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Best cameras for digitally copying documents?

by mitzia / June 26, 2008 2:56 PM PDT

I belong to a group that is copying (then transcribing) old birth, marriage, and burial church records.

The person doing the actual photographing has an older digital camera that now needs replacing. Is anyone out there who has done copying of records/documents with a digital camera?

He needs some advice from people who really have experience and knowledge of cameras and document copying. (He's really sort of new to this, and most of the advice he's gettins is on the order of, "I bought my wife a new digital camera and it only cost $125 online.")

We have offered to put together the money for the camera so we can get him that will keep him from having to re-take images that do read well.

From what I've read the higher-end Nikons have the best Optical Image Stabilization. Since he's aparently been hand holding the camera he will need OIS.

Ideas anyone--or any suggestions on where to go for advice?

My only experience has been in copying old photographs with a non-digital Nikon camera and a very sharp 50mm macro lens so there's no edge distortion. (I needed negatives then.)


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better option

It's better to get a good scanner.

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There is no excuse that I know of to hand hold a camera when
by Kiddpeat / June 26, 2008 10:31 PM PDT

photographing documents. The camera should be on a tripod. Why on earth would a tripod not be used? Is the document in a hurry?

Set up the camera on a good tripod. Make sure it is perfectly parallel with the document surface. Position the document, and be sure it is flattened with respect to the camera. Add lighting, and take the picture. A high end Nikon does not confer any advantage. A low end DSLR with a good wide/wider angle lense which is properly focused will do the job.

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Document copying: scanning and tripod
by mitzia / June 27, 2008 2:12 AM PDT

These fragile documents are in archives and 187 to 300 years old in bound ledgers so scanning is out. Tripod should be absolutely be used; I always do. Thanks.

I mispoke when I said "higher-end" camera. I really meant to say a DSLR rather than a cheaper small fixed lens digital camera.

Right? Any other ideas or information?


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Budget is the big question
by JayMonster / June 27, 2008 3:47 AM PDT

I know in the local museum here when they did a project similar, they purchased a used medium format camera ($$$$) for the job. It was somewhere in the magnitude of $15 or $16 thousand dollars.

That is a lot of money for people to "chip in" but on the other hand, when dealing with document preservation, the ability to capture fine details is usually very important.

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I see a Canon XTi with 18-55mm lense for $675 at B&H.
by Kiddpeat / June 27, 2008 4:17 AM PDT

That's probably a good solution for this application. It has good resolution, and you can easily upgrade the lense if the included lense is not up to the job. Canon also has very good quality, inexpensive 50mm lenses which should also do a good job on documents. Be sure to allow for the cost of a good tripod.

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Most Full Sized DSLRs Should Do the Trick
by High Desert Charlie / June 27, 2008 12:09 PM PDT

There are a large number of choices for DSLR camers out there. I would recommend a Canon or Nikon if you can afford it. But you really don't need to go all out for the big bells and whistles. Instead you should look at one of the entry level DSLRs.

This part is IMPORTANT!!! If your archives are important to you and you want to get the best images possible, you should probably consider spending less on the DSLR (maybe even a used one) to allow for the cost of a really good lens designed to do copy work. Remember that your work isn't going to be flat, and as such, it will be difficult to get razor sharp images across the entire plane of the copy. It would pay to do some research on this selection.

As far as scanning goes, it provides a possible solution. Most scanners these days have a capability to open the top to enable scanning anything you can lay flat on the glass copy surface. If you're going to have to handle the books anyway, a scanner with a removable lid may do the job. Scanned images are very sharp and capture every bit of detail you'll get with a camera. I wouldn't rule this out as an option.

Good luck!!


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Digital copying of fragile documents
by joemac / June 27, 2008 12:50 PM PDT

My recommendation: Canon S5-IS (around $300). Not knowing your exact needs or working conditions, some of my experience may not be relevant to your uses.

My wife does a lot of genealogy work and we regularly copy old very fragile documents with digital cameras. We have had excellent results using our Canon S1-IS and Canon A570-IS cameras, better than scanned or photocopy machine copies. A camera is much less damaging to documents than pressing the binding of old books onto a scanner bed or taking books apart if bindings permit. Working in old dusty courthouse records rooms, history centers and even copying family records, we seldom have room for a tripod and usually work in horrible lighting conditions. We also have time-limited access to documents. The ability to manipulate the quality of images after photographing pages has permitted us to decipher documents that were nearly illegible, things like hand-written pencil notes in 200+ year old probate and land record documents.

Once you have a quality digital image, you can convert it to a *.pdf document. Some software that converts pdf documents to a searchable word processing format requires a minimum 4 megapixel camera (I think that was a recent WordPerfect version, but am not sure) so check that minimum megapixel requirement if you want electronically searchable files. Keep in mind that higher megapixel cameras result in much larger image files. Our S1-IS is only 2 megapixel, but the newer S5-IS an 8 MP camera when set at its maximum setting. The flexible LCD screen on the S1-IS (also on the S5-IS) is a real asset in aligning the camera to the document under lousy working conditions. Flash (often absolutely needed) can flood a document with excessive light. The 10x optical zoom (12x on the S5-IS) lets me back off far enough to provide decent light while still tightly framing the document. The A570-IS has only a fixed LCD screen and isn't nearly as flexible in tight circumstances. The S5-IS has added a hot-shoe to permit attaching an off-camera flash unit that solves the excess reflection problem. It also has a much larger LCD screen the the S1-IS, which makes it much easier to see what you are doing. Battery usage with high-quality rechargeable AA batteries lets us capture several hundred images, even using the flash. We carry a couple extra sets of fully charged AA's with us for changing when needed. I would not buy a digital camera that requires a specific, dedicated battery.

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DSLR with Macro Lens
by WineO / June 27, 2008 3:47 PM PDT

Document copying is fairly simple but needs good light that does not produce glare and you need to keep the camera still (on a tripod.) It must be square on to the subject to avoid distortion. Get a two way spirit level that fits in the external flash shoe to check the levels of both camera and document.
Macro lenses preform well on flat plain subjects whereas many other normal lenses will bring in distortion or will not focus close enough.
A macro lens of 60 mm focal length or less is what you want.
Don't skimp on the tripod and head or you will defeat your object. Good sturdy tripods are not cheap but last a lifetime and you don't want to buy one more than once.

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The trick is to get the lighting correct.
by Jelly Baby / June 28, 2008 10:11 AM PDT
In reply to: DSLR with Macro Lens

A few things I'd look for for a high volume document copy setup would be a deicated copy stand (not a tripod) so that you can set and forget your camera, lights etc and just concentrate on the documents and on the archive data to go with the image.
Shooting with a camera tethered to a laptop (something like a Nikon D80 would let you do that with Camera Control Pro software) makes the whole process much more relaxed.
Assuming your documents are all within a reasonable range of sizes then I'd go for a fixed focal length lens set at its optimum aperture.
The 50mm lenses are pretty much ideal for copy work as they have excellent sharpness, good contrast and a very flat field and should focus close enough for anything you need.
Set up everything with a test document of similar size to the documents you will be recording, set a manual exposure, manual focus distance etc. and record all your settings. If you are going to store BW copy then you don't need to do any particualrly fine colour ballancing but for colour work setting a custom white ballance should be done for your lighting set-up and should be repeated regualrly as the lights age and hte colour quality of the light changes.
Actually copying the documents is a two person job. One person to handle and position the documents and another to operate the camera (remotely) and to make sure that all the file names, image meta-data and descriptions are accurate.

Don't forget to budget for a back-up of all the archived data, preferably off-site, as well

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by MUSTANGPC / June 28, 2008 5:39 PM PDT

You remember in the old days when you need to enlarge pictures - they would mount films on an enlarger and enlarge whatever pictures you need to enlarge. So the same thing apply - mount an entry level DSLR with a good Macro lens to a similar type of stand. I would suggest the new SONY Alpha300 with LiveView viewfinder (retractable). This will help you to photograph your ledger-bound documents. Good Luck -
Alfred T.M. Kader

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by nezic123 / October 24, 2009 1:17 AM PDT

I use in the LIBRARY. I picture book I want and look then At home.


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Lens, settings, and so forth?
by EAllynM / December 31, 2012 7:10 PM PST

We have a Canon EOS Rebel T1i that we would like to use for photographing documents for genealogy. What sort of lens would be good? Will a regular tripod do or should we look for a camera stand specifically for photographic documents? What camera settings would be appropriate for documents? What about photographing microfilm images on an old style microfilm reader?

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I have the t3i.
by R. Proffitt Forum moderator / January 1, 2013 6:30 AM PST

I'd try the stock lens, set it all up and use a manual focus and see if you can get the usual 8x11 snap.

You might encounter folk that want to know the settings but since such change with lighting and content, they are revealing they only need to go try it.

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