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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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III. Documenting Historic Places on Film

National Register Guidelines for Photographic Coverage

photo of the St. Augustine Church
The St. Augustine Church, built in 1844 in New Diggings, Wisconsin, was photographed with a medium-format camera, a PC lens, and a yellow filter. (Jeff Dean, 1981)

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

. Submit one or more views to show the principal facades and the environment or setting in which the property is located.
. Additions, alterations, intrusions, and dependencies should appear in the photographs.
. Include views of interiors, outbuildings, landscaping, or unusual details if the significance of the property is entirely or in part based on them.

Historic and Archeological Sites

. Submit one or more photographs to depict the condition of the site and any aboveground or surface features and disturbances.
. If they are relevant to the evaluation of significance, include drawings or photographs that illustrate artifacts that have been removed from the site.
. At least one photograph should show the physical environment and configuration of the land making up the site.

Architectural and Historic Districts

. Submit photographs representing major buildings and styles, representative noncontributing resources and any important topographical features defining the character of the district.
. Streetscapes, landscapes, aerial, or oblique views are recommended.
. Views of individual buildings are not necessary, if streetscapes and other views clearly illustrate the significant historical and architectural qualities of the district.
. Key all photographs to the sketch map for the district.

Archeological Districts

. Submit photographs of the principal sites and site types within the district following the guidelines for archeological sites.

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.

photo of a victorian house in Independence,  Missouri
This Victorian house in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, was the home of Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States, from 1919 to 1972. On the death of Bess Truman in 1982, the house became the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. (Historic American Buildings Survey. Jack E. Boucher, 1983)

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:

. All sides of the primary building, structure, site, or object (this would be the ideal level of documentation) OR,
. Perspective views of each corner of the primary building, structure, site, or object;
. Detailed views of, for instance, windows, doors, unusual features, construction style, or other notable elements;
. Views that show materials used in construction of the building, structure, site or object;
. An overall view of the principal building, structure, site, or object showing how it relates to the landscape;
. At least two, perspective views of each outbuilding or smaller feature on the property; thus assuring that all contributing and non-contributing resources will be documented;
. Appropriate views that show how outbuildings or features relate to each other and to the landscape; and
. Views of unique or special details of outbuildings, foundations, or features that may not be obvious in general photographs.


interior photo of the Henry Morrison Flagler House in Palm Beach, Florida
Now a museum, Whitehall, the Henry Morrison Flagler House, Palm Beach County, Palm Beach, Florida, is a magnificent mansion built by Flagler for his wife Mary Lily Kenan in 1901. This interior view shows the Marble Hall and Grand Staircase, designed by Carrere and Hastings. (Historic American Buildings Survey. Jack E. Boucher, 1969)

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

photo of the Redridge Steel Dam
The Redridge Steel Dam, built in 1900, is one of two dams on the Salmon Trout River, near the village of Redridge, Houghton County, Michigan. A few hundred feet upstream stands an earlier stone-filled, log, crib dam built in 1894. The steel dam replaced the log one, which was submerged within its reservoir from 1901 until the reservoir was drained in 1960. (Terry S. Reynolds, 1989)
photo of the machinery foundation at the Thompson-Cape Dam
View facing north of the machinery foundation above the wheel pit at South end of ditch at the Thompson-Cape Dam and Ditch Engineering Structure, San Marcos, Hayes County, Texas. Note clipboard placed near spindle head and gear to show scale. (Texas Historical Commission. Margaret Howard, 1984)

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:

. An overall view of the resource showing the relationship between various components;
. The significant features of the resource that are discussed in the written documentation of the property;
. The architectural or structural aspects of the property;
. The technical aspects of the property. (For instance, in a mining stamp mill, the various components such as the stamps, ovens, tables, vats, etc. should be photographed.);
. Details of design of construction, including structural systems, and special features of the building or property, both interior and exterior;
. Machinery, tools, specific processes, and other intricate parts of the building's technology;
. If copies of historic photos of the property are available, they can be copied on standard film and processed normally. This is particularly true of industrial and engineering resources where the property may have been photographed when new, but has been substantially changed, or destroyed, over the years.


photo of the Cabin John Aqueduct in Montgomery County, Maryland
Cabin John Aqueduct, Montgomery County, Maryland. This stone arch was built in 1869 and was the world's longest until 1903. It was designed by Montgomery Meigs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The aqueduct provided the principal source of water to Washington, D.C. throughout the late 19th century. (Michael Bourne, 1969)
photo of the Stoneman Bridge in Yosemite National Park, California
View showing the east facade of the Stoneman Bridge, Yosemite National Park, Mariposa County, California, designed and built by the National Park Service in 1933. The bridge is reinforced concrete faced with rough boulders of native granite to give it a rustic appearance. The photograph shows the exterior material very clearly and also shows significant features-the equestrian tunnels-and how they are built out from the face of the wing walls for decorative emphasis. (National Park Service. Dean Shenk, 1976)

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:

. An overall view of the span(s) from both sides. If the bridge is very long, an ultra wide angle lens is most valuable in giving adequate coverage. A good vantage point may be either end of the bridge where the entire span can be seen. Depending on the density of the foliage and the season, a nearby hill looking down on the site may also be a good vantage point.
. Adequately lighted views of the structural systems of a bridge or trestle, including truss types, connections between components, pilings, and abutments and other features;
. Detailed shots of specific features such as builder's plates, rivets, bolts, flanges, and other materials;
. Materials used in various parts of the structure; and
. Approaches to the structure.


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.
Depending on the scope, the following features should be documented:

photo of the Howard Bridge in Colorado
View from the Northeast of the Howard Bridge in Colorado, showing the structure and approaches to the bridge. (Clayton B. Fraser, 1983)
photo fo the Baltimore and Ohio Viaduct near Lodi, Ohio
The Baltimore and Ohio Viaduct over the Black River, near Lodi, Medina County, Ohio, is a monumental masonry civil engineering structure. The photograph shows the timeless simplicity of the stone arched viaduct built in 1892 on the main line of the Baltimore and Ohio, linking Chicago with the East. (Eric Johannesen, 1975)

. 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.
. Architectural resources, both contributing and non-contributing, such as: stations, outbuildings, water towers, freight houses, section houses, signal towers, guard houses, sheds, locomotive sheds, roundhouses, and turntables should be recorded using the guidelines in National Register Bulletin: How to Complete the National Register of Historic Places Form . Views showing relationships between buildings are important, as are shots of objects and structures that may be on the property. If a railyard is the subject, the relationship between architectural features and the layout of the yard should be shown.
. Bridges and trestles are recorded as described in the section on bridges. (See above.)
. Tunnels can be photographed using flash equipment to light the interior. The information within a tunnel is the construction detail, for example, the cast iron lining of a subaqueous tunnel. Ventilation mechanisms are worthy of photographic coverage. Often the portals are nothing but rock into which the tunnel was blasted; in other cases, they are elaborate edifices. They should be photographed.


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

photo of the Great Sierra Wagon Road
The Great Sierra Wagon Road, constructed in 1882 by Chinese workers for the Great Sierra Silver Mining Company, remains relatively unchanged from its earliest days. (Leslie S. Hart, 1976)

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:

. A view of the length (or portion of the length) of the road or trail. Details of special features need to be photographed. For example, if the road is made of an unusual asphalt, it should be recorded.
. Selective views of cuts, fills, culverts, bridges, trestles, and other engineering features. These are similar to railway features and can be treated in the same way.
. Detailed views of roads and trails documenting special or unusual parts of the site, such as ruts, wagon tire marks (in rock most likely), pavements (asphalt, brick, macadam, etc.), and other small features such as mile posts, signs, markers, and other road-related items.
. Associated buildings or structures along a road or trail should be photographed using the guidelines for buildings. (See above.) If the features are in ruins, they should be photographed according to the suggestions for archeological properties.

photo a doorway in the Sherman Avenue Historic District photo of a house in the Sherman Avenue Historic District
Sherman Avenue Historic District. Detail of Doorway and Houses. (Kathryn Rankin, 1987)

Historic Districts

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

photo of Chicago's Lincoln Park photo of Chicago's Lincoln Park
Three views of Chicago's Lincoln Park. (Joanne Nathan, 1990)
photo of Chicago's Lincoln Park

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:

. A wide-angle lens is usually the best choice for landscapes and streetscapes because it provides an angle of view that takes in the overall scene, including the environmental setting. A landscape photograph in this case is a generalized view of the scenery. It is not a photograph of a specific feature.
. There may also be details that need to be recorded. In the case of a planned landscape (such as a city park), various features should be recorded, including benches, statues, flower beds, paths, trails, gazebos, etc. They should also be shown within the context of the overall landscape.
. Areas of landscapes involving historic events, or historic places may be recorded in a similar manner. Representative features such as mine waste piles, slag heaps from industrial sites, clear-cuts in forests, vegetation manipulations, and surface disturbances that alter the original natural landscape should be recorded. This is particularly true in the case of historic districts. However, it is not suggested that documentation of each and every feature is required. Representations of contributing and noncontributing features, structures, monuments, and other parts of the overall area should be considered.
. Battlefields should be documented to show the lay of the land, as well as representations of contributing and noncontributing features, structures, monuments, and other parts of the overall area including the environmental setting.

photo of the Lowry Ruins National Historic Landmark in Colorado
Lowry Ruins National Historic Landmark. Archeological site in Montezuma County, Colorado. (Frederic Athearn, 1995)

Archeological Properties

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:

. An overall view of the site;
. Views of the environmental setting, such as vegetation, soils, geography, and other important features;
.Views of excavations, if appropriate, to show the extent of the work being undertaken;
. Detailed views, if appropriate, of stratification, artifacts, etc. photographed in context to show how the materials lie in the soil;
. View showing significant disturbances;
. View showing the overall integrity of the site/district;
. View showing the condition of the site and any aboveground or surface features;
. Views of contributing and noncontributing features, as appropriate.

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.

overview of the Georgetown Silver Plume Historic District, Colorado
overview of the Georgetown Silver Plume Historic District, Colorado
These two oblique views are of Georgetown Silver Plume Historic District, Colorado. (Frederic Athearn, 1995)


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