As a relatively new home inspector (approaching 10 years in the field) I missed out on the good old days of hand written reports produced in triplicate. With the continuing saturation of computer and digital technologies in our society, clients expect us to provide computer-generated reports complete with photos. (I should note that as the saturation of digital technologies continues, many reporting systems are now able to include digital video. At the risk of sounding “old school” myself, I don’t yet see the wide spread value of video in an inspection report). Among the home inspectors I associate with within my firm and our local ASHI chapter, I find a wide disparity how digital images are used in the inspection process. The differences include the number of photos taken onsite, how many of them are included in the report, the size and placement of the photos within the report, various embellishments to photos such as lines, arrows, text, or even superimposed images, and of course, different compositions of the photos themselves.
Photography as a discipline is both science and art. Although recent advances in digital technologies have made photography easier for the novice, photography is both a technically and aesthetically challenging discipline to master. When you consider that the main reason that we, as inspectors, use photos is to communicate information, another layer of complexity is added to the discipline. This article scratches the surface of the considerations we need to make as inspectors when we use cameras and include images in our reports. The goal here is to inspire all of us to have more intention when we use photography in our inspections. I will not argue that you should use more or less photos, place them in certain ways in your reports, or that you should have specific compositions. Rather, I hope to encourage some thought about how and why you include photography in your inspection process and your inspection reports.
As home inspectors, our jobs often get us up high, down low, dirty and sometimes even wet. While it would be nice use a full function digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera in our inspections for super high quality images, our camera equipment needs to be durable to survive these harsh environments, and needs to be quick and easy to use.
When I first started, I was using low-end point-and-shoot digital cameras to save money. Using these cameras, I found that biggest hazard was the dirt and dust from the crawlspace getting into the retracting lens. The lens would jam, and the camera was ruined. I also found that the low price cameras were difficult to use since they would often not properly focus or adjust the exposures, meaning I was taking a second or third picture of much of the time. This was a waste of time at the inspection, and later as I had to sort through the extra photos. Since then, I have shifted to more expensive waterproof/dustproof cameras, and while they still wear out, I am replacing the cameras less often. The more expensive cameras also have superior components that result in sharper focus and proper exposures on the fly.
One last word about camera equipment: always carry an extra fully charged battery with you, and always have a back-up camera in your bag or truck just in case.
Number and Types of Inspection Photos
The number of photos taken during a home inspection varies among inspectors. I have found that most inspectors generally take between 30-100 photos on a typical inspection, and yet some inspectors may take 200 or more photos per inspection. I have spoken to many inspectors about this, and most of us do not include all of the photos we take at the inspection in the report. This is fine, but you should save these photos for future reference in case a problem or complaint arises. In deciding which photos to include in the report, you might consider the quality of the photo, whether the issue is readily observable by the client, the seriousness of the issue, whether the photo is a duplicate of the same issue within the house, or whether the issue can be clearly described in writing without a photo.
The photos we take fall into four general categories: 1) general shots of the property sometimes called orientation photos, 2) establishing shots, 3) shots of specific issues found, and 4) informational shots.
Orientation photos can be very useful to the home inspector when completing the inspection report. These photos may provide reminding details of the home and can often hold critical details upon re-examination by the inspector. This said, many of the orientation photos are not included in the inspection report, but are taken just to serve the inspector. The most common orientation photo that we all take is a photo of the front of the house that is generally used on the report cover. Additional orientation photos of the exterior and interior of the home can be very useful. I usually take a photo of the front of the home and one from each back corner of the yard. I usually do not take orientation photos inside the home, and rely my other photos if I need reminders on the details inside the home or in structural areas.
Establishing shots have a wider point of view than the issue photos to show a general location of a specific issue, but may not be as general as the orientation photos. Most often, these will be used in the report along with a specific close-up photo of an issue to specify the precise location of a specific issue found during the inspection. This can be very useful for clients, realtors and repairmen trying to get estimates or make repairs prior to closing.
The photos of specific issues are usually close-up images of the subject. These photos are the most numerous type of photo included in home inspection reports and are used to illustrate the defects found. Taken out of context, these photos can be confusing about the nature and location of the issue in the image. Usually some type of description and mark-up within the photo (e.g. arrows or circled areas) is needed to indicate what the specific issue is.
Informational photos might include photos of data plates from household appliances or mechanical equipment. These may also be photos of the locations of clean-outs or shut-off valves, or may include pictures of the styles and materials of various components that we typically describe in our reports. Informational photos are often just for our use and may not be included in the report.
So how many photos should you include in the report? There is no single number that is right since each house varies in size, age, and state of disrepair. They say that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but we want to make sure we are not just running on and on. There is nothing to be gained by including all the photos to impress our clients with all the work we did. I recommend that you evaluate each photo to determine if you want or need to include it in the report. Through time you will develop a style and rhythm in how you include the photos in your report.
Effective Use of the Camera – Tips and Techniques
They say that photographs do not lie, yet in this age of PhotoshopTM this may no longer be true. However, even without image editing software, the camera settings and features may be used to accentuate inspection issues found. Here are a few of my favorite techniques:
- Low Angle to Accentuate a Water Leak – I stumbled upon this trick when I came upon a leaking dishwasher. From above, the photo just appears to be the face of a dishwasher and the floor. From a low angle, the light reflects off the pooled water and dramatically reveals the leak (Photo 1).
- Low Angle to Accentuate Deflection - when Structural components such as beams are deflected, when surfaces are settled and uneven, or when piping is not well supported, using a low angle can capture and accentuate the issue (Photo 2).
- Front-fill Flash - When issues are surrounded by bright surroundings, the details of the issue are often underexposed and not visible. By using the “forced flash” mode on your camera, the flash provides the front lighting needed for proper exposure and highlights of the subject (Photo 3 and 4).
- Establishing Photos - Establishing shots can be used to identify the locations of specific issues found during the inspection. (PHOTOS 5-6)
- Over-Exposure - When photographing text (on manufacturer data plates, for example) or other close-up details, the flash can lead to over-exposure of the image and make the image unusable. Setting the camera to suppressed flash can reduce this issue. (PHOTOS 7-8)
- Secondary Lighting to Reduce Flashback - We have all experienced the “flashback” from dust particles in crawlspaces and attics that appear in photographs as “snow” and tends to obscure the true subject of the photo. You can reduce the flashback effect by shining your flashlight at, or in the direction of, the subject of the photo. (PHOTOS 9-10)
- It’s All Relative - For some issues, it may help to place a common item in the frame to provide a sense of scale within the image. (PHOTO 11)
- Macro-Setting - When taking extreme close-ups, setting the camera to the macro-setting can improve the camera’s ability to focus and properly set the exposure for a sharp image.
- Blur - Blurry photos can be caused by excess movement of the camera when the shutter opens. This issue will be worse in low light conditions. Setting the camera to forced flash can eliminate this issue.
- Capturing Water - There is nothing so dramatic as a photo with water leaking or spraying out, but it also is a practical way to show the precise location of a leak. (Photo 12)
- Placement of Photos in the Report - Within the structure of an inspection report, photos can be placed along with each comment or can be placed all at the end of the report. This is a personal preference, although I think clients would rather not have to repeatedly thumb back and forth between the photos and the comments. The orientation of your photos can be another consideration. While it may make sense to take some photos in landscape orientation and some in portrait orientation, I find that when photos of both orientations are included, the report begins to feel cluttered. I take all my photos in landscape, primarily because they seem to lay out better in the report.
- Choosing the initial resolution of the images as recorded by the camera is another consideration. I choose a 16:9 format at my camera’s medium resolution size (3072x1728 pixels). I find that this resolution provides high enough detail without wasteing disk space and slowing image processing by my inspection software. Within my reporting software, I can choose the size of the photos in the inspection report. Larger photos in the report show more detail, but take up more space and can lead to additional pages in the report. Smaller photos allow you to save space, but may not provide enough detail. Different sized photos could be included in the report as needed, but this risks making the report appear cluttered with a poor layout.
I have also had some clients ask for the original images from the inspection, but generally I do not like to supply the photos on their own. This is because the photos by themselves provide no context to their location at the home, or even what the issue is in each photo. I find that they can create more questions than they answer. That said, I might supply a few large originals to answer specific questions that the client may have on a specific comment in the report.
- Using the Photos at the Inspection - Use your photos onsite with caution. Many home inspectors provide an onsite summary of their findings to the client and realtor and it is easy to download the photos to the computer and use them onsite for the review. However, this can lead to a lengthy summary that may be more detailed than you want. Often clients may focus on photos of minor issues, reducing the time spent discussing more critical issues. By positioning your camera or computer away from the clients’ eyes, you can use your images to prompt yourself through the major points of the inspection.
This has been an initial analysis of the use of photography during a home inspection. While it is possible to simply take some photos and throw them in the report, you can provide your clients with a better understanding of issues discovered during an inspection through the images you provide in the report. My hope is that this article will encourage you to take an extra moment to consider and improve your photography for your inspection reports.
About the Author
Jay Hensleigh is an ACI home inspector and hobby photographer who lives in the Portland, Oregon metro area. Over the years, he has had many photographs of local sports, art, and pets published in local print publications and on the web. While he acknowledges the extreme importance of technical knowledge and precise reporting in the home inspection industry, he encourages all of us to explore our creative sides in our approach to home inspections.