Behind the Lens

Imagine a beautifully engraved Victorian map painstakingly hand colored. Now imagine that map reduced to a tiny, grainy, poorly lit image. I strive to offer you high quality, large images for your viewing, downloading, and analysis if you wish. A reader recently suggested I share my photography process, so I am writing a meta post on my methodology.

Over the past two plus years I have grown my technique and equipment for imaging my maps. Early on I snapped a picture with my phone or tablet, map laying on the floor, usually with my shadow falling squarely on the map and in poor light to begin with. I have gone through a trial and error period to reach a fairly effective, efficient, and reliable system.

I have a copy stand that I built, but usually don’t use it due to set up and breakdown time. Instead, I typically use off the shelf equipment from Home Depot and Amazon, along with my Nexus 5X phone’s 12 MP camera.


  • Four clamp on spotlights with daylight 5,000 k LED spotlight bulbs. (Cameras handle light from daylight bulbs better than that from incandescent bulbs.)
  • Two indoor extension cords.
  • Two long wooden paperweights, each about 12 inches.
  • My dining room table and two chairs.
  • My phone’s 12 MP rear facing camera.
Equipment used in photographing maps. (Photo: Own work.)
Equipment used in photographing maps. (Photo: Own work.)


  • I wipe down and the dry dining room table.
  • I clamp the lights to chairs, two lights per chair, one chair on each side of the table.
  • I place the map on the table, handling it with washed hands and weighting the edges with the paperweights.
  • I plug in and turn on the lights, positioning the chairs and angling the lights so as to evenly illuminate the map.
  • I align the map in the phone’s screen so as to fill the screen, being mindful of keystoning and distortion, then snap a few pictures, as well as close-ups as needed.
  • I repeat for other maps, then break down the setup.
Manuscript map from 1824. (Photo: Own work.)
Manuscript map from 1824. (Photo: Own work.)

Post Processing

  • I upload my images to Google Photos.
  • I click the pencil edit icon to get to the very easy to use editing tools (I’m sure more experienced photographers are shocked and appalled right now!).
  • I rotate and crop the image as needed.
  • There are four basic parameters which Google Photos allows to be manipulated: Light, Color, Pop, and Vignette. I leave Color and Vignette at their defaults. I punch Light up to about ¾ (from ½) and Pop up to ¼ (from nothing).
  • I then save the image (the original remains in the background) and download to my computer.
Photograph post processing. Color and contrast adjusted using Google Photos. (Photo: Own work.)
Photograph post processing. Color and contrast adjusted using Google Photos. (Photo: Own work.)

That’s it! I have gorgeous, high-resolution, ready to upload images in about 20 minutes.

These techniques can be used for any type of antiquarian document, or for that matter, any document you wish to digitize, old or modern. I have on occasion experimented with the OCR capabilities of Google Docs. I once imaged a comparative with about 200 peaks; keying in the accompanying data table would have been excruciatingly tedious, so I used my phone to scan it to PDF. The result was good but not perfect.

© Peter Roehrich, 2016

3 thoughts on “Behind the Lens

  1. A dining table and Google Photos? What about a clean room with HEPA filters and minions? I’m slow, but I do get there, and I am very intrigued to hear about this sensible, efficient method. The daylight bulbs sound like they are your secret sauce, and one cannot argue with the results. Excellent post.


    1. Thanks Ran, yes the daylight bulbs really paid off. I experimented with incandescent and LED 3200 & 5000 K. The 5000 K gave by far the truest color. Google Photos may not be the most sophisticated, but it’s quick, easy to use, and reliable, so I’ll take it!


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