Let's face it. What’s obvious to us as land surveyors can be confusing to others. Contours on a topo are just squiggly lines to a layperson, and what the heck is a “backflow preventor”?

For surveyors, taking a good, clear site photo aids communication, documents existing site conditions and is helpful when creating deliverables. A bad photo is time wasted on a job site that causes more problems than it solves. 

Here are some common uses and problems Land Surveyors face with photos, along with best practices and solutions.

Photography And Today’s Land Surveyor

When today’s land surveyor is asked how important site photos are to their workflow, invariably they will answer “very important.” But how often are they snapping photos and how are they using them? 

brian jaquess

Around 67 percent of land surveyors say that they— or their field crews — take photos at every job site, usually with their personal or company cell phones. According to the survey, the two most common uses of photos by land surveyors were:

  • Office staff using site photos as an aid when processing topo shots and generating linework in CAD.
  • Documenting problems (e.g. construction defects) on a site.

As your “professional errors and omissions insurance” representative will attest, this is an important use of site photos. Photographic evidence can play a crucial role in building a case or in defending against litigation. However, not all photos are admissible.

As Keiss/George LLP, Attorneys at Law write in their “Admissibility of Photographic Evidence” post:

“Under the ‘pictorial testimony’ theory, photographic evidence is admissible when a sponsoring witness can testify that it is a fair and accurate representation of the subject matter . . . Under the ‘silent witness’ theory, photographic evidence is admissible if the process used to produce the photograph is accurate and reputable.”

Problems Survey Crews Have With Photos

When it comes to land survey crews, the most common problems with photos start with the typical workflow:

  • The survey crew either takes too many photos or not enough on site. 
  • The survey crew dumps photos from their device into a project folder on the company’s server but doesn’t communicate the file path or that photos are available to others.
  • The analyst or designer only uses photos taken by the field crew “in case of emergency” if the area in question isn’t shown in Google Earth or Google Street View.

Sound familiar? If not, then you are the anomaly.

Morgan Smith at Cogent Legal writes about the challenge of organizing 77,000 electronic photos from a job site to document a construction defect in a case they were involved in. You may not have 77,000 photos for that topo you worked on last week, but remember that more is not always better.

If the end-user must sift through too many irrelevant photos or duplicate photos of the same subject, they are more likely to ignore a relevant or stop using photos.

Photo scarcity also causes problems often thanks to Google. Many land surveyors are taking too few of their own site photos, or none at all and relying on Google Earth or Google Maps.

Both platforms are amazing and extremely useful. However, it is important to understand why they were created, and it was not to help us prepare survey deliverables more efficiently. 

Google is in the business of advertising. According to Statista.com, they generated US $135 billion from advertising revenue in 2019, which is around 90 percent of their total revenue.

They are amazingly efficient at matching specific advertisers to likely customers. So, why are they so efficient? Google tells you in their informative “Privacy Policy”:

“We collect information to provide better services to all our users — from figuring out basic stuff like which language you speak, to more complex things like which ads you’ll find most useful, the people who matter most to you online, or which YouTube videos you might like. The information Google collects, and how that information is used, depends on how you use our services and how you manage your privacy controls.“

They go on to specify the types of the data they may collect from their users, like what you search, your browsing history, photos you save to Google Photos and more.

Part of the reason they collect this data is research and development. For example, in 2012, Google created a “brain simulator” comprised of a 16,000 computer “neural network.” After seeing 10 million images on YouTube the “brain simulator” taught itself to recognize cats. Without having access to their user’s data, i.e., cat images and videos, Google could not run such an ambitious experiment.

If you are wondering why a platform such as Google Earth is free — which would cost a software developer millions of dollars to develop and maintain— the answer is that we’re paying for it with our data. Google also has the right to discontinue any of its free services and cancel accounts at any time.

If you use screen captures or export images to share with others, make sure that you provide “attribution to both Google and (their) data providers” to comply with Google’s Terms of Use.

Microsoft’s free alternative to Google Maps, Bing Maps, offers satellite images, street view perspective and “Bird’s eye” imagery. If you need more precise imagery in urban areas, “NearMap” is a pay service that provides high resolution aerial imagery and obliques.

In the end, you are doing the survey, not Google. You know the exact date of your photos, which are much better evidence in documenting current site conditions. Furthermore, if you must defend yourself in court, a screen capture from Google Earth means less than your own photo.

Determining the Location of Site Photos Can Be Problematic

Knowing where a photo was taken is problematic for closeups or long shots without distinguishable features in the background. Some land surveyors create sketches of their photos’ locations while others use GPS cameras, but the vast majority leave it to the viewer of their photos to figure it out. 

The problem voiced by sketchers is the additional time spent creating sketches or plots while company GPS camera users may not always have the camera with them. There is also the camera’s expense, though not as pricey as they used to be, a good GPS camera costs between $300 and $800.

bad site photo

Why a photo was taken is as important as its location. One example comes from a nameless friend and colleague who encourages his field crews to take photos at all their jobs. After spending the day in the back country searching for and locating section corners, one of his party chiefs took one photo: a closeup of some brush. Confused of the photo’s purpose, my friend asked the party chief why he took it. The answer was “to show that there wasn’t anything there.”

The intent of the photo was important, but without an explanation it was worthless.

Solutions and Best Practices for Survey Crews

We know the common problems most Land Surveyors have with photos, here are some solutions and best practices.

Resolution settings on your camera or phone should be set to the highest resolution possible. This allows the end-user to zoom in on the image with less pixilation on his or her computer. 

High resolution wide angle and mid-range photos also reduce the number of photos required at a site. When shooting closeups, ensure that the subject is in focus. Many cellphones take a second to focus when zooming in.

Never edit original photos. Altered photos can be inadmissible in court, so avoid “Photoshopping” or cropping your photos (even when there’s a thumb covering a corner of that pic.) If you must alter a photo, backup the original.

Put a system or protocol in place. Have a consistent method when taking site photos and storing them is especially important for mid-size and larger firms. 

One Surveyor I spoke with has a system where he starts at the Northwesterly corner of a site and walks in a clockwise direction while taking site photos. After downloading the photos, he renames the image files to the project number followed by the order they were taken.

Every site is different, but if you have a system in place, it can help the photographers avoid missing something while on site and increase efficiencies reviewing the photos in the office.

Other Uses for Site Photos Besides Topographic Surveys

As land surveyors, we all speak the same language but in different dialects. This can be confusing, especially to a new hire. 

Training Materials

Your own “survey procedures manual” with photos of a feature, its field code and a description of that feature can work wonders for training purposes and reducing the likelihood of miscoding in the field.

land surveyor site photos

Supplement field notes

A generation gap exists on the importance of handwritten field notes. Most Millennials think they are a waste of time, Gen X’ers see their value but prefer typing to writing and Baby Boomers view field notes as the holy grail. 

As surveyors, backup and checks are paramount to our work. It’s easy to “fat finger” a code or description in a data collector, but much harder when writing. In my opinion, every surveyor should take field notes, but photos can be referenced or inserted in as a supplement or to speed the process up for those in the field who find writing notes tedious.  

Use photos in lieu of scanner

A small business owner I met at a conference said that she photographs her receipts instead of leasing or purchasing a scanner. A scan is just an image of a document, so why not use your cellphone to take photos of marked up plan sets or receipts?

Some survey projects require a crew to travel out of town for days or weeks at a time. Rather than finding a local reprographic shop with scanners (if they still exist) and emailing scans back to the office, take photos of those documents. It will save you time and if the photos are taken properly can be just as good as a scanner. 

Include photos with deliverable

The further removed your client is from the world of land surveying and engineering, the more confusing your deliverable may be to them. 

For a small residential project, I worked on, we set two “lead and discs” (3/4” brass tags stamped with the surveyor’s license number) in top of curb as 7.00’ offsets to the front property corners. We filed a corner record with the county surveyor, as required by state statute, and I sent a PDF of the filed document to the client for their files. Done. 

Shortly thereafter, I received a frantic call from the client informing me that the “discs” shown on the corner record weren’t there. I visited the site and showed the monuments to them. They thought of the “discs” as “compact discs” or DVDs, so they were looking for big, shiny objects at the actual property corners. A photo of the “discs” would have cleared things up and avoided a return to the site for me.

Photos can manually be inserted or referenced into AutoCAD or Microstation drawings. A quicker and more useful method, in my opinion, is to create an interactive PDF.

If using BlueBeam, photos can be embedded with the markup tool, with Adobe Acrobat Pro use the “attach a file” tool in the “comments” toolbar. In both platforms, you are placing icons on top of the PDF which link to a file, so it is opened in a separate window. The caveat for BlueBeam is that the person you are sharing the interactive PDF with will have to view it with a BlueBeam product.

If you want to take your interactive PDF to the next level, use Adobe InDesign to create custom, “actionable” radio links to your photos. When the photo icon is clicked on in the PDF, the photo appears in the PDF instead of in a different photo viewer window. Plus you can add cool effects and animations.

Final Thoughts

Zia Mapper

Most people today have a high-resolution camera in their pocket at all times and can take as many photos as they want. There are some great mobile apps and software available, such as Zia Mapper, that takes the hassle out of taking and managing photos. There’s no excuse for not utilizing your own photos as part of your survey workflow. 

A good photo for a land surveyor is worth a “1,000 word” explanation and is much faster than a sketch. Traditional uses for photos such as helping a designer process a topo survey or covering your backside in case of litigation are important, but photos can be used for many more purposes. The technology is available and waiting, it’s up to Land Surveyors to fully leverage it and to start taking more of their own photos today.