I Promise I'm Not a Spy! Just need to take photos of documents...
July 7, 2010 9:27 PM   Subscribe

I need a Digital Camera (Sub-$300) suitable for taking handheld pictures of documents.

I need a digital camera that I can use to take reasonable-quality pictures of birth certificates, court orders, insurance cards, etc. in client's homes. I am doing the rough equivalent of case management/social work and a huge amount of hassle would be taken care of if I could avoid having to transport documents or ask clients for copies. My needs, in order:

1. Lettering remains legible in the photo. I need to photograph large birth certificates, court orders in 8-12 point fonts, glossy insurance cards/drivers licenses. My current camera completely chokes up on these tasks in all but the best lighting conditions. Someone at work has mentioned finding a camera with a floral mode, but I thought the hive mind would have more experience with this.
2. No tripod. Needs to be quick and easy.
3. Under $300. Hey, I work for a non-profit here.
4. Relatively small. Needs to slip into my messenger bag without fiddling around with lenses or anything.
5. Uses SD cards.
posted by Benjy to Technology (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ideally, you'd want a modern equivalent of the HP Capshare, which really does *exactly* what you want it to (portable document scanner; about the size of an SLR body without a lens attached)

Pity HP abandoned it, as it was an absolutely incredible bit of technology. You might be able to find one used?
posted by schmod at 9:37 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: I don't think you really want a camera. What I think you want is one of these: a no-computer-needed, battery-powered portable scanner.

It scans documents directly to an SD card, and then at the end of your day you just pop the card out and download the scans from it, just like you would a camera. Except that unlike a camera, you'll actually get good, consistent scans (suitable for OCRing if you want).

I don't own one but I have the older USB-tethered version and it works quite well. It's not as fast as a big desktop sheet-feeder like a ScanSnap or a Kodak, but it's also a fraction of the price and size.*

The only issue I could see with it is that its internal battery is only good to about 100 pages, and it doesn't run on AAs. But you could solve that pretty easily with a cheap USB charger plugged into your car's cigarette lighter to top it off while you're going from one client to the next.

Anyway, if I were you I'd think hard about that instead of a camera. It's $200 so well within your price range.

* It's not perfect, naturally -- the software asks me to "recalibrate" far more often than it should (which is never), and on a Mac you have to have an application running in the background all the time if you want to use the quick-capture buttons on the scanner itself. But other than those things it pretty much works as advertised, and those issues really wouldn't apply if you were using the truly portable version in disconnected mode. The software is remarkably non-shitty for something that came bundled with hardware.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:47 PM on July 7, 2010

I bought a Capshare on eBay not all that long ago. Note that you have to jump through hoops these days to get it working. The drivers are for Win95/98 and it uses a serial interface. It doesn't play well with XP or modern motherboards. I've been planning to put together a Win95 or 98 virtual machine image to use with it.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:24 PM on July 7, 2010

If you really do want a camera, it sounds like you should look at models that have good low-light capabilities and image stabilization. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 can be had for around 250 and gets good marks for low light performance, or maybe a used/refurbished Canon PowerShot S90 for about 300 so that might be a possibility.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:27 PM on July 7, 2010

Do you only need to scan documents that will pass through a slot? If so, consider Fujitsu's or Canon's portable scanners.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:08 PM on July 7, 2010

I've made several research trips to archives that don't let you use scanners. Handheld cameras with image stabilisation work surprisingly well, especially on text. My experience suggests that the model of camera you use is rather less important than getting good lighting and avoiding reflections - it's quite hard to photograph glossy pictures, especially if they're covered by glass, but text will be clear and easy to read.

To put things into context: 300 dpi is considered a good resolution for scanned documents. If you scanned a standard US lettter size of 8 1/2 * 11 inches at that resolution the image size would be about 8.4 megapixels. Almost all modern cameras seem to advertise 10 or 12 megapixels, so their sensors can clearly cope with the detail you need. You just need a well-lit room and flat documents. I suggest carrying a medium gray cloth for a background, so your camera doesn't get confused by reflections or excessively-dark backgrounds.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:42 PM on July 7, 2010

Some point & shoot camera models have a special "scene mode" that is expressly designed for capturing documents. Check Kodak, Olympus, Ricoh, there may be others.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:03 AM on July 8, 2010

The key here is off-axis lighting if you wish to avoid glare. If you can get a tiny tripod to allow sufficiently long exposures and to cope with the very slow focus mechanisms of point and shoot cameras, you should be able to take excellent photos without flash or other lighting.

The lighting has to be off axis, not the camera. Consider the book in a bookstand, or a copy holder... and the camera on a mini-tripod. (One of those things that's about 8 inches tall)
posted by MikeWarot at 8:35 AM on July 8, 2010

My Android phone does a good job of capturing documents and even OCRing them. I would have thought that most point and shoot cameras with a closeup mode can do it -- just learn the distances that work.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:31 PM on July 8, 2010

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