Digital secrets from the Mormons

At the recent Family History Conference at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City Barry J. Ewell held a session on using your digital camera and scanner for family history research. He shared some of his secrets with the participants, and I think they are worth repeating here for an Australian audience.

Digital camera

1. Ideally your camera should have between 5 and 8 megapixels, and a wide-angle lense. This gives the best possible detail without making the files too unwieldy to use. The wide-angle lense enables both pages of a book to be photographed at once. If you are shopping for a camera I would also add a “document” setting or similar that allows you to turn the camera on and start shooting without having to adjust the flash and macro settings every time – I wish mine did this!

Digital image of pages in a book

2. Take images of the pages of a book, instead of using the photocopier. Barry uses a small desk tripod and takes the book over near a window. I’ve found that a window isn’t always available, but if you position yourself so that you don’t get a shadow from the light behind you you should be OK. Don’t use the flash – it’s damaging to old documents, annoying for other patrons, and creates a glare in the photograph.

3. Use photo software to brighten up the photos of the pages. Auto-contrast adjustment makes the page whiter and the printing darker, which is what you want. Barry uses Adobe Photoshop Elements, which is relatively inexpensive. I use PaintShop Pro, a similarly-priced application that is, in my opinion, easier to learn, although these days I often use Google’s Picasa or the Picture Viewer that came with Windows Vista for this brightening up task – it’s quicker and easier to scroll through each photo and fix it, although the Windows Viewer doesn’t create a backup of the photograph.

4. Use a metal cookie-sheet and magnets to hold curling pages or photographs down. He has a metal sheet to which he has stuck white shelf-liner paper to give a white background, then uses magnet strips from a craft store to hold down the document or photograph. I can see this working well for pages from a probate packet and I’m keen to try it!

5. Take overlapping photos of large documents and then stitch them together. Large documents such as maps, architectural drawings, or even old wills, can be photographed in overlapping sections. You can then stitch the sections together at home with your photo editing software. This works well as long as you keep the sections the same – make sure you have the camera the same distance from the document each time.


Document showing bleed through

1. Use OCR software to scan a document into editable text. Optical Character Recognition software turns printed text documents into an editable document in Word or similar that you can cut and paste into your own document. The quality of the recognition varies with the quality of the document – old newspapers are tricky, new books are fairly straightforward. I’ve used this to scan copies of old electoral rolls for a district into a spreadsheet, and although I had a lot of checking and fixing to do, it was much quicker and easier than typing the whole thing out!

2. Use dark backing paper to scan a document that has bleed through from the other side. If you are able to scan a document that has the text on the reverse side showing through you can put black construction paper behind (on top) of it when scanning. This blocks the text on the other side. I have some prime examples of this, which unfortunately I had to photograph rather than scan, but it’s a neat trick!

You can read Michael De Groote’s full article about this presentation on the Mormon website here.

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