U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
III. Documenting Historic Places on Film
National Register Guidelines for Photographic Coverage
The number of photographic views depends on the size and complexity of the property. Submit as many photographs as needed to depict the current condition and significant aspects of the property. Include representative views of both contributing and noncontributing resources. Prints of historic photographs may supplement the documentation.
Buildings, structures, and objects
Historic and Archeological Sites
Architectural and Historic Districts
Historic buildings can be saved on film. Many of them typify a particular time, type, or style. Urban streetscapes, rural landscapes, battlefields, archeological sites, and other historic resources are also worthy of photographic documentation. The following paragraphs discuss a variety of historic properties and photographic situations and suggest ways to photograph them for the National Register.
Obviously, the more complex a historic property, the more photographs will be needed. Some simple resources can be documented with one or two photographs. However, trying to save film by shooting the minimum number of views to document a site is false economy. Film is inexpensive relative to time, personnel, and equipment. It is far more expensive to go back to a site to shoot more photos than it is to have more than you need when you leave.
It makes good sense to shoot at least two, preferably three, different exposures of each view, if you are using a manually adjusted camera. This insures that at least one exposure will be printable. Based on a meter reading, one initial shot can be made. Then take exposures on either side of that reading. That will give you a bracket of exposures-one f/stop overexposed and one f/stop underexposed. For example, if the light meter calls for f/11 at 1/125th of a second, a bracket would be f/8 at 1/125th of a second and f/16 at 1/125th of a second.
Use common sense to make good photographs. The photographer's goal should be how to best portray a district, site, building, or object. In order to get the best possible image, extraneous subject matter should be kept to a minimum. Avoid shooting overhead power lines, telephone poles, and other distracting elements. Cars and trucks in the foreground should be removed. If that is not practical, consider shooting in early morning, late afternoon, or on Sunday morning when traffic is lighter. The same goes for pedestrian traffic. If there are many people in the foreground, wait until they are gone. Sometimes it may be helpful (and only if you have permission from the owner) to trim shrubs and weeds before shooting. The fewer extraneous elements in the picture, the better.
Walking around a site to assess the situation and lighting before shooting is of great value. By planning your shots, you can avoid wasting film, or worse yet having to go back and retake the shots. The best lighting, good angles of view, and other factors that will greatly affect the quality of your photographs should be determined before the pictures are taken.
Some potentially difficult situations for the photographer are:
Backlighting. This occurs when the main light source is behind the primary subject. The subject is silhouetted and the details in the foreground of the photograph are wiped out. To overcome backlighting, if you are using a manually adjusted camera, set your camera to meter for the dark foreground area, not the bright backlighted location. (If using an automatic camera, press the backlight button.) By compensating, either manually or automatically, for the overly bright area, the subject will be more or less properly lighted in the final print. Backlighting can best be avoided by keeping your back to the sun, but sometimes this is not possible. However, it is vitally important to prevent the sun from shining into the camera lens. Use a lens hood, or have a friend shield the lens from the sun. You may have to reposition yourself slightly.
Sunny days vs. Cloudy days. The photographer should shoot on bright days to get the maximum amount of available light and, if shooting color, brighter colors. However, if color intensity is not an issue, an overcast day provides more even lighting and reduces the problem of shadows. There is also a difference in the quality of light. Northern light is usually softer. Southern exposure is harsher and brighter, making some difference in exposure times and how a photo is shot. Early morning or late evening light is also unique. Color values change, becoming much redder, and the amount of available light is decreased. Thus, if photographers choose to shoot at these times of day, a longer exposure will be needed to adequately light the subject.
Sharpness and Depth of Field. Lenses are generally sharper at small apertures (f stops) than at large. Thus, f/11 will be sharper than say, f/4, under normal circumstances. Also, as the aperture is decreased, the distance that will be in focus increases. (See Glossary for f stops.) This phenomenon is called depth of field or hyperfocal distance. The rule is truer with short focal lengths (a wide angle) than with longer lenses. A telephoto lens has very little depth of field. Depth of field is important, because when a 50mm lens is stopped down to, say f/11, it will focus from four feet to infinity. Whereas, if it is opened up to f/2, it may only focus from three to six feet. Everything out of that focal range will be out-of-focus. When a small aperture (f/8 or smaller) is used, not only is the image sharper, but focusing becomes less critical. If f/11 is used, the camera does not need to be focussed, unless it is closer than the nearest limit of the lens.
Historic Buildings, Structures, Sites, and Objects.
Photographing buildings, structures, sites, and objects for the National Register is not particularly difficult if you understand that the main goal is to adequately document and record the resource. Very simple buildings require fewer photographs than larger, more complicated ones. On the other hand, even fairly basic properties, or archeological sites, might need more information, based on National Register requirements. Non-contributing features or intrusions should be photographed for all categories of historic properties. The photographer must decide (if possible, after consulting with architects, engineers, or historians who are working on the project) how many shots are needed to document a property for the National Register.
For buildings, structures, sites, and objects not only is the primary feature photographed, but also all secondary features. The relationship of buildings, structures, sites, and objects to features is as important as the architectural information. Also, the environmental setting as it relates to the historic property should be adequately represented. The following photographs should be created for most historic properties, larger than a single, simple building:
While interior shots are not necessary for all National Register nominations, they must be included if the significance of the property is entirely or partly based on them. Interior views can add valuable information to the nomination by helping the reader visualize descriptions of floor plans, details, decoration, and so forth. Special problems arise when photographing interiors. Backlighting, caused by sunlight penetrating windows, will wash out the surrounding details. (See III, Backlighting, on how to deal with this problem.) Backlighting may be avoided by photographing interiors on overcast days, or at night. (It is better to avoid taking interior photographs at night, if you can because of the undesirable appearance of "black" windows) Natural daylight is most desirable. Time exposures taken in the daytime with small-lens-aperture settings can produce pleasing, natural-looking interiors. Try to use a tripod. If artificial lights are necessary, use photoflood lights (such as quartz halogen), which are set up on stands and plugged into an AC outlet.
Electronic flash can also be used to light interiors. A single flash unit will not normally cover a larger interior. Many photographers tilt the flash toward the ceiling to bounce the illumination; the result is softer lighting through elimination of harsh shadows. Several flashes connected with secondary electronic flash units that have built-in or attached electric eyes can also be used to effectively light a large area.
Interiors are normally cramped. Unless large public buildings are being chronicled, photographing interiors usually requires a wide angle lens, even then results may not be entirely satisfactory. Generally, the wider the angle of view, the more distortion. When doing interiors, a photographer must strike a balance between how much will be seen versus how much distortion is acceptable. A perspective correction, or PC, lens can reduce distortion in interior shots, as will care in selecting camera positions.
Historic Engineering Properties
Historic engineering properties include everything from dams to mining stamp mills and industrial processes. Photographing these resources can be difficult, because the goal is to impart not only what the features look like, but also what their purpose is, or was. There are no set rules for industrial or engineering properties, because no two resources are exactly alike, but several basic features should be recorded, including:
Bridges, Trestles, and Aqueducts
Bridges, trestles, and aqueducts are parts of transportation systems for moving goods and people. Bridges and trestles are parts of rail or road systems. Certain basic views to cover are:
A railroad is a linear feature with engineering components along
the right-of-way. There may be numerous buildings and structures associated with
it, such as: stations, roundhouses, yards, water towers, section houses, freight
houses, bridges, and other resources. Railroad equipment including: passenger
cars, freight cars, locomotives, and specialized equipment like snow plows, flanges,
or cranes may need to be photographed. Most likely you will need written permission
to be on the property.
. Linear features such as a railroad line (either operational or
abandoned) should include a view down the roadbed. A perspective correcting
lens or camera will assist in this task. Additionally, engineering
features such as cuts, fills, tunnels, crossings of drainage, and
stone culverts should be documented.
A word of caution: many structures, sites, and complexes are extraordinarily dangerous environments. Eternal vigilance is the price of your safety-even life. Trains, sometimes traveling at 125mph will literally be upon you before you can move to safety. Apparently safe roofs and floors can collapse under your weight. Hard hats are almost always required in industrial settings. In any risky situation, however slight the risk, have a companion.
Roads and Trails
Similar to railroads, trails and roads are linear features that may or may not have buildings associated with them. They may have engineering qualities that make them special, and certain shots should be taken to assure coverage of the site. In general, the following should be documented:
Since historic districts encompass larger geographic areas than a single building or site, only essential features should be photographed, including: major buildings, street-scapes, landscape features, overviews and special features such as monuments or parks that are found within the district. It is not necessary to record each and every feature in a historic district for a National Register nomination, but the essence of the district should be captured. Important features need to be portrayed, as do scenes that suggest the character of the entire district. For individual buildings, the guidelines in Historic Buildings, Structures, Sites, and Objects may be useful, while for landscapes and streetscapes, see Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Battlefields (On this page).
Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Battlefields
Photographing landscapes and streetscapes involves recording all of the above features. For further information about features in rural landscapes, see: National Register Bulletin 30: Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Rural Historic Landscapes, p. 29. A streetscape can be urban and contain buildings, roads, and other manmade features in a city or town setting. Battlefields are also part of the landscape that should be recorded as historic places. For more information about battlefields see: National Register Bulletin 40: Guidelines for Identifying, Evaluating, and Registering America's Historic Battlefields, p. 17. For these properties, where photographs are intended to record a wider view, the following recommendations should be kept in mind:
Archeological sites are different from other historic properties because they often contain no standing structures, although prehistoric as well as historical archeological sites may include aboveground features such as ruins or earthen structures. Historical archeological sites may also include such features as dumps, trash pits, outhouse pits, cellars, and foundations. Photographing archeological sites may involve close-ups made in excavation units, requiring flash equipment. Sometimes large areas of a complicated site complex are best shown with aerial photographs that can be taken from a high point of land or an airplane. The photographer needs to work closely with the archeologist to determine the correct number and type of shots. In general, thorough photographic documentation for an archeological site would include:
Scaling elements, to establish a reference, should be included in most archeological views.
For some research purposes, archeologists depend on color reproduction because black and white photographs do not adequately indicate soil colors, stains, vegetation types, and other scientific information. If color film is wanted, stable films such as Kodachrome should be used and the results printed on Ilford's Ilfochrome paper. Color photographs are not required as part of National Register documentation.
Aerial and Oblique Photography
Aerial or oblique views are useful for documenting large areas, linear features, and historic districts. These types of photographs can also be used to document landscapes. The environment of a place is hard to show through a series of on-the-ground photos of discrete sites. There are several ways to shoot aerials, without an airplane. Where the resource is surrounded by hills, the photographer may be able to climb the nearest hill to get an oblique view of the area. (When you study historic photographs, you can tell that there are many views shot from hillsides or tall buildings, looking down on a historic property, district, or site.) You can hire a fire department cherry picker for overhead shots. Also, the property or site may already have been photographed from the air, by either the military, the U.S. Geological Survey, a state highway department, or a city planning office. These sources often have prints that can be copied for submission with a nomination.
Do not use a wide-angle lens. The site image will be so small that it may be useless. A moderate telephoto lens such as a 100-mm or even a 135-mm on a 35-mm camera works well to pick up details. If you need more of an overall view, shoot from a higher altitude, if possible. Even a 50-mm lens works fine for aerial photographs, as long as the airplane is low enough to allow for details. One of the more useful camera accessories for aerial work with a 35-mm camera is a motor drive. A motor drive permits the photographer to track the scene as the aircraft moves. With automatic film advance, the photographer never has to take an eye away from the camera. The result is a smoother series of photos. As in the case of surface photos, filters are indispensable. When shooting black-and-white film, a yellow or orange filter helps cut haze and increases contrast. This will result in better-detailed prints. If shooting with color film, use an ultraviolet filter to cut atmospheric haze.
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