Digital cameras are a basic tool for family historians. Those pictures of family members, their homes, tombstones, etc. are critical additions to our data. There are a few uses for digital cameras that might not be as obvious as obvious though. Before I get to uses though, here some features that are important in a digital camera that will be used for genealogy research.
First, the camera should have a macro setting that will allow you to focus closely. You want one that is able to focus to under two inches, the closer it will focus the better.
Second, you want a camera that will allow you to turn off automatic exposure and set it manually. That way, when you can take a photo and look at it on the camera screen, if it is too dark or too light, you can adjust the exposure to get the image you want. If you don’t want to learn to set your exposure manually (it really isn’t hard) at least get a camera that will let you dial in some exposure compensation to correct for bad lighting. This is particularly important when using the close-up feature.
Third, you want to be able to turn the automatic flash off. Most digital cameras will allow you to do that but make sure your does and that you know how to disable flash.
Finally, look for a camera with built in image stabilization. It is a tremendous help in situation where you can are not able to use a tripod or other support.
The good news is that you can get all these feature in a fairly inexpensive digital camera.You can find good digital cameras that are small enough to carry in a pocket. If you keep one with you whenever you are doing genealogy research, you will find many uses for it.
One way is to take photos of your ancestors possessions. Get pictures of your great grandfather’s pocket watch and your grandmothers wedding ring. Use the macro setting to get good closeups. Preview the photo on the screen and adjust the exposure to get a clear image. If you get glare off shiny objects, turn off the flash and shade the object with your hand or a piece of paper. If the owner of the heirloom is still living, also get pictures of them holding or wearing it.
Your digital camera will make a good substitute for a copier or scanner. When you are at the library, courthouse, in a family members home or other research locations, use your camera to take pictures of records, photos and book pages. You should make use of manual exposure in this application. In most situations, you should turn also off the flash. Using flash is irritating to others around you and, more importantly, can even be harmful to the paper of the documents you are photographing. With flash off, take the picture and preview it on the screen. If the it is too dark or too light, manually adjust the exposure and try again. Keep adjusting until you get a good image.
If the room you are in as too dimly lit to give you a good image without flash, there are some things you can do. If at all possible, carry a small tabletop tripod with you and use it to steady the camera. That will allow for very long exposures without any blurring due to camera movement. There are also inexpensive copy stands available for small cameras.
If you don’t have a tripod with you or if you can’t use it where you are, try resting the camera on a chair back or table edge to steady it. If you can, move to a brighter area of the room and try again.
Taking dim lighting to an extreme, I have even gotten good results using a digital camera to copy images off microfilm viewers. I use a flexible tripod that I can wrap around a chair or, steady the camera by bracing my arms against the sides of the viewer. With image stabilization, that works surprisingly well.
Most of today’s smartphones have very capable digital cameras in them and, by downloading specialized apps, you can make them even better research tools. Apps like Office Lens by Microsoft and Genius Scan from Grizzly Labs are very helpful scanning aids. There are many, many photo editing apps that can help make your images look better. Photoshop Express from Adobe is a good. A search of the iTunes Store if you have an Apple phone or the Google Play Store for Android devices will turn up apps for whatever problem you are trying to solve.
There are also many inexpensive products that will make you camera phone more useful. A tripod adapter to use it on a standard tripod is cheap and worthwhile. There are also copy stands made just for smartphones.
Every generation of smartphone seems to bring better cameras so do give yours a try during your research.
Regardless of whether you use a camera or phone, spend some time practicing at home before your research trip. You want to be comfortable using it before you find that one-of-a-kind record that you absolutely must have a good image of.
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