In Seattle there are at least four standards for documenting historic buildings with photography, but the best known and most stringent are the federal standards established by the Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey (HABS/HAER/HALS), commonly called HABS/HAER documentation.  HABS/HAER photographic standards are technologically specific and they are old-school: the work has to be done with a tripod based view camera using 4x5 inch film, or larger.  The camera must be adjusted so that the images are "perspective corrected" on the film. The film must be processed to archival standards, and submitted with proof prints and captions to the National Park Service.  The process is slow and deliberate, but it produces very high quality images that can be stored easily. There are also HABS/HAER requirements for measured drawings, historic photographs, and a written history.  HABS/HAER is used for the most important buildings and structures.


The federal HABS/HAER/HALS guidelines, published in the 2003 Federal Register, have three different "levels". In the past, Level I photography involved shooting almost twice as much film as Level II, since every view needed to be done with and without a scale stick. The National Park Service informed me in 2017 that now there is no differentiation between the levels when it comes to photographic requirements.   Use of scale devices in photographs is now much more discretionary for all three levels, except that it is expected that the main facade will be photographed with and without a scale. The top state standard in Washington and in Alaska is the same as the federal HABS/HAER standard.  ("HABS/HAER Level IV - Field Notes" was discontinued in 2003.)

If you have plans to restore, change or demolish your historic building, I cannot tell you what type of building documentation will be needed, if any.  I suggest consulting with a firm like my clients BOLA Architecture + Planning in Seattle, or Northern Land Use Research in Fairbanks, Alaska, for that expertise.  But I can meet all the photographic standards for any required building documentation, both digital and film based, including HABS/HAER.  Once a documentation project has been defined, I am glad to provide a firm bid on the photographic work.

HABS/HAER Does Not Include Digital and Color

The HABS/HAER standards do not provide for color images.  If you need to meet other documentation standards, or if you are planning to publish the photos yourself, or distribute them on the internet, you may need to take color digital photos in addition to the HABS/HAER b&w photographs.  Digital files are not required for HABS/HAER submittals. However, in a June 2015 change, digital prints may be submitted in place of chemical prints.  So if you need digital scans for other purposes, providing digital prints made from scans of the b&w film negatives may be the most cost effective way to meet the HABS/HAER guidelines, and have scans for other purposes.

State Level II Standards

The federal HABS/HAER guidelines have very good directions for selecting views, preparing the site for photography, and captioning the photos.  Perhaps for this reason, the HABS/HAER standards are often adapted to create guidelines for photographing less important buildings and structures, such as the State of Washington "Level II" standards, which allow for both digital photography, and 35mm film photography.  See, for example, the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) Mitigation Documentation Standards of 2020.  Unfortunately, this borrowing from HABS/HAER also causes some confusion in the less stringent standards, since HABS/HAER is using a different technology (big film cameras) from the digital cameras that are allowed for less important projects by the state agencies.

Consequently, I make a practice of getting specific instructions from the State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation in Washington (DAHP) or the State Historic Preservation Officer in Alaska (SHPO) before I provide an estimate on state Level II documentation.  The people at these agencies are busy, and sometimes hard to get hold of, but they are reasonable, and can provide up-to-date guidance in this changing area of documentation.

Other Standards

In Seattle, the City Landmark process is very important, but the photographic requirements for nominations for landmark designation are relatively simple.  The application  requires good quality color prints; the prints can be taken digitally and printed with an inkjet printer if the photos are clear and printed on paper that is designed for photo reproduction.  Note that color prints are expected, so HABS/HAER images, despite their high quality, are not sufficient since they are in black and white.

I have done several projects that were submitted to the King County Preservation Planner, Kent (Charlie) Sundberg.  These were important buildings, so we documented them in the HABS/HAER manner, except that I did 8x10 black and white enlargements of each 4x5 negative, rather than the smaller contact prints required by the Federal standards.  I like this approach; the enlargements are beautifully clear, and much easier to view than the smaller contact prints, and since they are processed to archival standards, they should have a long lifetime.

View Camera adjusted for extreme perspective correction
View Camera adjusted for extreme perspective correction (looking up without distortion)
Another way to adjust perspective
Another way to adjust perspective
Reloading film in a hotel bath room
Just processed
4x5 film just processed
Spotting contact prints from view camera negatives
Spotting contact prints from view camera negatives
Numbering negatives with Rapidograph pen. The negatives are not yet in their individual archival envelopes.