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I am a graduate student studying history, and I am in the market for a new digital camera for the purpose of photographic images off of microfilm machines, and also old books and documents that I find in my research in archives. Many libraries charge an arm and a leg for copies--and often documents are too fragile to put into a copy machine or scanner--so the digital camera route is something that I am very interested in.

I have used Canon PowerShot cameras for many years, mostly to take pictures when I am on vacation, and I've been very happy with them. I am looking to make a long-term investment in hardware which I'll use for at least a few years, but I'd rather not pay hundreds of dollars for an SLR (I want it to be highly portable). Rather, if there aren't too many drawbacks, I'd prefer to use a point-and-shoot so I can use it both for my research, and when I go out with friends.

Is it reasonable to use a point-and-shoot for this purpose, or will it simply not work? What are some of the characteristics that I should be looking for in a camera/tripod combination for such uses?

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3 Answers 3

I don't even know if this exists, but try getting a tripod that can be outfitted with a boom arm: something that can extend your camera out over the surface you'll be working on.

You're presumably going to want to keep the camera perpendicular to the book, and that book is probably going to be laid flat on a table or something similar. That means the camera will be angled vertically. I was doing this sort of shot recently, and it was a real pain trying to get the camera into the right position; the table was always where the tripod needed to be.

I ended up having to extend the tripod to it's maximum height and then zoom in. This kept the parallax to a minimum, but made working inconvenient.

If you can't get a boom working, get a very thin table/platform to hold your books; you can fit it between the tripod legs and get beneath the camera.

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Look for a tripod with a removable center column that can be mounted horizontally. As an example, the Manfrotto 190XPROB allows for the column to be extended and then swung down horizontally so that the camera can be mounted in a suspended position that allows you to shoot directly down onto the subject.

Such a setup would look like this (photo by Shirley Buxton on Flickr, used under Creative Commons): New Tripod

One thing I will note is that if you're looking to do this super-cheap, you'll probably be building some of your own mounting equipment. The tripod I linked is over $100 and that doesn't include a head.

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Exactly what I was thinking of. –  Craig Walker Jan 21 '11 at 18:37
    
I've had a 190XPROB for a couple of years and find it's a stable and very versatile tripod. –  RedGrittyBrick Jan 21 '11 at 19:32
    
Are tripods built specifically for one type of camera, or can they be used for many types? I ask because I was looking at this tripod, it sounds like it is primarily for SLRs. Would it also be possible to use it with a point-and-shoot? Thanks, I know nothing about tripods. –  Jason Jan 21 '11 at 21:30
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@Jason Tripods have a standard screw size on top - 1/4" diameter. While such a tripod is most commonly found with a DSLR, you could also use a point-and-shoot camera assuming your point-and-shoot has a tripod screw mount. –  ahockley Jan 21 '11 at 21:55
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Another alternative (and one I have owned and absolutely loved) is the Benbo ( patersonphotographic.com/benbo-tripods.htm ), a similar concept that makes the Manfrotto version look a little bit stiff and inflexible by comparison. They're not as easy to find, but there's nothing you can't do with 'em. –  user2719 Jan 21 '11 at 22:45

Others mentioned the 190XPROB with the arm that goes out 90 degrees but has a larger mounting screw.

DSLR's and compact cameras have the same thread on the bottom. Tripods like the 190XPROB have a larger thread, onto which you put some kind of head, and then you either screw that head into the camera or you get a head with quick-release plates, that you attach onto the bottom of any camera - large or small. If this is mostly what you'd be doing you can get the cheapest head possible since it doesn't have to hold much weight or even be easy to adjust. You might even be able to find an old head at Goodwill.

However for what you are doing, you may not even have to spend that much - find a really super cheap tripod, and then go to a hardware store and look for a ratcheting clamp. Then you can lay the cheap tripod down on a table with the camera hanging out over the end, and put another somewhat lower table below the camera with a book. For the microfilm you could find a small plastic stool or table and put a light under it to illuminate the microfilm and you'd probably get a good shot if the focus was good (try using a macro mode for that one I think).

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To clarify, I am not planning on photographing the microfilm itself directly (the slides are very small) but to photograph the microfilm reader's screen, which projects the microfilm in a larger form. –  Jason Jan 22 '11 at 2:26
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If you just need to photograph a screen, then even the cheapest $30 tripod will do - I still think the quality would be better though with a direct backlit surface shot using macro. –  Kendall Helmstetter Gelner Jan 22 '11 at 9:49

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