Documenting jobs seems to be a no-brainer, and in the digital age, documentation is faster, less expensive, more flexible, and longer lasting than ever.

Peggy Mackowski, of Quality Design & Construction, Raleigh, N.C., uses digital photographs at each project stage. “On the initial sales call, it's good to have digital pictures so when you work up a design contract or an estimate, you can keep current site conditions in mind,” she says. QDC also uses digital imaging during construction to document anything they uncover that wasn't anticipated, such as termite damage.

It's a good idea to document what's inside the walls before drywall installation. And sometimes, adds Mackowski, “you'll get two inspectors. When the second one has questions after the drywall is up, you can show the pictures rather than remove any drywall.” After a project is finished, she uses the digital images for presentations, marketing, and advertising.

All this can be done with an inexpensive point-and-shoot film camera, so why bother going digital?

With the homeowner overseas, QDC sent an immediate e-mail about rotten deck joists and processed a change notice based on the images taken. Photo: Peggy Mackowski “The bottom line,” says Michael Rierson, a specialist in historic preservation and a project manager with the Fairfax County (Va.,) Parks Authority, “for most project managers is time and money. You don't have to send things by fax and wait for answers. Digital is more accurate and gives you good real-time information. It's much more effective.” He adds that “when you shoot with film, you're at the mercy of whoever develops it. With digital, you can adjust contrast and brightness, manipulate hue and color, and annotate with graphics and text. You can make a bad picture come out usable, too.”

Rierson, who advocates using digital photography [imaging] to record projects, encourages owners to give field personnel or project managers digital cameras as well as laptops so they can immediately download images, and, using certain software, annotate images and insert text boxes. These can then be sent via land lines or wireless to the main office.

Although the cost of a digital camera, a laptop, and software is perceived to be high, it does not have to be. Without film processing and developing fees, cost is quickly recouped after the initial investment.

Rierson, who will speak at a Remodeling Industry Technology Group meeting at the Remodeling Show in Baltimore next month, offers the following digital imaging tips:

  • Camera. For jobsite documentation, look for a camera that's rugged enough to withstand field conditions, and is easy to use and easy to carry. It should be able to shoot clear images, with good image resolution in a small file size for e-mailing or viewing on-screen. More megapixels just means the image will take longer to transmit. If you want super-high-quality images for presentations or your company portfolio, get a separate higher-megapixel SLR-type digital camera.
  • Laptop. The laptop should have sufficient processing and storage capability to handle digital image files. You will also need image processing software (see below) and the ability to send data via land line or wireless card.
  • Software. The image-processing software should enable you to manipulate raw images and annotate graphically with arrows, lines, or text. Many new laptops come with this type of software included, and there is no need to spend large sums of money purchasing additional high-end software that exceeds what you need.
  • Transmitting data. You should be able to send data through land lines via modem or use a plug-in wireless card that has over-the-air transmission (such as cellular) capability. New technology called Metro Area Network is on the horizon, and it gives wider coverage than the current LAN (local area network). You can also download images using your cell phone, although the data transfer rate is slow. Like other technologies, cell phones are improving with each generation.