The Most Important Tool

A digital camera (and an effective filing and storage system) can be powerful allies in documenting work done and sharing information with customers
The Most Important Tool
The custom leather case attaches quickly and securely to a belt. The type of clip used is more secure than the pushbutton type that can pop the case open if it brushes against something. (Photos courtesy of Russ Lanoie)

Having spent much of my 40-plus-year career searching belowground for things that have gone wrong, I’ve vowed to make it easier for those who follow me to discover what I’ve left in the ground for them.

Not that I plan on anyone having to unearth things that I screwed up but, as we all know, stuff happens, especially belowground, and sooner or later something I installed or repaired might have to be dug up for maintenance, further repair, or upgrade. So the simple solution I’ve adopted is to take lots of photographs before, during, and after any task I perform. Modern digital cameras and data storage systems make it increasingly easy to record and catalog images of projects.

So a digital camera has become the most important tool in my toolbelt.


The camera

What I use today, about tenth in a long line of replacements and upgrades, is an Olympus Stylus Tough. Though I have not tried to take photos below the scum level of a septic tank, it is waterproof to a depth of 16 feet and shockproof to five feet (I have tried the latter, accidentally and otherwise).

It has survived where an earlier camera succumbed to being buried under crushed stone and dug up by shovel, though apparently not gently enough. This is the second Stylus Tough I’ve had. I upgraded for the greater optical zoom and because the screen on the old camera had been badly scratched, a hazard when mixing optics and soil. A plus I’ve come to appreciate is the menu setup on the new camera that makes it easy to turn the flash on and off and set the macro adjustment for close-ups.

Although this camera has a 14-megapixel capability, I keep it set on 5 megapixels to save storage space. Again, the menu makes it easy to change the resolution. The camera also shoots great video.

Occasionally I forget my camera and have to take an important photo with my cellphone. While cellphone technology has come close to merging with camera technology, even phones with the best built-in cameras can’t compare in image quality to basic dedicated digital cameras. Cellphones lack optical zoom lenses and sophisticated image processors that deliver print-quality images and other standard camera features.

Also, I like using a camera with a tether I can wrap around my wrist to keep from losing it and, perhaps more important, my photos, into a ditch or a septic tank. One advantage of a phone, of course, is that I can instantly send a photo to a customer, contractor, engineer or code enforcement person right from the work site if I need their input immediately.


The case

An important complement to the camera is a durable, reliable and accessible case. I had mine custom-made by a local leather shop. The owner simply asked for a block of wood that matched the size of the camera, plus a little clearance. He made my case of premium leather that will long outlast the camera.

I had him make it with a cover flap that is attached to the bottom of the case and extends up the back before coming over the top and down the face, where it buckles. This lets me quickly and securely attach it to my belt.


Worthwhile shots

To increase the value of the information in my photographs, I’ve learned to align my shots with recognizable surface features that should be there in the future. Shooting a measuring tape (or two for swing ties) combined with a wide-angle shot of where the distances are being measured from, plus a close-up of the tape over the location of the subject, helps provide a quick pictorial record of locations without making sketches.

I’ve often used the camera inside septic tanks and pipes where I can’t see without a mirror or my SeeSnake inspection camera. Using the LED Macro setting (macro with no flash but a steady light that doesn’t burn out the photo) can provide clear images of the inside of a pipe. It often takes many tries to get just the image I want because I typically can’t see the camera screen until after the photo is shot.

I usually leave all but the most obviously useless of photos in the camera. I delete them only after I’ve viewed them on the computer monitor to see if they tell a story I might have missed on the camera screen. I also use the camera to shoot the screen of the SeeSnake to record something I want to show a customer or keep on file.


The filing system

For organization, I have a PHOTOS folder on my PC where I regularly download new photos. Within that folder are other folders that start with two numbers that will allow me 50 years of cataloging (at present that’s another 40 years).

I started the first folder with number 99, followed by the date of the first photo beginning that file. Then I worked backwards (e.g. 98 follows 99), starting a new file twice a year. This puts the newest photos first, simplifying quick access as the filing system grows. Example: C:\Documents and Settings\User\My Documents\PHOTOS\88 Start 6 05 holds the photos from June to December of 2005.

I simply download photos regularly to the current file, and they end up being in sequence by photo number and date. When I need to find a photo for a customer, real estate agent or home inspector, I go to my JOBS database that contains all of my work files and billing records to find the date the work was done. Then I jump over to that date in the PHOTOS file. I’ve looked at other schemes for filing the photos, but this seems quickest and easiest both to record and to access later.


Showing customers

I often send photos to customers along with my invoices, especially because so many folks I work for are “from away” (I live in a vacation area). I strongly suggest they keep the photos on file with other important papers and my invoice, for their own use and to pass on to new owners if and when the time should come.

Since each photo is “worth a thousand words,” it saves me considerable time explaining what I’ve done for present and future owners, and it has been known to help me when I’ve had a return visit to a site several years later. I often make a note of the file number of the photos I’ve sent in the customer’s job file, in case I have to communicate with them or a subsequent owner, particularly if it’s in the distant future.


The savings

In addition to the convenience of the digital camera and storage, I’ve enjoyed a considerable savings over shooting film. I’ve gone from nearly $1,000 per year for photo development and tons of space for storage to a fraction of that cost – and I can check photos on site before things get covered up to be sure they tell the best story.

Besides the storage built into the computer, backup storage requires only a few square inches of space for an external hard drive that lives in the safe, except for twice a year when I pull it out to transfer six months of files to it. (Admittedly, the savings has become a moot point in recent years as film photography has all but disappeared and as digital cameras have become ubiquitous while decreasing in cost and improving in quality and features.)

A final note: Though I have not yet had to do this despite serving numerous customers over the years, all those readily accessible photos might give me an edge if a customer calls something I’ve done for them into question. I’d simply show and tell:

“Your honor, this is what I found, this is what I did, and this is what they owe. Any questions?”


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