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.
2. Detail views of portals, portal connections, upper chord connections, vertical members, traffic deck, bridge plates, manufacturer’s badge and any decorative features.
3. If accessible, the traffic deck support system (such as floor beams and stringers viewed from underneath the bridge).
4. Abutments and approach details.
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!
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”
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.
Yes, it can. Proper attire and shoes with good traction are a must.
And hopefully your camera has a string on it so you don’t drop it in the water course!
We also photograph the setting- each direction in case the bridge could be associated with a larger landscape or context.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Oooh, fun! Can’t wait to hear about it. Have you been at FB/ORISE for three years already? Time flies.
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. 🙂
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?!
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: http://thebridgehunter.areavoices.com/2012/02/08/binging-for-bridges-how-bing-google-earth-and-yahoo-maps-are-helping-bridgehunters-find-historic-bridges/
Happy Bridgehunting. I’ll make reference to your link in my next article I write. 🙂
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.
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?
Thanks! That bridge is the Downers Covered Bridge in Weathersfield, I believe.
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!
Great post! I document bridges all the time and a picture is truly worth a thousand words and the right photos help show conditions at a site much better than a huge report.
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…… 🙂