Recordation of Historic Architecture, Engineering and Landscapes

FAQ  Frequently Asked Questions about


by Stephen Schafer

HAER Photograph example
In a nutshell, what is HABS HAER and HALS photography?

The Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Landscapes Survey are government programs of the National Park Service Heritage Documentation Programs Department (abbreviated HABS/HAER/HALS). In short these programs document the Built Environment and Cultural Landscapes in America and work with the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division to archive the architectural plans, histories and photographs for the public.


Is film still required?


Yes, HABS, HAER and HALS all require the documentation to be done on large format, black and white film. Digital photographs (known as Born-Digital) do not yet meet the requirements. The issue isn't megapixels or digital resolution; there are many issues including long-term storage that effect the requirement for analog large format photography. Many other documentation programs and mitigation requirements for historic preservation like CEQA, NEPA and Section Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), reference the HABS, HAER HALS gudelines and specifications, and as such, they must also be recorded on archival, large format film to comply with the intent of the mitigation/recordation and meet the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Architectural and Engineering Documentation.


Black & white, not color?

All three programs, HABS/HAER/HALS, require photographs be taken on black & white film. The technical requirement is silver-halide on a polyester base similar to Ilford HP-5 and Kodak Tri-X. This film if properly washed is very archival and resists fading for over 500 years under the right storage conditions. Color film records subjects in dyes and can fade much faster. Some historic resources that have significant color components and many HALS landscape documentations may require duplicate views captured in both black and white and also on color transparency film. Additionally color digital images of the resource are often included in reference and field-notes because these do not need to adhere to the stringent HABS archival standards.


HAER photographer exampleWhat's the definition of 'Large Format' photos?

Large format photography is captured by cameras that are capable of exposing sheets of film in that are a minimum of 4 inches x 5 inches. 5X7 inch or 8X10 inch are also considered standard large format sizes. 5x7 has been the preferred format for the HABS/HAER/HALS collection since its inception in the 1930s and the NPS photographers in Washington DC who worked for Heritage Documentation Programs in the past used primarily 5x7 cameras. (Very important resources like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Holland Tunnel, the Statue of Liberty and The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park were recorded on 5x7). Aerials are customarily done with 4x5 cameras because they can be hand-held in aircraft. 8x10 cameras are often used for studio copy-views of photos, blueprints and maps but are generally too cumbersome for fast-paced field-work.


When is 'Large Format' photography required?

Large Format photography is the only standard designated for documentation required under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, (Section 110b) to mitigate adverse impacts to historic resources through alteration or demolition. Policies like NEPA and Section 106 have been copied as de facto state requirements such as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). If historic resources are impacted by new projects, demolition or alteration, there is often a requirement to document the historic property following the HABS\HAER\HALS guidelines. The scope of the documentation usually depends on the SIGNIFICANCE of the impacted resource. If the property is significant enough to trigger a mitigation requirement, then there is a high likelihood that large format photo documentation will be stipulated as one of the mitigations. If the building is not significant, then it may not require documentation. In cases where the significance is unknown 35mm or digital photos may suffice for local review. Generally if a building, bridge or site is State or National Register eligible then large Format photography to HABS HAER HALS standards will be required.


What three things are required for a solid documentary mitigation?

Heim Bridge Down

Documentary mitigations have three main elements:




1.) The high resolution large format photography must include maximum, accurate data and shall be recorded with perspective correcting lenses. 2.) The film, prints, report, captions and notes must all be created on archival materials, and the film shall be processed to archival standards to insure of 500+ year life expectancy (LE500). 3.) In order to truly be a public benefit, the photos and report must be accessible to the public. Available to provide architects, engineers, scholars, preservationists, and interested members of the public with information on the historical, technological, and cultural significance of America's historic resources. The best case (the only one meeting federal standards) is donation of the photographs, reports and/or drawings to the National Park Service Heritage Documentation Programs (HDP), where they will be transmitted to the HABS/HAER/HALS collections at the Library of Congress. If a local museum, archive or repository is selected for a mitigation project, it is imperative that copies of the documentation be disseminated to locations where the information can be found and used by the public and not just end up on a shelf in at the back of city hall.


What is HABS-like, HAER-like and HALS-like photography?

Besides made-up terms, these informal parameters are an attempt to quantify the goals and quality of official HABS/HAER/HALS documentations without ALL of the requirements. There is no formal definition for HABS-like, but in our experience it usually means that HABS guidelines for form and content are followed closely but the finished documents (prints and negatives) are not submitted to the Library of Congress. Often the photos, drawings and reports are distributed locally and/or regionally. Most of the documentary surveys in California triggered by CEQA, are HABS-like (or Diet-HABS or HABS-lite) but it is important to note that while they may be state sanctioned they are not recognized as sufficient as mitigations for federal projects until they are submitted to the NPS western region office for review. In state or local HABS-like documents, it is important to adhere to the "3 Things" above and make copies of the report available to the public or better yet, unofficially donate the report to HDP when it is done.

How many photos do you need for a typical HABS photo project?

Heim Brisge down

This is a complex question. Again, it comes down to SIGNIFICANCE. If the building is a detached garage in a historic district, three views may be sufficient. If that garage is the "HP Garage" birthplace of the Silicon Valley, then it may need more views – but it's still a tiny garage and more than twelve views may not make the building more understandable. For example, what about demolition of the largest lift-span bridge in the western United States? 20 views? 40? 100? In complex recording projects, the significance needs to be balanced with the size of the resource, its context, its complexity and the reason for its designation. In this bridge example, 40 HAER photo views were taken in the field and 40 copy-photos of pages of blueprints were photographed to tell the story of the bridge's engineering significance, without the blueprint copies much more detailed field-photography of the bridge would have been required. How was that determined? Scouting, asking questions and working with an architectural historian to analyze the bridge's significance and character defining features. There is no simple guideline, but working with an preservation expert and an experienced HABS/HAER/HALS photographer can help with complex scoping. The intent is to tell a clear story about the resource and that may mean interiors, context, landscapes, details and possibly even aerials. However the documentation should not be excessive, punitive or disproportionate with the significance of the resource.


How many copies are produced for a HABS/HAER/HALS mitigation?

It depends. If the documentation package goes to the National Park Service Heritage Documentation Programs (HDP) to be archived in the Library of Congress in a formal submittal, then 1 set of negatives and 2 sets of prints is typical. Often additional copies are required to fulfill the mitigation requirements or state or local conditions. It always comes down to SIGNIFICANCE. If the building is the "HP Garage," birthplace of the Silicon Valley, then it's regionally important and perhaps every library in the Silicon Valley should have a duplicate copy of the report. Local museums are typical recipients of documentation reports. Additionally libraries, historic societies, state museums, universities, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and even advocacy groups are listed to receive copies of reports. Unique records like railroad or Native American resources, should also be sent to specialty archives like railroad or tribal archives. Because the negatives and prints are expensive to produce typical HABS-Like documentations require one set of negatives to a primary repository such as a state or regional museum, and one or two print-only copies to local repositories. Numerous copies may not be warranted if the significance is minimal. Archival laser-copies may be sufficient for the historic societies, local libraries, and planning departments since they may not be set up to take original negatives anyway. It might seem that uploading reports to the web would be much easier but the reality of maintaining a site, updating links and hosting those digital documents FOREVER makes printed copies more reliable.


HABS Photography example 1

How do I hire a HABS photographer?

Large documentation projects can be quoted directly by phone or RFP. It is advisable to consult a HABS professional (historian, preservation planner, photographer) to help with a documentation RFP. Be sure to establish requirements for format: 4x5 or 5x7. How many views? (this can be changed later, but lets competing photographers bid apples to apples on the RFP) Access restrictions, safety and security issues should be clear. A HABS photographer should ask relevant questions about: Location constraints, hours of operation/access, electricity on site, generators, lighting, traffic on roads and bridges, homeland security, safety equipment, temperatures, deadlines, deliverables, and site-specific questions. The Fourteen most important questions to answer when looking for a historic documentation photographer are listed on my blog here: schafphoto.typepad 14 Questions blog link


Can any photographer do HABS/HAER/HALS documentation?

Theoretically yes, large format cameras, lenses and equipment can be rented in many large cities and thousands of photographers have experience with large format cameras. However the exacting specifications for recording HABS/HAER/HALS surveys (nps-photo-standards) are complex and it can take time to master the logistics, field notes and maps, darkroom work, archival washing and printing, and the intricate post-production to Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Architectural and Engineering Documentation. Some photographers do not wish to sign away copyright to their photographs and put them into the public domain (required). Therefore there may only a handful of photographers in any region with the experience/desire to do HABS/HAER/HALS surveys. An experienced HABS/HAER/HALS photographer knowledgeable about historical construction techniques, engineering and architecture will produce the most complete documentation in the least amount of time.

HABS example photograph

Suggested reading for photographers: Recording Historic Structures (2nd edition), National Park Service. A Record in Detail by Jack E. Boucher. Industrial Eye by Jet Lowe. And A Constructed View by Julius Shulman.


Do HABS documentation prints need to be done in a darkroom?

An in-house darkroom can improve turn-around times and keeps the negatives from being shipped for printing, but the 2011 guidelines for HABS/HAER/HALS allow digital print cards to be printed with archival pigment digital printers. The resource is still recorded on large-format film and the film processed and archivally washed as before. Then, instead of being contact-printed in a wet-darkroom, the negative is scanned on a back-lit scanner, the image is inverted and formatted in Photoshop, and printed on a pigment ink-jet printer. This may not save time, but allows photographers without wet-darkrooms to complete documentations. Digital print cards may also be less costly when large numbers of document copies need to be produced (over five original sets).


Does a site need to be on the National Register to be included in HABS?

HAER photography example

The resource documented should be historic (that implies "significant" and not just old). However sites do not need to be registered on the National Register of Historic Places or a National Landmark to be documented. The HABS/HAER/HALS collection seeks to record "A Complete Resume of the Builders' Art", including folk and vernacular examples of historic resources. The best way to ensure a resource is viewable as a public benefit is to record it on large format film to HABS/HAER/HALS specifications (nps-photo-standards) and donate the record to HABS using their simple short-form. Contact the relevant division of Heritage Documentation Programs in Washington DC; they are very helpful and welcome the generous contributions of photographers.



What does a sample HABS documentation mitigation look like?

In order to facilitate the creation of thorough mitigations that are easy to scope we have created a template of a generic HABS documentation sample mitagation. It lists the most important aspects and covers specifics like timeframes and who is responsible for the mitigation. It is linked here as a PDF, or search the web for "MITIGATION OF CULTURAL RESOURCE IMPACTS THROUGH DOCUMENTATION."





Phone: 805-652-1000