By Joelle Steele
A sales or presentation portfolio is one of the most effective sales and marketing tools your company can have since a visual presentation is always more effective than anything you or your salesperson can say to a prospective client. One picture is worth a thousand words and what you include in your portfolio will allow prospective clients to get an excellent perspective on what it is that your company provides in terms of the scope of the work, the range of plant and architectural materials, and the design itself.
WHAT TO PHOTOGRAPH
Photographing every project may seem like the best way to build a portfolio, however, not every project may be representative of your best work. Try to evaluate your projects from a sales standpoint. Do you really want to do more jobs like that last one? If not, don't include it in your portfolio where prospective clients can see it and hire you to do a similar project for them.
Remember that your portfolio should capture the horticultural environment's impact on the overall interior design. The photographs should therefore emphasize the most attractive and interesting areas of a project. Selecting the appropriate areas to photograph will result in prospective clients being able to conceptualize the manner in which interiorscaping will impact on their own indoor environment.
Some of your projects will simply not lend themselves to being photographed. Perhaps the plants look wonderful but the office is always a cluttered mess. Or maybe you waited too long to photograph a project which you no longer maintain and the client's latest maintenance service has butchered everything in sight. Timing and careful selection of a project will help you compile a collection of photographs that mirror your company's strengths in design, installation, and maintenance.
Look for projects which have some variety, not only in the plant material, but in the architectural or interior design detail as well. For example, look at the carpets, wall coverings, furnishings, window treatments, water features, etc. They make a significant contribution to the overall aesthetics of the project and can therefore enhance the aesthetics of your portfolio.
Think about the various plantings in each project and try to visualize them from different angles. Do they accentuate and contribute to the entire horticultural environment or are they just isolated pieces of greenery in an otherwise drab and uninteresting showcase? We all have projects which are attractive but are not "special." You may want to photograph these mediocre projects, but remember that your portfolio is a sales tool, a representation of your talents, and you want to show off your abilities and your design strengths.
VISIT THE SITE
Well before the photographer arrives to do his job, you should survey the site and determine which areas you want photographed and make note of any ideas you might have about specific items you want included in or omitted from the shots. You are not there to tell the photographer how to do his job, but you should let him know what you need the photos for and what things are important to you in a particular project.
Never make the mistake of assuming that a photographer, no matter how well-known and respected, will know exactly what you want or will understand your business. I once looked at a client's slides which were taken by a supposedly "experienced" landscape photographer. My client had paid almost $1,000 to have this individual shoot four projects for her portfolio and yet few of the shots were really well-composed from the standpoint of showcasing her talents as a landscape designer. One photo, a long shot of an exterior, featured a large brown patch on the lawn which could easily have been avoided by shortening the shot slightly. Had my client discussed and walked the project with the photographer in advance this could probably have been avoided. At the very least, she could have had the photographer crop the shot for her.
When selecting areas to be photographed, be sure to include interesting architectural details which can help frame your pictures. Pay attention to backgrounds. The human eye sees only what it wants to see. The camera lens see exactly what is there, and if what is there is an ugly construction crane outside a window or a window washer waving his squeegee across the glass, they will become immortalized in your portfolio. On the other hand, you might want to take advantage of a particularly scenic windowscape that contains a skyline or mountain range. With the latter, it's important to remember that in most cases windows should be kept behind the photographer in order to avoid "halation" (the spread of highlights into the shadowed areas of the picture).
Be sure you or your photographer shoot a variety of different areas — small offices, hallways, reception areas, dining areas, entryways, elevator lobbies, cubicle areas, etc. If you are doing your own photography, avoid putting plants in the dead center of all shots. Try to include a piece of artwork, statuary, or furniture that is particularly attractive or unusual and photograph it in relation to the foliage. And be careful when experimenting with different angles. You may end up with a photo showing a heavy column dwarfing two little 8" plants beside it. Such a poorly angled shot might make your interiorscape appear to be poorly designed even if it really isn't.
In areas that are not too exciting, but where the plants look particularly nice, or where an unusual specimen has been utilized, shoot the plant or entire planter box for a purely "plant" picture. It's okay to have a few of these kinds of shots here and there in your portfolio as long as the majority of your photos reflect plants interacting with the decor and thus eliminate a monochromatic "green" portfolio. The same is true of container shots. It's okay to have a few close-ups of custom color or unusual decorative planters as long as they don't dominate your portfolio.
Unless you or your photographer have brought some lighting equipment, long shot photos that show row upon row of pothos atop cubicle dividers should be avoided. A few rows plus a floor plant or two, shot from an angle instead of straight on, is more attractive than the long shot which requires additional lighting in the more distant rows to be effective.
Before you get too wrapped up in the interior design factors, include a person or two in a few shots to bring some human warmth to the environment. Have a couple stand talking to each other or have a technician clean some leaves or hoist a bucket — just a little touch of real people interacting within their beautiful interiorscape.
OTHER TYPES OF PHOTOS
Besides photographs of your projects, your portfolio should include some or all of the following: design plans and architectural elevations; and product brochures indicating containers, statuary, irrigation systems, etc. If you have any work-in-progress or before/after photos they can also be helpful in illustrating the value of interiorscaping.
If you want to express other design options for your prospective clients but do not have any of your own projects to photograph which are representative of these styles, you can take photos from magazines that are reflective of those looks and mount them in your portfolio in a separate section. I have seen this done before and it is difficult to tell that they are not actual photographs when carefully trimmed and mounted. Do be ethical here though and don't try to pass these photos off as your own work.
ASSEMBLING YOUR PORTFOLIO
There are two kinds of portfolios: the traditional presentation binder in which your project photographs are neatly mounted and labeled, and the virtual portfolio that you create on your website. How you arrange the items in either of these formats is key to their usefulness.
One presentation method that is great for limiting what a prospective client sees as far as plants and projects that are similar to what their environment will support, is to place the photos showing the plants and projects with the lowest light levels first, gradually working up to photos of plants and projects with the highest light levels.
A portfolio is the only true representation of your work, short of driving a client around town for a guided tour of your installations. By selecting the right projects and hiring a professional photographer to record them, you will be providing your sales and design staff with an indispensable presentation tool. And that's an excellent investment in the future success of your business.
PREPARING FOR THE SHOOT
Obtain Client Permission. Before you can have your portfolio photographed, you must have the permission of your clients to take photographs, even if you own the plants. You must not only find out if they will let you take photos, but when it is convenient with them for you to do so. They may want or need some time to make some preparations, such as having the janitorial service in to cleanup. You will also need to schedule the shoot for a time that will result in the best lighting for your project.
Select the Right Time of Day. When photographing interiorscapes, the time of day can sometimes be critical, particularly in the case of sites that have large windows. With such locations, pick a time of day when the sun is not so low on the horizon that it sheds harsh light that reflects off everything in the room. With atriums the angle of light will be important and you will have to observe the time of day when the natural light is optimum for a shoot. If you are going to shoot outdoors, say for a small patio installation, you should schedule it for the early morning just after sunrise when the colors are deepest, the earth is moist, and the air is clearest. Choose a blue-sky day whenever possible as overcast weather tends to cast a dulling tone over a landscape for which even the best lens filters in the world cannot fully compensate.
Do A Quick Clean-Up. A day or two before your photo session, have your techs do a thorough dusting and manicuring of the foliage in the areas you intend to shoot. Even slightly yellowing leaves, tipping, and dusty foliage will be picked up by the camera's lens. So will protruding cork mats, awkwardly placed stakes, sagging moss, and scuffed containers. Avoid the temptation to shine your foliage with ultra high gloss leaf polishes as you'll end up with an artificial look at best and hazy white reflections on the leaves at worst. Leaves which are free of dust will possess the necessary sheen for an aesthetically pleasing photograph.
Fresh flowers and cut flower arrangements lend a colorful touch to portfolios and you should try to shoot them on a day when they are newly installed or bring them with you on the day of the shoot to accentuate the decor. You can then leave them behind with the client as a "thank you" for letting you come in an photograph everything. When photographing outdoors, be sure that dead leaves are swept up, brown leaves are removed, withered flowers are plucked off. On the day of the shoot, hose down all masonry and be sure that it is perfectly clean so that all of the architectural details will be clear. Install flowering bedding plants about three to four weeks in advance of the shoot and then clean up and cultivate any beds the week before the photographer arrives.
Be On Site With A Maintenance Technician. On the day of the shoot you should be there personally, with your best technician, to see to any last minute details such as dead leaf removal, re-staking, etc. Since you may need to move a plant to make use of a better angle for your photo, your technician can assist so that you don't keep the photographer waiting. Don't ever expect the photographer to help you rearrange the plants or furniture. And, if you're photographing the project yourself, you might want to consider having your "assistant" take some notes on the camera settings you use for future reference as to what works and what doesn't. When the site is well prepared you will find that the actual camera work goes more smoothly as there are less interruptions for last minute touch-ups to the foliage, containers, etc. The idea is to spend as little time imposing on your clients as is humanly possible. Advance site preparation will help you avoid over-disrupting your client's day and will help keep you and your own staff from running into overtime.
THE FINISHED PRODUCT
Once you've taken all your photos, take your time in deciding which shots are best reflective of your work and of the particular project itself. Carefully examine the various shots with your photographer and with anyone else who has an artistic eye. Try to determine which shots will look best when enlarged and to what size they will retain their impact. If you see shots that are crooked or that look fine except for one little thing, they can usually be edited in a photo management software such as Photoshop.
Sometimes a particular shot looks good when it's 5 x 7 but begins to lose its effect when you get up to 8 x 10 size. This is especially true of single plant shots which are not all that exciting to begin with but are taken to show off a healthy specimen. These types of photos are best kept to 3 x 5 or 4 x 6 and placed alongside an area photo or grouped with similar shots.
DO IT YOURSELF
Not everyone can afford to have a photographer come out and shoot a full portfolio. Sometimes it isn't even practical. If you're reasonably confident with, and in possession of a good camera, preferably an ordinary 35mm or a high-end digital, then there's a good chance that with a little patience you can photograph your own projects. If your camera has an automatic metering system then you really can't miss, technically speaking, but remember: cameras don't take the best pictures; photographers do!
The Camera. Review your camera manual to avoid last minute confusion. Be sure all batteries are fresh and working in your camera (in the flash attachment and in the light meter, if you have a film camera). Clean your lens and any filters and bring along lens cleaning supplies in the event that you smudge something. On traditional film cameras, your standard 45mm or 50mm lens is really adequate for most portfolio needs, but if you have a wide angle (28mm) lens or your digital camera has a selection for a wide angle shot, it may be advantageous for those spaces where you cannot step back far enough to get the entire scene in view.
When shooting a portfolio, you can't afford to have anything turn out blurry, because you probably won't be able to return and reshoot it. Always use a tripod and take a couple shots of the same view, possibly at different settings, just to make sure the camera didn't shake on one of them. This is also true when using a digital camera, because even though you can preview the shot, you can't really see exactly what the finished photo will look like; even the largest viewing windows on digital cameras are too small to see the fine details.
Camera Settings. If you have a fixed lens camera — film style or inexpensive digital — it will most likely be preset to a shutter speed of 1/60 or 1/100 of a second and an aperture of f/8 or f/11. These settings, combined with a flash, will not result in as clear a photograph as a more sophisticated piece of equipment may generate, but I once saw a very nice looking portfolio which was taken with an old Kodak Instamatic film camera! The photographer just shot more film at a variety of angles and "hoped for the best." The result was a lot of throwaways but a few very nice shots. This works well if you're using a digital camera and have a large enough disk in it for storage. You should be able to shoot about 100 pictures before downloading them to your computer and clearing the camera's disk.
If you have an automatic built-in light meter in your camera you should consult your manual for proper settings. As a rule you can figure that in an indoor environment you will probably set your shutter speed to about 1/60 when using either a flash or high speed film. The corresponding aperture settings will probably range from f/4 to f/8 at the maximum. Most of the better digital cameras have settings for indoor, outdoor, snow, etc. Water features such as fountains or waterfalls require shutter speeds of between 1/25 and 1/125. Anything slower will blur the water and anything faster will create a glassy look. You may have to experiment with settings to find the right one on your camera.
Filters. Most color and contrast adjustments are now made on the computer, but if you're using a manual camera and shooting black and white film, a medium yellow or green filter will increase the contrast for a more professional looking finished product. Dn't use those same color filters when you shoot color film as they will only contribute to the greenish cast from the fluorescent lighting. If you are going to be shooting near windows, pictures, or other glassy surfaces such as display cases in retail stores, a polarizing filter would be helpful. They help eliminate glare and distracting reflections. A polarizing filter also helps if you are going to shoot a water feature. If you're going for an "artsy" effect you may want to use a soft focus attachment which offers an enhanced softness in certain settings.
Lighting. This is probably the trickiest area of indoor photography as the equipment can be very expensive and the numerous varieties of flashes and strobes and their different applications can be quite complex. Suffice it to say that for the purposes of this article, a simple strobe which flashes at about 1/100 will be adequate for most purposes, and that is what you'll probably have in most digital cameras. Consult your manual and use the settings advised therein. Try to make use of available light from within and without whenever possible as the effects can be quite dramatic depending on the particular space and the time of day.
Whenever possible try to bounce your flash off a wall or ceiling as you will achieve a more natural look this way. If you can't remove your flash attachment because it is a permanent part of your camera or your cameras has a "hot shoe," try holding a piece of white tissue over the flash for a softer effect. Be careful to avoid flashing onto glass surfaces such as windows, mirrors, or pictures on the wall.
Editing Photos. If you find that a photo is crooked or that everything looks great except that a chair on the far left has an obviously damaged leg, you may be able to have the photo "cropped" to include only the part of the picture you want or to straighten it out. There may be additional fees for this service though in some labs it is included with the cost of the enlargement. If you took the photo with a digital camera or scanned it, you can just manipulate it in a photo editing program such as Photoshop.
Processing and Printing. Never skimp on film processing. Some one-hour labs are okay, but if you want your photos to look professional — even your digital ones — you will need to take them to a reliable lab where you can have a choice of sizes and finishes, preferably proof sheets, before you have any enlargements made at all. Unless you have a very high quality color laser printer, you should probably not attempt to do your own printing.
A proof sheet or a CD of all your images, will give you an overview of all the photos you took and from there you can select those which you want to use for your portfolio. You can then have them printed in whatever size is appropriate to the content of the photo and the format of your portfolio, and the size which will not lose its clarity. Unless you have a particularly large portfolio, an 8 x 10 photo size is probably going to be the largest you should consider using and in all probability you will find that 5 x 7's are adequate.
I prefer a glossy finish for portfolio photographs but you may prefer the matte or non-glare finish. The glossy usually makes for a clearer picture and emphasizes contrast. Sometimes you can achieve the same with a matte finish, but more often than not in these types of photographic applications, the matte finish leaves an impression of dullness or flatness. Another advantage to the glossy finish is that if you want to scan the photos for use on your Web site, glossy finishes scan far more clearly.
Decide how many portfolios you want to have so that you can take advantage of quantity discounts and get everything done all at once. In six months or a year when you decide to hire another salesperson do you really want to go through trying to figure out exactly which photos were enlarged and to what sizes, etc.?
Don't Give Up! If your photos didn't turn out exactly as you expected don't be too discouraged. Practice makes perfect and not everyone has the eye for the perfect photograph anyway. Try some practice shots in your own office or home before you even try to photograph your clients' interiorscapes and don't forget to check out your technicians or salespeople. You may have a skilled amateur photographer in your midst and not even know it!
WORKING WITH A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER
If, like the majority of contractors, your expertise lies in horticulture and your best camera is an Instamatic or the one that's in your cell phone, it would probably be in your best interests to hire a professional photographer. There are many kinds, each having their own particular specialties – portraiture, advertising, etc. Finding the right photographer requires that you do some shopping around. The yellow pages and the Internet are good places to start, as well as asking friends and associates for recommendations. Once you get a few names, you can meet with them to examine samples of their work before you make a final decision.
Once you find a photographer whose work most closely reflects the look you are seeking for your own portfolio, you must discuss all the particulars such as availability, price, ownership, etc. Most photographers charge base rates by the hour or by the day plus the costs of prints. Be sure to find out exactly what you are paying for in advance.
Your photographer will provide you with a proof sheet, prints, a CD of JPGS, or a Web page showing all the photos from which you can select those you want printed or for which you want files to use on your Web site. Take your time in deciding which shots are best reflective of your projects or products. Carefully examine the various shots with the photographer and with anyone else who has an artistic eye. Your photographer will be able to advise you as to which shots will look best when enlarged and to what size they will retain their impact. If you see shots that are crooked or that look fine except for one little thing, they can usually be corrected.
This article last updated: 05/28/2004.