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Digital Humanities - Introduction: Working with 2D Material

Introducing Digital Humanities methods, practices and support at Exeter

Digitising 2D and Archival Materials

The use of digital technologies has opened up access to the primary sources that are fundamental to humanities scholars. Whether this is through straightforward digital photography, audio capture of oral histories, or more advanced techniques that give access to three-dimensional objects and landscapes, the ability to understand sources in detail without needing access to original artefacts has enabled new research and democratised fields of study.

Digitising two-dimensional materials, such as paper documents, photographs and bound volumes, is a long-standing part of archival preservation and research, but it is continually being developed to provide greater accuracy to the original materials, and explore details that were previously inaccessible, such as the use of multi-spectral imaging to reveal the composition of pigments and inks. Two-dimensional approaches can also be combined with techniques designed for three-dimensional objects, such as the use of RTI to reveal surface texture that is difficult to capture with conventional 2D photography.

With the advancements in portable cameras and mobile phone camera technology, high-quality documentation of archival materials can now be carried out with the most basic equipment, making digitisation more accessible than ever before.

2D Digital Imaging

The capture of manuscripts and visual material through digital photography has revolutionised access and study in a number fields. Photography can give access to rare and fragile manuscripts, can help to ensure that knowledge is not lost when physical objects are prone to decay or damage, and can reveal new information with modern techniques such as multi-spectral photography, X-rays and microscopy.

The large-scale digitisation of documents presents its own problems, and projects to create digital resources must consider issues of workflow, storage, sustainability, cataloguing and metadata creation and ultimately the sustainability of the digital objects in the long term. Understanding the nature of the physical object being photographed can also be critical in order to obtain the best results with least damage to originals.

A fundamental question in the imaging of artefacts for research arises around the effectiveness of the digital surrogate (copy) to represent the original. The introduction of scientific methodology, which provides some reproducibility in the creation of surrogates, has led to a more effective analysis of what can be measured or understood from a digital surrogate, and what needs to be referred back to the original. Techniques such as colour management and multi-spectral analysis can give some objective certainty that aspects of the surrogate are extremely similar to the original.

Digital Preservation

Digital objects are often created to assist in the preservation of artifacts, providing non-destructive means of access for fragile objects, or detailed records of their condition or physical properties. But digital objects, whether images, text, or 3D representations, must be carefully considered and cared for. The management of digital assets can be just as involved as that for physical artifacts. Formats, metadata, storage and archiving must all be taken into account.

DIY Digitisation

If you need to access documents only available in a library or an archive, it is possible to use digital photography to capture printed and archival material for further study at home or at work. 2D digitisation is a fundamental means of preserving historical materials. This process ensures that fragile documents can be made accessible to be studied by both academics and the wider public, without causing the material unnecessary wear and tear.

The highest quality digitisation is done using professional equipment, such as that in the Digital Humanities Lab. However, it's still possible to capture great quality images using improvised setups with something as basic as a smartphone camera. This Libguide will provide guidance on how to get the best quality images when taking photos with the most basic equipment.

Getting the Most From Your Camera

To take good pictures in archives there are three things you need to ensure. You must make sure that you have a stable camera, that what you photograph is flat, and that you have enough light.

You do not need to buy expensive equipment; what you already have will work. The Digital Humanities Lab can loan DSLR Cameras, tripods, and other equipment for example. It is a good idea to check the guidelines of the archive or library that you are visiting in advance as some will not allow tripods or additional lighting.

Stabilising Your Camera

A heavier camera may need more elaborate stabilisation efforts than a lightweight one. If you know you have a somewhat unsteady hand, you may want to use some stabilisation method.


Make sure your tripod and camera are compatible.

Make sure your tripod can point straight down, so that you can photograph a document lying flat on a table.

A tripod has a column that moves up and down and also cantilevers to any angle so you can easily place two legs of the tripod against the table and have the column extend over the table so you can point the camera straight down over the book.

Keeping Items Flat

When using bound volumes, pages of the book should lie perfectly flat regardless of what page the book or periodical is open to.

Use book beanbag weights or string weights provided by the archive to flatten the page.

To avoid stressing the binding, place some foam blocks of varying thickness under each half of the book to make the pages equal heights.

Note: be very careful not to damage the pages or book by using too much weight or handling it improperly.

Often, the use of weights is enough. Experiment with your equipment to see if it is needed.

Controlling the Lighting

Though flash photography is usually not permitted in archives, their spaces do normally have good lighting. 

Often a torch can be a good option to illuminate creases in margin or help highlight features like gold leaf.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and light things from different angles.

Using a Phone Camera

Alternatively, you can use your phone camera if you do not have access to a DSLR.

If text is all you are concerned about, you can download scanning apps such as CamScanner and Genius Scanner which are available on Android, iOS and Windows Phones. These apps create a PDF copy of the document and also allow you to edit the file before saving.

However, be aware that this will distort the image, therefore it is not advisable to use this technique for documents such as maps. Instead, it is possible to purchase flexible smartphone and tablet holders that can be used as a copy stand. These have the advantage that the documents lie flat under the camera.  

Details of where to purchase these can be found here: link

Image colour

Purchasing a colour card is recommended if the colour of your images is a big concern.

Acting as an accurate colour reference, it will ensure an accurate representation the colours of the document and greater colour consistency in your images. Colour cards are designed to help you adjust the exposure and white balance settings consistently by providing a reference point. This reference point will set a white balance, or colour balance, point for a particular image set and all images captured thereafter and prompt your camera to compensate for any illuminant colour in the space.

These are sold by companies such as Datacolor and Grey White Balance Colour Cards and can also be found easily on Amazon. 

Image quality

With regard to image quality, it is rarely a concern in an archival environment. Usually, taking a picture following the steps above will be sufficient for your needs.

Nevertheless, if you are concerned about the quality of the image, don’t be afraid to ask a member of the archive staff to scan or photograph something for you - often, they will have a professional copystand to capture higher quality images. However do be aware that you may have to pay for this.   

Image File Formats

Though others exist, the two main image file formats that you should be concerned with are JPEGs and TIFFs.


JPEG files are probably the best known of all image file formats and are what most digital cameras provide as a digital output.

The advantages of JPEG files are that they are small, meaning more can be stored on a memory card and they are quicker to transfer.

However, JPEG files are compressed quickly in the camera, resulting in a loss of quality and detail. This file type is best used when the photos are for personal use, social media and when they are not intended for large size prints. Generally speaking, this file format should not be used when intending manipulate the images in photo editing software.


If you are looking to manipulate the images or print at the highest quality, TIFF files are much more appropriate.

These file formats are usually uncompressed and so have the opportunity for extensive post-processing. Their main disadvantage is that they are much bigger files due to being uncompressed, meaning the images will take up much more storage space and take much longer to load and transfer.

This is the most commonly used industry-standard file format.   

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