Looking for suggestions for new archive camera
August 1, 2007 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Archive quality camera needed: I need to get a new camera to take photographs of very dirty and battered parchment, but I don't know where to begin.

I was wondering if I could gather camera suggestions from people who know more than I do --

My beloved camera recently got sick - I'm not sure if it's hardware or software, but it will be a long time in recovering. Unfortunately, the timing couldn't be worse - I'm suposed to be doing three weeks of intensive reading and photographing of historical documents while away from home. So I'm looking at getting a new camera.

The main purpose for the camera would be to photograph historical documents for me to read later, so obviously I need a camera with a high resolution. Sometimes my documents are as large as two to three feet across, though much larger than that and I tend to break up the image. I do like to do amateur photography as well, but that's secondary in importance.

To sketch out some of the characteristics I'm looking for -

* At least 8 megapixels (the bigger the image, the more I can read), and would love larger (if it's affordable).

* Manual (obviously)

* Silent/extremely quiet shutter, which would seem to rule out an SLR. The amateur photographer in me has lusted after SLRs (so that I could have interchangeable lenses, even a lovely zoom for portraiture), but the archives I work in are very quiet, and I sometimes take hundreds of photos an hour - any kind of clicking would drive everyone else insane. (Are there any non-SLRs that have interchangable lenses?)

* Good lens (I don't know what brands are best, but I've noticed how much difference this can make).

* Good sensitivity to low light - I shoot entirely without flash (flash is bad for documents/paintings/just about anything with pigment), and while my last camera was okay, I think it wasn't really sensitive enough (just too small a lens).

* A swivel screen would be cool, since it would make using the camera stands that the archive has much easier (the camera is often 6 or 7 feet off the ground - I was standing on a chair to check the backscreen before).

I don't think I need a camera with a specific document setting. My previous camera was chosen for its preprogrammed document setting. But that was best for white, flat paper, and ended up doing funny things to crinkly yellow parchment. In the end, I've done better using the manual settings, and the exposure report.

I'm currently in the UK and we might not have the same brands as North America, but I can check that. I'm looking in the £100-300 range - my last camera was £300, but now sells for £150. It was great, so if I can't find another I might just replace it, but cameras have come some way since I got it, and I was wondering if I might be able to find something even more suited to my needs (especially on the light sensitivity side, and maybe with a swivel screen).

And as a last, tacked on bit -- does anyone know how to get rid of/avoid CCD errors in long exposures?
posted by jb to Technology (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
DP Review
posted by iamabot at 3:16 PM on August 1, 2007

This is a hard question to answer, due to the price and quiet shutter requirements. Also, shooting a 3-foot-wide document with a 8 megapixel camera would probably not result in an 'archival quality' image, although that is subject to interpretation.

Perhaps you can make a baffle to lessen the shutter noise of an SLR?

We shoot millions of images a month with both lower cost (Canon 5D) and higher cost (Canon 1Ds mkII) cameras. Based on statistics from our scanning centers, the higher failure rate of the 5D means the cost-per-click of the 1Ds is about the same, and the quality of the image is much better. Also, since the more expensive cameras less time in a Canon repair facility, you will need fewer spares.

Also, if you do go with a SLR like the 5D, keep in mind that the diaphragm in lens will also fail eventually.

Here is an example of an old book shot with a Canon 5D.
Here is an example of an old book shot with a Canon 1Ds mkII.
posted by rajbot at 3:35 PM on August 1, 2007

Response by poster: Sorry - I don't actually require archive quality images. Those usually done with massive low-light scanners (for manuscripts at least, in the size I am working in). I supose I meant archive as in "suitable for using in archive rooms, to get images I can read, even if they are a bit lossy". The images are for my research use only, though I will be leaving copies with the smaller archive I work with (they are superior to microfilm). My current camera (an 8 megapixel, small lens) gets images that are just fine - sometimes even easier to read than the original, when the original has small handwriting. (I've seen handwriting that is the equivalent of 10pt font - crazy.)
posted by jb at 3:54 PM on August 1, 2007

It's questionable whether the lenses of most small consumer cameras are really capable of providing more than six or eight megapixels worth of resolution, so keep that in mind while shopping. Dpreview, linked above, does resolution measurements in all their reviews.

Having a sensor with more resolution than the lens is capable of is a marketing gimick, and comes with a cost of larger files and more image noise.

Canons all in one cameras aren't a bad bet, but like most similar cameras they have a small sensor that has a lot of noise when used for low light shooting. A better bet is the fuji f31fd which has much better low light performance than its peers by virtue of a larger sensor. I don't knows about noise but imagine its minor once you turn off the speaker.
posted by Good Brain at 4:50 PM on August 1, 2007

The Leica M8 is non-SLR with interchangable lenses.
posted by bonaldi at 5:01 PM on August 1, 2007

But be sitting down when you inquire how much (Body Only, Lenses).
posted by Mitheral at 6:40 PM on August 1, 2007

Once upon a time, Olympus made a line of non-SLR cameras with 1.8f lenses. I have never before or since seen digicams with such bright lenses. The bad news is that "once upon a time" means the highest end model I could fine (C-5050 Zoom) is only 5 mega pixels, the good news is that the same reason means you can pick one up for $200 on ebay - the same price as just a 1.8f lens alone costs.

That said, even digicams are not completely silent. In your shoes, I would ditch my concerns and go for a SLR (which, due to having a sensor panel much larger than even the best digicams, are FAR better in low light) and just click the shutter less often - as I expect the SLR with a bright lens would naturally result in you doing anyway - better focus and faster shutter in lower light means you capture the text crisply first time.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:52 PM on August 1, 2007

I got great answers when I asked pretty much the same question a while back. I ended up with a
Canon SD800 IS and a collection of tripods and am pleased with the camera.
posted by LarryC at 9:00 PM on August 1, 2007

A few months ago I was doing some descriptive bibliography on an early 17c book, and wanted to get some photos of a few pages so I could double-check my work at home rather than scheduling yet another visit to the archive. I asked permission of the conservator who said it was OK (they had only recently changed their policy, BTW, to allow personal photography of their holdings). I used both a 6-megapixel Canon point-and-shoot and a Nikon D-50. The standard folio pages were very clear, bright, and easy to read in the photographs, even allowing me to examining typographical inconsistencies, etc.

Of course, no photo would allow me to see things like watermarks and chain lines and paper thickness, or evaluate colors with any accuracy. For making digital images of the ink on the page, however, my cameras were a pleasure to use.
posted by terceiro at 10:23 PM on August 1, 2007

SLRs sometimes have the ability to lock up the mirror, which is the noisiest part of shooting a picture with one. However, I can't imagine you finding an SLR and a decently fast lens for as little as £300; my wife's Canon Rebel XTi cost upward of $700 with a slow zoom lens and doesn't have mirror lockup. Higher-end DSLRs are in the $1500 and up range.

Man, I'd like a Leica M8...
posted by lhauser at 11:04 PM on August 1, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the answers so far - just to add:

I do have a tripod, and yes, that makes a huge difference.

I take hundreds of photos not because I'm getting blurry photos, but because I just need to photograph quickly. That tends to be when I'm doing books, and no, I'm not turning so quickly as to damage 300-year old paper. (I'm really concerened about conservation - if the documents get damaged, there goes my livelihood). But I do make multiple photographs a minute and I'm afraid that an SLR really is too loud to allow me to do this. My current camera isn't silent, but it's very quiet.

I realise that I'm a bit ambitious for my price range, but since my current camera (which is totally adequate) is selling locally for about £150-200, I can't justify spending too much more.
posted by jb at 1:22 AM on August 2, 2007

Response by poster: (In other words, I take several clear photographs a minute - the only photographs I've had blurry since I started using the tripod are ones on which the autofocus didn't take, which was about 1 in 100.)
posted by jb at 1:23 AM on August 2, 2007

Response by poster: Here is my current camera (sorry, I would have posted earlier, but didn't have make number with me - found by googling).
posted by jb at 1:32 AM on August 2, 2007

Oh - there is another option. Some of the Olympus evolt cameras are SLRs that have a live-feed LCD (ie digicam) mode. Ie you get your dreamy SLR, but when in the archives, you can switch off the shutter noise by switching the mechanism to operate as a point-and-shoot.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:37 AM on August 2, 2007

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