Saturday, February 06, 2010

Taking digital photos of microfilm was not what I expected...

I finally made it down to the state archives and was able to take some photos of various documents with my digital camera.  The camera that I used is a FujiFilm Finepix Z33WP, that shoots at around 10 Megapixels with a 3X optical zoom.  My wife bought the camera five months ago so I would say that it is relatively new and up-to-date.  I am sure that better cameras are out there but this is a fair example of a generic, personal-use digital camera that is relatively portable and discrete.

Upon arrival, I started snapping a few photos of the library.  I took a few outside and some in the lobby, even one of the first circulation desk.  At that point I was busted by one of the reference librarians.  She was polite but told me that cameras were not allowed inside of the reading rooms.  I asked about taking photos of documents and her story changed a bit.  She told me that I could take the camera into the reading rooms but that I was not allowed to take pictures of people or of the building.  I was only allowed to take photos of the microfilm and books.  I also could not take photos of anything from special collections.  With that said, I put my camera into my pocket and headed on my way.

I followed my normal procedure and signed up for a microfilm reader.  The library was extremely busy that day but there was no wait for a machine.  I actually had to park about five blocks away and walk in the snow.  I was not thrilled about the parking situation but I was not about to pay the $7.00 to park in the lot across the street.  (As a note, the library's actual parking lot is free for the public but is also used by the state government when the Virginia House of Delegates is in session.  They take up a lot of the space in the library's underground parking deck).

Once I started taking pictures, I obviously did not use a flash and I tried to use the zoom as infrequently as possible.  I also tried to position the camera as straight as I could (not on an angle) and tried not to get any of my fingers or other body parts in the picture (harder than you might think)!  In this case, I used the "Museum" setting on the camera because it did not fire the flash and also turned off all of the beeping noises associated with its normal operation.  I also took photos from both types of microfilm readers; the manual, angled kind and the flat, auto-printer machines.  (You can tell which is which because the manual machine photos are slanted away from the camera).

Of the two types of microfilm machines, the auto-copier took the best photos because it was flat and back-lit.  The screen also did not reflect any light back at the camera.  The manual machine tended to show a reflection of the bulb and that sometimes distorted the image.  (As stated before, the manual machine also caused spacial distortion because of its slanted angle).

I was generally not impressed with any of the photos that I took.  Vital records registers were too small to read and taking close ups of various sections took a lot of work.  You would also then have to go back and piece them together later.  I  originally imagined being able to photograph an entire county of death records and use the photos at home to transcribe the whole registry.  I quickly gave up on that dream because the photos do not have enough resolution when you zoom in on them.  The imperfections of the original document, the microfilm, the microfilm reader's screen, the camera and the computer, all combine to make the images almost useless for transcription purposes.  The focus is just too defined to the center of an image.

The only thing I can see that the camera is good for is taking photos of books that are too fragile to photocopy, those did fairly well.  A camera would also be useful for taking pictures of pictures, where a photocopy might lose some of the resolution - it did well in that regard.  I definitely would not plan on using a digital camera to capture large volumes of anything.  I tried to copy a bunch of cemetery records but quickly got tired of struggling with both the microfilm reader and the camera.  It was too hard to get a good shot, over and over again.

There are too many photos that I took for me to put in a blog post so I am going to put them into a photo album on my Facebook page and give you a link to view them.  You can take a look for yourself and see what I came up with.  In all honesty, I do not see much value in the photographs that I was able to take, other than the pictures of pictures and those of the books.  Overall, I will probably not go out of my way to take a camera with me to the archives when I get the chance to slide down there.  I will save the space in my pocket for a bunch of quarters and make copies the old-fashioned way!

You can check out the Facebook photo album by clicking here!


Jasia said...

Wow, I'm surprised that you have such a low opinion of the photos you took. I think they look great, but then I'm used to photographing Polish parish records on microfilm... in a foreign language, with poor penmanship, badly aged, and poorly lit. I've photographed hundreds of records with my digital cameras over the years and am grateful to have the images at home to view at my leisure poor as they are. I guess value is in the eye of the photographer ;-)

JD said...

Maybe the settings on your camera were not what you needed to have before you set out on this journey. I photograph a lot of documents and other items. I use a Nikon D80 set to fine and the largest image possible. I also use a special tripod that holds the camera facing straight down and a remote shutter release. There is no way you could comfortably shoot a lot of photos without these. The photos I import are of good enough quality that my OCR software can convert a lot of the text if I want them to be search-able. I used to use Pentax but the Nikon is really unbeatable for me now. It gives me the quality I can count on. Clients don't want to pay for spending a lot of time having to adjust or reset a camera or retake photos. said...

I just read about a film to camera to computer program on the BYU.EDU Genealogy Tech Conference in 2008. Link here:
Links camera to computer so you see image on computer as it is being shot. Then the software allows organization in the same program. If I could find this program, I would buy it today.

Anonymous said...

what kind of tripod did you use to help take the pictures? does it work well?