Utilizing Your Digital Camera for Genealogy

By Maryellen Horrigan

I received my first digital camera in 1998 — 1,000 pixels, very cutting edge! It delivers a superb 6×4 picture, a really nice 5×7, and a lovely soft 8×10 landscape. The 8×10 is too blurry for a people shot. But perfect for text.

My best library for genealogy research is downtown. Parking is expensive and I have to fit in between the rush hours while still getting a slot in the busy garage. I must make the most of my time there, so I take my camera and a small notebook for minimal notes. But, I have discovered that other researchers were not using this new tool, or having difficulties with file size.

Here are a few tips.

STORAGE–bring a lot. You will fill a memory stick too easily. Either bring several or bring some means of downloading to laptop, Palm, etc. Mine is so old it uses floppies and I bring about a dozen.

PIXELS–adjust downward. You want the least number of pixels possible. This is not a photo contest. Print can be sharpened up in the printing process, if needed. Smaller pixel count will get you more pictures. Bestbuy here would be the cheapest low-pixel count possible. I have a fellow researcher who advertised in her local paper and bought someone’s old low-pixel camera. You want 2,000 or less pixels.

BATTERIES–bring your charger. You will shoot almost nonstop and it eatsup batteries. Most libraries have desks with plug-in spots for re-charging.

PREPARATION–get your books first. Jot down every page you may want to record and then shoot away. Don’t bother to read–just shoot. Save the reading to fit your leisure.

CLIPS–are most important. Get some potato-chip bag clips to hold the books open flat without damage. Remember, you will do less harm than squashing a book in a copier machine.

REFERENCE–take a picture of the title, author, and publisher page first, then click away. If you have to move to new storage in mid-text, snap the title again so you remember where you are. Label and/or jot a sequence menu. Sometimes SC looks just like GA or TN in print as they share so many county names. Label, label, label.

SHOOTING–small books will get two pages to a shot. Stand up to shoot, with book flat on a table or chair so picture will not be askew and hard to read. Most books will need one page to a shot and some more. If you need two or more shots, be sure to overlap a bit of text so you know where you are when viewing later. Do not get too close. You can enlarge on the computer screen. Try to fill the viewing screen with all the text you wish to shoot and nothing else. The exception is a two-picture page where you need to back off a bit to avoid huge pictures of just a few words.

VIEWING, PRINTING, SAVING–Now’s the time to hit the magnifier for up-close viewing. Do not print your page in magnified position or it will not fit on the paper. Learn to crop. Get rid of the excess words, your thumb, and the cute plaid pants you wore to the library — you don’t need to waste the ink. Change the name now from “photo No. 7” to “SCL and Records-Jones” or whatever. Before printing, click “properties” on your print menu and change the setting to “gray scale.” Old books tend to print out in strange hues of purple and yellow and are hard to read, and again, a waste of ink. If possible, now is the time to save the whole day’s work on a disk and get the photos off your computer. This is not ordinary text storage. Photos are big files and can devour your available computer space.

In front of me right now are more than 600 pages of text containing references to one surname in my database. After preparation, it took me about an hour and a half to shoot these pages. Tonight I’m going to put on some music and read my way through the 1805 Georgia land lottery. Come join me.

Reprinted with permission. Previously published in Roots Web Review: 25 August 2004, Vol. 7, No. 34. (Copyright 1998-2004, MyFamily.com Inc. and its subsidiaries.)


  1. Thanks for reprinting this article. Digital cameras can also do the job we would think of using a scanner for – in my work making video biographies and genealogy videos I often use a digital camera at the client’s house to capture images. It’s quicker and the person does not need to part with valuable or delicate photographs.

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