The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” is not quite right for the remodeling industry. It's more like, “a picture can be used a thousand ways.” To hear remodelers, it's a wonder they were able to get by before digital images. There are postcards; blow-ups for home shows; shots for professional awards; and leave-behinds for sales calls. Images are a way to communicate with vendors, architects, even project managers or out-of-state clients; a time saver; a design aid; and an estimating tool.

To be sure, many remodelers have been using photography — the old-fashioned kind — for years. But digital has dramatically expanded the photo-taking universe. “With digital I can shoot tons more photos — for ‘free,' know right away if they're good, and put them on a server to share,” says Stacey Dean, a designer, and co-owner with her husband Cody Lee, of Grayling Construction in Anchorage, Alaska. But knowing what to shoot, what equipment to use, whether to use a professional, and how to best use the documentation can be daunting.

Showing the project from the same angle in each image makes for an arresting visual.
Lee Kimball, Tom Gilman Showing the project from the same angle in each image makes for an arresting visual.

OPENING SHOTS Photographs can be utilitarian — “before” and “during” shots — or they can have more flair — “after” shots. Utilitarian photos are often taken with point-and-shoot cameras by remodeling company owners or project managers trying to capture the situation on the ground. (It's best if “after” shots, which are usually used for marketing purposes, are taken by a professional photographer.)

Dean takes photos at the start of every project to document plumbing and electrical runs as well as existing circumstances. In one instance, Dean's digital photos were used to help a home owner in a suit against a negligent home inspector/engineer.(When the Grayling Construction crew removed roof shingles, they saw that the sheeting and trusses were rotted, and discovered that there had been a fire. They photographed the damage. “He won the case,” Dean says.) But she says that the best use of photography for her design/build company is for design help. “When I get back to the office and we're creating drawings, [photos] help me remember exactly where a post was in a basement or what a layout [looked like], or where measurements might be off. It helps me visualize space better.” She also uses “before” photography to help field staff replace furniture and paintings when a project is done.

At Lee Kimball in Winchester, Mass., professional project photographs and random building images brand the company in a sleek brochure.
Lee Kimball, Tim Gilman At Lee Kimball in Winchester, Mass., professional project photographs and random building images brand the company in a sleek brochure.

Even if you're doing an interior project, it's good to take photographs of the exterior to document the home's style, for example, or to check window positions. For a kitchen remodel, Dean will also shoot “adjoining rooms; the exterior where the kitchen is; the electrical panel; furnace, hot water and heating systems; the space below the kitchen, often a crawlspace to see the plumbing in and out. If it's a whole-house remodel, it's everything inside and out.”

At Landis Construction in Washington, D.C., Chris Landis, co-owner with his brother Ethan, says they take a photo at the initial consultation, put it in a folder with the client's name, and then copy it onto a letter that they send out to the client. “The photos tend to help you remember the job later on,” says Chris, who also has designers incorporate photographs into their working drawings. “If a client says, ‘I love that portico eight blocks over,' we can take a photo and plop it right on their house picture to let them see how it might look.” And designers can put photos on their working drawings on the computer and mark them up with notes.

TROUBLESHOOTING “Open-wall” shots are equal only to marketing shots as the top uses for photography in remodeling. Knowing what's in the walls before the drywall goes up is invaluable for change orders as well as for future fixes.

At Landis Construction in Washington, D.C., before photos are taken by the owner  or project manager, but post-construction photos are taken professionally.
Landis Construction, Yerko Pallominy At Landis Construction in Washington, D.C., before photos are taken by the owner or project manager, but post-construction photos are taken professionally.

Wright Marshall, owner of Revival Construction in Atlanta, recently finished a job for a demanding client who was angry that the can lights and switches in his bedroom weren't in the right place. Marshall not only had the photo documentation showing steel beams in the ceiling that caused the change but also the signed contract with the information about how structural issues might affect installations. The client seemed to have forgotten the conversations regarding the change, but the digital images, Marshall says, “jogged his memory.”

“We take pictures of all the elevations of each wall, and of the ceiling, if there's elaborate wiring in there,” says John Anderson, production manager at Talmadge Construction in Aptos, Calif. “We print the elevation pictures, for example, for the cabinet installers to see if there are things they need to watch out for or anchor to.” At the end of a project, Anderson generates a hard-copy floor plan, numbering various sections to correspond to the open-wall pictures of those areas, which are put on a CD. “If there's ever an issue, we can pull that up and look at it.”

Taking this idea a step further is Bay Area photographer Ken VanBree, whose clients include many contractors and remodelers. VanBree developed a product called Thru-view, which offers an X-ray of every interior wall. “Once everything is in the walls and before insulation is the best time to take pictures,” says VanBree, who, when hired, takes multiple shots during a remodeling project and essentially layers them. This can also be done with images taken by someone else.