Most of us use photography to show interesting views, beautiful scenes, and engaging portraits. Sometimes, though, photography can have a utilitarian purpose that’s devoid of art and still be highly valuable as documentation. This is particularly true when building a new house.

Document rough-in details of residential construction

I’m currently in the middle of a huge house-building project, and those of you who have experienced this know the joys and terror of its many components. There are many construction rules and codes that must be followed for not only framing but electrical lines and connectors, as well as plumbing, heating/cooling, etc. As the project evolves, eventually much of the hard work going into many of these systems will be buried behind wallboard. Whether you are building your home yourself as I am doing or having one built, it is well worth making photos of every wall and ceiling.

Location of plumbing, electrical wiring and stud placement are handy to know after cover up!

It is valuable to photographically document the frame and components of the entire structure before these things become hidden, and for a number of reasons. Photographic documentation demonstrates and proves code adherence. Second, carefully executed construction imagery reveals where things are in the event I’ll need to find them after the sheetrock is installed.

In my case, I chose to include wiring, piping, as well as framing studs and headers for hanging shelving, towel racks, etc. Yes, with stud finders it’s now possible to locate much of this behind wallboard, but what I’ve learning is that many walls have additional studs to tie into other walls, or have extra “sistered” boards and blocking which would be confusing if only looking at the readout of LEDs on a stud finder.

Designing the photographic map

There are hundreds of studs in my house-building project, and I will not remember most of what’s in there after cover-up. It’s too much. So, I created an organized, photographic map of the bones of the building.

Categorize: Identify and label locations

Because endless photos of mostly 2×6’s and 2×4’s are hard to place, I categorized the house into 22 different areas, such as “master bedroom,” “living room,” “office,” etc. I placed these images in their own labeled folders. This cataloging will assist retrieval and identification of specific locations.

Slate areas

Documenting this project required almost 1,000 Raw file photographs. Slating facilitated post-download organization. Slating is a simple practice from my first days as a professional portrait photographer. Back in the “baby picture” era, we used a slate as the first photo of a 120 roll film proof set to identify each customer. I created a simple slate for each home area. For this project, the slate was just a piece of paper suspended from a clipboard labeling each room. When reviewing the seemingly endless parade of walls after download, the slate instantly identified the start of each area, and the next slate defined the previous collection’s end.

Create a consistent photographic map route

I captured the rooms using a consistent pattern of starting at the doorway entrance and proceeding counter-clockwise around the entire area. This will help if any wall appears ambiguously like another when trying to locate its content. Another good option would be to notate a blueprint or graph of the floor plan with the image file numbers.

Another orientation assist possibility

Light for definition

Aesthetically, this type of photography is the exact opposite of how I would normally operate, or teach others to think and work. The building bones photographic map is not supposed to be pretty, creative, thoughtful or artistic. It’s documentation. As such, I purposefully used an on-camera flash to guarantee illumination for definition. I hate the look of on-camera direct flash! But it is perfect for this job. It not only puts the exact amount of perfect color light where I need it but can be easily exposure regulated up and down as required. For instance, I exposure compensated +2 stops to peer into a receptacle box to show that my ground wires have been joined and crimped.

What’s in the box is what I needed to capture!

In a future post, I will describe the flash I used for this project, but imagine that I photographed the entire project using flash for every image, and did so on one battery charge. Amazing! I was sent a Hahnel Modus 600 RT from the RTS corporation with which to experiment, and it worked out as the perfect tool for the job. It uses the same type of battery (lithium ion) that the camera does.

The still image map for a perfect memory

So with this collection and documentation, I’ll be able to essentially peer into each wall after the fact should I need to. One of the things that I’ve contended for years is that even though video capture has become easy and ubiquitous, and is wonderfully demonstrative of how people gesture and act, the still photograph will remain an important and permanent part of our visual vocabulary. The reason is that photography gives us something that we wish we could inherently possess yet do not; namely a perfect memory. A still photograph offers us the ability to dwell endlessly on a singular frozen moment in time, allowing us to wrap our consciousness around it at leisure. Enabling a perfect memory could be as significant as a key historic event like the demise of the Hindenburg dirigible, or as mundane as the location of my Romex staples.

This trilogy shows the continuity of a wall that has an angled end.

Post-construction documentation

After the entire construction project for this house is complete, I will commence yet another document project and one of which I will also recommend to everyone to consider for themselves. In a similar fashion to this one (i.e., the photographic map: categorize, slate, route, and light) l will photograph the entire contents of the house to include all of the furniture, electronics, wall art, rugs, clothes, valuables, etc. For insurance purposes. I could demonstrate my ownership of these things and help to organize what would need replacement.

I will also recommend that everyone strongly consider capturing the insurance photographic map in the camera’s Raw file format as well. The original file with the camera’s unique file extension is not easy to alter, except on a global basis such as exposure. Raw files are not likely to contain inserted or deleted individual objects, and thus provide credible evidence.

It can be very valuable to use your photographic knowledge and skills to provide evidence of your other work as well as giving you a perfect memory!