Design Critique Study #4

Award Winner 2020
Tim Ryan & team of Lighthouse Oudoor Lights
West Chester, PA, USA

This beautiful photo won an award for the Landscapes/Plantings of Landscape Lighting Design.

The ELLI Design Critique Study will discuss the photo in terms of what is captured by the photographer within the space or landscaped setting. The first part of this study will address the scene’s composition, as it relates to the lighting applications applied by the designer. The second part will address the ‘affective’ value of the setting—the “experience” or feel of the space.

I should note a couple of things before starting this critique. The first is that Tim is the national trainer for Lighthouse, which is a national franchise organization. He is both lighting designer/educator, and photographer. I cannot overstake it enough, but very good to excellent photography is a critical element of award-winning work—it’s one-half of the puzzle! My second comment is that Lighthouse is one of those companies sharing work with ELLI, which has multiple lighting designers within their organization. I mention this only because I give credit to the ELLI contact only, but the individual designer for a particular job may not be mentioned. If you are interested to learn more, then please contact these ELLI designers through the Credits page of the website for additional contact information.

Before we begin this critique, I’d like to note one small issue that is noticeable in the setting—it’s the light glare from the three lights at the mid-ground area under the small cluster of trees. Glare is normally considered a negative, as it is a distraction to the space and at times annoying. However, in this case, I feel it is slight and doesn’t take away from the whole of the scene. This photo displays depth within this landscape and that’s why I felt it should be recognized.

With that said, the first step to understanding ‘good’ lighting design is gained by analyzing the principles of composition. These principles are balance, contrast, emphasis, pattern & rhythm, unity, and movement. Each of these provides a measure to the whole of the scene.

Balance is the visual interpretation of gravity within the designed space. If the work shown is balanced, then the visual weight will be distributed evenly across the composition. These thoughts can be applied to the design of the landscape as well as to the lighting design.

There is a good overall balance in the setting because there is enough light to fulfill much of the scene—front to back, and side to side. The visual weight of the large trees is countered by the spreading lawn and openness of these areas. As far as lighting is concerned, there’s a good and shared balance of light and dark.

Contrast can be viewed in two ways, the first by the arrangement of opposite elements (light and dark, rough and smooth, large and small, etc.), and the second by the difference in luminance or color, which makes an object distinguishable. Landscape lighting usually works with two forms of contrast: light-dark and cold-warm contrast.

Looking at the light-dark contrast, we see a comfortable transition between these various areas in shadow versus in light and it’s done very well, so as not to look spotty with ‘hot-spots’ everywhere. Much of this gentle transition between areas is done with the downlighting from up in the trees. This provides for a more calming and subtle wash of light, which is wonderful.

If we consider the cold-warm contrast of the setting, we see more greens and black, which provides the cooler side of this contrast. However, there is some browns represented by the tree bark and trunks, as well as in the stone used in the landscape—this helps to offset a completely cold feel.

The emphasis of a scene is the same as its focal point. Typically, it’s an object or area that draws attention, as it is set apart against its surrounding.

There is a slight emphasis placed at the mid-ground area where the five smaller trees are, as these forms are somewhat stronger in presence as compared to the other trees or elements surrounding this space. If we analyze this setting as a whole, then we find that there is no real competition for this mid-ground emphasis—everything else has a nice, smooth washing of light that transitions in and out of shadow. With that said, it might have been better to apply additional light (lumen-wise) to these smaller trees, so that there is no question of this focal point.

What I find interesting is that this emphasis is not completely known. I question, as many others may, “what is in front and below these five trees?” Is this a sitting area, as a destination, or is it a water feature that is difficult to see from this viewing angle? This questioning is a good form, not bad, because it provokes curiosity—I’ll explain this more in the ‘affect’ section below.

Pattern & Rhythm
A pattern is a combination of elements or shapes repeated in a recurring and regular arrangement. Rhythm is a strong, regular, repeated pattern, and it has a feeling of organized movement. Typically, a pattern can lead the eye towards a destination point. It should be understood that it can be used to lead the eye towards an emphasis.

There is not much to consider for pattern & rhythm here, except the light versus dark sections throughout the lawn areas. These applications provide a soft pattern to consider, but it also provides security in exploring these areas. This pattern is repeatable, so it provides the visitor with an understanding of where to travel within the space.

The only other pattern that exists is the five smaller trees at the mid-ground—they are in alignment together, as a row or barrier behind the unknown space in front of it. From this perspective, it enhances the emphasis of the scene because it draws the eye to this location.

Unity occurs when the elements of the space work together in such a way that the resulting look is balanced and in ‘harmony’. If we consider our initial thoughts when viewing the scene, then we shouldn’t have any questions, confusion, or unrest with our thoughts as we view a scene. Everything should feel comfortable.

Overall, this work is well done with only a slight amount of question in place—the glare from the light fixtures at the mid-ground, emphasis location. This might cause a little unrest, but as I said, not enough to distract or take away from the whole scene. Most all of the setting is comfortable and there is no confusion in where things are, and where to move.

Movement is the impression of action in one’s work. Visual movement is dependent on the other principles of composition, as well as the movement of the viewer’s eye when experiencing the space. Does the eye jump from one area to the next, in somewhat confusion, as if searching for understanding, or does it rest calmly at the emphasis of the space?

As described in pattern & rhythm, the horizontal patterns of light and shadow repeat from front to back, and this provides a subtle movement of the eye to follow it. However, the smaller trees at the mid-ground somewhat halt the eye to this point and places the emphasis at this location. This was an effective application of light to draw this eye to this location.

This is the second part of this critique study, and in my opinion, the most important quality for a landscape lighting designer to achieve—the “experience”. Affect relates to emotion and what emotional state is evoked as the viewer experiences the space.

Although this scene was not awarded for the Affective Lighting Design category, it did provoke a mood. I feel the space provided for Interest and Curiosity—each of these is a wonderful experience that is encouraged. The lighting design begins by highlighting the stairs at the foreground—this is an invitation to come here and follow the illuminated lawn areas. And because this landscape is designed to wind in and around tree stands or groves, it creates additional motivation to explore.

As I mentioned earlier, the soft downlighting throughout makes one feel safe, and this ensures peace and calm.

There are two elements that enhance this curiosity: 1) the space to the front of the small trees at the mid-ground, and 2) the sitting chairs at the back, left-side lawn area. Not knowing what the space in front of the trees motivates one to go and see what this is—is it a water feature or sitting space? The lawn chairs provoke interest to go sit in the chairs to see what is back there. Both of these elements might be overlooked if one were not to spend time looking at these areas, but that’s the subtle fun in this creative design.

And lastly, there’s a slight sense of Wonderment in this setting due to the visual depth created with these lighting applications. Lighthouse did a great job with this.