QUICK PIX Any camera can track progress, but Kinder of HNTB (above) says digitals keep people in the loop inexpensively, and fast.

A digital camera is a powerful construction tool. Being able to capture a meaningful image and e-mail it to colleagues is an ideal combination for project managers. It allows architects, engineers, contractors and owners to track operations together and respond to problems with expedience. It also makes them better communicators.

In a business where time is so much a factor of profit, it is easy to understand why construction professionals, including military engineers, started to adopt digital photography shortly before the consumer market took off. The ability to fire off a snapshot and then disseminate it within minutes is helping project managers find ways to get creative with the medium, and add value to their work.


Accountability, economy and speed are the prime advantages. Digital photos can help support valid legal claims, as well as nullify erroneous ones. This technology is readily available, with camera prices averaging between $400 and $600. As a result, the cost benefits are very economical for construction.

Digital cameras are becoming standard field equipment in the industry. Marc A. Supinger, a senior architect at design firm DLK in Chicago, knows the value of shooting projects with a 3-megapixel camera costing $300, instead of a compact 35mm or bulkier, single-lens reflex for the same price that would still require a ready supply of film. "Digital cameras are a wonderful technology," he says. "In the old days, we used to take pages of notes, and now we come back with a photo diary."

"Digital is the only way to go," says Jim Kinder, project manager for HNTB, Kansas City, Mo. In progress reports driven by geographic information systems, HNTB field engineers blend digital photos with a global positioning database. "You can take a picture of a portion of the project and mark the point where you took it," he says.

Images of the Year in Construction

Another loyal "digitographer" is Michael Mahesh, Bechtel Corp. project controls engineer for the temporary reconstruction of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s Trans-Hudson PATH subway line. The computer-savvy engineer has taken more than 10,000 digital photos in 16 months on the $566-million job. He started his digital journey in 1998, while working on John F. Kennedy International Airport’s $1.9-billion Airtrain project before moving over to PATH in 2002. Today, his 5-mp camera is constantly at his side. Click here to view image

Digitography is a flexible medium. A good project shot "doesn’t have to be artistic, it just has to show progress," Mahesh says. He is constantly inventing new ways to import photos into his project management documents. The reason: added value for the client. "Mike has a real gift for taking a project and cutting it down into zones and tracking it," says Tom Groark, port authority assistant chief engineer.

Mahesh’s $1,000 camera is just one component of a $25,000 set-up he uses to generate status reports for the port authority. The electronic documents are a concise blend of digitography and project management software that go out via e-mail to about 40 people each week. "The ability for our organization to understand the construction process is amazing. Digital is not a luxury, it’s a necessary tool," says Groark.

ASPECT RATIO. Megapixels also factor into an image’s print size. (Photos are shown at 50% of actual size.)

Manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, HP, Minolta, Sony, FujiFilm, Pentax and Olympus mainly serve retail consumers, so for those who aren’t regular shutterbugs, shopping for a new digital camera for projects can be a frustrating experience. "There seems to be a lack of targeted products for the construction industry," says Dan Hendricksen, a consultant at Central Camera Co. in downtown Chicago. Hendricksen recommends that construction users take into account the lens package, resolution (or "megapixels") and the unit’s physical size.

The lens is the heart of the camera and the digital chip is the brain. Most digitals priced under $1,000 have fixed lenses that zoom, but retail prices are dropping for new single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras with a digital backing. These units, though pricier, sport interchangeable lenses similar to 35mm SLRs.

Hendricksen discourages using SLRs unless the shooter is a seasoned pro. There are less expensive packages that can give the photographer "a large variety of options…such as a lens adapter for wide-angle coverage," he says, adding that most fixed-lens digitals today take exceptional photographs.

Other features to consider are the number of megapixels, panoramic capability, initial boot-up time and next-shot delay. A camera’s megapixels are directly proportional to the image size on the printed page. On screen, though, this number is not as important.

GENERATION GAP . A 1-mp camera (left) will capture two-thirds less detail than a 3-mp (right).

A 3-mp camera typically yields a 5x7 print with no degradation. Bump it up to an 8x10 on the computer (also called "resampling") and the image will get blurry, or "soft." The more the megapixels, the larger and more detailed the printed image. Construction users agree that a 3-mp camera works well for most progress shots and presentations.

The time it takes a digital camera to boot up varies widely by make and model. It could mean the shooter misses an important piece of action. But timing on digitals is getting better, and Hendricksen says the gap is narrowing as newer cameras come to market.

Panoramic functions and wide-angle lenses help shooters capture construction’s massive scale. "We take a lot of pictures where we have to snap and turn and snap and turn and then paste them together," says Kinder. If the camera does not include a panoramic mode, Mahesh says software vendors sell "stitching" programs for as low as $5.

Data security becomes a paramount issue as more digital files are allowed into the courtroom. The undiscriminating lens may tell no lies, but digital files are entirely mutable in their raw format. Some software vendors offer tools that lock out the images from tampering. According to Bob Adams, president and owner of LYNX Photo Management, Tempe, Ariz., one of his clients in particular has not faced litigation since the contractor started archiving and securing digital photos seven years ago. "Digital makes a difference in how his business functions," says Adams, a former construction manager. These types of software programs also help users organize their electronic files.

Mahesh says that if a camera can’t stamp the date and time on the photo, then he won’t buy it. "Date and time is critical for construction," he says, adding that he would like to find a comprehensive list of cameras that do this.

The future of digital photography in construction is looking bright. Even now, some cell phones and PDAs can take pictures, but their resolution is still poor. That likely will change. Other ideas and innovations are sure to come as more projects embark on the digital path.