Interview with Helen, the photographer.
1) Can you please describe the equipment you have been using and how you have set it up and why?
The equipment I have been using to digitize the microfilm for Mass Capture is not very
extensive, yet it has provided the team with high quality images to work from.
The first piece of the setup is the light box. The model I have been using is the ’10”x12” Porta-Trace Light Box’. The microfilm is secured to the front of the box. This provides an even, constant source of light that will backlight the microfilm, making it possible to photograph.
The microfilm is secured to the light box using gaffer tape. This tape is strong and is specifically designed not to leave sticky residue on any surfaces. I have folded the tape in on itself, creating non-sticky strips, which can be taped to the light box in vertical rows. This creates a type of track that the microfilm can be easily and smoothly fed through. The purpose of this is to allow for uncomplicated and continuous movement from slide to slide as they are being photographed. It also keeps the film pressed flat against the light box, so the final images have no deviation in focus or scale.
Also attached to the light box is a small piece of paper with writing. In this case, I have been using a public transit transfer (something with computer printed type). I make sure to include this paper in each frame that I shoot, as it provides me with something that I can objectively tell is in focus. This is critical, because I have no way of knowing how sharp the original documents on the microfilm actually are. If the paper with text is on the same plane as the microfilm, and the paper is in focus, then I can be sure that the film is in focus as well.
For shooting the film, I have been using a Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro lens. This setup allows me to take detailed close-ups of the microfilm. The quality of the resulting images allows for them to be zoomed in on during examination while still retaining detail. The camera is set up on a Manfrotto ball head tripod. This allows for the framing and focus of each piece of microfilm to be the same as I feed it through the light box. The light box and the camera have to be set up very specifically. The front plane of the box and the lens need to be perfectly parallel to each other, otherwise the film won’t be in focus from top to bottom and side to side.
While shooting, the camera is connected to a MacBook Pro with a tethering cable. It is linked to Adobe Lightroom 5 and set up for tethered capture. As I take photos, the images will appear in Lightroom. From here I can zoom in on the files to make sure that they are exactly how I want them. The benefit of doing this live is that if there is a mistake, I can easily correct it on the spot instead of noticing it in the editing process and having to set everything up again for a reshoot. Finally, I edit the images in Adobe Photoshop CS6. Here, I can do the rest of the necessary work to make sure that they are ready for the Mass Capture team.
2) Can you please describe the actual process (the steps involved, for you) involved in digitizing each image?
The first step is to create my setup (as previously outlined). I must set up the Lightbox with the film, and line it up with my camera and tripod. The Lightbox and camera need to be adjusted so that they are both on the same plane. They also need to be as close to each other as possible with the camera still being able to focus on the film. This makes sure that the certificates are as large in the frame as they possibly can be, resulting in the most detail.
When I am able to start shooting, I make sure to use the capture button in Lightroom for releasing the shutter of the camera. This is a remote trigger available in the tethering function that prevents me from having to touch the camera to take the photo. This could alter the steadiness of the camera. When a person presses the shutter release button on a camera, there is a movement there that can cause images to be blurry. This is especially apparent because I am using a relatively low shutter speed (1/100). Using a remote trigger, such as the one offered in the Lightroom tethering setup, eliminates this interaction and results in a sharper image.
As I am shooting, I feed the film through the DIY tape track on the light box, snapping each frame as I go. If I see that something is our of focus, I have to adjust something in the setup. Usually this is because the film at the entrance of the track may have twisted when being fed through, or that I need to unreel more film from the spool to allow for the film on the Lightbox not to be strained in any way. Otherwise, it could be that I’ve nudged the tripod or the Lightbox and I would just have to reset them. Sometimes pieces of dust or a loose string from the tape will appear between the microfilm and the light box, so I would have to remove them with a bulb air-blower.
While shooting, its important to be very organized. I’m dealing with tens of thousands of images that all look the same when viewed as small thumbnails on a computer screen. When transporting them to the hard drive where they are housed, I make sure to have a system of folders that differentiate reel numbers, images that are in the process of being edited, images that need to be renamed (corresponding to the identification number on the certificate), images that need to be reshot, images that have been reshot, etc. This way I can easily jump back into my work every day with minimal confusion.
Once I have the film photographed, and I’m happy with the quality of the images, I then move them over into Photoshop. Here, I use a set of Actions I created to make the editing process go quickly and smoothly. Making an Action in Photoshop records all of my image edits for one image and allows me to apply them to any other photos with the press of a button. To do this, I opened one image of a certificate. While recording an Action, I adjusted the levels, sharpness, brightness, contrast, highlights, and shadows. I also inverted the colours to create a positive and I added a Black and White Adjustment Layer to make sure that there were no colour casts. I tested and tweaked these edits to make sure that they were appropriate for the film slides as well.
I paid close attention to the whites to make sure that they preserved detail and weren’t blown out. I also made sure that the blacks weren’t oversaturated or too dense so that the original detail/ nuance of type, handwriting, and imagery were in tact. In addition to this, I made an Action that would crop the images to their desired framing and another one that would save them in their desired folder.
Doing all of this allows me to now open a group of images in Photoshop, around 100 at a time, and Batch process them. This means that I can apply all of the Actions I’ve made to the opened files with a few clicks. This streamlines the editing process and means that I don’t need to individually edit tens of thousands of photos. That being said, if I do come across an image that needs special attention I will tend to it as need be. One example of an file that might need this would be an image that has to be pieced together. Some certificates were ripped, so on the microfilm they appear on their side or in two pieces. Therefore, they take up more space on the film than the other certificates. In this case, I will photograph each half of the image to make sure there is no focus drop off around the edges, and I will piece them together in Photoshop. This way, the entire image is tack sharp from side to side.
One area where the process could be improved is with the cropping. As I photograph the film, the slides do not always line up in the same place in the frame each time. When I crop a bunch of the images at once with an Action, They won’t all be cropped perfectly to the size of the slide. At this point I have to adjust the cropping of each image individually. Though it takes approximately 5-10 seconds per photo, this time adds up when working with thousands of images. I haven’t figured out a way to streamline this, so there is room for improvement. After all of this is done, I save the images (also with an Action and Batch Process) and continue with the rest!
3) What issues did you encounter when developing the process and how did you solve these?
When I first started, I was shooting the film laying flat with my tripod looking down from above (bird’s eye). This could have worked with an industrial tripod, but the one I was using did not remain absolutely steady when pressing the shutter release button (either with my hand or remotely). There was a very small shift in movement, which resulted in slightly blurry images. I changed the setup so that the Lightbox was standing vertically, and my tripod could be in an upright position. This is where it is at its most steady and I was able to achieve sharper photos. Because the film has been kept on a spool, it holds a curved form. This made it difficult to keep the film perfectly flat on the surface of the Lightbox. At first, I used two pencils taped to the light box, and fed the film underneath. This sort of worked, but I was concerned about damaging the film as it moved along the surface of the pencil. It was also not easy to keep them perfectly in place. This is where the tracks made of tape came in. These tracks lay flat and allow the film to pass very smoothly along the surface of the light box without damage. They are also very easy to adjust if necessary.
Before using the wireless shutter release button, I was having difficulties finding an exposure that balanced my shutter speed, aperture, and ISO in a way that gave me a sharp image while still being properly exposed. The main factor in this was my shutter speed. I needed it to be fast enough to not have my touch on the camera influence the sharpness of the image, but I also couldn’t compromise my aperture and ISO past a certain point. The wireless shutter release button made it possible for me to use a relatively low shutter speed, without blurring the image, and without me having to change my other settings that would compromise the image in other ways.
While I was ironing out all of these issues, I would take multiple images of one slide while shooting. Some would have worked out better than others in terms of focus and sharpness. I assumed it would be better to have multiple to choose from, especially since I couldn’t always get consistent results. If I had about 3-6 images per slide, one of them was bound to be what I needed. While this is good in theory, it made the post-processing move at a snails pace. The adjustments in Photoshop were not an issue, but having to compare the images and choose the best one for each certificate took quite a long time. I was comparing thousands of sets of images.
Once I was able to smooth out the issues I had with shooting, I was able to only shoot one image for each slide and have that be of a high standard. This made the post-processing faster, because I no longer had to compare any images. Though a long and tedious process, it has been worth the effort to find the perfect combination of factors that would give me the best quality image I know I could achieve.