seeking.

You also have to know how to use a camera, which isn’t tough once you understand the relationship between film, light and lenses. I use a 35-mm camera because it’s simple to use, the film is inexpensive and affordably developed, the color is true and the imaging is clear. I also use slide film because slides store easily and can be used to make prints at any time.

I’ll go on record saying that I’m not at all sold on digital cameras. It’s not that I’m a technophobe, not at all: To my eyes, when I look at a quality slide alongside a high-resolution digital image of the same exact scene, the sharpness of the image and especially the color of the reproduction are far superior for the slide.

I know that many of you reading this will disagree, but the only concession I’m willing to make is that taking digital images is better than taking none at all!

As for the camera itself, the body and who makes it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the lenses you pair with it or the film you put inside. Pentax, Canon, Nikon and Olympus all make excellent camera bodies. If you understand lenses, film, exposure dynamics and photographic composition, the camera body doesn’t really make that much difference.

For myself, I have Canon EOS III and EOS I bodies and a dozen or so fixed lenses ranging from 24 mm to 500 mm in focal length as well as several variable-range lenses. I select the lens depending on what I’m shooting – 24 mm when I’m trying to get a wide angle, or 110 mm when I’m shooting a detail. When I’m trying to capture intense colors, as with the “red pool” featured in the October 2002 issue of WaterShapes, I use Fuji’s Velvia film. For softer tones, I use Kodachrome.

VISUAL OBJECTIVES

When I’m on site, I always have my camera within reach, and I’m always looking for opportunities to take some shots. I rely on a steady hand for most live-action construction shots, but I’ll take my time and use a tripod when it comes to photographing finished work.

As a rule, photography is a case where more is better. On average, out of a roll of 36 slides, I’ll end up selecting half a dozen, perhaps eight, for future use. This is partly because I take multiple shots of the same subject, bracketing exposures to achieve the best possible lighting effects and thus creating duplicate images for which I’ll have no use. It’s also because I have a critical eye for narrative and only want images that help me tell a story about my work.

An Expert Eye

I’ve taken the vast majority of the finished shots I have of my pools, but I know my limits and am perfectly willing to call in a professional photographer when I need one.

Just recently, for example, I called in Allan Walker of ADW Photography (Santa Monica, Calif.) to shoot two of my pools – including the project that’s the subject of a feature article in this issue of WaterShapes (click here).

If you are not handy with a camera, I strongly recommend hiring a top-notch photographer to record your finest work. In my case, I usually seek help when it comes to nighttime photography, which is several degrees more complicated than natural-light/daytime photography because of the need to capture complex lighting, colors and optical effects.

— D.T.

With shots of finished projects, I’m even more critical, selecting just one or two of the best images for inclusion in my portfolio as 8-by-10 prints.

And when I say I shoot everything, I really mean it. I photograph the site before I start, I take shots after excavation to help me understand soils conditions, I document the framing and plumbing and steel, the electrical installation and the structural details of raised bond beams or thermal ledges. I also shoot the application of all finish materials as well as the work of landscapers and lighting contractors.

If it’s part of the project, I want to record it, simple as that.

Finished shots are a particular passion of mine, and I spend lots of time setting them up, waiting for the light and shadows to be right. There’s so much to capture aesthetically with a completed watershape – the still water reflecting the sky or the surrounding colors of landscape, hardscape or structures, the glassy transparency of sheeting water or the frothy beauty of whitewater effects.

Even the effect of wind rippling across the water’s surface is something that lends tremendous beauty and interest to photographs if you’re patient and take enough shots to improve your chances of capturing just the right image.

EASY DOES IT

That patience is absolutely crucial: However you set about the task of visually recording your work, always take time to do it right and don’t consider it an afterthought. How often have your photos been marred by a hose running across the background or a pet that wanders onto the scene? How often do you spot construction materials or other debris? How often have you been smart enough to wet the decks, only to see in developed photos that a dry spot developed right where you didn’t want it?

Even if you’re not terribly skilled with a camera, I urge you at the very least to take the time to set up a good clean shot of the work – and then do it again if the light wasn’t right or the time of day was wrong or some other condition wasn’t favorable. In other words, don’t hesitate to make a return trip at a better time to get the shots you need.

The way I see it, getting into photography in a serious way offers benefits you can’t even anticipate. Personally, I think taking pictures is fun, and I appreciate that it’s given me a distinctive, clear way to show off and communicate about my work. And hey, what’s the point of creating beautiful works of art if you can’t share them every now and then?

David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected] He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit www.theartofwater.com.

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