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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Digital Historian Series: Using Digital Tools for Archival Research: Taking Pictures

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

Taking Pictures

Some of the most basic elements for taking good pictures in archives are making sure you have a stable camera, making sure what you photograph is flat, and making sure you have enough light.

Remember: you probably do NOT need to buy a lot of expensive equipment; what you already have will work. Many universities, including the University of Illinois, have tripods and other equipment to rent, and some departments are willing to purchase equipment for their students. Keep in mind, however, that some archives will not allow tripods or additional lighting.

Be sure to also read the Camera page for suggestions on what features to use for good picture quality and what to look for in a camera.

Stabilize Your Camera

A heavier camera may need more elaborate stabilization efforts than a lightweight "point and shoot". If you know you have a somewhat unsteady hand, you may want to use some stabilization method.

Tripod / Copy Stand


  1. Make sure your tripod and camera are compatible.
  2. Make sure your tripod can point straight down, so that you can photograph a document lying flat on a table.
  • A tripod (for example: Giottos 'professional' series) has a column that moves up and down and also cantilevers to any angle so you can easily place two legs of the tripod against the table and have the column extend over the table so you can point the camera straight down over the book.
  • Tripod review:

Copy stand

  1. Professional copy stands are typically expensive. However, many companies are beginning to offer flexible smartphone and tablet holders that can be used as a copy stand.
  2. Advantage over many tripods is that the documents lie flat under the camera.

Other Methods

Do-it-yourself camera stabilizers for when you need to steady your hand, but can't use or afford a tripod.

  1. String, Bolt, and Weight DIY (Under $1 and portable) -- see video below.
  2. "Monkey Arm" Another DIY tripod alternative

Remote or shutter release, so pressing the button does not jar the camera

  1. Some SLR cameras come with a remote, and most camera manufacturers sell a shutter release switch that is compatible with their cameras. These range greatly in price.
  2. If you are adventurous, there are several websites that explain how to build your own shutter release. Two examples:

Item Needs to Be Flat

  1. When using bound volumes, pages of the book should lie perfectly flat regardless of what page the book or periodical is open to
    • Use book beanbag weights or string weights provided by the archive to flatten the page
    • To avoid stressing the binding, place some foam blocks of varying thickness under each half of the book to make the pages equal heights
    • Note: be very careful not to damage the pages or book by using too much weight or handling it improperly.
  2. Non-glare Plexiglas may be useful to place over page, if the archive allows it.
    • More often than not, the use of weights is enough. Experiment with your equipment to see if it is needed.
  3. To avoid "ghosting" (or words/etc from the back of the page showing through), place a piece of black paper behind the page you are photographing.

Light Source

  1. In most archives, flash photography is not allowed. You may inquire if you are allowed to bring a lamp.
  2. If a lamp is not an option, you may have to use a long shutter speed, heightened ISO, and the ambient light in the room.
    • Note: Using this option without a tripod is not recommended. Your pictures will be blurry.

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