Photos are key parts of the historical record for any heritage building or landscape. Even very affordable cameras can quickly capture great deals of information about a place, accurately documenting features and conditions at one moment in time. For grant applicants and recipients, photos are important for recording projects before and after work begins. Detailed, informative photos are essential for demonstrating work completed and claiming grant money.
While digital cameras allow us to capture many images at no noticeable cost, the goal should always be to capture all required information in as few images as possible. David Ames suggests that six essential views in 15 photos or less can adequately document most heritage structures. They are:
- the front and one side;
- the rear and one side;
- the front elevation;
- environmental view showing the building as part of its larger landscape;
- major elements of the building, including doors, windows, and additions; and
- details, such as materials and hardware.
These views are described with examples below. For those documenting projects for which grant funding is approved, emphasis should be placed on details and elements being restored. Zoomed-out, contextual photos are most valuable before work begins and after restoration is complete.
A Primer on Architectural Photography and the Photo Documentation of Historic Structures – David L. Ames, University of Delaware (1997)
TAUNY Tips for Documentation (adapted from Ames) – Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (2005)
Essential view #1 – the front and one side
The single most important view of a structure captures its front and side. This view quickly describes the overall form of the structure, its major architectural elements, and its immediate surroundings. Any time you are photographing a building, whether for the first or tenth time, it is a good idea to set the scene and capture any building-level changes with this view.
Essential view #2 – the rear and one side
This photo will generally capture the sides (or “elevations”) missed by the first view and completes a 360-degree snapshot of the structure. For both these views, it is a good idea to leave some space at the top, bottom, and sides of the photo so as not to cut off any elements, while allowing the structure to fill about 75% of the frame.
Essential view #3 – the front elevation
The front elevation may be the street-facing side of a building in a town, the water-facing side in an outport, or the side of the primary entrance. Unlike previous views, this photo should be taken directly in front of the structure while holding the camera level. If your camera has a zoom function, it is best to move further away and zoom in to minimize lens distortion. While the overall form of this elevation will have been captured by an earlier view, this photo allows us to accurately determine its proportions.
Essential view #4 – environmental view showing the building as part of its larger landscape
This view provides context to the structure being documented by capturing landscaping, related outbuildings, neighbouring structures, and the neighbourhood or adjacent geographical features. A structure may have an ornate garden, or its proximity the ocean may be an important part of its story.
Essential view #5 – major elements of the building, including doors, windows, and additions
Windows, doors, and additions are often “character-defining elements” of a structure and their specific designs and details are important to capture. In other cases you may wish to document additions or other changes to the structure. This view will often comprise multiple photos and provides the detail necessary to make choices or to replicate details which may be lost over time. This view is key to documenting the progress of restoration projects.
Essential view #6 – details, such as materials and hardware
These are the close-up photos that document elements such as characteristic doorknobs, chimneys, or individual construction details. It is important not to get bogged down in detail photos, saving them instead for unique elements or those that require a high level of attention. More may be taken during restoration to show specific steps taken or repairs made.