Fieldnotes: Photographing Archival Materials

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When doing archival research in Japan, I had a Canon flatbed USB scanner that could fit in my backpack and ran off USB power. I believe they call the series the LIDE scans. They're quite nice and very cheap, less than $60 or Y7,000. The problem though is that they are rather slow. They also do not have a lot of depth of field, so you really have to PUSH the book onto the bed of the scanner in order to read the text near the spine.

I found that if I was trying to copy a lot of pages, it was faster to set up my Canon 10D on a tripod (Velbon Carmagne) and photograph the pages instead. With the flatbed, I could maybe scan one page a minute, with my 10D, I could photograph over 10 pages a minute. At 6 megapixels, this is just about the same as scanning at 250 dpi. It was also easier to photograph fragile material like rare books, without breaking their spines by forcing them on the scanner.

With a remote shutter release and tripod, I could safely shoot at 1/6th of a second even with an aperture of f/8 to ensure good sharpness. The slow shutter speed meant I could use the ambient fluorescent lighting in the archives I was in, so I didn't have to set up my flash units, which also alleviated the blood pressure of the librarians whose patience I was taxing. It also meant I didn't have to worry about harsh shadows or reflections from the flash units. Soft ambient lighting is always your friend if you don't have to worry about handholding the camera. If you don't have a remote release, the 2-second self-timer on many cameras also works well.

You need a tripod where you can reverse the center column so that you can photograph with the camera upside down. Cheap $50 video tripods don't have this feature. You need to get a $150-200 tripod designed specifically for photography -- Gitzos, Velbons, and Manfrotto all make excellent photography tripods. A good ballhead will also make your life easier. My favorite field head is the Acratech Ultimate. More reviews of tripods and heads on my main site.

Lock up the mirror if you can (mirror pre-release) and use manual exposure and manual white-balance rather than automatic. This will ensure all pages of your document are photographed equally. You don't want one page to be yellow and one to be light grey due to the presence or absence of images, for example.

If you have some drafting/masking tape, it helps to tape the outlines of the frame of view onto the desk or whatever you're shooting on. That way, you don't have to look through the viewfinder each time. To prevent stray light from affecting the photo, be sure to cover the camera eyepiece with either the eyepiece cover or something that will block light (I find film canister caps work well, but a CF card should also do the trick).


Yup, I also found that out for taking copies of articles I find in archives or waiting rooms, and I can't find a recent copy of that same magazine. I got that after my teacher mentioning using a digital camera was a quick, safe way to "scan" chromes, and far less expensive than paying a lab to scan them.

take a look at this gadget. it has been getting good reviews.

The Docupen does seeem really interesting, thanks for the link. I think I'll wait until a local store has it before buying it, since I've found those drag-and-scan scanners tend to have alignment problems. It's a tad expensive at $159/199 (battery/rechargeable versions), so I want to make sure I can return it if it doesn't work out. But if it works as promised, it'll be great for archival research. They just released Mac OSX drivers too.

Hi Karen. I've been enjoying your site for a while, and its high time I leave a comment or two on a fellow Japan anthro blog.

This is a very helpful post! Thank you. Using a tripod with a reversible column is ingenious.

I am not an expert in camera gear, but in my experience documenting archival material I have also found using a digital camera much faster than a scanner. The only problem is the text doesn't appear flat, unless you have four hands. So I scanned images I thought I might reproduce in a publication.

What I've found is that many archives in Japan own stands specifically designed for taking photographs of documents. I don't know what they are called, but they look like OHPs: the place where you attach the camera has a gear attacked to an upstanding pole and a dial adjusts the distance between the camera and the document. Because the base is made out of heavy steel, it would be rock-solid stable and photographing documents was made so much easier than if I used my cheapo $30 tripod.

Those stands probably cost an arm and a leg, and it is so heavy that lugging it around doesn't really make sense, but I've been considering getting it if I do more archival work in Japan.

I've been informed and entertained by your blog and camera articles for some time now, and had an intriguing cross-over with your academic work when I recently met with the Morimotos, who successfully sued the Japanese government over illiberal leprosy laws.

For these reasons, I've been meaning to comment on one posting or another for quite a while, but the topic of reproduction in archives is one that has exercised me a lot in recent years.
With portability in mind, I take the centre column from my Manfrotto tripod, a steady table clamp (Manfrotto design a useful one), and a weightable accessory arm. I attach my Canon G6 and, depending on lighting (which can be very poor in some attics/basements!), a third-party macro light. The flip out screen on the G6 makes it easy to frame the copying, while the remote control keeps the exposure steady.

I've collected quite a bit of stuff like this, and I hope at some stage to do a rough OCR on the material to make it searchable, following the JSTOR template. The theory is that even a 95% accurate OCR should be able to generate an index to the relatively faithful 'scans' grabbed by the camera. If it works, I'll put up a how-to, though I'm not sure where the best place to host this would be...

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on August 7, 2005 3:13 PM.

Info: Photographing artwork was the previous entry in this blog.

Fieldnotes: Just what is a disability? is the next entry in this blog.

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