Digital photography tips to aid survey operations.

Ron Jacobs, civil technician for Professional Engineering Associates, captures an image of information lath for a building corner offset during excavation at a construction site.

By nature, field surveyors adapt quickly to new technological tools. They learn proper operations and applications of highly technical gear such as laser scanners, GPS equipment, total stations, complex data collectors and even digital levels with relative ease-and much enthusiasm. These tools, along with the surveyor’s expertise, account for their high-quality end product, job satisfaction and, ultimately, better pay and advancement.

One particular tool that is becoming more necessary in the surveyor’s arsenal is quite different from the high-cost scientific gear familiar to most projects. This tool may be somewhat intimidating to the modern-day surveyor, but the value of this tool is immense. It can collect extreme amounts of data in a fraction of a second and provide immediate visual information that the costly high-tech stuff cannot. I’m referring to the digital camera.

Author Jerry Affholter (left) and Ron Jacobs (right), civil technician for Professional Engineering Associates, discuss the necessary photos to supplement an ALTA survey.

Part of the Big Picture

We don’t have to argue the fact that a digital camera has a proper place in many of today’s surveys. In fact, it has become a common staple among the equipment in the surveyor’s vehicle. Its economical advantage over film cameras, compatibility with the office computer, ability to take countless quantities of photographs as well as higher resolutions have all paved the way for its importance in the current survey environment.

Today’s use of digital photography by survey companies varies widely depending on their philosophy, culture and client demand. While one organization has a single camera for the entire office that is used once in a while, another firm supplies one for each crew with the expectation that they will collect numerous photos of each survey. Some companies even have a written policy regarding what and when to photograph or have standard operating procedures on how to take photos.

Boundary Snapshots

As traditional as boundary surveys are, they can be supplemented with the use of digital cameras. “We require our crews to photograph each point they tie in during a boundary survey,” says Alan Benham, PE, PS, vice president of survey for Bohannan Huston in Albuquerque, N.M. He adds: “One survey alone exceeded 800 points, but the photos become part of our permanent record and leave no doubt about what points the crew shot.”

Although photos are not required by state law, many survey companies are recording pictures of boundary points and images of evidence for their own records. Digital pictures could prove to be worthwhile if questions arise in the future about the actual placement of monuments and property corners.

Digital photos taken during boundary surveys can also aid in the documenting of land corners and their witnesses. Digital photo editing software makes it easy to circle or draw an arrow pointing to the location of a section land corner and its corresponding witnesses. For example, a picture taken looking southeast at the intersection of two roads can handily show both the location of the section corner in the intersection and any witnesses within the field of view to the southeast. By taking photos at varying angles to the section corner, all of the witnesses can be documented and the digital photos can be attached to a digital copy of the land corner recordation certificate (LCRC)-a legal document describing the location, type and witnesses to government township section corners-for future use.  

Mike Wiitanen, crew chief for Professional Engineering Associates, documents the concrete settlement of an electrical transformer pad with a digital photo.

Capturing Topography

For topographical surveys, the digital camera serves a multitude of purposes. For instance, when an odd, unknown aboveground structure is found, a digital photo is an excellent way to transport the image back to the office to share with senior members of the survey team. A true picture of the device leaves fewer questions about the item than even a neat, well-drawn sketch.

The common discovery of unusual devices in vaults under manhole rims in older, larger cities such as Detroit, Chicago and New York City can be captured in a photo and downloaded to a computer to be viewed, e-mailed or placed on a company intranet to be shared with more experienced members of the company. Usually, someone has an idea of the object’s purpose or function allowing it to be properly identified on the final product. If not, the digital photo provides an excellent basis for someone to pursue additional research.

When topoing industrial building sites, you may encounter a rather complex labyrinth of ducts, pipes, vents, etc. that is simply too time consuming and challenging to collect data in a traditional manner. This is a prime situation to snap a number of photos from varying angles and take some general dimensions and vertical grades to complete the captured photo. Defining these dimensions is then quite simple since you can relate them to specific items, their orientation and colors in the collected visual image. If you are fortunate enough to have a laptop computer as part of your mobile tool trove, you could immediately download the digital picture and make notes directly on the photograph using photo-editing software.

The applications for digital photos included in topographical surveys are endless, but a few more suggestions of ideal candidates include walls, buildings, landscaping, trees and bridges. I recently conducted a hydrographic survey of the Grand River in Michigan that included multiple railroad trestles crossing the river. The scope of the survey required detailed information on each trestle, and photos taken from underneath and to the side of the trestles proved invaluable to the final product delivered to our client.

Client Perspective

Occasionally, a client may request photos to supplement a survey. In some ALTA surveys, a client may request photographs of buildings existing on the site for verification of style and surface material. Often, they will want to know at what points on the building the height was measured. This can be accomplished with a digital photo and using a simple editor to place marks on the photo at the points where measurements were taken. Clients may also request full-site photos to accompany the ALTA. In this case, the surveyor would simply stand in the same spot and take multiple pictures while turning in a circle. It is important to be sure that each subsequent image has an identifiable connection to its previous one so a complete panoramic view is created.

Photography 101: Tips and Techniques

While the surveying equipment surveyors are used to collects data by measuring dimensions with advanced lasers and calculated formulas, the digital camera collects valuable data using light. Understanding how light affects the quality of the images a surveyor wishes to capture is the foundation for returning good visual data to the office.

Poor image collection may be the result of too much light or too little light. For instance, photos taken of an unusual object in a manhole may end up being too dark without distinguishing any contrast inside the manhole. The product we end up with at the office, then, may have very little value because it is underexposed. Another example of poor image collection is when a picture is taken of an exterior building wall dotted with an absurd quantity of utility meters, boxes, conduits, vents, etc. In contrast to the manhole photo, if the sun were shining directly on the wall at midday, this photo would be too bright. The image we were trying to capture would be bleached out, again making lines of contrast indistinguishable. This photo would be overexposed.

So, how can the field surveyor take solid, effective photos that add value to his or her respective survey without getting the training required to become a professional photographer? By learning a few simple techniques offered in your digital camera’s menu, a field surveyor will be able to take high-value photos. The following are five simple methods.

Mike Wiitanen, crew chief for Professional Engineering Associates, takes digital photos of sidewalk forms and survey layout at a construction site in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Frame Content

This method is very simple and does not require changing anything in your camera’s menu. Using the Auto feature, select the telephoto option if available. If it is not available, simply move closer or farther from the object you are photographing. By composing the photo in such a manner that 90 to 100 percent of the object you are trying to capture is all that is in your viewing frame, you eliminate any excess “junk” light coming from behind the object. This junk light may be the sky or bright metal that will fool your camera’s Auto feature and average the exposure between the bright background light and the darker image you are trying to capture. What you end up with is too much light overall, and this means your object will be too dark. By moving in closer and eliminating the junk light, your camera uses only the light reflecting off your object. You, then, end up with a better exposure and a truer picture.


In the case of the aforementioned dark manhole, the flash can prove to be the perfect option. Most cameras have either a button or a menu option to enable the flash. When your object is too dark, select the flash option to illuminate your subject. You may want to use the flash even when plenty of available light is present because the existing light may be casting a shadow on your subject; the flash will fill this area thereby reducing or perhaps completely eliminating the shadow. Remember that a camera’s flash is generally only effective for 10-16 feet. Be sure to consult your owner’s manual to find the maximum range of your flash. Another thing to be aware of when using flash is that if you have a highly reflective surface somewhere in your frame, it will bounce the flash back and cause a stark glare in the resulting photo. Taking a number of photos at different angles will overcome this problem.

Exposure Compensation

If neither the frame content nor flash technique help your particular photo, you then may have to delve into your camera’s menu and find the exposure compensation option. Here you can choose to set the camera to take either overexposed or underexposed photos. If your subject matter is too dark to see any contrast, then you will want to overexpose your photo by choosing the plus or positive direction. This will allow more light to enter your camera thereby brightening the photo. Conversely, if your subject is too bright, you will want to reduce the light entering your camera by choosing the minus or negative value in the exposure compensation menu. Most cameras permit you to step up or down the exposure in one-half increments, so experiment with the number of increments to see what setting delivers the best photo. Don’t worry about taking too many pictures as most data cards will hold a couple hundred data images. You may also delete pictures on-the-fly if you are sure the photo is not usable. Some of the better digital cameras have a bracketing feature that, when chosen, will automatically take three consecutive photos with one a little overexposed, one at the optimum exposure and one a little underexposed.

White Balance

The white balance feature allows you to state the type of light that is shining on the area you wish to photograph. A few different types of light are: direct sunlight, cloudy sky light, light from your camera’s flash, light from tungsten bulbs and light from fluorescent bulbs. Usually, the camera’s Auto feature does an excellent job of determining for you which light you’re in, but this option is worth experimenting with. There are occasions when changing the white balance to something other than the actual available light can create a better contrast. The resulting photo may have a different color hue than what you saw with your natural eye, but if the photo delivers better results, we can’t argue.


The ISO is the camera’s “film” exposure speed. While digital cameras don’t use the conventional film from olden days, they still have the option to configure the digital camera with a speed setting. This can be very helpful because the higher the film speed, the less light it takes to create an image. Most digital cameras have an ISO range from 80 (used for very bright sunny days) to 1600 (used for darker environments). If you are taking photos in the evening or in darker areas, you will want to try using the higher ISO settings to see how it affects your photo’s contrasts. Keep in mind, though, that the higher the ISO number, the lower the resolution of your picture. In other words, a picture taken at an ISO of 800 will be more grainy that one taken at 200. As long as you’re not planning to blowup your photo to a larger- than-usual size, the resolution differences shouldn’t be a problem. If it does become an issue, you can increase your image quality. But if the quality is at your camera’s highest setting, then you will have to lower your ISO setting.

Now that you have learned about some of the techniques for applying digital photography to different types of surveys, be creative and find other ways where they may efficiently supplement your work. Apply your enthusiasm to the value of taking digital pictures. If you’re not sure when to take a photo, use the advice of Allan Pruss, PE, PS, surveying and engineering manager for Professional Engineering Associates in Howell, Mich.: “When in doubt, pull out the digital camera. A little more data can never hurt a survey.”

Sidebar: Tips for Taking Photos for Magazine Use

Photos submitted for magazine publication require a much higher resolution than photos taken for personal use. To better enable your submissions to make it to print, we offer these guidelines and tips from POB’s Art Department.

Graphic Requirements

Image file types accepted: EPS, TIFF, JPG, BMP, PSD

Resolution: 300 ppi (pixels per inch) or higher.

For magazine use, images must be at a high resolution, usually 300 dpi. Images for Web use are lower in resolution, usually 72 dpi, and are not high enough quality for print.

Acceptable Image Sizes:

The first number in pixels shows the original image size. At 72 dpi (dots per inch), the image is at its original size measured in inches. When the image is converted proportionally in Photoshop to 300 dpi, it becomes the second size. This second size determines suitability for placement on the cover or interior pages.

Cover Use:

The following sizes are acceptable for cover images or any interior pages:

2400 x 3000 pixels @ 72 dpi = 33” x 42”
2400 x 3000 pixels @ 300 dpi = 8” x 10”

Interior Page Use:

These sizes are acceptable for interior magazine pages, not covers:

1200 x 1800 pixels @ 72 dpi = 17” x 25”
1200 x 1800 pixels @ 300 dpi = 4” x 6”
600 x 900 pixels @ 72 dpi = 8” x 12”
600 x 900 pixels @ 300 dpi = 2” x 3”

Tips for Taking Better Shots

1. Resolution:This is the most important aspect for us. Do a little research on the settings of your camera, and set it to capture the largest possible file. JPG and HQX compression are common settings. If you are shooting indoor and do not have portable lighting, experiment with the flash on and off. And don’t worry about sending too many pictures. The more the merrier! It’s better to sift through 200 images from a photo shoot than to be tied down to only 3 images. Remember, you’re featuring your company/employees at their best.

2. Lighting:Natural lighting is always the best option. Outdoors in bright sunlight provides the best coloring. When possible, try to avoid having the subject facing directly into the sun as they may be squinting. Also, try not to have them facing completely away from the sun as that may create shadows on their face. When shooting indoors, portable lighting is always helpful. If that’s not an option, try opening doors, blinds and windows to brighten the room.

3. Composition:Centering the subject and equipment in a frame is easy, but don’t hesitate to try different angles. Side angles or above angles will provide an interesting look.If your images are potentially going on the cover, please also keep in mind that the upper left corner of the cover is dominated by the POB logo.

4. Orientation:Always take a mix of both horizontal and vertical shotskeeping in mind that the best option for the cover is always vertical format.

5. Posing:Readers prefer to see people in action rather than a posed shot. Keep things natural. If someone is pointing to equipment or has materials in their hands, try not to obscure the faces of those in the background.

To request a copy of the POB Graphic Requirement Reference Sheet, contact Wendy Lyons at lyonsw@bnpmedia.