How to Photograph a Bridge

In the world of transportation and preservation, I spend a lot of time around bridges, conducting resource IDs, evaluating the historic significance of these bridges and reviewing projects for any adverse effects to our historic bridges and adjacent historic resources. Anyone who conducts resources IDs in the field knows that photographing the project area and the resource is a vital part of documentation and research. Why are photographs important? By photographing particular elements of structures – whether buildings or bridges – it is possible to date the historic resource by construction methods and materials used. Architectural styles date buildings, but also date bridges. Railings, deck systems and truss types allow for dating bridges.

Most often, preservationists photograph buildings and districts, but not necessarily bridges.  Just as it is important to properly photograph a building (all elevations, 3/4 shots, details, context), there is a correct way to photograph bridges. The Historic American Buildings Survey and the National Park Service have similar guidelines (your State Historic Preservation Office has likely adopted these same guidelines) for photographing architectural structures. HABS/HAER documentation includes (1) historical research, (2) measured drawings and (3) photography.

The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) provides four main guidelines (see page 4) for photographing bridges. While these are somewhat vague, it is a good starting point and basic checklist. All bridges are different, so it would be hard to have one comprehensive list.  Want some preservation jargon? We usually say “photo-doc” for short – obviously for photographic documentation. Up for some photo-doc? Let’s go through these four HAER guidelines with a variety of examples.

1. General views of all sides.

Photograph all sides/elevations of a bridge.

The Windsor-Cornish Covered Bridge, connecting Windsor VT to Cornish NH. Actually, this is from NH, so it's the Cornish-Windsor Bridge. This photograph is not ideal because it doesn't capture the entire bridge; it should. Smaller bridges are much easier. If I were documenting this one, I'd have to find a better view or go for a swim in the river.

The bridge openings count as sides and should be photographed, too, along with the approach to the bridge and the contextual surroundings. Context is important for determining the significance of a bridge. This is also helpful for an approach detail photo.

2. Detail views of portals, portal connections, upper chord connections, vertical members, traffic deck, bridge plates, manufacturer’s badge and any decorative features.

Truss bridges are more complicated to document (I think) but again, take note and photograph the connection details like on this pin truss.

Photograph the connection details. This picture shows the hand cut connection for the metal baluster and the bolt connection to the concrete post.

Photograph the railing connection to the endwall or post.

Many bridges have the date stamped on the endwall and have a state bridge plaque. These are important historic features of the bridge.

Of course, make sure to photograph the truss members in order to identify which type of truss. This a Town Lattice Truss covered bridge. On some bridges, you will be able to photograph this detail from the outside (e.g. on metal truss bridges). If not, photograph the details inside.

Photograph truss bridge chords and diagonals and connection bolts.

Railings! Photograph the railings, whether concrete, metal, cable or other.

3. If accessible, the traffic deck support system (such as floor beams and stringers viewed from underneath the bridge).

Underneath the bridge you can see the connections of chords, joists, floor beams, etc.

If you can safely access the bank adjacent to the bridge, photograph the bridge piers. This photograph shows the center pier, one abutment, and a general view of the deck support.

This photograph shows the detail of the pier, deck support, and the railing in addition to the steel girders.

4. Abutments and approach details.

This photograph shows the railing and endwall connection and the barely visible wood & cable approach rail.

Under the bridges you can see the abutments (that massive concrete abutment is not original to this covered bridge) and the floor beam system.

This photograph shows the abutment (new concrete abutment faced in dry laid stone. You can see the concrete on the bottom left of this image and above the top row of stone on the far side of the bridge).

Photograph the approach to this bridge to show the height of the portal (opening), the type of guardrail (weathered W-beam mounted on wood posts) and other details such as the narrow single lane approach.

And there you have it. In review, when photographing a bridge, remember to include

(1) all sides of the bridge; 

(2) details such as connections, railings, plaques;

(3) the deck and piers – what supports the bridge from below; and

(4) approach details: the abutment, guard rail, endwall.

By all means, you do not have to be a professional to photograph bridges. Some bridges are beautiful and make quite the statement on the landscape and built environment. I don’t claim to be an expert; I’m always working to improve my documentation skills.  Hopefully this gets you more familiar with bridges and ready to practice your photography on more than buildings. Enjoy!

Sometimes you have crawl on the abutments to really see what's going on with the bridge.

P.S. A few safety notes. Climbing over, under and around bridges can be dangerous. Do  not do this alone. Abutments, wingwalls and all sections of the bridges can be slippery and treacherous. Beware of swiftly moving waterways below. If you park on the side of the road, leave your flashers on and wear reflective gear. Do not trespass. If you photographing deteriorated or abandoned bridges, beware of holes in the deck and unsafe structures. Basically, use your common sense and be safe.