Photographing old documents

At times there is a need to photograph old documents. These notes may help on those occasions. This is not for the museum professionals – they have the equipment and experience to get perfect results. I want to discuss two situations, large documents, and old books.

Large documents, like maps, may have more detail than can be captured by a pocket camera. A single snap-shot is not satisfactory as small print and details will be lost. It is desirable to obtain an image with about 300 pixels per inch (about 12 pixels per millimeter) of the original. Modern pocket cameras are fine for a normal book page. For a larger originals this calls for a bit of work.

To get good document reproduction, you want very uniform lighting. I like to do this outdoors as sunlight is great. A cloudy day is even better as fine patterns in the paper are de-emphasized. Printing on the back of the paper can shine through and degrade the image. I use a black cloth behind the document to avoid that problem. See my setup:

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Set the camera for the highest picture quality. Most cameras have several settings. The medium setting is often the default as it allows you to take more pictures. For this task you want the highest resolution.

Take a series of overlapping images. Have each image cover an area of about an 8 by 10 inch (200 by 250 mm). Use about 50 percent overlap. If the document is 16 inches wide this calls for three pictures across.

Photograph from a single position, aiming the camera at one area at a time. For this example I had a map that could be covered in six “tiles”.

I use the ICE – Image Composite Editor – a free download – to reassemble the partial pictures into a large whole. This tool is normally used for making panoramas from several exposures. It does a beautiful job in this application.


Note in the illustration here that I selected the partial images. The ICE tool can be found in Extras in Windows Live Photo Gallery (once it has been downloaded and installed). Note also that ICE wants JPG images. If your camera saves pictures in its own format, Live Photo Gallery can be used to convert them to JGP images.

In the ICE “Stitch” panel select “Rotating motion”.



With the image tool you can change the viewpoint for best appearance of the document. This way you can compensate if the camera position was off to the side. In the Export panel select Quality 100 and Scale 100%. This will result in a large file size, but it is needed to get the full resolution.

I then use Photo Gallery for some “post-processing”. The camera will likely produce a gray image – it tries to set the exposure for a “normal” scene – which on average is light gray. No problem.

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Use the Photo Gallery “Adjust exposure” tools to enhance the picture. I like sliding the histogram white level control (at right) so it is just at the top of the highest data in the graph (see images).

Here is another example. This time an old book with yellowed pages.

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Note that the edges are held flat with books. The book is held open just enough so the page of interest can be photographed. A cord or rubber band holds the other pages open.

The resulting picture will be “dark yellow” = brown. The

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In Photo Gallery converting the image to black and white through the “yellow” (or orange or red) filter, and again adjusting the histogram, results in a very acceptable final image.

Hope this will be of help to you.


About Ludwig

Lending a helping hand where I can. . . My motto: If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well.
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2 Responses to Photographing old documents

  1. Dan East says:

    Thank you! I’m trying to photograph old maps which are framed (with glass) and hung on the wall. So glare is my main problem – I’ll probably have to get the library to turn off the overhead lighting for me.
    I found that ICE can be downloaded directly (and independently) of Photo Gallery here:

    • LudwigKeck says:

      Best luck! If you cannot get the overhead lights turned of, consider setting up a projection screen as a shield behind the camera to block the view of the lights reflected in the glass.

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