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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Digital Historian Series: Using Digital Tools for Archival Research: Camera

This guide is for scholars interested in using digital photography in their archival research.

Do I need a new camera?

You probably do NOT need to buy a new camera; what you already have will work.

If you do not have a camera, remember that many universities, including the University of Illinois, have cameras you can borrow, and some departments are willing to purchase equipment for its students. The Media Commons at the Undergraduate Library has several types of digital camera that can be borrowed through their Loanable Technology page.

If you wish to purchase a camera, and price is a consideration, used or refurbished cameras are much cheaper than new ones, and often they meet your needs perfectly. Be sure to check ratings and camera capabilities online before purchasing. If you can, test a camera in a store to see how it feels and what functions it has. This page has some information about different features you might look for.

Remember: you don't have to have all of the following features; some you might not use or even like. They are just things to keep in mind when using or buying a camera.

Camera Capabilities

  1. Megapixels
    • You don't have to have the latest camera model with the greatest number of megapixels... often, a camera with 4 or 5 megapixels will be good enough, though more will never hurt. The more megapixels, the more detailed your image will be.
    • You do not need an expensive, professional level SLR. Most "point and shoot" cameras have tripod capabilities, adjustable ISO settings and decent megapixel range.
  2. ISO Settings
    • More important than megapixels are the ISO settings. The higher you can set your ISO, the better image you will get because of low light in archives. Some cameras allow you to change the ISO settings, others do not.
    • The ISO setting allows for longer shutter speeds, which help in low-light situations. The higher your ISO setting, the steadier you need to hold your camera.
      • ISO is the trademarked name for the International Organization for Standardization, the organization that creates technology and product standards. Two film standards called ASA and DIN were combined into ISO standards in 1974, after which they were referred to as “ISO.” ISO initially defined film sensitivity. In the age of digital cameras, it serves the purpose of maintaining similar brightness levels as one would have with film. (PhotographyLife, 2023. What is ISO?)
  3. Viewing Screen
    • Consider using a camera with a "live view" screen. It will give you a slightly better idea of what sort of image you will get than a traditional viewfinder.
  4. Special Features
    • Some cameras come equipped with a "document" setting used for photographing text. Many Olympus, Nikon and Kodak brand cameras have this feature.
      • Note: this feature works best for text on white paper... older documents that have yellowed may not have good results.
    • Consider a camera that has a macro zoom function, for close-up images. If you want to get a good shot of a small detail of a page or an image, this will be how to achieve it.
  5. Camera Noise
    • Consider a quiet camera. SLR type cameras make an audible shutter sound, which may disturb other patrons if you happen to be taking a couple thousand photographs that day.
    • Cameras often make noise by default, but can be muted.
  6. Battery Life
    • Know the life of your battery, and have several extras on hand. Some cameras have special batteries for the camera, others use standard AA batteries. When purchasing a camera, decide which would be more convenient for you.
    • Rechargeable batteries are very handy; some re-chargers will charge in a matter of minutes.
    • Some cameras have the ability to be plugged into the wall via an a/c cord. Most do not come with this cord, so if the camera does have that capability, you may wish to purchase this cord separately.
  7. Media Cards
    1. Depending on your image sizes and volume of material, you might easily use more than a couple gigabytes of memory. The cards are relatively inexpensive, so buy a couple.
    2. There is no notable performance difference between media card formats like compact flash or SD. This should not be a factor in buying a camera unless you already have a lot of one version on hand.
    3. You may wish to purchase a media card reader for your computer. It will save time and camera battery life when transferring photos to your computer. There are many variations of these, the easiest to use and cheapest (usually under $10) being a USB 2.0 interface. Be sure to get one that is compatible with the type of memory card your camera uses.

Camera Recommendations

Remember: The digital camera you already have should work, but if you wish to purchase a new camera, there are several good brands to choose from. Some to consider are Canon, Fuji, Olympus, Nikon, and Kodak, but there are other equally good brands.

There have been good reports on the Fuji brand F10 through F31 series because it performs well in low-light conditions.

  • Check ratings on Consumer Reports and ratings on
  • Search the Internet for articles on "digital camera for archival research." There are several people who recommend specific cameras.


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