Top 10 tips for digitising paper, photographs and books

Photo album of First World war photos fully supported by a dented cushion placed underneath it and the left page held back with a snake weightWhen Lives of the First World War launches on 12 May you’ll be able to upload digital images of items from your collection, including photographs, letters and diary pages. Here are 10 tips from IWM Conservator Tina Kelly for digitising paper objects in your collection.

Wartime ephemera and paper objects are likely to be extremely brittle and fragile. Every time you handle your treasured ancestors’ possessions they are at risk of becoming damaged. Digitising them is the best way of preserving them, as the images can then be used for handling rather than the originals.

Rather than scanning them (a process that not only puts them at risk, but doesn’t produce a very good image anyway) you can photograph them instead. In order to do so safely here are my top ten tips:

Tina’s 10 top tips:

1. Camera Accessories

If you have a copy stand that’s even better, but a tripod with the camera facing downwards will do. If you don’t have either of these options available, a steady hand will suffice. You might also like to have a colour key and/ or a ruler to place beside the objects to show their true colour and size.

An example of a letter next to a colour chart

Placing a colour key next to an object can help to show its true colour and size.

2. Workspace

Set up your camera and accessories beside a flat workspace where there is a good light source from all angles. A dark grey or white background will also help show off your objects to their best advantage.

3. Clear Surrounding Area

Make sure you have enough clear space around you to photograph your objects safely. If you have a lot to do put them in piles either side of the camera setup – one to do and one that’s finished. That way you can streamline the whole process.

4. Object Handling

Remember they’re nearly a hundred years old and treat them very gently. Look out for any tears that you could make worse and don’t unfold any corners unless you really have to, or you could end up with the folded bit of paper in your hand. Photographs should only be handled by their edges – fingerprints leave marks that damage the surface.

5. Order

Sorting your objects into type e.g. flat paper, photographs and books, and then by size e.g. small medium and large before you start will make photographing them a lot easier, as you won’t have to keep re-positioning the camera as much.

6. Position

Place your object in the workspace (with the colour key and / or ruler alongside if you are using them), supporting it as necessary.

7. Supports

Not every object will stay flat or completely open whilst you photograph it. For letters have a selection of clean, small, light weights to hold the corners in position – glass coasters are good for this. If you have books or diaries use clean, soft cushions and snake weights* (these can be bought from any haberdashery shop, as they are used to weight the hems of curtains), but a well placed finger might also be necessary.

*Never place the weight directly over a photograph.

8. Supporting Books and Diaries

If your book/ diary doesn’t easily open fully the covers must be supported in the position to which it will open comfortably. Never force open a book’s spine, or it could break. A soft cushion underneath and the book placed with the spine in a vertical dent down the middle will support it fully. Sometimes a cushion right up against one of the covers will help to hold it whilst it is being photographed. If the pages don’t want to stay open, either hold them with a weight or your finger.

A First World War diary with the page supported by a pillow

You can use a pillow to easily support a document whilst you are photographing it.

9. Images

You will need to do both sides of all the letters and photographs (if they have any handwriting on the back). For books and diaries take a picture of the front and rear covers and anything else that you feel is interesting about it.

10. Photograph

If you haven’t got a copy stand or tripod, with a steady hand hold the camera directly above the object and take your shot. Remember to make use of the micro setting (usually a picture of a flower) on your camera if what you are photographing is smaller than A4 size. I usually take one on the micro setting and one without just to be sure. You can always delete the unwanted images afterwards.

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3 Responses to Top 10 tips for digitising paper, photographs and books

  1. Congratulations on such a wonderful project! I hope many get involved and create a memorable tribute to those who gave their lives that we might be free today.
    I am very keen to contribute with my picture restoration expertise. Please visit to see the quality of my work.
    Best wishes!
    P.S. Minor correction for point No. 10: for ‘micro’ read ‘macro’. ☺

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