Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Digital Cameras as Notepads (Extended)

[Recently, I wrote a quick little post about how I use my digital camera as a notepad. I was really surprised at the popularity of that piece, so I've expanded it a bit here.]

Digital cameras are very useful in the world of genealogy. Yes, they will capture images of grave markers in cemeteries, but they also are a handy recording tool. I often use mine as a notepad. It's much quicker to take a photo than to write down the same information.

Here are some ways to use your digital camera:

1. Take pictures of title pages and labels. 

While viewing films at my Family History Center, I decided that it's much easier to just take a picture of all this information than to write it down. I later used this photo when I was entering citation information into the database. I've also photographed book spines and title pages for the same reason. These aren't keepsake images, just quick notes.

2. Make note of your location.

Masonic Cemetery, Las Vegas, New Mexico, 2009

If you're taking photos at a cemetery, make sure the first picture you snap is of the cemetery sign. That way, when the photos are uploaded on your computer, the first one out the gate will have the name of the cemetery in it. You think you can remember these things, but after a long day all the cemeteries start to look the same. Taking photos with identifying information is a handy way to take digital notes.

3. Transcribe what is difficult to see

Shiloh-Williamson Cemetery, Russellville, Arkansas

Ok, for this tip you need a dry erase board, but I swear by this technique. If you take a picture and can't read what it says, take another picture with a dry erase board and write what can't be seen. That way you have the original, and one with notes. 

I also use this board and camera combo when I need to make notes. For example, let's say I want to take pictures of a field. In order to remind myself which field, I will write a note on the board and take that picture first. My board picture might say "Ruppert field where N. H. Thibodeaux was killed." Then I take pictures of the field. When I upload all the photos, the picture of the board with the notes will remind me what the heck all these field pictures are about.

4. Don't just take pictures of the house

If you photograph your ancestors' homesteads, be sure to get the little details as well. Take pictures of the house numbers, the mailbox and the street sign. These will help you remember which house goes with which ancestor. 

Once I went on a whirlwind driving tour of a rough part of Los Angeles in an attempt to photograph my ancestors' former homes. This was not the place to get out and set up panoramic shots so I just took quick photos from the car. I'd snap the house, the house numbers and get on down the road. Having these detail shots helped me later sort out which house belonged to whom. 

5. Use photos in place of copies

Microfiche machine with no printer or online connection.

In certain cases, photographs come out better than copies of records. In other cases, there are no copy options so photographs are your only choice. Use discretion when photographing items, however. 

Parting thoughts

Though digital cameras are wonderful tools for taking notes, please use discretion when photographing subjects in your genealogy research. Ask permission of property owners, learn and observe repository rules and respect copyrights. Most importantly, keep a little camera with you at all times, you never know when you need to document a little family history.


  1. I love "Transcribe what is difficult to see." It never even occurred to me - duh! I also like your idea of using the dry erase of taking a picture of a field or something.

    I'm putting one of the kids old dry erase boards in the car! I'm sure there are one or two buried around here somewhere!

  2. Amy, Great ideas here. The last time I checked out digital cameras I noticed that some models feature a "Document" mode already auto pre-set for taking pix of paper. Sorry I don't remember the make or model, but it's out there!

  3. Michelle, I keep a dry erase board in the trunk. You just never know when it will come in handy.

  4. I agree with Michelle -- tip #3 is a great one. One I will definitely implement.

  5. The dry erase board - Genius!

    My little digital camera goes with me everywhere.

    Great tips, excellent post!

    "Guided by the Ancestors"

  6. I love this idea Amy! I sort of did this when we drove to Kentucky, my first genealogy trip! As we entered each state, I would take a photo of the sign with the name of the state! Really helped me to identify areas and what I had taken photos of. Adding the white board is an excellent idea! Thank you Amy, this is going to help so much.

  7. LOVE the idea - I've used it with my odometer when I was in business, to track mileage! Amazing how technology can help us so much!

  8. That white board idea is freakin' brilliant.

    What kind of camera are you using for this?

  9. Kerry, it's just a little Canon that fits in my pocket. Nothing fancy.

  10. Great ideas, Amy. Very helpful! Thanks

  11. I really like the dry erase board idea! Lots of good ideas here. Thanks!

  12. Like everybody else, I LOVE the dry-erase board idea. I've tried carrying a little notebook and taking notes, but this would work so much better. Brilliant!

  13. Great ideas Amy! I will have to use the dry erase board sometime. Never thought about it, but I can see how useful it would be.

  14. I was doing that just today. One downside. When documents are preserved in mylar the reflection of the light on the plastic makes it impossible to photograph. So, you're right back at the copy machine, like I was today.

  15. I also find my camera ndispensable, I have used it at the Family Learning Center, to copy snaps of films, and at the library but I will have to expand my usage and get a dry erase board.

  16. Wow! Using a dry erase board...why didn't I think of that???

  17. Another great post on the topic! So, I got it. From now, I must drag my digital camera around EVERYWHERE with me - not just to the playground, sightseeing and cemeteries. :-D

    Oh, and a dry-erase board too. LOL But, seriously, I love that tip!

  18. I figure, what is one more comment, but it was such a good topic, I had to say, "thank you." My camera is always in my pocket book, but I never thought of using a dry erases board, now I'm going to buy one. Thanks.

  19. I love the dry erase board. To think I have been taking photos of my writing on a notepad! I could have saved several trees.

    I am just now reviewing photos of city directory pages, 60+ of them. I do the cover and title page first, then all the family members in the book.

    I could never pay for all the photocopies, before the digital camera, I just took notes.

  20. I am awe-struck by the simplicity of the white board idea. It's so obvious (at least, after you identify it).

    Family Curator mentioned cameras with a "Document" mode. My Olympus fe-4010 has it. It was the feature that sold me on this particular camera over all the others on display.

  21. After your first post the next time I went to the Family History Center I took my camera and took a picture in the reader of the death certificate and that actually turned out to be the best copy. Thanks for sharing. But I forgot toake one of the box.

  22. Great article. I've already used some of these ideas before. Many cameras will let you record audio to "tag" your photos, so you can add more information. Or you could make a short video. Some might not have decent video capabilities, but you can talk to your camera for a few minutes at the least; a great option for those with no white board handy.

  23. Thank you for your post! I use my camera for note-taking all the time. Like everyone else who has commented so far, I love the white board idea.

    My tip: When photographing microfilm, I've found that the shiny surface of the microfilm reader can be difficult to photograph (too much glare from the camera, even without a flash). You can get around the glare problem by projecting the image you want to photograph onto a plain sheet of white paper instead of onto the microfilm reader itself.

    Thanks again!

  24. Amy,

    I'll "pile on" in the White Board as a Tool. Wonder how it will reflect sun light as well, in a pinch.

    You are Awesome !!!

    Thank you,


  25. The dry erase board is a great idea. But I also love Mary's tip about taking a snap of the odometer at the beginning and end of a business trip! I have a journal in my car in which I record gas fillups, oil changes, tire purchases, and other items pertaining to the car, but I always forget to record the mileage! Next time, I'll just take out my camera, which I carry on all research trips, and take the mileage. What a great idea! And a stickypad note just above the odometer with the date, the destination, and the purpose, and you have a record suitable for the IRS!

    I have had excellent luck taking snaps of the public-domain documents I deal with in my historical research and course work in my university classes. It's wonderful.

  26. Wow, what is left to say? All great ideas. I've used my camera to photograph cemeteries & signs. I like the white board idea too. Have to get one.

    I'll be back to check on your blog soon!

  27. I'm knocking myself in the head saying "why didn't I think of that!" Such great tips, such simple ideas!

  28. Great post--I have a question for those photographing cemeteries (or other things) outdoors: What kind of digital camera preview screen will allow you to (easily) check your digital photos in the sunlight? I get frustrated not knowing if the pix came out OK until I get indoors. TIA.

    p.s. Many archives do not allow camera use -- check the rules first. :)

  29. Great ideas. Love the tip about the dry erase board.

  30. Amy, Thanks so much for recycling this post this week! The dry erase board is genius! I'll be adding one to my travel pack!