Many of us are unhappy to discover that our old family photos are deteriorating with age—especially color photos. The best way to preserve them may be to rephotograph these aging prints with our digital cameras in order to archive them permanently in stable, high-resolution form. I find that a basic tabletop copywork setup is a great way to digitize old photos, and it doesn’t take much to master. Done well, it’s even faster and more effective than digitizing with a flatbed scanner.
To start, clear a large work area such as a dining room table or even a clean spot on a hard-surface floor. A copy stand is ideal, as it easily positions the camera parallel to the surface of the floor or table. But a tripod works just as well as long as you set it up correctly. You’ll need to position the legs so that they won’t create shadows over the artwork you’re photographing. Beyond that, simply rotate the tripod head so that the camera is facing straight down, and use a simple bubble level across the lens in each axis to ensure it’s perfectly parallel to the floor.
When it comes to lens selection, choose the longest lens you can conveniently work with in order to minimize optical distortion. A wide-angle lens will bow the edges of the frame, whereas a short telephoto will help to keep them straight. A macro lens (preferably in the range of 100mm) is ideal for close focusing on even small prints, but a normal zoom or short telephoto without macro capabilities should work fine. Position a picture directly under the camera as you’re setting up in order to help determine the most appropriate focal length and position.
With the picture in place and the camera position established, set the focus to manual mode and dial in precise focus. This is made easier with a tethered camera or a camera controlled by a smartphone. In any case, ensure you’re not using autofocus to capture this inanimate object as that’s sure to lead to missed focus more often than locked in manual focus will. Choose a sharp aperture (such as ƒ/8 or ƒ/11) and build your exposure from there.
Now it’s time to light. The right lighting is another key to the success of this system. You may be tempted to use a diffused soft light (such as a softbox or an umbrella), but these are actually less effective than a simple hot light or strobe in a parabolic dish reflector. (A hot light works fine, just be sure to turn off the overheads and take care to minimize camera shake. I prefer to work with strobes so that I don’t have to worry about interference from ambient light and so I know I won’t have to worry about blur.) The softbox and umbrella spread light across a greater area and increase the opportunity for reflected light coming from the ceiling or other unwanted angles—and this is a surefire way to create reflections on the image. (See the example here for how an unwanted reflection can obscure the image and make it useless as a copy.)
You want to use two lights—no less, and no more—placed on opposite sides of the frame. These lights should be beyond 45 degrees from the lens plane in order to minimize the chances for glare. That doesn’t mean, though, that you should move the lights parallel to the work surface, as this will start to amplify any texture in the photos and can even create shadows from things like matting and framing. (Speaking of which, remove photos from frames if at all possible.) Close to, but just beyond, 45 degrees from the lens axis is just right.
Next, instead of pointing the heart of each light directly at the center of the photo, aim each light just above and beyond the picture to be copied. This will help make the light more even and minimize the chance of hotspots. This, too, is why you use two lights rather than one. With a single light from one side, the illumination will naturally fall off across the scene. Positioning the lights farther from the subject mitigates such falloff, but it’s still easy to see without the use of a second light. For a setup in which the subjects are approximately 8×10 inches or less, I like to have my lights a good 4 feet or more from the image.
If you’d like to check for evenness of illumination, use a handheld light meter to check the light reading at each corner of the composition as well in the center. Anything within one-fifth of a stop (say, ƒ/8 to ƒ/8.2) shouldn’t be an issue. But any difference of one-third of a stop or more may be visible to the naked eye.
With the camera positioned correctly and the lights in place, you’re almost ready to shoot. The last step is to be sure the color is accurate—even if the original image has faded. Capture RAW image files and shoot a neutral gray card positioned within the scene to ensure you can dial in precisely the right white balance every time. With accuracy on the lighting and color during digitization, you eliminate more variables that would need to be corrected in post. Then you’re free to preserve an image as-is or consider retouching to repair the color fading that often occurs with aging. More on that next week.