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KaineZ's setup: how to "scan" with a digital camera

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I was talking to soothsayr on DC++ last week and he asked if I could post a picture of my setup.  I thought I'd give a quick tutorial on how to best use a digital camera to photograph comics instead of scanning them.

I previously used a scanner, but I got tired of the rough handling of some of my books with the constant flipping around while scanning.  I had the covers on a few become detached which royally ticked me off.  I think the ideal solution to using a digital camera is to go with something like rangerhouse (and now soothsayr) uses.  Here's a link to rangerhouse's system:,4081.0.html which is just a fancy digital camera setup even though at first glance it might not look like that.  His system has the 3 things you need to get good photo's:

1) An excellent camera (I'm not sure what's in it) located up top
2) Good lighting source (this is crucial!)
3) a good way to hold the comic flat so you get good pics without the pages having a slight bulge/ripple from lying open

I don't know how much that archival "scanner" is that he has, but since photography was already a hobby of mine I had most of the tools to create a station for photographing my comics without too much additional expense.  The trick was to learn the best settings and lighting technique to get the best photos.  This took me about a month and a dozen or so comics to get down pat.  The lighting is the secret.

So, first, here's a photo of how I have my station setup.  Right now I'm building a bookcase for the room my station is normally setup in so I have it temporarily sitting on the floor of my library/pinball machine room.  Pardon the mess and the piles of books on the right side! components (if you wanted to copy EXACTLY what I use) are:

* A good DSLR camera (an entry level DSLR is fine, something that will shoot at least 300dpi is the bare minimum).  I use a Nikon D7100 so you can benchmark from there.  My lense is the kit lense that comes with the D7100 which is an 18-140mm.  You can use a larger focal length, but you'll just have to keep moving the camera up higher and I like having it within reach.
* A remote trigger is desirable.  This let's you sit at the table or on the floor and use a switch in your hand to take the photos rather than having to use the camera's clicker.
* A couple of soft boxes (the two black square things on the little stands to the left and right of the camera tripod).  Inside the soft boxes are two "remote flashes" aka strobes.  You put them in the box so that a fabric cover (not seen in the above photo due to the direction they're facing) diffuses and spreads the light from the flashes.  If you didn't diffuse the light and just used a regular remote flash you'd get a bright spot of light on the pages which would be bad.
* A remote flash trigger.  This device has two parts: transmitter and receiver.  Since there's no flash attached to the camera the soft boxes act as remote controlled flashes.  The transmitter attaches to the camera where a flash would normally go.  It is paired via wifi to one of the soft boxes which has the receiver plugged into one of them (the other soft box is slaved to the first one optically).  When you take photos now the camera remotely triggers the soft boxes and they fire their flash simultaneously when I press the button on the remote trigger mentioned above.
* A decent tripod.  The one I use here is dedicated just for comics.  I use the camera for many other things, but with the dedicated tripod I can get the head (what the camera attaches to) situated in the precise direction needed for a straight on photo and never have to touch it again.  Just slide the camera on and I can immediately start taking photos.
* A small piece of plywood cut a little larger than an opened golden age comic book.  I took the dimensions I wanted to Lowe's, picked out a small piece of thin plywood and had the guy at Lowe's cut it for me for free.  The board just gives the comic something flat to lie on.  See the issue of Fighting Yank in my photo above lying on said board.
To keep the board from moving around I have a couple of decent sized hardback books to hold it firm.  On carpet the board has a tendency to slide fractionally as I flip the pages of the comic books.  Without keeping the board anchored it would eventually slide out of the camera's frame without me even knowing.  Additionally I use blue painter's tape on the carpet to mark the precise location the board should be so the comics are lined up straight in the photos.  When they're crooked I have to take the time to adjust the photos in my imaging software to straighten them.

I've never timed myself, but I can photograph an entire 64 page comic in just minutes.

The biggest problem I have with my setup is holding the pages down flat.  When they aren't held down they'll bow up towards the spine (put an open magazine on a table in front of you to see the obvious bowing that occurs).  When they bow up the page will look distorted when photographed.  There are two solutions: 1) edit them in imaging software or 2) hold down the edges.  Using software is mind numbing and fixing distorted pages is what I least like to do (use Transforms in Photoshop to fix it).  Holding a couple of corners down with my fingers is the solution I use, but it isn't ideal.  The Rangerhouse archival system fixes this problem with the way comics sit on the "shelf" of the camera station.  Watch the video found somewhere on DCM for how that part works.  I have an idea of how to better deal with keeping a book flat without damaging, but to date I haven't had the time or inclination to make what I envision.

One final note about lighting...  If you can't get your lighting system figured out you'll never have a good photographed/edited comic.  The best way to tell a scanned comic from one that has been photographed is from the lighting used.  A photographed comic with good lighting will be practically indistinguishable from a scanned comic.  I think I can easily spot a digicam comic even with ones that have been done excellently (which is why I'm so hard on myself over the lighting).  The lighting you want needs to be as close to true sunlight as possible.  Sunlight gives the best lighting.  When I was first getting into using a camera the first couple comics I shot were done outside in direct sunlight.  The problem with that is that the book needs to be shot at specific times of the day (because of the angle of the sun) and on days with no wind (to keep pages from flapping around) and on days with little cloud cover and obviously on non-cloudy days.  Getting all these things perfect whenever you desire is impossible!  So, you can move indoors and try using sunlight coming in through a window (I did this a few times!), but you don't get good consistent sunlight all day long.  The best solution is to use some type of photography lighting kit.  There are many variations on my setup and I could have done it quite a bit differently.  I just happen to like the soft boxes.  They're easy to setup and maintain.  What you DO NOT want to use is any light source that a photographer wouldn't use.  This means no light stands from Home Depot or Lowe's like a painter or construction worker would use (the yellow ones that use the halogen bulbs).  If you want to do it right then spend the money at a camera store on a couple of good flashes/soft boxes.

Thanks for sharing all this with the gang K.

Lots to digest here gang.  I know another member has designed his own such set-up and might have something to add.


Thank you for sharing your valuable experiences.

I can confirm all of it. I shot two dozen horror books with a digicam and – was not happy with the results.

I had almost no equipment, though, used a normal family camera, a tripod, daylight on a table (no flashes) and coins to keep the book flat.
Light from outside will change every other minute and affect your photography. In not a good way. You will scream for professional equipment!

My amateurish efforts, however, produced readable material. It just doesn’t look that NICE like how we are used to by now.

I like to differ from your point of view in one aspect: A scan seems (to me) to be always of higher value and quality.
Can’t beat the sharpness of a scanned image.
Photographs are prone to be blurry (if only in the minutest, slightest way).
I’m talking about that FEEL to a scanned page. You can see the grains in the paper and such. Haven’t experienced that with a photograph – yet.

I think Rangerhouse's scans, which use a camera, look indistinguishable from a scanned book, but his equipment was made for archiving magazines, books, etc so the lighting on his setup is optimized for it.  My gear uses studio lighting so yes, to someone who knows what to look for you can tell the differences.  I've only done 2 books that I would say are indistinguishable from a true scan and those were two books from my personal collection that are highly prized by me so I took the time to do them just right.  I've been working on a new technique in Photoshop to make the photos look even better without making the file sizes HUGE.  If I can get that perfected and automated (the hard part) I think my photos will really be hard to distinguish from a scan.

If people didn't mind a 64 page book that was 100 to 125 megs I could do something in Photoshop that would make the photos look just like a scan  >:D

A huge scan like that is allowed but we would suggest it be shared in two parts if you do it ArKay.
Better yet a second 'normal' file size would be nice for those that prefer their scans not so huge.

Good luck on the Photoshop action creation!


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