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.


24 thoughts on “How to Photograph a Bridge

  1. Jim says:

    Excellent primer! One tip to bridgehunting photographers: Wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty and/or wet, as crawling around under a bridge can be dirty work.

  2. Kristi says:

    We also photograph the setting- each direction in case the bridge could be associated with a larger landscape or context.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Yes, good point. The HAER guidelines didn’t specify, but contextual shots are very important, as I mentioned. And you are right — make sure to include the widest context that makes sense.

  3. Mark says:

    Vermont has an impressive collection of covered bridges, some going back to the 1820’s. I’m reminded of some jurisdictions that haven’t been very kind to this type of bridge. Some places deliberately removed them, others allowed them to disappear casually from the landscape. Its a great shame.

    • Kaitlin says:

      We are fortunate that Vermont has been so kind to its bridges. Covered bridges are the favorite among the public. We’re gaining headway on metal truss bridges. Concrete bridges are sadly still at the bottom of the list, which is why I always talk about them. Share the love!

      • Mark says:

        ya, you’re right, the covered bridges are all hollywood, though even that hasn’t stopped great attrition rates among them. Now, far be it from me to cast aspersions on those who haven’t done better jobs *cough* Maine *cough* to protect them over the years. And i’d never even think of bringing up the worst offenders in this regard *cough* Nova Scotia *cough* , but a little more consciousness wrt presesrvation woulda been nice.

  4. Megan says:

    This is a very timely and useful post considering I’m getting ready to take a new job with NC DOT and I’m sure will be documenting lots of historic bridges! Fun stuff!

  5. Paula Sagerman says:

    Great photos, Kaitlin. Funny you should post this because I just photographed a bunch of bridges yesterday! I was pleasantly surprised that western VT has no snow (i.e. crud), it made climbing down banks a lot easier. 🙂

    • Kaitlin says:

      Yes, the only good thing about lack of snow and warmer temperatures is more opportunity for field visits. Still though — can’t we have some pretty Vermont snow already?!

  6. Jason D. Smith (The Bridgehunter's Chronicles) says:

    Hey there! I found your article to be impressive; especially since I have been photographing bridges for many years and know others who have this unique hobby. I’m a columnist for the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles and I just recently posted an article which complements yours quite nicely. It deals with locating historic bridges via map programs, like Bing, Google Map, etc. Here’s the link for you to enjoy:

    Happy Bridgehunting. I’ll make reference to your link in my next article I write. 🙂

    • Kaitlin says:

      Hi Jason,

      Thanks for the compliment and the link. I’ve been using the iphone app Field Notes when I’m in the field, which can then be exported as a kmz file. Similar efforts between us. Happy bridgehunting to you, too. I’ve always loved bridges, but didn’t know just how much until I started working in transportation.

  7. Wm. Truax says:

    Fantastic topic Kaitlin – And yes to the lanyard and the willingness to get dirty.

    Abutments have been much on my mind lately, which bridge is that with the dry laid veneer over concrete?

  8. andy zickler says:

    be polite, on public roads keep out of traffic, wear a vest so folks can see you and park your car safely off the side of the road. And when the cops stop by be nice.

    On private land, get permission!

  9. Bridgehunter's Chronicles says:

    Reblogged this on The Bridgehunter's Chronicles and commented:
    As part of the interview I did with Kaitlin O’shea recently, she wrote a nice piece on how to photograph historic bridges and identify some features that stand out among the rest of the bridges we see on roadways in America, Europe and elsewhere. When asked if this could be republished in the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, she gave me the green light with a push to encourage others to do the same when coming across an ancient artifact on a less used road. Here are some tips on how to identify the uniqueness of a historic bridge from the lens of her camera…… 🙂

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