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Photo Copies

By Anne Wilbur Premium

Q. I’ve heard of using a digital camera to “copy” documents at libraries, but my pictures never seem to turn out. What’s the best way to do this?

A. Maybe you’re at Great-aunt Nellie’s house, and she won’t let you borrow the family album to scan it. Or maybe photocopying or scanning would be too damaging to the book or record you’re using at a repository. Follow these tips to get the best image of the record:
•  Some libraries and other repositories don’t permit photography. Call ahead or check online to find out whether photographing documents is permitted, and plan accordingly. 

• The cameras on many smart phones and tablets rival dedicated digital cameras these days. You can download apps, such as’s Shoebox, that let you upload the photos to a website or to your online tree. If you’re photographing headstones, the BillionGrave app lets you add the photo to the Billion Graves online database. Some apps not just for genealogists let you edit images or turn your entire touchscreen into a shutter button. You’ll find several Android camera apps listed here and iOS apps here.

• Flash photography may be against library rules even if photography in general isn’t. Also, a flash can create “hot spots” of glare in a photo. Turn off your flash for a few shots and take the picture where light is natural and even, such as near a window. (Or see if Aunt Nellie will let you photograph her album outdoors in the shade.) Ask library staff for permission to remove the item from reflective enclosures such as plastic sleeves.

• Take lots of different exposures: with and without flash, close up and farther away.

• Shooting in low light without a flash means a long exposure. A tabletop tripod (shown above), which you can purchase at photo-supply stores, eliminates the “camera shake” that causes blurry pictures. (Take your camera when you go tripod shopping.) Or place the item you’re copying on a bookstand and set your camera on a stack of books, then click the shutter or use the timing feature.

• Cameras have a minimum focus distance: Usually, it’s 12 to 36 inches. Get any closer and the photo will be blurry. Instead, use the optical zoom feature. (Digital zoom will enlarge — and potentially distort — your image. See your camera’s manual for instructions on disabling it.)

• Set the camera’s resolution to the highest number to capture the maximum amount of detail. This lets you enlarge the photo on your computer without losing image quality.

• If you’re photographing a document at a faraway library, transcribe it before you leave. That way, if the pictures don’t turn out or you drop your camera in a puddle on the way home, you’ll still have the information you wanted.
The guide How to Archive Family Keepsakes by Denise Levenick offers more advice for digitizing and storing photos and documents. The light, portable Flip-Pal mobile scanner is another great option for getting high-quality scans on the go.