Reader Request for Tips on Photographing Photo Albums

I received the following request for help from a reader seeking suggestions as to the best way to photograph old photo albums.  

I have just read the article on the old photo albums.  It brings a personal problem up that hopefully you or your readers can help with. I have some old picture albums and no scanner.  (Well, no scanner that I could scan them with, because I’d have to feed them into the scanner and that just wouldn’t work.) I do, however have a digital camera.  Do you have any suggestions on how to photograph these in order to get a good image?  I have all kinds of trouble with the flash on these old glossies.

Bill Gordy

My first suggestion would be to turn off the flash if you’re getting a glare. I’ve had success taking photographs of photographs laying them flat on my kitchen table and snapping the picture from above it. The light from my ceiling fan with the compact fluorescent bulbs worked perfectly, with no glare.

I’m betting there are readers out there with more great tips. If you’ve had luck photographing an old album or perhaps photographs in frames, post your tip here in the comments section below.

17 thoughts on “Reader Request for Tips on Photographing Photo Albums

  1. I’ve had good results from taking digital photos of old photos from relatives. If the pictures are in a frame, take them out (if you can without damage) to eliminate the glare from the glass. If you can’t remove from the frame, use lights–table lamps, flashlight, whatever–set to the side to avoid reflections.

    Don’t use flash, but light the photo with window light or, as the previous post said, using lights overhead or to the side that don’t reflect off the surface of the photo. If you’ve got a tripod, use it, and use the self-timer to give you a hands-free shutter release so if the camera calls for a long exposure you won’t be wiggling it with your hands. If you haven’t a tripod, you might support the picture against a wall or some such and put the camera on a stack of books; then let the self-timer do its work. Or brace against a wall or door frame, with the photo on the floor.

  2. If you have a closeup setting on your camera (mine has an icon of a tulip), that works best. Make sure there is light on the photograph but not from behind you because you will cast a shadow on the photo. Make sure you camera lens is parallel to the photo. This also works on documents. When you load them into your computer, you can then crop, zoom in, etc. Oh, one more thing, when you push the button, hold still! Or use a tripod.

  3. Also I’d get a tripod (a cheap one will probably suffice),that way when you have the flash turned off the picture will stay in focus. Arrange the tripod so the camera is pointing downwards towards your photo ablum, just make sure its not casting shadows onto your alblum. I’ve used this method for an old family bible and other items that are too fragile for the scanner… outside of the table in the background, you can still read the words just like it came out of a scanner.

  4. I had a few, large photos, that were in picture frames, to copy and had a similar problem with glare. It was a nice, cloudy day and I took the photo’s outside, propped them up, and snapped away. I had no glare, and lots of natural lighting which didn’t yellow the photo’s as indoor lighting can. I could change angles as needed and it worked beautifully.

  5. I borrowed an autograph album from a cousin, which had belonged to our great-grandfather. Using a plate holder (for displaying decorative plates) I photographed each page. I set my camera on some books so I wouldn’t move it while pressing the button. My camera has a macro setting and I used that, but if it’s too close, it will blur, so I made a piece of paper the length of the distance away it needed to be, and I could tell at a glance if it was positioned right. The pictures turned out great except the ones that were too faded.

  6. Years ago when using a 35mm I was given what is called a copy stand similar to a tripod but the bar slides up and down once your camera is attached – it also has lights attached which can be moved to prevent glare- I have used it with great success with the digital camera reproducing court docs and photos. The catch is to turn off the cameras flash and use the other source light.

  7. I have used my digital camera and taken the pictures outside
    on a table, be sure to watch for shadows but it works very well. I have also tried to take them by a window without a flash with good success. I also had an OLD Family Album that was the old 11 X 15 black pages with the pictures pasted in and white ink writing…I took that album to KINKO’S and photocopied the whole book on 13X17 paper. It came out wonderful, then I took a digital picture of each page. I now have the whole 110 year old album on disc.

  8. Please don’t take this seriously, but you can buy a very good flat bed scanner under $200. If this is not within your means and you are dealing with antique photos, you need to take a look at your priorities. When the daguerretypes and tintypes measuring 1/2 inch by 3/4 of an inch start showing up you are going to be pretty much out of the ballgame. There is an old rule that says to the effect that trying to do a job with the wrong tools is doomed to failure.

  9. I have found that: you have the best light outside. On a sunny day make a circle of tape or two & tape the picture to a wall Set your tripod paralell to the picture on the wall. This gives you the light you need to reproduce these old photographs & you then have a negative for future copies. I also have done this without my tripod (if your hands are still steady enough).

  10. I have had the best results outside with no flash, using a tripod and the self timer setting (no problems then with hand movement). If you have the camera too close to the subject you will have some distortion, which can usually be corrected with photo editing software. You can minimise the distortion by moving the camera further from the subject and using the zoom function to frame the photo.

  11. If you still have problems with glare, photgraph at a slight angle to eliminate the glare. PaintShop Pro and other photo editing software will “straighten” the photo (change perspective). If you don’t have the capability in your software, you probably have a friend who can repair those few photos for you.
    I disagree with the Kinko’s copy as a first-line option. While good, it’s still a “copy of a copy” and #3 on our list after scan and photograph.

  12. Yes, outdoor light and no shadows or flash, close-up or macro setting on digital camera, tripod a must careful distance check and square to object. If artificial light, use high intensity lamps each side. (Most often handheld snapshots come out muddy.)
    An autograph book from 1883 I did recently – the scanner results were poor on the pencil entries, but scan to PDF worked, then I converted to JPG in Adobe Elements – worked fine when inserting into Word.

  13. “The best way to make good pictures is to make lots of them and then choose only the best”.

    Weeks Parker

    [Professional videographer & photographer and author of 10 books on a variety of subjects]

  14. Have used 35mm on tripod outside in semishade with original portraits/photos clipped to easel with very good results; same quality but easier/faster using digital camera; had some distortion with both cameras from image curl – - got glare and mirror image of camera backgrounds when image was pressed down with glass and it was also slow positioning each image.

    BEST – A USB driven computer scanner. Have gotten better-than-camera reproductions with a $50 Canon slimline CANOSCAN that scans color or B/W images directly into my computer. It’s smaller than my laptop and can be driven off the laptop’s USB affording great portability – - can take it into libraries. However, I do most of my work on a Canon MX310 (from AMAZON for $100) that is attached to my desktop computer and scans stacks of up to 30 sheets of color or B/W documents automatically, accepts flatbed photo or book scans, can be used either way also as a copier, printer or fax.

    This is not a CANON ad, other brands will do the same thing, but I’ve been using CANON copiers for some 20 years and am still using the original B/W toner dinosaur located up in my attic storage area.

  15. Another way to take pictures of pictures etc. is to use a tripod for your camera, and a music stand for what you want to copy. I picked one up cheap at a second hand store, and it works great. You can position lamps for the proper lighting. With a digital camera you get to ‘practice and discard’ till you get the proper look.

  16. I at one time used a 35 mm camera on a tripod. I purchased lenses for taking close up pictures of various sized photographs. I now use the lenses with my digital camera, holding the lenses so as to get a clear picture and the correct size.

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