Aug. 11 2021 10:26 AM

Pelham McMurry uses photography to show off his extensive landscape lighting design.

Pelham McMurry, president and founder of Light Up Nashville LLC, Madison, Tennessee, wasn’t expecting the lead for the biggest job he’s ever taken on to come a few days out from a planned vacation. But the winner of the Changing the Landscape Awards 2021: Lighting category sponsored by Brilliance LED is glad he took the time for the design.

When he went to meet with the property handler, the project was framed as an outdated lighting system that was in disrepair.

“Instead of trying to piece it together and keep plugging along, they had come to the conclusion that it was time to replace the system,” he says.

Walking around the 220,000-square-foot area, he could see that the homeowner clearly had the means to work with an extensive lighting system, he says. In his world, clients don’t often have a solid concept of the costs involved in a high-end lighting project, especially in what he provides with brass fixtures and LED lamps. McMurry, who has 14 full-time employees until the holiday lighting season, when he adds about 10 more seasonal staff to keep up with demand, was frank with the handler about the price, who in turn went to the owner of the estate.

“The handler told me that (the owner) wanted me to design the system like I would if it were my home,” he says. “And so I said OK and went to work.”

It was the largest system install he’s ever done, with a total of 380 fixtures done in two phases, thanks to the vastness of the property and the landscaping involved.

“It was really a dream project for us because everything was so well-manicured,” he says. “It’s really well-maintained and that makes a big difference for our work. If trees aren’t well-kept, a lot of time the light can get trapped and it doesn’t really go through the tree.”

Layering in light

When McMurry does his design work, he tries to plan in layers, he says. “You want to create layers with your lights, so you need depth, and this property had plenty of that,” he says. The property had multiple mature trees to work with, which is an uncommon sight in middle Tennessee where much of the area has been logged. Not only were there trees that were native to the area, it was home to fully grown Japanese maples that were a much more uncommon sight. “It was a treat to have this house on the top of this hill that was encircled by mature woods. The palette we were working with was really ideal.”

As he developed his design, he walked the property and asked about the usage of different areas while taking notes and photos. He spent time looking for vantage points as people would be using the large circular driveway, the back patio or the woods behind it. “I’m looking for specific trees and landscape elements that are beautiful and will stand out.”

He presented his finished design plan to the estate owner, and it impressed her so much that she signed with him on the spot without requesting any revisions, he says. He doesn’t do demos with his projects, and one on such a large property would’ve been too difficult anyway. Instead, he uses a detailed overhead map of the property marking out his design, paired with photos from past projects used to illustrate what he’s aiming for. He tries to avoid talking about specific Kelvin temperatures and other details with the client but appeals to the visual response from the client directly through those photos.

“We can show the client what they’re getting,” he says. “Instead of seeing ‘340 lights’ written out on paper, you see it visually. I think the takeaway from it is that it’s a well-thought-through design.”

That overhead plan also worked as a detailed staging schedule for his crew, who installed the lights over the course of about nine days, he says. “My crews know what fixtures go where because each one of these symbols indicates a specific fixture with a specific finish and lamp. There’s a lot going on. We don’t want to give all that stuff to the client because it’s more information than they need.”

For a property of this size, McMurry wanted to avoid the worry that it would be lit up like a theme park with giant, bright lights to cover the large, open spaces. He says the best way to design is to use multiple light sources with low lumen outputs.

“When I’m designing a system, I’m always thinking about layers,” he says.

As an example, along the tree line in the woods behind the patio, he doesn’t just use several bright lights shining into the trees. Instead, he added several dimmer lights fanning out into layers in stages of 30 yards or so, decreasing the lumen output as he went.

“It’s hard for the eye to pass through one bright source of light,” he says. “We want to make sure that it’s experienced the right way. That’s the kind of detail you have to go into to pull off a good lighting composition.”

When working with a large property especially, creating layers and being cognizant of lumen output means always erring on the side of lower output, he says.

Talking on challenges

The property was so large that McMurry broke up the installation over a few steps using the aerial design, he says. Starting at the roundabout, they worked in sections, which helped them manage the workload as well as the required wiring.

“It made it easier. The guys knew what the workers were doing for the day, and as they finished each section they moved on to the next. It was clearly beneficial for us to do this and detail the wire runs for them so everybody was on the same page and we were able to efficiently install the system.”

Breaking a large project like that up into smaller chunks has worked out for McMurry, as the number of errors has been much lower, he says. “It can be overwhelming even with a 100-fixture system, trying to digest that and get it done correctly.”

One particularly nerve-wracking part of the installation was the set of lion statues on limestone pedestals that the estate owner had purchased in Berlin and brought to the States in the 1980s. If he had lit the lions from the ground, the pedestal would block most of the light and cast shade on the lower part of the statue.

The limestone shelf itself was also not a cheap investment.

He carefully drilled into the shelf and wired up through it for an inset light, taking photos of each individual step to illustrate the complex process to his team.

“Like anything else, we did our homework,” he says. “By the time we put the game plan together, I was very comfortable with it, and we executed it quite well.”

Capturing the image

Once the install was complete, there was one step left for McMurry: photography. He’s been taking photos of his lighting work since he began doing holiday lighting in 2021, starting as part of an effort to reach a higher-class client.

“I realized a long time ago that I needed professional quality photographs of my work in order to sell the type of clients that I do today,” he says. “What we sell isn’t something you need, it’s something you want. The type of clientele that gravitates toward this is usually well-educated, affluent people, and you can’t sell those people by scratching a number on a napkin. It just doesn’t work that way.”

He didn’t want to spend his evening doing lighting demos, so he decided to put a portfolio together.

He started with a much cheaper camera than what he uses now and read everything he could on nighttime photography, “and then I practiced a lot,” he says. He asked other experienced photographers for advice. Before his start in holiday lighting, he came from a marketing background, so he understood the value and impact of a visual image in selling a product.

He also learned how to edit photos to accentuate his work properly and made certain the photos were easy to access on his website to help sell potential clients on the beauty and quality of his work.

“I knew it was necessary to grow the company,” he says. “If someone is going to spend $10,000 or $50,000 with you, you have to give them proof. Without the examples of my work, that would’ve been very difficult to do that.”

It also makes sense to take photos of the project when he comes back through the finished installation, as he’s already spending time checking the work, he says. He brings crew members along sometime to show them how to make small adjustments for a better result and also to train them to look for additional ways to improve the project.

“I’m going to be out there looking at these projects at night, because I want them to be perfect,” McMurry says. “Many times, I’m out there making sure lights are adjusted or fine-tuned. If I’m going to take the time to go out and look at the project, I might as well be photographing it.”

The photography has paid off for him repeatedly with clients in bringing in new opportunities. Leads that come in through the website frequently mention specific photos that drew them in, he says. “It’s a big part of my website and attracting clients who are looking for a company. We want to show them our work because it’s compelling.”

It also gives him an excuse to continue to build rapport and get instant feedback after a finished project with a client, who will often join him as he walks the ground taking photos.

“I get a lot of joy out of it,” McMurry says. “It’s always fulfilling to see their reaction and talk about how much they love it. I love that part about what we do.”

The author is the editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.