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Find Your Family - Digital Cameras and Family History

Article Date: 
25 February, 2011 - 06:00

Often when digital cameras and families are mentioned together we think of family gatherings, snapshots, and family memories.  At RootsTech last week I had the opportunity to consider digital cameras in a new light, as digital capture devices.
If you are like many family historians you have boxes or shelves, or both, of materials from your family history research.  These materials often include original records, copies of original records, newspaper articles and clippings, photos, and other items.  Your collection may also include inherited items like plates, furniture, cuff links, etc.
The conversion to digital presents many challenges and opportunities with these items.  How do you share them? How do you preserve them?  Some of these items are easily scanned, if you have a scanner, some are not.
My experience with scanners is highly variable.  Sometimes it seems to me that the higher the resolution of the scan (resolution determines the quality and file size of the image), the worse the picture looks.  It is counter-intuitive, and highly dependent on the scanner, but sometimes it seems that all the high resolution accomplishes is to enhance the flaws in the items.  Scanning can also be slow, and it always seems to have a relatively high level of complexity as I try to adjust all of the settings to be correct for the document.  
The scanner we have on our large copier at The Morgan County News office is the exception to this.  I can get high quality with relative ease.  My experience has not been nearly as good with smaller scanners.  If I we were not running a copy and print shop I am sure I would not be willing to spend many tens of thousands of dollars just to get a machine to capture a good scan with ease.
There are also things that don’t lend themselves very well to scanning.  Plates, furniture and cuff links don’t scan very well.  For these types of items the answer seems obvious, just take a picture.  The question that I have reflected upon after RootsTech is whether a digital camera would be just as good for documents as it is for people and furniture.
I have often seen individuals in family history centers using digital cameras to capture images from the microfilm readers.  I have done it myself from time to time.  The quality of these images has typically been remarkably good.  
One of the writers on FamilyTech.FamilySearch.org did a comparison of scanners and digital cameras.  The cameras fared surprisingly well.  The quality looks comparable, even though the resolution of the scan is nearly always higher.  Digital cameras do not provide the same resolution as many of the scanners, but for me, they provide an image of sufficient quality to be very legible.  The thing that I like best of all is that I just point and click.  This process is so much easier and faster than using a scanner.  It also will handle documents that are larger than will fit in my scanner, and documents that are difficult to take from their location to be used in a scanner.
If you are going to use a digital camera for document capture in your home I would suggest a few things.  First, get a good tripod and a sheet of glass to put over things that you need to flatten (books, documents that tend to curl, etc).  Second, pay attention to lighting.  It might be worthwhile to put add lights to provide a consistent light source without shadows.  From a quality perspective, the higher the megapixel of the camera, the better quality of image you will capture.  
For many years FamilySearch has been using cameras to capture documents.  First the cameras were microfilm, now they are digital.  They are high quality cameras that are between 16 and 20 megapixel.  The have special lighting and special software to capture the best images possible.  You may not have access to this kind of high-end equipment, but some of the cameras available for purchase at reasonable costs will capture at a resolution that will give you a very acceptable quality of image.
I am excited about the time saving opportunities in using digital cameras for the capture of my documents.  I will likely still use a scanner for some documents, but increasingly I find myself using the camera for more than just family snapshots.  The quality and ease of use of the digital camera give me hope that one day I will finish digitizing all the family history material I have.