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 [graphic] National Register Bulletin: How to Improve the Quality of Photographs for National Register Nominations

U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service

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photo of Jeff Dean, Wisconsin SHPO
Jeff Dean, Wisconsin SHPO, ready to go out on a photo shoot!
On the Road

by Jeff Dean

State Historic Preservation Officer and
Director, Historic Preservation Division,
State Historical Society, Wisconsin

Author's note: My longtime friend, Carol Shull, Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places for the National Park Service, asked me to prepare the following material for How to Improve the Quality of Photographs for National Register Nominations in order to add a flavor of everyday life to photographing buildings.

I enjoy photographing old buildings and structures. It is fun and technically interesting. It gets me out of the office and into the real world of historic buildings and the people who care about them.

Most people gain their information about old buildings and the fabric of their neighborhoods and communities through their eyes. In the 1950s, television came along and quickly became the center of family home entertainment, replacing the radio. The human being is a visual being.

Photographs disseminate information about architecture efficiently and widely. They are the basis of such information in books, magazines, and in university courses in architectural history. I cannot imagine how the nation's historic preservationists, architects, and architectural historians could have been educated and trained without the pervasive 35mm slide and heavily illustrated books.

I believe that architects and historic preservation professionals must put some time and effort into training themselves to take good photographs. This means, among other things, acquiring the right kind of camera and camera equipment. Composition, lighting, clarity, or just taking snazzy pictures are concepts that should not be alien to architects, architectural historians, and historic preservationists who are intensely visual beings with great interest in the esthetics of their environment.

In a 1982 article in the APT Bulletin, Photographing Historic Buildings, I wrote:

Never before have so many buildings and structures been photographed so frequently by the (historic preservation) multitudes. There is hardly a city in the United States that hasn't witnessed an architectural surveyor stalking its streets, draped with cameras and clipboards, peering at and photographing buildings and structures. Yet I would estimate also that never before has such a small percentage of photographs been executed really well.

photo of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin near Spring Green, Wisconsin
Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin near Spring Green, Iowa County, Wisconsin, placed on the National Register in 1973. Buildings such as this one with deep overhangs photograph better in shade, or on an overcast day. (Jeff Dean, 1980)

This remains true today. Taking good photographs of architecture with small format equipment is not terribly difficult. It requires only the following: common sense, thinking ahead (a.k.a. planning), visual sensitivity, appropriate technical knowledge, and the right equipment. Common sense and visual sensitivity cannot be taught from scratch. The rest can.

Frederic Athearn covers the purpose of architectural photography in some depth here in this bulletin. I have been asked to describe how I go about doing it when on the job. Below, I write about how I photograph architecture with small-format equipment. I don't cover special activities such as rectified photography or large-format photography.

When I am charged by myself, or by others, to photograph buildings, the first thing I must know is which way the buildings face. This often requires me to consult maps or site plans, keeping my fingers crossed that the primary facade does not face north. If it does, it may well mean waiting until early in the morning or late in the afternoon in late June or early July.

Once I know the direction the buildings face, I can plan my trip. Or can I? Not necessarily. It depends on how far ahead I plan and how open my schedule is. In my neck of the woods, if I am in pursuit of fine exterior photographs, I often cannot plan beyond the coverage of a reliable weather forecast. It can be very frustrating to drive to a site only to find the sky overcast or that clouds have just moved in. If this is indeed the case, I remind myself that overcast days are excellent for interior photography and head inside. (Remember also that some buildings and structures may photograph best in the soft light of an overcast day, for instance a building with dramatically deep overhangs and shadows. (See below.)

When I'm traveling to unfamiliar cities, I study road maps for these communities to locate the subject buildings on them, so I can get in and out with the least wasted motion.

Assuming the buildings, the weather, the distance, and the schedule are all in fortuitous conjunction, I load up. First, that means determining what equipment I need to take with me. As Athearn notes, most National Register photographs are taken with 35-mm equipment. That includes me. So, I usually take two 35-mm SLR camera bodies (one for fine-grained black-and-white film and the other for Kodachrome slides), both equipped with cross-hair-grid viewfinder screens. Occasionally, I also take a 6- x 7-cm SLR with a shift (perspective correcting) lens. Colored filters for black-and-white cameras are a necessity, and UV filters for slide cameras are a wise inclusion, as are a tripod and level.

What if it is hot outside? How do I protect film from heat damage? I never leave film of any sort in a parked car or in motorcycle saddlebags in the sun. Never! I would suggest you bring along a small cooler with a little ice or another coolant inside it in which to keep your film on hot days. If you use ice, remember to wrap your film in a watertight package to protect it. Humidity can also be a problem for film stored in an ice chest. Always try to keep your film as cool and dry as possible when outdoors in the summer.

I always pack a shift or PC (perspective correcting) lens for architectural photography. They are made by several camera manufacturers in 35-mm-format focal lengths, ranging from 24mm to 35mm. Such lenses correct for the visual distortion found in architectural photographs taken with normal, nonshifting lenses. Without the use of a PC lens, buildings in photographs typically appear to be tilted backwards, as though falling over. Though pricey, these lenses are in fact necessary if serious small-format architectural photography is the goal; if you do not have one, get one. Currently, Nikon, Olympus, and Canon systems have the flexibility of offering multiple PC lenses in more than a single focal length-the standard 35mm-plus a wider lens. Several other manufacturers produce PC lenses for their SLRs, but just in one focal length.

medium-format camera
A medium-format camera mounted on a tripod with a 75-mm shift lens. (Jeff Dean, 1980)
perspective correcting lens corrects visual distortion
The perspective correcting lens shown on this 35-mm camera corrects visual distortion. (Courtesy of Nikon)

PC lenses are manual lenses. The view you see through the viewfinder will darken as you decrease the aperture opening. You need to know how your particular camera handles exposure when using manual lenses.

Some cautions about using PC lenses in the field:

First, always take meter readings before shifting the lens. Otherwise, exposure readings will be incorrect.

Second, I think it is better to undershift a little than to overshift a PC lens. Therefore, I recommend not trying to align vertical lines in perfect parallelism, but to accept slight convergence or undershifting. This gives a building a natural appearance and avoids the disaster of producing an overshifted photograph.

Third, good hand-held photographs can be taken with shifted lenses if you are careful about it. If you find this too difficult, mount the camera on a tripod which will hold it steady for you, but be sure your tripod is positioned properly. (See later discussion.)

Fourth, I recommend you use a special grid viewfinder screen for most architectural subjects. The exception would be an historic building that is leaning. In this case, the grid would be useless.


photo of the Robert M. Bashford House, Madison, Wisconsin photo of the Robert M. Bashford House, Madison, Wisconsin photo of the Robert M. Bashford House, Madison, Wisconsin
Three photos of the 1858 Robert M. Bashford House Madison, Dane County, Wisconsin, placed on the National Register in 1973. (Jeff Dean, 1996)
In the first photo, the camera has been leveled, but no shift lens was used. The top of the house isn't in the picture at all! The second shows what results when the same camera without a shift lens is tilted to get the whole house. The house looks like it is falling over backwards. The third view, from the same angle, but this time with a shift, or PC, lens gives the results wanted.

I like to use a hand level for small-format architectural photography. They are available at drafting supply and land surveyor supply stores. Resembling a small telescope, the hand level contains a horizontal cross-hair and bubble level that allows me to locate camera-aiming targets on a building that are at the same level as my eye. The better hand levels offer modest magnification, which provides for more accurate targeting. An alternate way of leveling your camera is with the assistance of a bubble level mounted in the camera hot shoe. This works fine if you work exclusively with a tripod. Personally, however, I find that using a hand level, without a tripod, gives me more accurate results than a diminuitive bubble level with a tripod.

Other lenses I use for a typical job include moderate telephoto lenses, including zoom lenses, for close-up detail views. On rare occasions, I have even used a 500-mm-telephoto lens to move in on a distant detail; this, however, is not routine.

photo of three levels
Three levels. The top two are hand levels and the bottom is a bubble level mounted on the camera hot shoe. (Jeff Dean, 1996)

Finally, I pack the widest-angle lens I own, currently 20mm, which is often not wide enough for interiors of small rooms. It seems that when it comes to interior photographs of buildings, I can never have a lens with a focal length that is too short. Even a lens with a 20-mm focal length, however, has to be used carefully. It can induce radical convergence of lines when a camera's film plane is not perpendicular to the ground plane.

Loaded up, I am ready to go get my photographs. I know which way the first building faces, so that determines when I have to get to it if I want sunlight on the primary facade. Remember, the sun rises in the east, is overhead at solar noon (don't forget to compensate for daylight-saving time), and sets in the west. I would recommend that you get there in the morning, if the building faces east. This seems almost too obvious to state, but many of the photographs submitted to our state historic preservation office show a lack of understanding of this basic point.

Three photos of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Dane County, Madison, Wisconsin, placed on the National Register in 1972.
photo of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Light shining directly on front
In the first, the light is shining directly on the front facade of the building. The contrast is so great that details are lost in the shadow areas.
photo of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: light over the photographer's shoulderThe second was taken with the light over the photographer's shoulder, from the left. There is greater depth, less contrast.
photo of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: backlit
The third is backlit.

The relationship of the building to the sun is absolutely critical for capturing a decent photograph. So is the atmosphere. High humidity brings with it haze that turns a sky from deep blue (with color film) or a dark tone (in filtered black-and-white film) to an uninspiring whitish-gray. Partly cloudy weather means I get to stand around a lot waiting for the sun to peek out. Changing weather causes me to stomp on my accelerator to try to get there before the clouds do. I (and other photographers) have many tales to tell about successes and failures resulting from the disastrous or happy convergence of time, traveling speed, and rapidly moving weather systems.

A caution here about property owners and their pets. (While this is not truly architectural photography, it certainly is an issue in the photography of architecture!) Request permission if you want to go on someone's property. You do have the right to photograph buildings you can see from the public right-of-way. However, do not insist on that right if questioned by a property owner. Be sure you have official i.d. and your boss's phone number with you. Finally, dogs can run very fast, love to bark and growl at anyone carrying a camera, and often have full sets of canines. Usually a car with closed doors and windows provides adequate protection from them.

At the site, I check out a historic building before I start photography. I walk around it, looking for angles, shadows, and potential frames in the environment to place it in its setting. If it's a single-family house, I knock on the door and announce my presence. In such cases, the owner normally is proud of his or her dwelling and may well have old photographs of it and historical documentation.

That done, I decide what general views I want, and which of the lenses I have with me would work best. Close-in trees or other buildings often call for my widest shift lens-28mm or even 24mm. When I can go with a 35-mm shift lens for overall views, I prefer to do that because there is little distortion and less of a problem with light falloff at the edges of the image at extreme shifts. Normally, I use the fastest shutter speed possible and reasonable, certainly no slower that 1/125th-second speed for hand-held shooting. This is one reason I prefer a fast Kodachrome film for slides.

Mounting the lens, I use the camera as a framing device as I move around again to check the best angles. With initial views selected, here is how I proceed to take each overall exterior view:

1. I sight on the building with my hand level and pick some spots that are at eye level.

2. With my camera set to manual control, I center the lens, mount a filter, and approximate the desired view while setting the exposure. Later, if I reset the exposure, I re-center the lens.

3. With exposure set, I aim the camera at the eye-level-point.

4. While holding the camera body steady, I shift the lens as needed. If, when you are doing this, you become uncertain, center the lens again and re-aim the camera at the point you identified with your hand level. Many photographers prefer to use a tripod (certainly this is the most accepted procedure), but I find that a tripod is difficult to set accurately, and if it is set incorrectly every photograph then taken will be useless. I have more consistent success (in good light conditions) aiming a hand-held, grid-screen-equipped 35mm SLR, after consulting a hand level.

5. I squeeze the shutter to take the photograph. Never punch the shutter. (If you are using a tripod, use a cable release.)

When exterior views are completed, I photograph architectural details and ornamentation, often with telephoto or zoom lenses.

If interior views are called for and possible, I bring out a tripod and wide-angle lenses and head inside. For National Register photography purposes, you usually can take perfectly fine interior photographs using available light. Interior photography is difficult, especially in daylight when uncovered windows are in view. In such cases, bracket exposures on the side of seeming overexposure, and expose more for shadows than bright areas. (Another way to do this is to take a meter reading of the lightest area in the photograph and one of the darkest areas and average the two readings.) Most interior photographs arriving in our office are badly underexposed because exposure meters are overwhelmed by light sources within the views. Err, therefore, on the side of overexposure when bracketing.

interior detail of the Green County Courthouse, Monroe Wisconsin
Interior detail of the Green County Courthouse, Monroe, Green County, Wisconsin, placed on the National Register in 1978. The camera was equipped with a shift lens and was mounted on a tripod. The photographer used available light. (Jeff Dean, 1980)

When I am finished with my tasks, I return home with lots of exposed film for processing. When I get film processed, I request simply film development and contact sheets-no enlargements at this point. When I select views for printing that is where the hard work begins-work that needs to be reinvented regularly.

If you do your own printing and processing, or your agency has good in-house printing, count your lucky stars. Finding good black-and-white printing in the commercial market today is very difficult and requires continual sleuthing of potential vendors, especially if you do not live in a large city. I have experienced a regular turnover of printers. Typically, I find a one-man shop which will do good work to my specifications, including the use of fiber-base paper, careful focusing of the enlarger, and the type of archival processing that Athearn describes so well. That shop owner then becomes very successful and hires new employees. Somewhere around this time, prices soar and print quality declines to an unacceptable level as the talented owner becomes a personnel and business administrator and may even buy an automated printing machine guaranteed to produce acceptable prints. About then another one-man shop opens and the cycle repeats itself.

This has happened to my agency at least three times in the past decade, and it will happen again. As black-and-white processing and printing become ever more arcane, this situation will deteriorate further. The ultimate answer may be the establishment of permanently staffed, professional darkrooms in major state photographic archives and museums. It is likely in time that quality, affordable black-and-white printing no longer will be available from local commercial outlets.

Currently, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin's staff is preparing text and illustrations for Buildings of Wisconsin. Co-edited by Geoffrey Gyrisco and Marsha Weisiger, it will be one of a series of books being published by Oxford University Press and the Society of Architectural Historians in their joint Buildings of the United States series. In this project, we are using a number of photographers, both paid and volunteer. I have been especially pleased by the work of volunteer photographers from non-photographic professions who have learned, with only minimal coaching, to take excellent photographs of architecture. This has reaffirmed my belief that anyone possessed of common sense and visual sensitivity, and who has appropriate training and the minimum of proper 35-mm SLR equipment, can learn to take good, publishable photographs for the National Register.


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