24 May 2012

Photography: Questioning the Scanner

Photography. All genealogists use photography in some way or another. We preserve old photos and documents, we pursue images from around the world of headstones and cemeteries, we transcribe using digital imaging techniques. As we progress more and more into the world of technology and digital media, our photography skills must advance with us.

Breckenridge, Colorado
Image Copyright Jen Baldwin,
Ancestral Journeys, 2012
I am not a photographer. I have always been curious about the art, and have enjoyed the hobby as a creative outlet. However, the technical aspects behind a camera often elude me. My advantage is a personal connection with a semi-retired photographer, Mr. Mike Brown. So, I asked him a few questions that had been on my mind for a while.

One of his favorite things to tell me is how much better it is to take a picture of something versus scanning it. What?  My scanner is one of my best friends. Everything gets scanned! So, that was one of my first questions: why take a picture of something when I can scan it?  Although his answer is long, its worth reading through to the end:

"If one is serious about reproducing photographs, I am convinced that the only way to do so is to copy them using a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR). You also need a couple of lights and some filters and a bit of knowledge. Your camera should have a lens that incorporates a "micro" mode and will accept a polarizing filter. You will also need a set of polarizing filters for your lights (two lights are recommended). A tripod rounds out the equipment list. Now this sounds like a lot of gear, but hang on, it's really not that bad. Of course the camera can be used for other things from family reunions to documenting grave stones, so it is not just a single purpose item. The polarizing filter for the camera ($30.00 or so, depending on the size needed and where you get it) is also a great thing to have when shooting a great scenic photo as it helps get those deep blue skies. For lights, get thee to the local farm store and pick up a pair of "chicken brooder" lamps, maybe $10.00 each. Put a 100W, Daylight balanced CFC bulb in each one. You will need a sheet of Polarizing film that is big enough to cover both of your lamps. Theater supply or larger camera stores carry this for about $50.00 or so a sheet (the sheet is 17 x 20 inches; one sheet would make a filter for both lights).
A tripod is a very handy item for photographers and they come in an extremely wide range of sizes and prices. For this you do not need a very big or too expensive one. In fact, a good way to use a small tripod while copying photographs is to lay the tripod flat on a table so at the camera looks down at the floor, place something heavy on the tripod so it does not fall from the table, lay the photographs on the floor, clamp the lights to a couple of chair backs, turn off the other lights in the room and you are in business! 
Once you have all of this, you can easily reproduce just about any photograph or document that you want. Originals that are too big too fit on a scanner are not a problem, just back up till they fit. Have one of the old oval convex portraits where the middle of the picture is several inches higher than the edges? Have a photo that is stuck to the glass and you are getting too much glare? Maybe a painting with glare from some of the brush strokes? Want to lighten up the image on that old tintype that is almost too dark to see? All of these problems can be easily solved with the equipment described above. The technique is called "Double Polarized lighting."
But the biggest use of this type of lighting is when you are faced with trying to reproduce an old photo that displays "Silvering". Silvering is usually visible in the darker areas of the image as a result of the halides breaking down and the metallic silver becoming visible. By simply turning the filter on the camera one can just dial out the unwanted reflections and capture the image!  
These are copies of the same silvered photograph, one taken with the Double Polarized Lighting method, the other scanned with a typical flatbed scanner. Neither has had any other work done to them except for resizing."  

With Scanner
With Camera

"And of course, if you really want to go first class, some of the more affordable cameras come with the ability to connect directly to your computer so you get to see the images as you take them. Doing so allows one to easily quality check each image as you work your way through the stack. 
I realize that not everyone may be all that interested in this kind of do it yourself photography and may want to send this out to someone else. If that is you, then I would suggest contacting photo studios in your area and asking them if they can do copy work employing the "Double Polarized Lighting Technique." If they say no or do not seem to know what the term means, go somewhere else!"

I'll have more from my conversation on photography within the realm of genealogy in future posts. Feel free to leave comments or questions for Mr. Brown, or myself, and I can include those, with his responses.

With over 50 years of photographic experience, Mike Brown is now semi-retired from the everyday hustle and bustle of owning a photographic studio. He now splits his time between consulting, teaching and mentoring in the photographic world and trying to keep up with a whole herd of grandchildren!


  1. Thanks for this great blog post. I had wondered why Ancestry's scanning at NGS basically was cameras on mounts above the photos. Now I see their thinking!

  2. Jen,
    Thanks for this great post. Oddly, I've been using the camera on my smartphone far more than a scanner, because I don't have to handle delicate archival material and/or photos nearly as much as with scanning. I'd noticed that some photos seemed to reproduce better with the phone than a scanner, and now I know why! Awesome!

    1. Thanks, Laura! I haven't played much with the cameras on smart phones, so I'm not sure about their quality, but I can definitely see the benefit in not having to touch the original. Can you take pics on your phone at a high resolution?
      Thanks for reading! ~ Jen

  3. Yep, that's why! I actually sent him a picture of that set up they use, and he had a lot to say about it... :-) Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting, Jen! ~ Jen

  4. Wow! This is great info.! Thanks for sharing with us.

    1. You are welcome, Jana! It was fun to talk to him about it all, and learn from someone outside of the genealogy field. More to come... Thanks for reading! ~ Jen

  5. Shazam! Can I just say that I love this post!! It has never dawn on me to use my polarizing filter inside. I have the light setup, but I will be buying some film paper next month. I have a question for Mr.Brown. I've been using my 50mm f 1/8lens,I do have a 100mm macro lens I can use for this. Does Mr.Brown have a favorite Macro lens he likes to use in this case? Thank you Jen & Mr,Brown for a such a great article. I looking foward to more articles on this subject.

    1. Thanks, Karen! I have passed your question on to him, so I'm sure we'll get a reply soon. Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting! ~ Jen

    2. Ok, folks, here is the reply from Mike on the lens question:
      Thanks for the kind words about my article. You asked about my favorite micro lens and mine is a 50mm micro. My DSLR is a full frame so that makes it a “normal lens”. The main reason I bought it rather than a 100mm is that I also use it when I am producing panoramic type images, thus I am getting a double use out of it.
      Your 100mm should be just fine for reproducing photos and documents; it will just be a bit further away from the originals than the 50mm which sometimes makes it easier to change from one original to the next.
      Always glad to answer questions, let us know how you do. ~ Mike Brown

  6. thanks for the info. saves time trying to correct the photo in editing software.

  7. Great article! I had wondered about the "silvering" in some photos when they were scanned. This will make for a great project!

  8. Both the camera and scanner have pros and cons. This is basically about an individual's point of view, since both deliver artistic and valuable results. When it comes to genealogy, scanners and cameras provide the ideal mobility needed for safekeeping data, and best of all, they allow people to have their own copy of data which are hard to find.


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