Construction Photo Documentation: All You Need to Know
Why photos? We are visual creatures that process images astonishingly quickly, and photos capture more information with more detail more quickly than words ever can.
This makes them a natural choice for documenting construction sites.
In construction, time is precious and people don’t have extra minutes or hours to spend handwriting, typing notes, or reading lengthy descriptions. Photos capture and convey lots of information in a snap.
We tend to think of photos as just pictures, but the photos you’re taking in construction are more than simply images. Today, photos are packed with valuable data that you may not be putting to use.
But with the right know-how and tools, you can take full advantage of your photos’ data to improve productivity from pre-construction to project turnover.
Why Photo Documentation Is Essential
Before we get into the wealth of information that comes from photos, let’s examine why photo documentation of construction projects is critical in the first place.
With written documentation comes room for errors of omission or misinterpretation – or both.
Think about a paper report filled out by hand.
First, the person completing the form may accidentally leave out an important detail or enter inaccurate data. Second, the person typing up that handwritten information may find it illegible or otherwise misread what was recorded and enter incorrect information into the project record.
Photos, on the other hand, accurately capture work details and are shared quickly and easily in their original form – no transcription necessary.
Daily reports and other project documentation provide helpful insights and updates as to what is happening on a construction site.
But photos give stakeholders literal visibility of site conditions and how a construction project is taking shape. When the entire team can see what’s going on, it becomes easier to:
- monitor and report on progress to ensure project is on track
- spot issues and address them before they lead to costly rework or delays
- track materials and equipment
- make better-informed project management decisions
Photos are clear visuals that help cut down on instances of miscommunication – eliminating back-and-forth messages requesting clarification or additional details.
With photos, stakeholders don’t have to picture issues from written descriptions, so they can more quickly and accurately weigh in on workflows like RFIs and change orders that entail assessment, feedback, and approvals.
Photos are also just a faster means of recording information compared to writing down or typing out a description. A worker on site can easily snap a photo, add a comment or question, and share it with the wider construction team in just a few moments.
Avoidance of disputes or litigation
Timestamped and geolocated photos can document damage or defects, how changes were handled, and proof of work – especially helpful when it comes to elements that get covered up, like mechanical, electrical, or plumbing systems behind walls or underground.
Such images provide solid evidence of what work has been performed – and when, where, and how – cutting down on the likelihood of expensive disputes and litigation – or at least helping to resolve them more quickly.
High-quality project turnover
Owners appreciate the visibility that comes with construction progress photos shared throughout the course of a project – which is why they value the inclusion of photos in as-built documentation as well.
Photos help to create a context-rich record of what was built and how, and owners rely on such information for operations and maintenance over the lifetime of their asset.
Documenting construction projects with photos is a no-brainer, given benefits that include saving time, money, and headaches and lessening the chance of expensive mistakes, rework, and delays.
What isn’t always so clear is how to fully leverage all the kinds of data that photos provide.
How to Unlock Your Photos’ Layers of Data
Here, we’ll give the big picture of what the different layers of photo data are and concrete ways they can improve the construction process. But we’ll start with the small picture: the image itself.
The image: What’s in the photo?
To state the obvious, the visual information captured in a photo provides an objective, detailed record of reality. As such, photos clarify and confirm conditions, status, and activities that happen during the course of a construction project.
Construction photos can depict:
- Site conditions, particularly pre-construction
- Work progress and completion
- Damage and/or defects
- Deliveries of materials
- Condition of rented equipment on arrival
- Issues that require clarification
- Compliance, incidents, or potential concerns related to safety
When photos accompany other digital project data (like change orders, RFIs, or daily reports) and are shared in real-time, they provide crucial details and context that get everyone on the same page – and which can speed up workflows and cut down on miscommunication.
Application: Documenting Work
For instance, imagine a general contractor inspecting a site and filling out a punch list on a mobile device during the process, including photos and brief descriptions of things that need to be fixed or completed. The punch list is shared from the field with stakeholders, including the owner and the subcontractors who need to address the punch list items. Everyone can clearly see exactly what work has to be done.
When the punch list tasks are complete, the subcontractors share photos of the work – providing confirmation that the fixes were made and nothing has been missed.
Date and time: When was the photo taken?
Mobile devices will automatically record date and time in the photos’ metadata when used to take pictures – and you can use this information to turn folders of unorganized photos into a visual historical record of your project.
When construction photos have dates associated with them, they can be organized and searched by their specific point in time. And with a time element, you can show progress over a specified period.
What does this mean for your construction project?
Application: Progress Monitoring
Say you take photos of the same spot on your site once a week for three months. You can look at those photos, compare them, and see how construction in that place has taken shape and how long it took.
Such construction progress photos are a valuable tool for monitoring and reporting on project progress – helping to keep things on track and keep stakeholders informed, particularly owners.
Location: Where was the photo taken?
As with time and date info, photos taken with mobile devices will include GPS coordinates – location data – in the metadata. Simply make sure “Location” or “Location Services” is enabled on your device so it can geotag photos.
Your photos’ location information provides another way to organize, search, and view your images.
The right software can pull from your pictures’ metadata and geolocate your photos on a map, so you can see progress, issues, or incidents exactly where they are happening. Better yet, geolocate both your photos and drawings on a digital map to see your entire project in its real-world context.
Leveraging your photos’ location data in combination with date also supports tracking of materials and equipment. This leads to better resource allocation and avoiding costs associated with not knowing where these items are, such as unnecessary reordering of materials or fines for late return of rental equipment.
Application: Material & Equipment Tracking
For instance, a photo of a delivery of bricks to a storage area on your jobsite provides confirmation of arrival. Another photo of the bricks taken a week later at the place where they will be installed would confirm their transport to the right place and that they’re ready for a crew.
In a similar vein, drone imagery would provide another way to track materials and equipment. If you – or a drone photography service – captured aerial photos of your site at regular intervals, you could compare them to trace the movement of such items. And because the photos would be dated as well, you’d know exactly when the items were at a particular spot.
User: Who took the photo?
The user “layer” of photo information is really about the individual’s relationship or connection to the photo they’ve taken, rather than details recorded in the actual file – like date or location embedded in the metadata. Emailed and texted photos will have user information included – the sender – and software can associate a user with the photos they share.
So what does user information tell you? In what ways can a user make your photo documentation actionable?
Knowing who took a photo – and when and where – gives insight into who was present on the jobsite at a particular time. This information is important for general record-keeping, and even helps to shape a history of the project’s field work. It can also become important in the event of a dispute or safety incident.
Application: Issue Resolution
A user can be contacted for follow-up questions about work performed.
And depending on your software, a user can potentially add data to a photo as well. Tags that describe the visual content of the photo make it possible to effortlessly search images by what they depict. Markups on a photo can highlight critical details, and attached comments mean a user can communicate with stakeholders directly on a picture.
These capabilities provide clarity in that everyone can see the exact issue documented in the photo – and can quickly and easily provide any feedback.
Geospatial intelligence: How it all fits together – on a digital map
So far, we’ve highlighted how your photos’ image, time, location, and user information provides invaluable clarity and context to the construction process – so you understand the what, when, where, and who of your project.
We’ve looked at each of these data layers as separate elements. But to get as much insight as possible from your photos, you should view all of this photo data together in conjunction with the rest of your project data.
And you can – by geolocating your photos, drawings, and documents on a digital map.
Displaying your project data on a map gets it out of file folders, spreadsheets, and lists where you can actually see it. And when it’s all centralized on a digital map and organized by location, it affords you geospatial intelligence – a deeper understanding of how all your data relates to each other, to its real-world context, and even to the viewer of that map.
Application: Site & Work Navigation
Imagine a construction worker who has a digital map of the large jobsite where they’re working. When they arrive at the jobsite, they view the map – and their own location on it – on their smartphone.
They also pull up advanced work packaging details that tell them where on the site they’ll be working that day – then use the map to navigate right to that location. Once there, they can quickly reference any relevant documentation, drawings, and photos geolocated to that spot on the map to inform how they handle their work task.
When their work is complete, they snap some photos with their phone, attach them to a daily report, and upload it right from the field for stakeholders to view. All the information is geolocated on the digital map, where it builds into a context-rich, actionable record of the project.
Sharing Construction Photos: Then and Now
Here’s the thing: Understanding what the layers of data in your photos are and how you can apply them is necessary to reap the rewards of photo documentation efforts. But it’s only half the battle.
To take full advantage of your photos, they need to be shareable with project stakeholders in real-time and stored in a central, digital space accessible from anywhere at any time.
Until relatively recently, this wasn’t a possibility.
Film and digital cameras: delays and data-sharing issues
In the past, construction photo documentation at its fastest consisted of a Polaroid stapled to a paper form. The photo was ready almost instantly – certainly compared to the alternative of traditional film development – but it was a single print: not something that everyone on the construction team would be able to see or reference.
Digital cameras made it possible to take many photos on site that could be widely shared – but only after the image files were manually moved onto a computer.
Even if the person taking photos on site didn’t put off the arduous transfer task and handled it right away, it would still take time to travel to an office, move the photos, and then name all the files to have some semblance of order. And let’s be honest: That last part was often skipped, leading to folders of unorganized, unsearchable images with meaningless file names.
Mobile devices: a game-changer – with the right software
Now, with smartphones and tablets, it’s easy to take photos and email (or text) them straight from the jobsite. In fact, a 2021 construction technology report reveals that one of the top reasons smartphones are used on construction sites is to take photos or video.
While these images can immediately be shared, photos that are emailed and texted reach just the recipients and not necessarily the wider team – people in the field and in the office who could benefit from real-time visibility into different areas of the site.
And when photos are saved only on individual devices and in email and text threads, they aren’t easily searchable – making it difficult to track down particular photos for reference later.
The arrival of cloud-based software and connected field apps has made all the difference.
Real-time photo sharing and collaboration
Today, a worker on a jobsite can take a photo, add markups and comments or attach it to a report, and upload it to a secure, shared digital workspace where everyone can see it right away. And the photo data can inform their work and decision-making.
Cloud-based software and integrated apps make such timely sharing and communication possible.
That said, not all cloud-based software for construction photo sharing and management is created equal. And the capabilities of the software you use will determine the extent to which you and the construction team can leverage your photo data.
For instance, a particular photo management tool might automatically include site photos into daily reports, helping you take advantage of image data to clarify documentation. But it may not leverage location data to place photos on digital drawings, which would mean missing out on increased visibility into work where it’s happening.
So it’s important to ask yourself what results you ultimately want from your construction photo documentation efforts.
Where Do You Want to Be in the Photo Documentation Landscape?
Do you want to be able to communicate directly on a photo and eliminate any time-consuming back-and-forth messages seeking clarity on an issue? You’ll need software that enables users to include markups and comments.
Do you want to be able to track a rented piece of heavy equipment across your site to ensure you don’t get stuck with a hefty late return fee? You’ll want software that lets you filter images by date and visual content.
Do you want field and office teams to be able to view photos in relation to drawings and documents in real time? To have a complete, data-rich record of your project based on its real-world location? To make better-informed decisions that keep your project on time and on budget, thanks to the visibility that comes from having your data all in one place?
Then you’re going to need Unearth’s intuitive, map-based documentation software.
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