Using a camera in the archive?
February 28, 2011 1:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm visiting a special collection/archive in a university library. Will a digital camera offer a viable means of capturing data?

I'll be looking at some older texts, and I need a way to document what I see. A friend suggested that a digital camera--specifically, a Panasonic LX3--would be a simple and portable way to do so. Does anyone have experience using a digital camera in an archive or as a means of documenting texts?
posted by rockstar to Technology (15 answers total)
I have used digital cameras to do this. It works a lot better if you have some kind of stand, but you can make it work with a handheld camera if you are careful—though I wouldn't want to have to photograph hundreds of pages that way. Be prepared for the library to forbid the use of the flash.
posted by enn at 1:19 PM on February 28, 2011

I have friends who use both cameras and handheld digital scanners.
posted by quodlibet at 1:22 PM on February 28, 2011

I used a Canon D20 to take photos of some very large 18th century maps last year -- they didn't allow scans or flash photography, but they didn't mind me standing on the chair, hovering over the book (which had a special stand to keep it from lying flat on its back), and taking a dozen photos in the hope of one of them coming out clear enough to read all the little labels. It worked well enough for my purposes, but they all came out looking a little skewed near the spine -- if I had to do it again I might have used Genius Scan on my phone instead.
posted by theodolite at 1:22 PM on February 28, 2011

Special collections tend to have, uh, special policies. Call their public services/reference desk and ask.
posted by philokalia at 1:27 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a Panasonic Lumix FZ28 and it works fairly well for this purpose. I have a custom setting adjusted to increase exposure by 1.3 stops renders the most readable image. With somewhat less than office-level lighting, no flash, stand or tripod is needed if your camera has good image stabilization. This, of course is if you just want to read the data later. I use it to collect information from court documents for journalistic purposes. If you want hi-quality images suitable for reproduction, this probably won't cut it.
posted by tommyD at 1:29 PM on February 28, 2011

Response by poster: I should mention that I've contacted the library and they're ok with camera usage. I'm more concerned about image quality (which, from the first few responses, sounds like it won't be a problem)--and specific camera suggestions, if anyone has some.
posted by rockstar at 1:29 PM on February 28, 2011

Best answer: The LX3 is a great camera.

What is it that you're hoping to do with the images? Do you want a faithful reproduction of the book to print, have a copy of the text to transcribe it later, or something else?

You don't want to use flash regardless of whether it's forbidden - you'll wash out the text than benefit the image at close range.

Increase the ISO (and/or use auto-iso). The LX3 is clean-ish to 400, and you could use 800 in a pinch. I'd use shutter priority, having worked out how stable my hands are. I'd rather have an under-exposed image than a correct but blurred exposure due to camera shake.

If you have the tools, shoot RAW, especially if you'll be underexposing due to ambient lighting. It'll be easier to pull out shadow detail from the raw file.

Don't zoom in with the lens. The LX3 lens is really fast (f2) when wide open and slows down as you zoom in. I'm assuming the library will be dark or at least dim. You want as much light as you can get, so stay zoomed out, but watch for lens distortion if you get too close to the book.
posted by devbrain at 1:30 PM on February 28, 2011

One word: Bookeye. A lot of the better research libraries actually have on-site imaging equipment you can use for free. Quality is awesome and they're actually capable of dealing with books all the way up to folio size if you've got the right model. The one at may last school certainly was.

Ask the desk if they've got one and if it will work for what you're trying to do. If it will, you can email yourself a pdf right from the machine.
posted by valkyryn at 1:46 PM on February 28, 2011

Yes, of course. Most decent archives have plenty of camera stands already there. If you must shoot handheld, make sure the lighting is good enough. 5 MP should be just about enough for A4 sized captures.
posted by turkeyphant at 1:49 PM on February 28, 2011

if you have an iphone 4 the regular camera with hdr on does very well in low light.
posted by majortom1981 at 4:07 PM on February 28, 2011

I spent 5 weeks in an archive last summer with a large-group fellowship. By the end of it, 7 or 8 of us had purchased the Panasonic DMC-ZS5. It's what one of the more experienced archive researchers brought with them, and the rest of us loved the shots she was getting. The biggest challenge for most of us was reducing glare from fluorescent lights on documents encased in plastic, but that's not the fault of the camera.
posted by BlooPen at 4:27 PM on February 28, 2011

People where I work do this all the time, and it seems to work just fine. It's good you asked the archives about this first before you just whipped out your camera.

Some archives have a book cradle or something else you can put your materials on to help you get a better shot, so it's worth asking about.
posted by elder18 at 5:26 PM on February 28, 2011

Best answer: I do tons of photograph notes in archives these days. If you are looking for research quality (not publication quality) images most any point-and-shoot is sufficient, and you don't need a stand.

You do however need to practice good digital hygiene. Keep notes of what you are photographing. When he archivist brings out a box photograph the box label, and then the folder label, and only then the documents in the folder. At the end of the day photograph your handwritten notes as well. Organize the photos into clearly labeled folders and BACK EVERYTHING UP including a cloud backup. (Did I ever tell you the story about the doctoral student who lost two years of research when her laptop was stolen?)

Have fun with it.
posted by LarryC at 10:10 PM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Find the brightest location whether it is near a window or under overhead lights. Be conscious of shadows and avoid them. Shadows will make OCR difficult later on. Hold the pages as flat as possible without damaging the book. You may want to practice in a similar environment beforehand so that you see what works. Practice with different methods to see what works with your OCR program.

Typically you want to maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/60th second for motion free results. Most archives have decent lighting so you should be able to get that with 200 ISO. I prefer to set the ISO on manual and find a shutter speed/f-stop combination that works and set those on Manual.
posted by JJ86 at 7:25 AM on March 1, 2011

I have done thousands of archive photos. What LarryC says about good digital hygiene - making sure you have the source for every image - is very true. I just got in the habit of photographing the references (card or written on document) right before I photographed the relevant pages.

That said, I don't work with typed or small documents, but relatively old (and sometimes dirty) manuscripts (c1600-1750), so I don't use a point-and-shoot -- I use what a camera that comes inbetween the point-and-shoots and the tricked-out SLRs. (I don't use an SLR because the noise of the mirror moving would really piss off everyone else in the archive). Like an SLR, it has full manual control. Manual control means that you can drop the shutter speed right down to 1/6 of a second or less (with a tripod), and then you can do photos in not well lit conditions and get better results. It'd pretty essential if you are photographing pre-1800 or pre-1700 sources (especially parchment, which tends to have less contrast with the ink than paper). Sadly, not all archives do have good lighting -- but you can also supplement with reading lamps. I also set the white balance to match the background of the document I am photographing - with old yellowed paper and faded inks, this can increase the contrast of the image for easier reading.

In terms of image size, 5MP is plenty for A4/8x11 documents; if you are working with larger, you need at least a 7-8 MP and 10 or 12 is nice.

My archive cameras are some 4-6 years old now, so they are totally out of date (my first is about 6 years old). I like Olympus brand because they tend to have good lenses (also a big concern for good photos) - but I've also heard good things about Canon. I paid $600 for my first, but you can probably get just as good for cheaper now.

If your archive doesn't have camera stands, they still may allow you to bring in your own tripod -- I did that in a small archive, and they had no problem so long as I was in a corner and not in anyone's way. A tripod makes things so much easier if you end up having to do low-light photography.
posted by jb at 10:31 AM on July 30, 2011

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