This query about buying a digital camera stimulated me to put finger to keyboard and jot down my collected wisdom about using a digital camera for your research. Some of what I say will pertain mostly to historians—that will be the references to the mysterious archives that conveys a lot to historians and perhaps diddly to others—but the basic idea of substituting digital photography for photocopying will have general applicability for a lot of people.
Getting my caveats up front, I should note that, like photocopying itself, photographing material you could just be reading and taking notes on and being done with, is one of those productive forms of procrastination that feel like work but don't get the real job—writing—done.
That aside, what I outline here really can save time and money over a period of a couple of years. Digital photography is a lot quicker than photocopying (time is money); you can file your documents more compactly, which can be worth a lot if you anticipate/are moving homes or offices; and if you name your files or folders well (and use shortcuts/aliases) you can file your materials more effectively. Some people may ask, what about scanners? Don't bother, is my opinion. Scanners take much longer to record their image, are potentially more damaging to the documents, and are larger and heavier making them far less convenient for traveling to archives. Not to mention, ever tried taking a family photo with a scanner?
The bottom line figures for historians to keep in mind is that if you are photographing quickly and not stopping to examine and select material you can photograph up to 400 pages an hour. A linear foot of archival material is approximately 2000 pages. Thus, allowing for distractions and breaks to prevent RSI etc ... you could photograph a linear foot of archival material in an eight hour day. Do your own calculation here on how long it would take you to work through this reading and taking notes. If you can photograph material I think it quickly becomes an economical option for a lot of research.
The cost-benefit calculation of photographing the documents and returning home, versus going to the archives and reading the material there will depend on your situation. Most importantly, the archive or library has to allow self-copying with a digital camera. This is becoming more common, but may depend on precisely what you are looking at a particular place. As always, contact the archivist before you go! Other variables to consider in deciding whether to hit the archives, photograph and return include;
If you have decided to hit the archives to photograph material, what follows is potted practical advice on how to go about it. It bears repeating, check with the archivist you can do this before you start ...
Camera: To reproduce archival material or modern printed books and journals a camera with a "document" mode is ideal. The Nikon Coolpix range has this feature. Personally, I have been using the Coolpix 5900 which (of course, one year later) has been superseded by the 5600 which you can pick up for $250-300. Apparently Sony also has cameras with this setting. I have been very pleased with the Nikon as it is small and lightweight, while still having a large LCD screen. The 5900 has a 5 megapixel default setting, which is just about ideal for document photography.
Flash and macro settings: The document mode mentioned above defaults to black and white images with no flash. Many archives want you to avoid flash to protect the sources. However, if you're photographing modern material (journals/books) you may choose to use a flash to get better contrast. Beware of glossy pages and make sure that if you are using flash it is not reflecting on the pages. Many older books have non-glossy text and then glossy photographs, so be sure to be aware of this if you are photographing books with the flash on. If you get a camera without a document mode, you want to be sure you can turn the flash off, set it to black and white, and use a close-up or macro setting. This will allow you to focus closely on the pages and get high quality reproductions of the documents.
Memory cards: If you are copying a lot of material you will want high capacity memory cards. On a 5 megapixel document setting, each image is about 950kb, depending on how complicated the image is. Just for comparison, a regular colour photo will be about 2/3 larger again. The image for a nearly blank piece of paper might be as small as 700kb, but if there's lots of text then it might be around 1mb. A 1GB card can hold up to 1300 document images. Your needs will vary, so this is only a guide.
Power source: A lightweight camera (like the Nikon Coolpix range) runs on rechargable lithium batteries which run out relatively quickly. If you are using the battery you'll be lucky to make 400 images before having to change the battery or stop (for several hours) to recharge it. The bottom line is that if you are going to be photographing a lot of pages in a short period of time, then you need at least two batteries so you can be charging one while you are using the other, or buy a power adapter for the camera. A power adapter is relatively cheap, and can be purchased separately from the camera. Unless you are going to urgently photograph a lot of documents in a short period of time (e.g; you are at an archive for one day and can't return easily if you don't finish) start with a couple of batteries, and purchase the power adapter if there's a demonstrated need. Of course, if you have a research grant you need to spend on equipment ...
Copy stand or tripod: Tripods are widely available and with a little fiddling can be set up in such a way that you get good images. However, if you are going to be doing a lot of photography of sources, consider buying a portable copy stand. You can get a good one for approximately $70 (or see here, at buy.com). Note that you will also need a piece of cardboard to lay over the legs of the copy stand to put your documents on so they lie flat under the camera. The huge advantage of a copy stand is that the documents lie flat under the camera. Many tripods can only be configured to photograph the documents at a slight angle, reducing readability and accurate reproduction. If you have a copy stand you can—if you make good copies—do your own reproductions for publication (though be sure to get permission to publish). Many archives charge $10 (at least) for photographic reproductions of material suitable for publication. You don't have to do this many times to exceed the cost of the copy stand. A copy stand is not something any one person will be using all the time, so you might consider seeing if your department could purchase one for loan to people who need one.
How the copy stand works
Since I first published this post, people have asked the most questions about the copy stand. Hopefully these pictures will illustrate it better. As you can see the camera is looking directly down upon the documents, which is difficult to achieve with a tripod, unless you have a tripod arm. The height of the copy stand is adjustable. With the Testrite CS-7 I've been using I can photograph A3 or legal paper by having the camera at the highest point.
Document photography with the copystand proceeds most rapidly with loose leaf paper. The procedure is simple. Put the paper on the stand, photograph, move the next piece of paper on, photograph ... repeat. Doing this it is straightforward to achieve 300-400 pages per hour, though this gets tiring.
Books are slower, since you sometimes have to hold the books open at a particular page. Although this means getting partial images of your hands beside the document text, it is quicker than using beaded book weights to hold each page down.
Source information: Make sure that you include information on the source in the image, so you know where the material came from. If you know ahead of time what collections you will be photographing material from you can print out reference information that you cut into strips to lay beside the documents when you photograph them. These strips of paper should include the collection and library and other information. You can leave space on the paper to add any document-specific information with pencil, erase it, and use the same paper for the next document.
Transferring images and organizing files: If you are concerned with making the most of your time in the archives, wait until the end of the day to transfer images from the camera to your computer. If you have multiple images it can take quite a while, as most cameras transfer data via USB which is not that fast.
Once you have the images on your computer, it really is up to you to organize as you see fit. Since hard disk and other computer failures are more frequent than house fires, whatever you do should include backing up your images at least once. This need not be too complicated or expensive. If you are at a university, you should have access to some form of network server storage provided by the university that is backed up regularly and reliably (onto tapes and stored offsite ideally). This should probably be your first option for a backup. Don't rely on CDs or DVDs for long-term storage unless you want to be spending your time rotating disks and checking that one set hasn't failed etc etc ... Network storage is the way to go as your house is unlikely to burn down at the same time as the university does. If it does you are probably living in an area with geothermal risks or hurricane activity. Or Chicago in 1871.
Backing up is the most important thing everyone should do with their images. Beyond that my advice, for what it's worth, is that you find a way of organizing your files that does not take too much time, while still allowing you to find things quickly. You could spend a lot of time renaming all your files from the default digital camera name (DSCNxxxx.jpg, for example) or you could spend it doing something more productive. My approach, and I have more than 15,000 images for my research and this has worked well for me, particularly for documents from archival collections, is to group images into folders with usefully descriptive names. Sometimes a folder relates to just one document, and may only have a few images (pages) in there. Sometimes a folder will initially relate to a whole collection (e.g; all the photographs from a particular magazine over twenty years). When I examine the material in more depth I may create more folders. (Once documents are in folders, renaming them from DSCNxxxx.jpg to "something more meaningful xx.jpg" is relatively straightforward. If you're using OS X, see here. Also pretty quick on Unix. I can't speak as competently to what's possible in Windows)
When I am working with the images, principally what I am doing is reading and taking notes into Word documents. At the moment, for each of my five dissertation chapters I have between five and twenty Word files with my notes on variously defined sub-topics for the chapter. Basically, this is the old historians method of separate thematic note cards, but just done in Word so I can search it. I annotate my notes with both the original source citation and the name of the image file I have of the source. By having the original source citation right there, when I'm writing I can add in the footnote immediately without opening the image file again. But if I want to go back and re-examine the image of the source I can quickly find the name of the file too. This approach works well for loose leaf material from archives.
If you have photographed articles or whole books (old ones, of course, out of copyright) then the folders and original images approach can still be used, but making Acrobat files is even better. This allows you to have just one file for a whole article or book, which you can then organize by adding bookmarks for navigation, and using Acrobat's editing features to add your own comments and annotations. Acrobat can be had for $88 academic pricing. This is only worth the money if you have enough documents you'll be wanting to combine into one file to keep together.
OCR: One extension to this way of working that I am beginning to explore is the possibility of optical character recognition from photographs. If you have photographs of printed or typed sources then this may be something worth exploring to save re-typing information. My guess is that you would need to have a project where you need to re-type quite a lot of data to make this worthwhile. In my case, I have some printed tables that I want in a database. Because of the uniform layout of the material it should be possible to use OCR.
Adding it all up: To undertake your own personal digitization project you are looking at spending about $500-600 upfront.
|1GB memory card||$80|
|Optional to start with|
Trivial practical hints: Spending all day photographing documents can be mind-numbingly dull. Bring your headphones and set iTunes to shuffle so that you have something else to think about. Repetitive strain injury is not impossible. Take a break every hour or so, even if you are blitzing through and photographing a box quickly. While CDs are not recommended for long-term storage they can be used for short-term backup while you're away from home. Then if your laptop dies you haven't lost all your work to date, just one day of work.
Other sources of useful information
Columbia: "Going digital in the archives"
Journal for Maritime Research: Historical research in the 'digital era'
George Mason's Electronic Researcher website
American Historical Association: Taking a Byte Out of the Archives: Making Technology Work for You
Notes: Edited on 1 June to add references to multiple file renaming tips.
update, 27 February 2007: This discussion at eh.net on the economic history mailing list is incredibly valuable. Note, in particular, the recommendation to go for ISO and image stabilization over megapixels as criteria for cameras that are good in the archives.