How to Digitise Documents and Photographs! And why it is so important.

As some of you may know, I have recently moved house. And with my gorgeous new house, we have inherited a load of old documents that belong too it. So maybe new house isn’t the right word - new to us, but a somewhat old house as it dates back to 1790! Why am I telling you about this now? Well, these old documents are amazing, the deeds for the land date back to the 1750s and are beautiful with their old cursive hand writing but are of course very fragile. I haven’t had the time to look through them all yet, but one of the first things that has come to mind is how we should probably look at getting them digitised. And I have been thinking about the best way to do this, as a lot of them are on large pieces of paper that won’t fit in my A4 scanner. And this in turn made me realise, that if I am thinking about the best way to do this, how many people out there are facing similar problems? Whether it is old family photos, family trees or other documents that mean something for whatever reason, these things are valuable and we should all think about digitising them at some point.

Why digitise old documents and photographs? Well there are three main reasons that I can think of...

The first is that these pieces of paper are fragile and may not last forever, so it is a good idea to create copies of them while we can and before they hit any state of disrepair.

The second reason is because once they have been digitised they are a lot easier to share, and also people can read them without worrying about handling them with their hands. We all know the damage the oils in our skin can cause to old papers.

The third reason is that when we digitise them we can enhance them to make them easier to read, or see.

And finally, the bonus reason – these things are perfect for any type of family album. A family photo album, a This is Your Life album, a Family History album are just a few that spring to mind where these old photos and documents are really useful in a digital format, so that they can then be placed into your personalised album before it is printed. It’s a great way to share the documents and to keep them safe for generations to come.

So now we know why digitising is important, let’s take a look at the best ways to do this. There are a number of options, including sending the papers to a company that specialises in these sorts of things, but if you would prefer to have a go at it yourself here are the things you need to know.

Firstly, depending on the type of document you are scanning, you would want to decide whether a flat-bed scanner or a feeder scanner is best for the purpose. If in doubt I would always recommend using a flat-bed scanner as you don’t want to risk damaging documents as they are fed round the curve of the paper feeder to be scanned. That said, if you are scanning a load of fairly recent paperwork then a scanner with a feeder might be best – you can load a number of pages at a time and simply press start and the machine will take care of the rest. For anything old, delicate or fragile opt for a flat-bed scanner. There are various types and sizes of these and most printers come with a scanner of sorts these days. But what do you do if the document is too large for your scanner, or even too fragile to be placed into one? Whether it’s an old binding that won’t open flat or you don’t want to risk prying open, a delicate drawing or a photo stuck into an old album that you don’t want to risk prying off the page - there is an option that is brilliant for digitising pretty much anything.

This is where modern technology and cameras come in. The best way to digitise any old documents or photograph them.

For best results you will need:

  • A digital Camera

  • A tripod

  • A flat surface, preferably a table

  • A location with good light

  • A large piece of white card

  • A pencil and paper

If you are going to be photographing a lot of items it is probably best to set yourself up a photograph station.

To do this, set up the tripod and camera to overlook the large piece of white card. You’ll want to make sure your tripod allows the camera to take images parallel to the flat surface and card so you may need to tilt the tripod or create a make-shift holder for it that will allow it to tilt forward but still stand holding your camera. A bent coat hanger hooked onto the table could do the trick.

Once the camera is set-up you’ll want to take a piece of paper that is the average size of those you will be documenting, and place it on the poster board. Use the pencil to lightly mark it’s position so that you can always place the documents in the same place and not have to worry about re-focusing the camera too much each time.

Once this is set up, take one of your documents or photographs and place it on the guidelines you created. Look through the camera, adjusting the zoom and focusing as appropriate. If necessary move the large piece of card around so that it the document is in the right place for taking the photo of it. Once this is set up, you should be able to take photos of all documents of the same size without looking through the camera again so long as the items are placed against the guidelines.

  • Remember to turn off the flash on the camera, you shouldn’t need it and it probably won’t work in the way you want it too anyway.

  • If you have it, use the white balance feature on the camera. This picks out the white and adjusts the colour to avoid areas being over-blown and stops the final image being too yellow.

  • Shoot in colour against the white background so that the document can be picked out. Shooting in colour gives a much better readability even if the original is in black and white.

  • Use an uncompressed format when taking the photos – this will give you a much higher resolution which can be useful when touching up parts of the image or when reproducing the image you have taken - this is really important if you want to provide replicas in a bespoke album for example. I’d recommend using the TIFF format.

  • Use as high a resolution when photographing the documents as you can. That said don’t make it too big as once you hit a certain size you are really just wasting disk space. So aim for around 1 megabyte, and certainly nothing over 5 megabytes.

Once you have gone through the above checklists, it is time to get snapping. Take as many images as you like but remember to adjust the focus any time the document size changes from the original set-up. You don’t want to have taken a number of photos only to realise they don’t work because a corner was missing and they weren’t framed properly.

Finally, once you have taken all your photographs, it is a good idea to back them up. Copy them from the camera’s memory card onto your computer, and again onto a separate hard drive so that you always have a copy. In this day and age digital storage solutions such as Google Photos are a great way of backing up your images.

It is also a good idea to go through the images and edit them and name them correctly so that they are easy to find when you are looking for them. This is so useful, particularly when creating an album with large numbers of images, if the files are named it is so much easier to find what you are looking for e.g Family Tree, or 1810 deed than when you have to search through the generic camera numerical names.

Hopefully this guide will have given you some ideas on hot to digitise your photos and documents. As I said this is really useful when you are creating any type of printed album, as you can be sure you won’t lose or damage the originals in the same way you might with the more traditional album styles. We’ve all seen the old family photos with unknown marks, discolouration or missing bits where the original glue lost its stick so do yourself and future generations a favour and digitise these important keepsakes before they disappear through loss or ruin. If you have a whole load of old family photos or documents, why not ask And Other Memories to help turn them into the album of your dreams in which they can be kept safe for generations to come. Or if you are just digitising the odd photo here and there remember to include it in a relevant This Is Your Life or birthday book because although these books are made with one recipient in mind you’ll be amazed how much they mean to the people close to them and any future generations.

If all of the above seems like too much work, And Other Memories can also offer a bespoke scanning or digitising service, just get in touch to discuss your needs.

And Other Memories bespoke albums start at £300 but do contact us for a personalised quote. We love to design your albums.


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