What's the best way to make digital images of old photos and documents? In my work as Editor of The Subchaser Archives, I deal with thousands of old photos and documents. Sometimes I want a super-fine scan, good enough to use to make a perfect print replica. Other times I want to make a fast, digital record of a large collection of documents, so I can use them for reference, send them to people, and preserve a digital copy as a historical preservation measure. This is how I do it. These pages are not intended as a technical treatise on image capture. The target audience is someone with a collection of old photos and documents, or someone about to go do research at some archive, who wants good digital images. (If you know some other good tricks, please send them to me.) I will discuss:

  • A simple method for photographing old documents
  • A more permanent photographing setup that doesn't cost a lot
  • How best to scan old photos

Scanning is still the best method to create a digital copy of a photograph. If you're working with photos, skip to that page, and read that first. But for documents, especially for a big stack of documents, scanning isn't always practical or even feasible. In some cases the condition of the material - say, tightly bound volumes or particularly delicate items - makes scanning with a typical flatbed machine impractical. Sometimes trying to scan the item might result in damage to the original. This is when the digital camera is the right tool. Having spent many hours at the National Archives photographing old deck logs, Ship Movements books and war diaries, I've gained some experience in shooting hundreds of pages quickly. The tripod-and-clip method does the job.

Shooting Documents Using the Tripod-and-Clip Method

First, you need a tripod to shoot documents. Don't bother trying to take photos free-hand. You won't get a consistent or good quality result. The goal in using a tripod to shoot documents is to get the legs of the tripod out of the way, and to set up the table so you can shoot all the documents quickly, without monkeying around with the camera for each shot. Things You Need

  • A digital camera
  • A tripod
  • A metal coat hanger and a pair of plyers
  • A table
  • A piece of white poster board or a big piece of paper
  • a pencil and a ruler
  • A location with decent light

I travel a lot to find documents, so I prefer a lightweight, portable tripod. But any old tripod with legs that extend will do.

Setting up the Shooting Table Take a look at the photo of the setup, below. That's the objective. Here's how to set it up:

1. Open up the coat hanger and bend it with the plyers into a long, narrow "u" shape, so that the "u" will slip snugly over the leg of your tripod.

2. Now bend it and cut the ends off, to make a clip, as shown in the photo below. You'll use this wire clip to hold one foot of the tripod to the lip of the table. The clip can be about 3" long and 2" deep, and it will work on most tables.

3. Set up the tripod so that one leg is extended part way and the other two are pushed in all the way. This would normally tip over, so use the wire clip to hold the extended leg, by slipping the clip under the edge of the table. Bend it if you need to, so it holds, and so the foot of the tripod won't slip out of the clip.

4. Set a document of typical size on the middle of the poster board or paper to get a general idea of where you'll want to place the pages for shooting. Using the ruler and pencil, mark a few light lines on the poster board or paper, or a gridwork, or some right angles. These will be reference marks for placing each document on the paper.

5. Mount your camera on the tripod, put the poster board on the table, and set up the tripod.

Note: Occasionally I've done this on a slippery table, and have needed to place a book up against one of the short legs, or tape one down (after setting the paper in position in step 6), to prevent the tripod from sliding. Make sure it's stable.

6. Put one document on the paper, up against your guide marks. Then look through the camera, set the zoom as needed, and slide the whole piece of poster board around, with the document on it, until the document is in the right place for shooting the picture. Tape the poster board down. Now, for all the documents of that size, you can place one page after the other against the pencil marks and shoot them without having to look through the camera to set up every page. If you have a remote-control for the shutter, great. Then you don't have to touch the camera at all. If you're going to be pushing the button on the camera to take each photo, just be careful not to move the camera, and maybe check once in a while to make sure it hasn't moved. Your setup should look something like this (except I don't have the camera on the tripod in this shot):


Tips for Better Results

Lighting: Lighting is important, but fortunately, most newer digital cameras have good tools for adjusting to poor lighting. Flash photography, on the other hand, rarely produces a good result with documents. You tend to get a washed-out image, or a bright spot, or glare on the surface. Instead of using a flash, try this:

  • Don't skip the white paper or poster board step. Shooting paper documents against a wood/dark background tends to confuse automatic camera settings into messing up the contrast and tone. If the background is white, the document - not the table - becomes the notable item that the camera "sees."
  • Turn off the flash. It won't do the job 99% of the time.
  • Get as much ambient light as you can, without putting a lamp right on top of the item. (That tends to cause the same kinds of problems as a flash).

Camera Settings:

  • Shoot in color. You probably don't have a choice, but if you do, shoot in color, even for black-and-white documents. The readability and printing quality will be MUCH better. Never scan or shoot in grayscale for documents (or photos, for that matter).
  • Try one of the canned camera settings. With my camera, I use "museum," which turns off the flash and assumes the lighting is poor. I've tried fiddling with the various manual controls, but "museum" does about as good a job as I can do manually, and it's easier to select.
  • Shoot in an uncompressed format. Everyone loves JPG images, because the files are small, and practically every software application can open them. But JPG is a compressed format, meaning much of the fine detail is dropped. You get a decent, low-quality image that looks nice on the computer screen, but won't reproduce well and doesn't allow you to zoom in on the details. I recommend TIFF format, but just pick some format that isn't compressed.
  • Shoot in as high a resolution setting as feasible, within reasonable limits. Some of the newer gazillion-pixel cameras frankly don't really offer much except for huge file sizes. You max out at a certain level of resolution, and anything above that is just wasting disk space and processing time. On the other hand, you don't want to end up with a small digital image. You want to be able to zoom in on the document (well, I do, anyway). My document shoots typically result in individual digital images that are around .75 to 1 megabytes each, which is a little on the small side sometimes, but generally does the job. If you pick something larger, that's fine. But if it's trending up in the over-5-meg range, you're probably over-doing it.
  • See if your camera has an automatic setting for "white-adjust," or something like that. It seems like every manufacturer has different names for settings, but what you're looking for is a setting that picks up on areas that the camera thinks are white, then adjusts the color balance to bring up the white. The result, normally, is a photo that isn't all yellow, even if the light is less than perfect.
  • Don't use any sharpening or other contrast/clarity-boosting filters. Sharpening ruins most images. You get a grainy image. If you need to tweak the image, do it afterwards, in a digital image software application like Photoshop.

Next: Making a permanent shooting table, on a budget.