Photography for home insurance purposes

Although you may never need it (we hope you don’t), an inventory of your valuables is an essential item in the event of a loss that is covered by insurance.


Few of us can close our eyes and list off all of the items of value in, for example, our living room, den, kitchen or storage areas. Yet, that is essentially what you would be called on to do if a calamity struck, resulting in the destruction or loss of those items. Odds are, your list would be incomplete and your insurance reimbursement claim would fall short of the true amount due to you.

You can circumvent this problem by using your camera to record photographs of the items in your home or office that are insured under your policy. A photo inventory of your valuables should be considered an essential thing to create if you wish to maximize the benefits of your insurance coverage. Even without a loss, an inventory has value. By providing a copy to your insurer, your insurance agent may be able to use it to verify if your coverage is adequate for your needs, if you may require a separate rider for specific items, or if you are over-insured and paying more than you need to in premiums. (Note: This is not meant to imply that an insurance agent can tell a client the actual amount of insurance one should carry. They don’t do that. But if an agent sees your photographic inventory, it may help him or her to recognize possible gaps or shortfalls, allowing them to provide advice in general terms.) It can also be helpful in identifying items before a loss that should be appraised professionally as to their actual insurable value, such as stamp, coin or other collections. If you don’t already have insurance, and are shopping around for the best coverage for your situation, an inventory can be enormously beneficial to both you and the agents in providing quotations.
Do yourself a favor, and get started right away. You will need a camera and pen and paper, at a minimum. A digital camera is ideal, especially one that gives you the versatility of shooting close-ups as well as normal views. But, a traditional film camera can also be employed to do the job.

Do yourself a favor, and get started right away. You will need a camera and pen and paper, at a minimum. A digital camera is ideal, especially one that gives you the versatility of shooting close-ups as well as normal views. But, a traditional film camera can also be employed to do the job.

The ideal inventory provides a thorough record of your possessions that includes such detailed information as:

  • the date the inventory was created,
  • the date of purchase of an item, quantity,
  • the supplier’s name,
  • its cost (including taxes and other charges),
  • a written description, including model and serial number,
  • an assessment of the item’s present condition,
  • its current estimated value,
  • its room location, and a clear, well-exposed photograph of it.

You may need to take more than one photograph of particularly-valuable items, showing them from different angles, capturing serial numbers in close-up shots, and illustrating any unusual properties or already-damaged areas.


A perfectionist would place an identification tag, marked with an easy-to-see inventory number or name, next to each item being photographed so that is visible in the picture. That tag’s data would correspond with the same identification information on your written inventory list, and can be used in naming your digital pictures for ease of cross-referencing with the list. If every tag is the same size, they serve the dual purpose of showing scale, making it easy to gauge an item’s relative size.


If you create an inventory form, which you can do using a word processing application or a spreadsheet, with columns containing spaces in which to write the data described above, it will simplify the task and ensure you don’t overlook any information. Having a space at the bottom to show the total estimated value of items on the page will make it easy to calculate an overall value for all your inventory-listed items.

WHAT SHOULD BE PHOTOGRAPHED AND RECORDED IN YOUR INVENTORY?

Anything covered under your insurance policy, and anything that your insurance representative says should be there. In other words, everything.

You should begin by creating inventory sheets for each general area of your property – every room in the residence including halls and bathrooms, garage, carport, yard, barn, patios and decks, out-buildings, garden shed, swimming pool, basement, sauna, attic and so on, to be confident no area is overlooked. Be sure that storage areas – closets, cupboards, shelves, etc. – are identified.

Armed with your camera and a sufficient number of inventory sheets, you are ready to begin in the first room. You will need patience to do a good job, but you don’t have to go into unnecessary detail. A photograph of the contents of the shelves in a bathroom cabinet or of a clothes closet with a reasonable estimate of value will probably suffice. But, if there is a $400 bottle of perfume in the cabinet or a $5,000 coat in the closet, they should be listed separately. Other individual items that require greater detail and their own photographs include expensive jewellery, heirloom items, costly clothing, valuable collections, rare antiques and books, fine china and plateware, artwork (paintings, statuary, etc.), unusual things and all possessions of high value. These could even include custom-made fixtures, expensive wall-coverings and chandeliers. Furniture, including patio furniture, should be listed and photographed separately. Electronics, photography gear, power tools and appliances should be individually treated. Valuables that you regularly replenish, such as expensive wines or cigars, should not be overlooked. Don’t forget property that a neighbor or relative may have borrowed, or that you placed in the car. Provide an approximate value for such things as your CD or movie collection, stationery, kids’ clothing, foodstuffs and other groupings of small items. When in doubt, photograph the item and list it. Your insurance representative will let you know if further information is required.

HOW SHOULD ITEMS BE PHOTOGRAPHED AND RECORDED?

Your first photographs should be general views of each area of your home (rooms, basement, attic, garage, etc.), showing their contents as they normally appear. Standing in the center of a large room or with your back against a wall in a small room, shoot towards one wall, taking in as much as your wide-angle lens can fit, then turn to take a picture of the next wall, and so on until you have a good general view of the space and its contents. You may find it necessary to use flash, so watch out for reflections from shiny surfaces.

Once you have captured a broad view of each area, it is time to photograph and record individual items. Put your flash away for this phase, since it tends to flatten out three-dimensionality and create strong shadows.

This is the time to consider placing identity tags next to each item when it is photographed. A small card marked “LR-1” identifies the first item photographed and listed from your living room. The same tag number should appear on your inventory list, making identification positive. If an object’s size may be difficult to estimate from a photograph, consider placing a ruler next to it when taking its picture. You could also measure it (including, for a heavy or a very light item, its weight) and write its actual dimensions on its identity tag and also in the written inventory.

If you have retained receipts from when you purchased items, it is a good idea to attach them (or copies of them) to your written inventory to verify their initial cost.

Items that can be easily picked up and moved should ideally be photographed against a plain, neutral background. Light-gray or white works well. A plain bedsheet, a large sheet of paper or light-weight cardboard (curved so that it sits under an object and also rises up behind it) makes a good seamless backdrop, and placing it close to a window can provide adequate lighting. Lighting should be diffused, if possible, to reveal as much detail as possible in an item. A window facing away from the sun will provide soft lighting. If you have only south-facing windows (or north-facing, south of the equator), sheer, white curtains or tracing paper taped to the window can reduce the harsh contrast of direct sunlight through it. A sheet of styrofoam or white foam board can be used as a reflector to bring light into shadow areas, revealing detail that might otherwise be lost to darkness. If it is overcast outside, but still bright enough for photography, your best pictures may be taken of items brought outdoors to be photographed.

Use a tripod and set your camera’s aperture to f/11 for good depth of field. A film speed or a digital camera’s sensitivity setting of ISO 100 or 200 should be chosen. Exposures will be long but a steady tripod will eliminate camera shake and keep your pictures sharp. Shooting at a high resolution setting on your digital camera will provide the greatest detail. You will want to be careful, especially if using a white backdrop, that your camera’s exposure meter is not fooled into over-exposing your pictures. By moving in closely to your subject with your camera to take an exposure reading before moving back into position to take the picture, or by using a separate light meter to read the ambient light falling onto your subject, you can avoid this problem. If using a digital camera, check your first few shots on your camera’s view screen for proper exposure before continuing.

Having an assistant to bring items to you to be photographed and to record information on inventory sheets can greatly speed up the process. Small objects can be grouped to save time, but be sure that each object can be completely seen, without being blocked by another.

Heavy, large or cumbersome objects that can’t be moved must be photographed where they are. Be sure to move in to fill the frame to ensure there will be no confusion about the subject of your picture, and to record as much detail as possible.

If an item has a serial number, model number, name-plate or other identifier, be sure to capture it with your camera, if possible. If your camera is capable of macrophotography, letting you get in really close to fill the frame with the name plate or number, now is when to use it. If not, choosing your camera’s highest resolution setting and shooting as close as possible may permit you to crop the image later to show the data in detail. If you just can’t photograph it, the information should at least be recorded on your inventory sheet.

If you are shooting film, data about an object can be written on the backside (or even the front) of prints. If you are shooting digitally, your image file-names can serve to identify items.

STORING YOUR PICTURES AND INVENTORY RECORD

Your digital inventory images can be copied to CD or DVD for storage. You should make more than one copy. If you are using film, make at least one extra set of prints for safekeeping.

The last place to store the only version of your photo inventory is in your home. Sure, you can keep a copy there (preferably in a fireproof safe), but it is important in the event of a loss that a complete inventory is stored elsewhere. That way, it will be accessible should you need it. Preferable locations are in a safety deposit box, your insurer’s or your lawyer’s office, your own place of business or in the home of a relative. Having at least two storage locations is better than one.

DON’T FORGET YOUR “SECOND HOME” AND ITS POSSESSIONS

If you have a summer cottage, a ski chalet, a houseboat, yacht or travel trailer, be sure to create a photo inventory of your possessions there, too.

CONSIDER MARKING CERTAIN ITEMS TO IDENTIFY THEM AS YOURS

While you are handling and photographing so many of your possessions, you may wish to consider renting or buying an engraving tool to permanently mark very valuable items with an unmistakable identifier – such as your name, social security number, social insurance number, your inventory list number, your address and phone number, or another positive mark to ensure they can quickly be identified as yours in the event they are stolen and become recovered. Take care to mark them in places that don’t negatively affect their appearance or value and be sure to take a close-up shot of the engraving once it is done. Don’t forget to write a description of the mark on your inventory form.

KEEP YOUR PHOTO INVENTORY UP TO DATE

Finally, be sure to update your inventory annually, deleting items you have disposed of and adding and photographing new possessions as you acquire them. It may seem like a good deal of effort, but you will thank yourself a thousand times should the unthinkable occur.

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