The right camera for use in an archive
May 3, 2010 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Digital camera recommendations: for use with archives and manuscripts.

I'm in the market for a digital camera that I can use to take transcription-quality photos in archives and libraries. A lot of the materials I work with are pretty minutely detailed, and I need a camera that can consistently take clear images of, say, penciled annotations, or the contents of small hand-written pocket diaries.

Other stipulations: portability and light weight; reasonable price; decent battery life (I'll be taking a lot of images at one time); ability to function in variable light conditions; and (ideally) both Windows and Mac compatibility.

If anyone has any tips on using a digital camera for this kind of work, along the lines of this, that would be great as well.

posted by Sonny Jim to Technology (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have been a professional photographer in the past, I recently bought a canon 780is so I could have a fun camera like everyone else. I'm blown away by the quality of this thing. Very easy to operate. I never use the flash (you shouldn't looks terrible). It has image stabilization, a little gyro inside that helps reduce blur. So it would be great for using in lower light applications.

I've taken some pictures of books freehand with it, and the legibility is ridiculously good. The IS makes the difference. Can't recomend it highly enough and it's quite cheap.
posted by sully75 at 10:00 AM on May 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for that recommendation, sully75. Very helpful.

And, oh look, I just found a whole previous thread on exactly this topic. Shows just how good an archival researcher I really am. Ahem. In my defence, the thread is three years old, and further recommendations for cameras that are currently on the market would be much appreciated.
posted by Sonny Jim at 10:30 AM on May 3, 2010

Almost any reasonably good camera will do what you want but you have to know how to make it do it. Virtually no camera will do what you describe if all you want to do is set it on auto and click. Most in-camera flashes will blowout the subject if you're only a foot or 2 from the subject. Likewise, no amount of in camera stabilization can save you from a blurry image if you have shaky hands on a long exposure.
My advice would be to learn a bit about light, exposure time and aperture, and I'd probably get a small tripod that allows you to point the camera down. I'd also recommend a camera that at least allows aperture or shutter priority (if not not full manual mode).
posted by doctor_negative at 1:09 PM on May 3, 2010

I am not a professional photographer. But I am a professional archive-photographing PhD student!

here are my basics for an archive camera:

- manual control of apature and speed (learn to use these, I you never have -- I did almost all my photos at something like 1/6 of a second)

- at least 7 megapixels -- generally, small documents are not where you need lots of megapixels, because you can always move the camera closer or use manual zoom. 7MP is fine for documents up to about 50m/1.5 feet wide -- after that, you'll start wishing you had 10-12mp (and a 3ft widescreen to read the document later). Long but narrow documents are easy -- you just take several photos.

-- a good lens -- this can make or break a camera. Generally reputable camera manufacturers like Olympus or Canon will have good lenses. The larger the lens, the more light it can capture and since you never use flash with valuable artefacts you want a good low-light performance.

-- Not an SLR (single lens reflex) - the very best cameras are SLRs, but if you are working in libraries and archives, the manual click will annoy the hell out of all the other patrons. (And, of course, you will always turn off the click sound effect when working in a quiet space).

My first archive camera was an Olympus SP-350, and it was perfect for large and small documents; I got better detail on the small documents than I could see in person. It's not on the market anymore, and I think that, sadly, Olympus may have stopped making non-SLRs with manual control, since they figure that serious photographers want an SLR. But you can check out the features.

I've also heard from other historians that the Canon powershoots are quite good; I actually asked an Askmefi question about archival cameras a couple of years ago when mine was in for repairs, and had good suggestions in that thread.
posted by jb at 8:50 PM on May 3, 2010

oh! you found my thread. Yes, it is getting old, so you'll want to find out what is on the market now.

To add: you will need a tripod/camera stand to take decent document photos. Some archives/libraries will provide these (like the Public Record Office in Britain), some will let you set up your own, though you may have to arrange a good space for this. Some places may allow photography, but not allow a full tripod -- I've actually done photos of books using a Gorilla-pod and a chair, and it worked well.

Find out what the camera and tripod policies are at the places you will be working at. Some might not allow any photography -- and some might be willing to image for you at a low cost or as part of their own digitization program (I heard a rumour that Yale's Beineke library might do this).

also -- please feel free to memail me -- I love to talk with other archival historians about their work.
posted by jb at 9:00 PM on May 3, 2010

re: tripods and image stabilization, yes, tripods would be helpful. However, plenty of times you won't be able to use one. With image stabilization and reasonable lighting, you will be able to take a reasonably sharp picture, if not quite sharp.

You absolutely do not need manual control for this. It's only going to confuse you. A point and shoot is going to be fine UNLESS you want to use artificial (flash) lighting, which you almost 100% won't.

I'm not sure what features a point and shoot won't have that you'll need. Mostly I find people who have some manual features on a camera using them wrong and making their pictures worse ( my mom for instance).

Get that 780is, shut the flash off and have at it. I think it's a 12mp camera, which is so much more than you need but the quality is spectacular.

And yeah, absolutely do not get an SLR for this. For a hard to explain technical reason, SLRs tend to have more things out of focus. Useful in portraiture, but for what you want, a point and shoot will work well because they tend to have everything in focus.
posted by sully75 at 7:35 AM on May 4, 2010

sully -- you want a manual so that you can control the shutter speed and apature. As a photographer, I'm sure you're aware of the trade off between apature and focus range (sorry -- can't remember the technical words -- it's been years since I studied photography). If you have a book you cannot open completely, you want a long focal length so that the whole page (which will be at an angle to the camera) will be in focus. So you go for a smaller apature and a slower speed.

You can do document photography without manual control, yes. But just like art photography, it's a lot harder to get a good image, and you will have more underexposed images. Patrons of libraries and archives also will often have no control over the lighting (though the PRO has some nice lamps), so manual with a tripod/gorilla leaves you the most flexibility for less than ideal circumstances. It's not as hard to do as manual photography in other situations -- unlike photographing people or landscape, the subject of a document photo will not move and the lighting will not change except very slowly (if using window light). So you have lots of time to work out a good setting for your apature and speed. I always used my camera's little green "yes, you are well exposed" lights as a guide.

(I don't do manual except in archives; I know the theory, but my practice is too slow).

Re tripods: if you cannot use a tripod in the given library/archive, I have found that I can still take clear photos at between 1/30 and 1/15 of a second with well braced arms and a steady hand. A friend of mine does almost all of his document photography freehand. If you have a stand/tripod, you can obviously go much faster, and you can go lower on your shutter speed and thus have brighter and better exposure on the image. Almost all of my freehand stuff has been underexposed, and I have to punch it up in Picasa (great simple program for brightening & reading document photos). But it was still readable.

Another nice thing I like to do with old, yellow documents -- especially those with brown ink -- is to fake-out the camera into thinking that the yellow is white by using the manual white balance control. This is great for increasing the contrast between fading brown ink and yellow paper/parchment. But you might lose details if you are looking at things like faint pencil annotations, so it's a trade-off.
posted by jb at 11:14 AM on May 4, 2010

Oh -- another reason for having manual control: forcing the shutter-speed up to 1/30 of a second when working without a tripod, even when the programming wants to take the speed down lower for a better exposure. Better underexposed than blurry.

I haven't personally used a camera with stabilizers; there may be some historians who have done archival photography with these who can comment on whether they successfully counteract the problems of too slow a shutter speed.
posted by jb at 11:19 AM on May 4, 2010

JB...sorry, but I think a lot of your theory is wrong.

Pretty much the only reason to use manual mode on a modern camera is if you are using electronic flash. There are other reasons but they are pretty minor and not relevant.

By it's nature, a point and shoot camera is going to have a ton more depth of field at any aperture than an SLR. So you really don't need to worry about f stop and aperture. A little point and shoot with IS is going to be hands down superior for this kind of photography.

Here's a crop of a picture I just took with the 780is:

And the original picture:

This is in a room with no lights on, with a little window light but otherwise pretty dark. There is some noise in the cropped picture but it's totally readable. That's at f3.2 at 1/20th of a second. A dslr or any camera without IS would be choking pretty hard in this situation.

BTW if you have a camera that has manual controls and you want to select a certain shutter speed, you should put the camera into shutter priority mode and select the shutter speed you want, rather than manual mode.

Verily, I say unto you: the current generation of point and shoots are so far superior to the cameras of 4 or 5 years ago that they are incomparable.
posted by sully75 at 2:54 PM on May 4, 2010

sully - I'm sure that you do know far more about cameras than I do.

But in this case, I'm afraid that I'm not that impressed by the point and shoot. The clarity is sufficient for type-written text, but it's not great. I would find it very wearing on the eyes to read much text that way, and I don't know if it would be clear enough for pencil notes.

Here is an example of a 17th century hand-written document shot on manual with the Olympus I linked above (which can be point-and-click or manual, as you desire). It is a bit dark -- I underexposed it. This is the uncorrected photo -- I usually take images into Picasa and then boost contrast, etc, as needed to read. And there are some effects from the compression -- but it's a much sharper image.

In case you are wondering, Sonny Jim, the original was relatively small; the photo only shows about 2-4 inches wide. But like I said, the small ones are easy to do -- it's the large folio volumes that can be challenging. Here's a tax book that I did -- the original was something like 15 inches tall, or maybe 18, instead of the standard 10-12 inches tall. I wanted to save time by taking the whole two pages at once, so I zoomed right out; as you can see from this close-up, I sacraficed some resolution so it came out looking about the same as scully's point and shoot. But this was on a large document; the 8x11 sized order books I did were all much crisper -- here's an example (whole, detail -- I totally jacked up the contrast on these).


It's up to you as to what you want to get, Sonny Jim; your needs may be different from my own.

All I know is that the people I have met doing digitization with cameras (as opposed to scanners) generally use manual settings on a camera stand; I wouldn't give up my manual control. More recent cameras probably are much better than the one I have. But for me, manual control is also about being able to control my own image (purposely under or over-exposing, changing the white balance, etc). I've done some difficult stuff (like photos of negative microfilm on a backlit machine, parchment, dirty paper) and I liked not fighting the default programming of a camera which was designed for snapshots.
posted by jb at 6:58 PM on May 4, 2010

Another historian here:

Here's a crop of a picture I just took with the 780is:

Yep, that picture of san serif text on a brilliant, blank white page is perfectly readable if you want to read only a few lines. But imagine you're taking pictures of a dirty piece of yellow parchment written on with a lead pencil back in the days when lead pencils were actually lead. Imagine you're looking at erasures, where the texture of the page is important for legibility. Imagine you have to read these images, page after page, for thousands of hours over weeks of work without being driven insane by the distortion and fuzziness.

Archival photography is a craft all of its own, and not one that can be easily entered into by the automatic settings of some camera optimised for portrait and landscape photography.
posted by Dreadnought at 6:59 PM on May 4, 2010

Response by poster: OK, thanks so much everyone. These are exactly the answers I was hoping for—detailed and specific. I'm looking at something in the Canon Powershot range right now, but I clearly have plenty of options, and this is a good thing.

My speciality's the history of reading, with a further specialization in the early twentieth century, so I won't be working with parchment or trying to decipher secretary hand. And sadly I won't be doing full-text digitization, which I'd definitely want an SLR and tripod for. On the other hand, it's the incidental features of books and documents—marginalia and the signs of reading—that are often most central to the work I do, so I need something that can accurately capture those details, not just what's printed in the text block.

So, anyway, thanks again. I have plenty to mull over.
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:19 AM on May 5, 2010

Ok one more shot, and then believe what you like:

again, no room light, a little light from the window:

And a 100% crop of the same

Any non-dslr camera with a small sensor is going to have similar qualities. Manual settings are not giving you the control you think they are. They are just giving you opportunities to mess things up. All small sensor cameras are totally unsuited for doing long exposures, so that aspect of manual exposure is not helpful. This little Canon has outstanding automatic white balance. It would do great on a Gorilla tripod too.

Anyway, that's my $.02. The initial pictures I took were in a (literally) dark room, just for example. The pictures I posted here were still in a room with no lights on but a little window light. I think you'd be really happy with this camera.

I would say though, that you should absolutely, 100% not buy any camera without image stabilization. I understand that a tripod is the best situation, maybe, but there are going to be situations where a tripod is either too slow, or not allowed, and then the IS will shine.
posted by sully75 at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2010

sully -- your next images are excellent. Was the image stabilization being used? I don't know much about it or when it kicks in, as it wasn't available when I bought my camera.

I understand the problem with small-sensor cameras -- I've done some long exposure photographs for fun (10, 15 seconds, 2 minutes at night) and I get CCD errors; I wouldn't want to use my camera for long-exposure art photos or astronomical photography. (Of course, they use special CCDs and have since before they were commercially common).

But like I said, I have gotten much better results using the manual controls than using the automatic controls on my camera (and it even had a "document" setting -- but that was for books and typescript on white paper), and I chose to use the white-balance in a way that went against its automatic programming, but which gave me the image I wanted (purposely bluer than the reality).

I admit -- I don't really understand why a photographer would be down on non-photographers learning manual controls. It's kind of like a computer programmer discouraging people from learning more about their operating system, or a mechanic discouraging people from looking under the car hood. Understanding manual control, even if you aren't especially good at it, lets you understand better what your camera is doing automatically. I am very slow, so I never use manual when taking snapshots, but I like what little bit of understanding I picked up from high school photography (on a manual 35mm made in 1970), and it's helped me get what I want from my document photos. (Also, you can then have fun when not working by purposely over or under-exposing photos, which can lead to beautiful effects.)

It also saddens me if the manufacturers feel similarly -- it means they will be taking manual options off of the middle-priced cameras, leaving only automatic-only cameras and high-end SLRs. I had heard that was one reason my Olympus went off the market -- the manufacturers assumed that people wanted either a point&click or an SLR, and had taken out cameras like mine that sat between the two.


Sonny Jim -- if your interest is primarily in marginalia, a tripod would be less useful because you will be wanting to constantly change your perspective to the page -- image stabilization and a steady hand seems that they would work well.

Tripods/stands still have advantages for digitizing entire books, because then you can just turn the page and everything is already framed perfectly (it's done in more manuscript archival work -- no point in digitizing a printed book if you aren't Google).
posted by jb at 11:51 AM on May 5, 2010

Oh-- just to add for Sonny Jim: even a lot of professional digitizers don't use SLRs, unless they have a private room. The Anglo-American Legal Tradition digitization project uses cameras very similar to my Olympus because they wanted manual control but work in a public archive. (I've watched them work -- they are so fast and efficient. The images aren't perfectly framed or lit and not sorted, but about two people have done millions of images this way).
posted by jb at 11:57 AM on May 5, 2010

« Older Teetotalers need sommeliers too   |   Places to check out in Venice / Santa Monica Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.