Digitizing family photos while balancing time investment and quality.
May 8, 2010 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm planning to digitize my family photos foregoing the scanner route and opting for the snap with a digicam route. I've done some tests and am satisfied with the quality, but before I start the assembly line I'm looking for photography tips to make this work nicely as I know little about photograpy.

I have a Canon Powershot S2IS, a tripod, and an adjustable reading lamp. Most of the photos are in binder sleeves and I plan to leave the photos in the sleeves when I take the shots. Using the instruction manual for the camera I have selected "postcard size" resolution as this is roughly the size of the original prints, and "superfine" compression.
A big issue for me is getting enough ambient light. I'm not using the flash on the camera as the photos are glossy and the binder sleeves are even glossier. Any tips on how to position the lighting and the camera and the photo sleeves would be appreciated.
posted by GleepGlop to Technology (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't want to poop on your scanning party, but this is going to look terrible. Flatbed scanners are really cheap and are going to be far superior to this in every way, other than speed. However, you are going to be really disappointed with the results of this, which is going to make your speed fall significantly.

1) photographing through binder sleeves is going to make everything look bad
2) pictures are not going to be straight because it's very difficult to hold camera totally parallel to the picture

Well...those two are enough to screw up the process entirely.

Ok sorry...I didn't read closely enough...you say you are satisfied enough with the quality. My suggestion might be that after doing this for a while, you might end up disatisfied with the quality, and want to do it better, but by that point, you've scanned a ton of stuff, and won't really want to start again from the begining. A scanner is so great for this, I can't suggest highly enough that you get a cheap decent one and go that way.

[apologies for not answering your real question. I'm currently scanning in family slides, and I'm a professional photographer, so I'm moderately passionate about the subject at the moment.]
posted by sully75 at 3:23 PM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I fully agree with sully75 above, at least for items small enough to fit into a scanner.

If you photograph photographs, be aware:

The process increases contrast. You can count on all the darker parts of a picture becoming black, unless you make careful exposure tests (that's what a scanner is doing when it says 'don't open my cover until I say you can')

Reflections are hard to see when you take the photograph but really obvious in the final image. If the subjects are under glass, you will generally get a faint but clear picture of the photographer superimposed on the photographee.

Any curling of the subject pictures will pick up bright reflections of any lights in the area, resulting in (usually) long washed-out areas.

Perspective and lens focal length will make the edges of rectangular images slightly curved even if you take the image absolutely head-on. If you are not head-on, you get a slightly curved quadrangle, with all side of different lengths.
posted by hexatron at 3:36 PM on May 8, 2010

Also agreed. With a scanner you have a chance of an acceptable photo through binder sleeves if they are not too reflective or wrinkled. With just a camera I would not bother. Given that choice recently, I spent the extra hours to remove and reinsert photos from album sleeves. Besides resulting in far better scans, this uncovered useful notes, date stamps, and other photos. I had traveled quite a distance to visit an older relative. I was surprised that you can't buy a simple scanner in retail stores any more. But I simply spent $66 on an all-in-one printer/copier/scanner at the local Best Buy then donated it to some friends.

Sometimes I want to capture posters or framed objects that won't fit on a scanner. I get as much light as possible! Sunlight suffices. I move the camera on a tripod 2 meters away to give me more flexibility in focus and to decrease distortion. For best detail and contrast, I take a long exposure using a remote or timer so as to not shake the camera.

For both scans and photos, I take the original as raw or tif format so then with a computer I can better rotate, crop, adjust contrast, color, and saturation, and clean up imperfections before saving as jpg. I do that with Photoshop or the free Irfanview.

Don't be discouraged; this effort pays off in bringing out details in old photos. I can crop out unnecessary carpet to draw attention to people, even turning a group photo into a set of portraits. But it all starts with good alignment, plenty of light, then adjusting exposure to get the appropriate dynamic range, and no shaking--best from a scanner.
posted by gregoreo at 4:33 PM on May 8, 2010

Response by poster: using a remote or timer so as to not shake the camera.

That's something I can use, thanks for the tip! I have already decided to pass on the scanner, I have stated that I am satisfied with the quality of my test photos, so harping on the scanning that we all know is superior is a waste of time. As for the method I plan to use, any further suggestions are welcome!
posted by GleepGlop at 5:06 PM on May 8, 2010

I did this over Christmas and wrote up a big thread on it, discussed the issues I encountered, and shared what I learned. You may find it useful.

I do really recommend taking the pictures out of their sleeves, it wasn't too onerous. But you can safely ignore all the complaints in here about quality. In many cases, my camera-scans were higher quality than what I could get from a flatbed, and captured in a fraction of the time.
posted by fake at 5:14 PM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, if you decide to go forward with this using my method/a similar method and want to talk more, I invite you to make an account on the DIYBookScanner forums, as we are all using cameras to "scan" things and aren't going to harp on you about it.
posted by fake at 5:15 PM on May 8, 2010

As for your actual camera setup:

1. Use the maximum image size. Not "postcard size" or whatever. Maximum pixels, yeah. Trust me on this.

2. Use the camera in manual mode.
2a. Lowest possible ISO. Mine is "50".
2b. Autofocus or fixed focus -- if you can autofocus on one image and then lock it, great.
2c. Largest possible aperture (this is true only for compact cameras - we've spent considerable time evaluating it, and the largest possible aperture is important. Small numbers mean larger apertures, on my cam max is f/2.8)
2d. White balance for your lights. Ordinary lightbulbs are "tungsten" or the little light bulb picture.
2e. Pick a zoom setting and keep it.
2f. Shutter speed is determined by the amount of light. Use a lot of light to get a fast shutter speed, and you won't need a release because a fast shutter speed means no camera shake.

Think that's it...
posted by fake at 5:23 PM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Woot, this is some serious info to pore over fake, thanks a bunch! I will be sure to check out those forums if I run into any problems.
posted by GleepGlop at 6:15 PM on May 8, 2010

a DIY Macro Lighting LED Ring or equivalent will make your life much easier.

you can get some pretty decent results with a digicam, i made some large prints from an old photo which were quite acceptable.

i think i have a wide angle lens for that camera, if you're interested mail me, i'd be glad to loan it to you for this project.
posted by kimyo at 6:40 PM on May 8, 2010

I used to be curator of an art and architecture slide collection at a university, and we took photographs of pictures in magazines and books (never more than 10% from any given source, and usually more like 1-2%, for anyone wondering about copyright issues). We used film instead of digital, but these tips should be the same.

Get a piece of non-reflective glass to put on top of the photo. I've forgotten what it was called (it was 7 years ago), but you can go to a glass place, describe what you want - a piece of glass larger than your largest photo that is nonreflective but looks transparent when placed directly on top of a photo (it'll look translucent or hazy if you hold it up and look through it). It'll be fairly inexpensive - we got charged $6 when I had to replace it back in 2001 because a student worker dropped ours.

Wrap electrical tape around the edges of the glass to protect your fingers. Preferably black, to cut down on any stray reflections. The glass makes sure that the photo you're taking a picture of is absolutely flat.

Get some Windex or other glass cleaner, a microfiber cleaning cloth of the sort you use to clean glasses, and a soft brush. Dust and fibers will looooove to stick to the glass, so you'll need to clean it off after every few photos (and if the day is really dry, don't bother to take the photos because the dust will drive you nuts).

You want a tripod that will allow you to put the camera on it and aim straight down. You *can* do all this and put the pictures on a wall, but you'll need something to put the glass on to make sure it's flush with the wall, and it's easier to take the pictures down instead.

You want *two* lights, preferably something like 100 watts or more - if you can get CFL bulbs it'll keep you from dripping sweat all over your camera. The more light you have, the better your pictures. You need two lights because you need even illumination across the entire field and you won't get it with one, no matter how powerful. With one light, you'll always have one side of the photo darker than the other.

Essentially, you're kludging together something like the gizmo in this forum thread, only with two lights instead of four.

Place your photograph on the desk of wherever you're taking the shot - preferably on a dark background to cut down stray reflections - place the glass on top of it (one side may be smooth - that side goes down, because it's reflective), turn your lights on, one on either side, station your camera on its tripod so you're shooting directly down, as close as you can get the focus to focus so that the picture fills as much of the frame as you can get. It's usually about 12-24" away from the photo depending on its size and the focusing ability of the camera. Use the timer function to take the shot. That way you won't be touching the camera and having it move.

Experiment with the ISO settings and the f-stop and exposure time. Do NOT rely on the camera's interior light meter because it will freak out and give you the wrong settings (we ruined film every time a student thought the light meter would be more accurate than the instructions we posted), so using the automatic exposure settings is probably not good. The good thing about experimenting, is that once you find the correct exposure, f-stop, and ISO settings they're good for all your photos. You probably don't want to go above 200 ISO because the resulting photos will be too grainy, I think. Try to do 100 ISO if you can, but you may end up exposing the picture for so long that tiny vibrations from fans, air conditioners, or you moving throw it out of focus.

Also, turn off the other lights in the room - again, it stops reflections and allows you to control the light as much as possible with your two lamps.

That's pretty much the extent of what I remember from that job. :)
posted by telophase at 8:49 PM on May 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I've found this page which lays out a lot of good info.
posted by GleepGlop at 10:58 PM on May 9, 2010

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