Use your camera to document family history research

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Sept. 7 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

A digital camera can be a good tool to use to document family history.


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A digital camera can be one of the most important tools you have to document your genealogy research. The following are some examples of how I use the camera in my research and tips for getting the most out of your photography.

Use your camera in library, archive or museum research

Consider using your digital camera as a tool for documenting and capturing information you find in your research. If you have never used your camera in your library research, practice in your local library under all types of conditions, including very low light. The time to learn isn't at a cemetery 2,000 miles from home.

Digital photography is all about lighting and location

The big photography problem you will always face is lighting. Flash isn't usually a good solution; I use it less than 10 percent of the time. Instead, use natural lighting (near a window), stands with diffusion screens and lights, or a self-contained photo studio (includes tripod, diffusion lights and screen and copy stand — I like Photo Studio In-a-Box from American Recorder Technologies; you can find more information at the company's website, americanrecorder.com).

Shooting documents with flash indoors usually creates a 'hot spot' caused by using a flash too close. When you have no choice but (to use) a flash, use it sparingly, like in a group setting or for a gravestone in a shaded area. Many libraries and research facilities prohibit flash photography, so come prepared to shoot without a flash.

Here are some ideas by Dennis Ridenour, a contributor to Rootsweb.ancestry.com, to keep in mind when shooting digital photography.

Note 1: Sunlight is known as "white" light and gives what we recognize as true or natural colors. Any other type of light source has light of a different color temperature and gives off different color tones.

Note 2: Digital cameras try to automatically adjust for different kinds of lighting but sometimes need additional help. The camera's "white balance" setting provides this help. This setting "reads" the light coming into the camera lens and, by assuming the brightest area in the image is white, attempts to balance the entire image so that the bright area looks white. All other colors should then appear natural.

When planning to take photographs in a library, the following tips may be helpful:

  • Know the policy about digital photography before you go. Eight percent of libraries have allowed me to use a digital camera with some guidelines.
  • Do not use flash. Using a flash is usually prohibited due to the photosensitivity of artifacts.
  • Set up a photo stand or tripod.
  • You may need to sign an intended-uses statement.
  • One of the staff may have to handle rare objects.
  • Only take photos of intended artifacts.
  • Photos are not usually allowed of the building's interior or of people (especially in government buildings).
  • Set up camera in a corner away from others, so as not to disturb.
  • If possible, set up near a window to gain the most from natural light.
Photographing museums and archives

When planning to take pictures in a museum or archive, the following tips may be helpful:

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