Control of the Sun for Photographing Landscape Architecture
Let's just start off by saying that the title is only wishful thinking. I have never been able to "control" the sun. It does what is does, and we only have the option of planning so we can take advantage of the sun, not control it.
When shooting any kind of architecture, if at all possible, I like to have a walk through with the architect, builder, designer, or whoever is the stake holder for the shoot. This is pretty much a requirement on larger jobs. On smaller sessions, sometimes we can get away with a phone call, but that can be tricky.
I'm going to lay out the process for a recent job, and show exactly what is lost in terms of efficiency when the preplan is skipped.
I had been asked by a landscape designer to shoot a project he had completed a while back, but hadn't yet been able to get photos for his library. He wanted to use the photos for an upcoming event, so there was a bit of a time crunch. It was a cozy residential backyard patio design, and seemed pretty straight forward.
The first step in any exterior photo session is to see what direction the sun faces at various times of day. That way I can determine what will work best for scheduling. The light is always better at the edges of the day (sunrise or sunset), so we check sun direction, try to pick a decent weather day, and mark the calendar. In this case the sun came into the backyard early in the day, so I planned to be there in the morning.
In this case, that turned out to be the wrong choice. Since the walkthrough didn't happen, I was not aware of the tree line that ran across the back of the yard. This caused splotchy shadows all over the scene.
I knew right away that this was not going to work for the session. The high contrast patterns added too much distraction for what these photos were all about. Here's another view to drive he point home.
Bright spots in photos attract all the attention, so this was working against me.
But I was here, so decided to make the best use of the time. This became my walkthrough! I spent the next 45 minutes or so shooting the property to study the flow of the space, and work out the best compositions. The slope of the property necessitated the wall, which split the space. I decided that the seating area was really the essence of the space, so I focused there.
This view was OK, but seemed to compress the area. I wanted to show the space in context of the yard, so I made a mental note to work a slightly wider angle when I came back.
The weather was good this day, and the schedule worked, so I rechecked sun position and decided that an evening shoot could work. There were 2 points that would work in my favor. First, in the evening, the sun would be coming over the front of the house. The whole patio area would be in soft shadow, so the light would be even. Second, with the whole space in shadow, light levels would be lower, making it easier for me to potentially use some flash to add light that I could control.
Upon return, it was immediately apparent that this time was going to be much better. Here is the compressed sitting area view in the better light.
Not only is the light softer, but the details of the designer's work are much more apparent. Compare the patio floor to the photo above. Not only is the work highlighted, but the space is more inviting. That's a win for both the designer and the homeowner (and any potential NEW client the photo might attract).
The softer, even light does work better, but to my eye something is missing. This feels a bit to documentary to me. It is a nice clean photo, but I feel like it doesn't bring the atmosphere or the emotional reaction to being in the space. After all, this is a sanctuary for the homeowner. In these current times of lock downs and restrictions, having a relaxing oasis to spend the time can make life all the better. It is this atmosphere that the designer is selling, not just some rocks and patio tiles arranged well.
I had a single flash with me. No problem, I will add light to the space, but in a controlled manner that I could dial in later in post production.
Here is the final result.
This is the view of the space that the designer could feel truly represented his work the way he wanted to show it, and the homeowner felt like it was their home as well.