Archival research photo Q&A: iPads, big documents

2011 June 20

I recently received a very nice email from a colleague who read my piece on using a digital camera for archival research. That talk’s several years old, though, and technology has advanced. My correspondent asked a question that I can’t answer, so I pitch it to you, dear readers. Slightly rephrased:

You recommend a camera and a monopod. What about an iPad? One of my students is using hers to make digital copies and prefers it to cameras because she can immediately see the image and evaluate its quality.  But….can an iPad be mounted on a monopod?

Here’s what I wrote, along with my answer to another question about photographing legal-size and larger documents using a monopod:

Using an iPad for archives research photography

I don’t have an iPad (version 1 or 2), so I can’t comment from experience. I do know that there are starting to be tripod-mounting adapters for smartphones, and a quick Google search (“ipad camera mount tripod”) reveals at least one tripod mount for the iPad 2.

When someone gives me an iPad and the money to purchase a tripod mount (hah), I’d happily write a review. Until then, I’ve put out the question to Twitter and to my blog’s readers. I would say that with the weight and cost of an iPad, you’d be best off with one of the higher-model monopods (MP-16A or MP-20) because they support heavier cameras than the MP-16 I’ve recommended. [Edited to add: @annamcnally reminded me to point out that many archives don’t allow any kind of tripod, monopod, or portable camera stand in their reading rooms; in which case you’re left with holding a heavy device over your archival material all day. Tiring, and part of why I like smaller, lighter camera options.]

Some cameras also can be connected to your laptop with a USB cable for previewing and remote shutter triggering; that would be another option if you want to be able to see the image quickly, but sometimes it’s slower.

(Part of this hardware choice depends on one’s taste in photography and time use. I find that I prefer to shoot lots of images without looking at them in the archives, because otherwise I get fussy about the framing of the shot and waste more time than I’d like.)

Have you used an iPad for photographing archival documents? What kind of camera mount or stand did you use, and how did that work for you? Please comment below.

Photographing larger items with a monopod

On Amazon, one of the customer reviews of the monopod in question complained that it could only elevate the camera a foot off the table.  Do you find that to be true?  If I need to copy legal-sized and over-sized items, won’t I need to back up more than a foot, at times?

The distance you need to be from the document varies depending on the zoom level of your camera. If you’ve got a reasonably wide lens and a camera with a macro mode, I’ve found that the 16-inch column of the basic MP-16 is good enough to get most legal-size pages– but I also have sometimes shot 2 images (one of the top, another of the bottom) just to be sure. If you shoot a lot of 19th-century legal documents or other large pages, the MP-20 model has a 20 inch column and might be a better choice.

For poster-size pages– like old-style naturalization certificates and passports– I just unmount the camera from the tripod and raise it up with steady hands. I shoot multiple images to increase the likelihood that one of them will come out crisply, and I sit in the brightest location available so that the shutter speed will be fast (and less likely to be blurry). At NARA College Park, which has little vertical dividers between the desks, I mount the monopod on one of the dividers to get another few inches of height.

When I was photographing these images. I set the zoom of my camera so that it would easily get all of a letter-size page, with a clear border around the page that usually includes the folder label for use in my citations.

9 Responses
  1. June 20, 2011

    Funny you should ask this question (or have it asked of you). I just returned from a 2-week trip to archives in NYC. For my trip, I procured (thank goodness for grant money) and took an iPad 2 hoping that the camera would be useful for taking reference photos in the archives. Upon getting the iPad 2 a week before my trip, I took some sample photos in my office, which has pretty good lighting, few shadows, etc. — pretty much ideal conditions. As much as I love my iPad 2, its photos of documents suck. They’re really not usable. Instead of relying on the iPad 2 for photos, I used my Canon T1i with a Canon 24-70 f/2.8L lens.

    The camera performed well, even for larger format originals (i.e., half of a broadsheet newspaper), but I had to keep it at the wide end (24mm) with a reasonable aperture in the macro setting, and 400 or 800ISO for the speed. Doing so, I used the LCD to frame the shots, ensure proper focus, and shoot — all handheld because (a) no stands/tripods were allowed and (b) the tables would have been too high for that to matter anyway (and it definitely would have been a no-no to put equipment other than a computer on the table).

    The shots all turned out fine, but I wasn’t tall enough to get good shots of, say, the full center-spread of a newspaper. With a wider angle, I might have been able to, however there are two things to be careful about:

    1) Barrel distortion: When you’re operating at wider angles, you can get barrel distortion (think “fisheye” effect), which can be a bit problematic. Shooting in RAW and using something like Adobe Lightroom can fix this problem in post-processing.

    2) Sharpness: You want to be sure that you’re shooting with a macro lens that is capable of giving you a sharp, focused shot across the entire field of view. If you’re shooting with a lens that isn’t wide enough and isn’t set up for some kind of macro photography, you risk ending up with the center of your image in focus and the edges all blurry.

    All of that said, I was still VERY happy to have my iPad 2 with me. I used the camera for some general reference shots (e.g., of the box), where fine detail wasn’t critical. The real benefit of the iPad was that I was able to catalogue and annotate photos (using the photo numbers on my camera) alongside my notes on the iPad. I did an initial write-up after my first day in the archives here: I’ve been stalling on finishing my post-archive write-up on using the iPad and other tech on an archive trip.

    I hope that helps answer some questions about this process. The bottom line is: I think it’s a VERY bad idea to plan to rely on an iPad 2 for archival photography. An iPhone 4 might work alright (and I have lawyer friends who use them for legal research all the time); but your best bet is a good quality camera and lens capable of macro photography to ensure edge-to-edge focus at a moderate aperture setting. The iPad’s a great tool, but not for photography.

    ~Darrel (Twitter: denckwanzer)

    • June 20, 2011


      Thanks for this very detailed response on your archival photo strategies. I have a hand-me-down iPhone 1 which I’ve occasionally used for quick-and-dirty photos of something I was reading and wanted to remember, but I wouldn’t use it for a full day’s run of archival materials. OTOH, some of the newer HTC smartphones have 8+ megapixel cameras and seem to take pretty good pictures; I’d be curious what kinds of results people are getting out of those.

      Also, it’s probably worth pointing out that “good quality” depends on one’s standards and what one’s shooting. Some of my images taken with an older Coolpix are marginal-quality because I was working with low light levels and couldn’t use my monopod in particular libraries. But, because the source items tend to be typescript early-20th-century items (rather than, say, 18th century manuscripts in fading ink), they’re usually readable when I zoom in with my computer.

      What, specifically, was poor-quality about the archive images you took with the iPad 2?

      • June 20, 2011


        The thing that was unsatisfactory to me was the lack of detail/sharpness in the photo of un-/poorly-preserved newsprint from the 60s/70s. I think that some sharp text on white letter-sized paper might turn out okay; but if I was in that much of a pinch, I’d trust my sharp 5MP iPhone 4 over my iPad without thinking twice. Here’s a snapshot I took of a page with my iPad: You can see from the photo that the big bold text on this half-page is pretty clear. The regular type, however, is totally unreadable.

        Compare that photo to an un-edited (aside from the conversion to JPG), poorly composed, and slightly unfocused photo that I took with my camera while at the Tamiment (whose lighting is beyond bad): With 60 seconds in Lightroom, I could crop, color correct for their awful lights, straighten my crooked grip, fix my lens’ pincushioning, and sharpen up that text. Or I could just throw it into Acrobat as-is and OCR it.

        Granted, it’s hardly a fair comparison. But, if you’re banking your research on a photo, why take a knife to a gunfight? (Dang … Texas is rubbing off on me.) I think the quality of the iPad 2 camera is good enough for a casual snapshot, but not good enough for anything important.

        Now if they put a 5MP or better (ideally 8MP) camera in the next iPad, it’ll be a KILLER archival appliance.

        Hope that helps. ~d.

  2. Harun Kucuk permalink
    June 21, 2011

    I was also going to say, there are a couple of nice apps (Camscanner and Genius Scan) that turn your photos into PDFs. You can then upload the files to Evernote or Dropbox from within the app, so there is no risk of losing your research. As someone working with early modern printed books, I have found this setup to be ideal. Rare books libraries are often more lenient about letting you take pictures of their material. iPhone’s camera works better than any other that I have seen. I have even ditched my point and shoot. I think it’s the chip and the software that makes iPhone’s camera so good.

    I have recently taken pictures of a folio volume with the iPhone4. As long as you let it focus for a second, the pictures come out very nicely in regular library lighting conditions; no mount necessary. For those interested, there is a new macro lens attachment called Owle Bubo. I doubt anyone would buy that attachment except for us working in the archives. You can mount your iPhone with Bubo, and place the phone on a regular tripod, quadropod or monopod.

  3. June 21, 2011

    I finally went and finished writing up my archives workflow, which uses an iPad. Please check it out:

  4. Melissa permalink
    June 22, 2011

    I don’t have a camera-enabled iPad, but I do have the earlier edition. And I’ve taken it with me on a couple of archival visits.

    I have a Sony W530 digital camera, bought earlier this year specifically to take photos of documents. This was the best camera that I tested within my (admittedly low) budget. I needed to be able to manage a camera, memory card, and iPad camera kit in about $250 (Canadian). Thanks to a good sale, and some very helpful sales clerks, I came in almost right on budget. I would highly recommend this camera for photographing documents as it functions really well in low light conditions and the anti-blur works wonderfully.

    But I also found having the iPad invaluable for reviewing photos. I would work through the morning, photographing documents and upload the photos to my iPad at lunch. The screen was big enough that I could tell instantly whether I needed to rephotography a page or series of pages. I was also able to delete duplicates from the memory card without sacrificing the battery on my camera. I also reviewed the information in much more detail after I had finished for the night, which I found the iPad really handy for.

    What I did not do was rename, sort, alter, or otherwise manage the photos on my iPad. I waited to get home and to my computer to rotate, convert to PDF and compile the photos that I took. I loaded the photos to my MacBook using the USB cord directly from the camera and used the Automator functions to convert, and an Internet utility to combine pages into a PDF file. From there, I loaded the single PDF file back to my iPad so that I could actually use the files to take notes. The Goodreader app is best for reading and Dropbox works really well for transferring files while making sure they’re also available on other computers.

    While this might seem clunky, the editing functions on the iPad really aren’t very good, but I much prefer reading on my iPad to reading on my computer or dealing with printed pages. So by making two different transfers, I’m able to use the best features of the technology available to me.

  5. June 29, 2011

    Hi Shane,

    I can’t answer your question, but have one for you! I’m looking for a new digital camera for archival work and was wondering what you would recommend.

    • June 29, 2011

      I don’t have any specific model recommendations these days. My preference is for small-format cameras because they fit in my pants pockets and aren’t as pricey as DSLRs with multiple lenses, etc. But apparently I don’t have super-high standards for imaging quality, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

      Four years ago, I bought an 8 megapixel camera for $150 that did all I needed it to do. From what I’ve seen, the better smartphone cameras these days are almost as good, so I think it would be hard to go wrong. There are a few features you’ll want to look for, though:

      • A fairly wide lens— high zoom isn’t as important, because the 8+ megapixel cameras being sold today will get all the detail it’s possible to get out of a piece of paper. Just make sure that it doesn’t have a lot of barrel distortion, and know how using the zoom affects its barrel distortion. (Zooming in will, on most cameras, distort your image significantly.)
      • A good macro mode so that it’ll focus well on objects that are between 6 inches and 2 feet away.
      • A power system (battery or AC adapter) that’ll support 6-8 hours of continuous operation. My Coolpix uses 2 AA batteries, and I travel with an extra set of batteries and a mini-charger. When I know I’m going to be at NARA or another library where I can shoot with my monopod and leave it set up all day, I take my AC power adapter and plug it in.
      • Optional, but handy: modes to compensate for shooting under fluorescent/halogen/daylight, so that you get consistent color reproduction. Maybe not as important for textual documents, but very useful for color images.
      • Optional, but potentially useful: support for connecting the camera to your computer and remote-triggering the shutter from your laptop. Some SLRs support this; I’ve never played with it, and I find that transferring images from the camera via a cable is almost always slower than shooting directly onto an SD card and then dumping the images off the SD card.

      You’ll probably want at least 2 SD cards so that you can have one in the camera and one in the computer (offloading whatever images you just shot.), plus extras for backups if you don’t have a “burn today’s images to DVD” habit. If I were buying today, I’d seriously look into getting an Eye-Fi SD card; basically, it’s camera memory that’ll upload your pictures wirelessly to your computer (or Flickr, etc). Seems to me that this would make the whole process easier– especially when trying to add metadata to images quickly.

      Is this helpful, or is there a more specific question you need answered?

  6. June 30, 2011

    Thanks — this is extremely helpful.

Comments are closed.