SCHAF PHOTO specializes in HABS, HAER, HALS large format photography. We understand historic structures and mitigations in difficult locations. With large format film and digital formats to suit any photo requirements from strict Library of Congress specifications, to State and National Register nominations. Based in Ventura, California


Photographic Documentation Approaches and  
What Do Photographic Guidelines Have in Common?

© 2017 Stephen D. Schafer  •

 enis pano

HABS, as the Historic American Buildings Survey is informally called, is arguably the best recordation program in the world. Established in 1933 as a make-work initiative for struggling architects, it was originally intended to be a four-month program to create measured drawings of vanishing colonial-era buildings, it quickly embraced photography as a documentation tool and expanded into other historical eras as well. Conscious of the view that it would record "a complete resume of the builder's art," ranging "from the smallest utilitarian structures to the largest and most monumental" as proclaimed in the original HABS circular #1 from December 1933, the program proved so valuble that it has endured to this day and spawned two other documentation programs. In 1969, HAER, the Historic American Engineering Record was developed to record America's pioneering but rapidly vanishing industrial and engineering history. HALS the Historic American Landscapes Survey was founded in 2000 to record historic landscapes like historic gardens, parks, cemeteries and the cultural landscapes that did not fit into the architecture or engineering collections of HABS and HAER. Son after establishment of the HABS program the photography parameters settled on large format film and the quality standards emphasized clarity, sharpness and measuring scales in each view.

"A complete resume of the builder's art"

Many state and local photography guidelines include photographic specifications similar to HABS | HAER | HALS requirements because most are appropriated or modified versions of these codified federal guidelines. However the current National Register of Historic Places photo standards are by far the lowest. NRHP submissions can currently be captured on a 2 Megapixel camera (6 times less than many smart phone cameras). To be fair, best practices call for a higher resolution in the 5 to 10 Megapixel range allowing for a clear 8x10 print to be made from he photographs.

It is important to note that NRHP nomination photographs are being used to protect and save a property while HABS photographs are being used to mitigate the demolition or alteration of properties. Presumably National Register listed properties will remain to be documented again someday, while a HABS photographer may be the last person to see a building standing and must record it to the high standard prescribed by HABS; so, the contrast between the two programs is somewhat warranted. Charles Peterson, and early organizer of the HABS program, argued in 1933 that “It is the responsibility of the American people that if the great number of our antique buildings must disappear through economic causes, they should not pass into unrecorded oblivion.” It’s encouraging to see the standards from Australia (which were not based upon ours) advocated a 10MP or higher standard a decade ago, and in the UK, English Heritage's digital standards were 16 Megapixels in 2003 (creating 45 Megabyte photo files).


HABS PHOTOGRAPH example 2The National Register (NRHP) photography standards were very demanding before 1995, but they were also daunting for members of the public wanting to nominate and protect buildings. The standards were changed in 1995 and again in 2005 to allow the public to deliver digital photo submissions. While making the registration of sites easier, this change had the unintended consequence of setting a lower resolution and quality standard for some of the latest nominations. For this reason very significant properties should still be recorded at resolutions that exceed the NRHP standards or is the site is very significant it should be recorded to the HABS/HAER/HALS level III standard. Prepare for yet another change – the future may include digital submission through an online submission portal and this may require even smaller photos.
On the local level, historic resource survey photo guidelines are rarely codified, and in the past, as long as the photo of an historic property looked OK as a small print glued to the original, typed DPR-523 form, that was good enough. Today, National Register Multiple Property Submissions (MPS) are breaking new ground, moving from the in-depth resource surveys to reconnaissance-level surveys (AKA: windshield surveys) of many properties and historic districts with less intensive research of each individual property. This makes surveying whole neighborhoods and cities a reality. The basic digital photographs that accompany MPS surveys counterintuitively become even more important as survey data  because they serve to "fill in the blanks” when the surveyors are checking boxes instead of writing detailed narratives for each property.

The new digital survey photography guidelines that Schaf Photo developed for SurveyLA, the Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey, were based on a single digital photo from an affordable-but-good quality consumer camera. The digital photos taken in the field are electronically linked to the GIS Database created by field surveyors with tablet PC's and cameras walking the streets documenting LA's historic resources. SurveyLA photos are in a way "NON-HABS" – in terms of time, effort and money – but they still convey data; and even though they are easier and faster to capture, they still have the same basic documentary DNA as a 5x7 HABS negative. Keep in mind, however, that as the systems for surveying our heritage resources become faster and more computerized, more and more emphasis will be put on the photograph to relay detail and contextual visual data and it will be imperative that the quality of the picture accompanying the text be as good as the context statement and the field survey and not just relegated to inexperienced volunteers.


HABS | HAER | HALS | CEQA  An Overview  



The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) are administered by the National Park Service and the collection is stored in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division, comprising more documents on more than 38,600 historic structures and sites, all copyright free and in the public domain. HABS, HAER, and HALS are America's historical architectural, engineering and landscape documentation programs and their goal is to provide architects, engineers, scholars, preservationists, and interested members of the public with comprehensive information on the historical, technological, and cultural significance of historic resources. The photos, drawings, and written histories are available online at the Library of Congress Built in America - American Memory website, and these documents serve as a permanent record of the growth and development of the nation’s built environment.

“… HABS, HAER and HALS … comprising more than
556,900 measured drawings, photographs, and written histories …"

HABS | HAER | HALS documentation usually consists of measured drawings, large-format photographs and written data that highlights the significance of a resource. There are three levels of recordation that generally break down into:

(1) Level One - Measured line drawings (architectural plans), historic drawings, detailed large-format photographs, copies of historic photos, full written data package. 

(2)  Level Two - Numerous detailed large-format photographs, full written data package. 

(3)  Level Three - General large-format photographs, with a written data package.

As Richard O’ Connor, Chief of Heritage Documentation Programs, wrote in 2015, “ Data on historic sites, regardless of the manner of acquisition, serves three primary functions: the preservation and stewardship of the sites themselves; the creation of a permanent record of significance; and their presentation and interpretation to the public.”  This documentation acts as a form of insurance against fires and disasters by permitting the repair and, if necessary, reconstruction of historic resources damaged by such disasters. It is also used for scholarly research, interpretation, and education, and it often provides the basis for enforcing preservation easements. HABS | HAER | HALS documentation is often the last means of preservation of a property. When a property is to be demolished, documentation provides future researchers access to valuable information that otherwise would be lost.



It should be noted that it is very common for HABS | HAER | HALS standards to be appropriated as a basis for mitigating adverse impacts under the local ordinances or through EIRs and MNDs resulting from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance.

These Local-HABS, HABS-Like and HABS-Lite standards usually require large format photography of important properties and may include a somewhat lesser standard for points of interest or less significant or subordinate buildings. Most of these local surveys are not transmitted to the Library of Congress, but are submitted to local museums, libraries, archives and historic societies. Since every city and county can develop and adopt their own ordinance requiring photography mitigation standrads, each mitigation documentation is different and should approached with a different methodology.


More info about HABS HAER HALS
photography is available by searching these terms:
  • FAQ about HABS Documentation HABS FAQ
  • Heritage Documentation Programs at NPS
  • Historic American Building Survey / Historic American Engineering Record
  • Federal Register, Vol. 48, No. 190, (Thursday, September 29, 1983), pp. 44730-34
  • Federal Register / Vol. 68, No. 139 / July 21, 2003 / page 43159
  • Cultural Resources Program | National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior Washington, D.C.



Excerpted HABS/HAER/HALS Photography Guidelines

Updated June 2015 (current to 2017)


Excerpt From: Heritage Documentation Programs HABS/HAER/HALS Photography Guidelines From Heritage Documentation Programs

(HDP) establishes the standards for the production of drawings, histories, and photography, as well as the criteria for preparing documentation for inclusion in the Collection currently recognized as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for Architectural and Engineering Documentation (hereafter referred to as Secretary’s Standards). The resulting documentation comes from three sources today. The Washington Office produces documentation in-house directing field teams (made up primarily of students) all over the country. HDP also receives documentation from the mitigation program satisfying Sections 106/110 of the National Historic Preservation Act. This material is often generated by the individual states plus regional offices of the National Park Service... A third source of documentation comes from donated documentation from interested members of the public... The following guidelines are intended to provide an overview of the large-format photographic component of the documentation.

General Guidelines - Film:

Film continues to be the best way to store visual information about architecture and engineering for the long term, which is why it is still the standard in the HABS, HAER, and HALS collections. Photographs taken and printed for HABS, HAER, or HALS, in accordance with the Secretary’s Standards are made from large-format, black and white film. The images are perspective corrected in the field at the time of capture using a view camera.

arge-format (4x5, 5x7, and 8x10) refers to the size of the negative in inches, not the print. The large-format negative is preferred for two reasons: longevity of the film and clarity of the image. The material stability of cut sheet film satisfies the archival requirements for longevity (500 years), while the clarity of the resulting image comes from a high level of resolution not possible in smaller film formats. Film can always be digitized but exclusively digital information may not always be recoverable due to the vulnerabilities of digital data including media degradation, hardware and software obsolescence, file format migration, proprietary formats, etc. In addition, maintenance of digital archives is much more expensive than maintenance of film archives. 


PDF Found here:


Creating Archival Digital Print Cards for HABS Documentation


Heritage Documentation Programs (HDP) has developed the following procedure to produce digital contact prints (instead of wet contact prints) that meet both HDP standards and the archival requirements mandated by the Library of Congress. The basic suggested procedure is the same for both black-and-white prints and color transparencies.


This process creates a print card that mimics the photo mount cards HDP has used for decades. HDP photographers developed this method as an efficient way to produce digital print cards. Results may vary based on hardware, software, and scanning environment.


Creating the digital file:

•Scan image emulsion side facing light source on a flatbed scanner with Anti-Newton glass.

•Crop scanning area to include film margins.
•Scan images at a resolution of 5000 pixels across, about 800 ppi for 5x7 negative, to yield a file roughly 18-20 MB for a black & white image and save as an uncompressed TIFF.


Creating the digital print (e.g. photo mount card with image):

•Create a new folder with copies of images for mounting. 

•Downsize all images to 400 ppi, for printing ease. •Mount images upon a 400 ppi black canvas (i.e. 4.75" x 6.76" image area upon a 5" x 7" black canvas) for size uniformity, then flatten to reduce image size. 

•Create a new canvas with the dimensions 8.5" x 11" at 400 ppi and copy the image onto that canvas. The image should be centered and the actual image size. 

•Using horizontal text tool (Times New Roman, 12 pt., black font) on the overlay grid, create a text box in the upper right-hand corner. The following is an example of what the box must contain:HISTORIC AMERICAN LANDSCAPES SURVEY SEE INDEX TO PHOTOGRAPHS FOR CAPTION HALS No. CA-42-1. Do NOT flatten after this step in case you need to modify the text.



•The print quality should be set to the highest, neutral monochrome settings (unless it is a color image).

•Batch all print cards in one folder and print from folder as “full sheet fax” to prevent image compression and to maintain actual size.

•Print entire folder or use rip software. 

HABS contact print cards


Note: digital print card scanning, formatting and printing is generally not faster than traditional wet darkroom printing, but it allows people without a darkroom to create contact-type prints. If you plan to submit to HDP digitally, these are only partial instructions. Call and speak to the HABS/HAER/HALS staff directly about the latest changes to the process and materials, they are very helpful and happy to give you detailed information over the phone. We use a digital pigment printer because it exceeds all the quality and longevity standards set up by HDP.



 28th floor



Documentation for the Historic American Buildings Survey, the Historic American Engineering Record, and the Historic American Landscapes Survey, (HABS, HAER, HALS) must be prepared using specific archival materials and archival processes in order to be comply with the permanence standards that govern the collection. By adhering to these standards, even the earliest HABS records from the 1930s are still available for researchers and will be into the future. Non-archival materials deteriorate for two principal reasons: they are attacked by harmful substances in the environment, and/or their physical and chemical composition is such that it will deteriorate regardless of how it is stored.

PDF Found here:

Here's information about mail irradiation at the Main Interior Building. Let's make sure that surveys continue to arrive in DC in archivable condition.
1. Only use UPS, FedEx, or DHL to send surveys to Washington, DC
The HABS/HAER/HALS office moved to the Main Interior Building in Washington, DC. in April 2017.
All U.S. Postal Service (USPS) mail sent to Main Interior is subject to irradiation.  That process is likely to damage survey materials. There is concern about the prospect of damaged negatives or hand-drawn sheets that can't be recreated, but irradiated paper and CD/DVDs would also be a problem.
2. New shipping address (starting April 10, 2017)
Heritage Documentation Programs
National Park Service
1849 C Street NW, Mail Stop 7408
Washington, DC 20240