Photographing documents - Any tips?

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Horse whisperer
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Jun 7, 2006
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A local library has a complete original set of Gardener's Chronicle that I have just been itching to get my hands on. Unfortunately (and rightly) they don't allow copying or scanning due to the magazines' condition. However, they encourage photography, which I know almost nothing about. I've got a nice generic Olympus digital camera that I would like to use that takes decent close-up shots. Are there any tips or specifics that anyone could tell me? Is this something that I really need a tripod with a digital SLR for?



...try putting the G.C. magazine on an easel or something slightly angled back (make sure it doesn't slip though, we have tried this before)... or maybe ask SEL for which G.C. they have in fische...

From what I've heard/read (which isn't much), you probably want the document to be flat on a table. Someone I knew turned a chair over sideways and put pieces of wood across the legs and made a cradle for the camera so that there wouldn't be any guesswork when it came to camera position. The document was on the ground between the two legs of the chair that were touching the ground. It worked for him.

However, you'll probably get strange looks in the library.
When I was an undergrad, I actually worked in a photo studio doing copy-work on historical photos. Using a tripod would be a HUGE help... not just with image quality, but with the amount of time you'll spend at the library.

Most of what I can tell you is common sense. Make sure that the magazine page is at a right angle with the view through your lens so that you get less distortion. Also, you'll get less barrel distortion if you zoom your lens out and stand back from the book a bit, rather than doing everything close up at wide-angle. If you can, set up the magazine near a window and shoot with natural light. If you can't, then set the white balance on your camera... take the measurement from one of the blank leaf pages in the front of the book.

Depending on how much text there is on the pages (it's usually less than you think), over-expose about 1 f-stop. Maybe 1/2 or 2/3rds of a stop will work. If your Olympus is like my old one, it's exposure compensation is in half-stop increments. As a general rule, if the page is pure white, with no text, (and you want it to appear white in the photograph) over-expose 2 f-stops. Your camera will expose it correctly if the blacks and whites average out to be 18% gray (more or less, depending on manufaturer and meter). I find that most documents need to be over-exposed a bit for the whites not to turn grey.

Thats about it :) I'd set up some sort of make-shift easel and a tripod so that your camera is focused on one page (the odd numbered side, for example), then photograph that page, and then turn the page and shoot again, etc... then move the camera over and do the same for the even pages, and then just mix the photos properly later on.

- Matt
Matt's advise regarding exposure is good. But if you can go to a local camera store and purchase an 18% gray card, that would be even better. Place that on your book, after you get everything set up, set your white balance against that, take an exposure reading, and you should be set to photograph the whole tome with those settings. No need to guess on overexpose in this situation, as the camera meter is calibrated for the same value as a gray card.

This is, of course, if the pages are actually white. I've found when photographing old documents with yellowing paper, you might be better off taking the reading directly from the page. One good thing about digital cameras is that you can make an exposure and then evaluate it before photographing continues.

Another thing that I do for copywork is to use a piece of non-glare glass over the page to keep it flat. One of the problems with copying books is the curl of the page at the binding. If you have a helper, have him/her push gently on the glass to flatten the page. In fact, have this as part of your setup because it may change how the page is parallel with your lens.

I taped the edges of my piece of glass to keep my fingers from getting cut.

Tripods are absolutely necessary for any closeup work. Any camera movement is magnified in closeup photography, and you want the text to be clear and crisp.
Agreed, SlipperFan :) The only problem with using a grey card is that I assume that the camera in question does not have manual settings or exposure lock (at least, none of my point and shoot digitals do :( ) If that's the case, he'll have to take readings off the grey card before each shot, which would really slow things down.

The glass is a good idea, if the library doesn't object :)

- Matthew Gore
Thanks for the tips, guys!

The library people won't even let me use my handheld scanner, so I'm pretty sure glass is out of the question as well.

Quick question, though... what is this strange f-stop you talk of?

I have the digital point and shoot and my Canon Rebel with a convenient 'Auto' setting and these other settings with lots of confusing numbers and buttons.

:) F-stops are one of the basic units that exposure is calculated in... essentially, adding 1 f-stop of exposure doubles the amount of light that hits the film (or CCD in this case). You can do that in different ways... by increasing the amount of time the shutter is open (from 1/500th sec up to 1/250th of a sec.) or by increasing the amount of light that you let through your lens (f11 to f8, for example), or some of both.

You'll notice that just about everything related to photography is related to f-stops. Film speed numbers double (100, 200, 400.... ) because 100 requires twice as much light to expose as 200, and 400 half as much as 200, etc. That is, there is a 1 f-stop difference between these film speeds.

Anyway, you don't really need to know any of that stuff to do your exposure compensation. Here's what you'll do: once you dig out your manual and figure out what buttons to press to get to your exposure compensation settings, it's simple. There will be a little scale, with -2 on one side, and +2 on the other side. It will look something like this --> -2 * -1.5 * -1 * -.5 * 0 * +.5 * +1 * +1.5 * +2

Then there will be a little pointer and you'll select one of the settings on the scale. I'm suggesting that you select +.5 or +1, but you can experiment. Once you get familiar with exposure compensation, you'll find that it's one of the most important features in your camera for taking good pictures.

If you'd like me to explain any of this in more depth, just let me know :)

- Matthew Gore
Good job, Matt. I think you are a teacher, also...

Stephen, I think the Canon Rebel has a manual setting, but I don't know for sure. Some camera's "manual" settings are more confusing than others, so if you can follow Matt's exposure suggestions, you'll probably do all right.