Aim of this guide
This guide will help you to create digital images of objects and archive material from your family collection (eg medals, photographs and certificates) relating to soldiers who served in World War One (WW1) and the families they left behind. You can then share your digitised images with others through our Citizen Historian database.
Why is it important to digitise your family collection?
Your family collection may be the only way to place an individual or family’s story within the larger story of WW1. Such collections are potentially unique and their value to your community and the wider world cannot be underestimated.
Everyday objects, owned by normal people, can be surprisingly important. If we do not collect and preserve these valuable personal treasures, the stories they hold will disappear forever. Digitising them is the best way of preserving them, as the images can then be used and shared rather than the originals, which will often be fragile.
How to digitise objects and archive material
Creating digital images can be fun and easy once you get the hang of it. You can digitise either using a flatbed scanner or a camera. If the item is fragile or delicate in any way (eg it’s made from brittle paper or it’s a tightly bound volume), the scanning process may put the original at risk. These items should be photographed instead using a digital camera (including a smartphone). Here are some tips to help you get started:
1. Get your equipment together
Using a camera
- Keep the camera steady. Use either a tripod that allows it to face downwards or a copy stand (which is even better). If you don’t have either pieces of equipment, a steady hand will suffice.
- Measuring the size of an item. You might like to place a ruler beside the item to show its size.
- Keeping items open. Not every object will stay flat or completely open whilst you photograph it. For letters have a selection of clean, small, light weights to hold the corners in position – glass coasters are good for this. If you have books or diaries use clean, soft cushions and snake weights (these can be bought from any haberdashery shop, as they are used to weight the hems of curtains), but never place the weight directly over a photograph.
Using a scanner
- Be careful what you scan. It’s important to only use a scanner when it is safe to do so, based on the condition of the item being digitised.
- Clean all surfaces. Make sure its surface is clean and free from debris that may damage the item or ruin the scanned file.
- Measuring the size of an item. A small ruler placed beside the item to show its size is helpful.
2. Handling items
- Handle with care. Your wartime items are likely to be extremely brittle and fragile so every time you handle these treasured possessions they are at risk of becoming damaged.
- Be gentle. Look out for any tears that you could make worse and don’t unfold any corners unless you really have to, or you could end up with the folded bit of paper in your hand.
- Photographs. These should only be handled by their edges – fingerprints leave marks that damage the surface.
3. Digital capture
- Set up your camera and accessories beside a flat workspace where there is a good light source (preferably daylight, but avoid the midday sun) from all angles. Most newer digital cameras have good tools for adjusting to poor lighting. Get as much natural light as you can.
- If you haven’t got a copy stand or tripod, hold the camera directly above the object with a steady hand and take your shot. If possible, make use of your camera’s micro setting (look for the icon of a flower) if the item you are photographing is smaller than A4 size.
- Avoid using the flash as it tends to create a washed-out image, or introduces a bright spot, or glare on the surface.
- Try shooting against a dark grey, white or light background. Shooting paper documents against a wood/dark background tends to confuse automatic camera settings into misreading the contrast and tone. If the background is white, the document - not the table - becomes the notable item that the camera ‘sees’.
- Shoot in colour. The readability and printing quality will be much better. Never shoot in grayscale for documents or photos.
- Try one of the canned camera settings such as ‘museum’, which turns off the flash and assumes the lighting is poor.
- Make sure you have enough clear space around you to photograph your items safely. If you have a lot to do, streamline the whole process by putting them in piles – done and to do – either side of the camera setup.
- Shoot in as high a resolution setting as feasible, within reasonable limits, ie 600 to 2400dpi. ‘Resolution’ is a matter of ‘dots per inch’ or dpi. This means how many dots per inch the camera will record. More dpi means that finer detail is captured (and fewer dpi means that less detail is captured). Be aware that an image at 2400dpi will make a huge file so this should be used sparingly (eg for cases where there is some interesting fine detail you want to bring out).
- See if your camera has an automatic setting for ‘white-adjust’ (or similar). This setting picks up on areas that the camera thinks are white, then adjusts the colour balance to bring up the white. The result, normally, is a photo that isn't all yellow, even if the light is less than perfect.
- Don't use any sharpening or other contrast/clarity-boosting filters. Sharpening ruins most images by making them too grainy.
- Be sure to capture all relevant sides of the item. For example, you will not only need to photograph the front and back of a medal, but also around the rim (where valuable personal information is to be found). Capture both sides of all the letters and photographs (if they have any handwriting on the back).
- For books and diaries take a picture of the front and rear covers and anything else that you feel is interesting about it. If the item doesn’t easily open fully the covers must be supported in the position to which it will open comfortably. Never force open a book’s spine, or it could break. If the pages don’t want to stay open, either hold them with a weight or your finger.
- Save the file in an ‘uncompressed’ format such as TIFF, which contains all the data the camera picked up. A ‘compressed’ image, like a JPEG, takes the data from the camera and reduces it, so the file size is smaller. The resulting image may be fine for viewing purposes onscreen, but there will be much less detail to work with.
- To get the best result, you need to capture as much ‘raw’ digital data as possible. Be sure to turn off all of your scanner’s auto-adjustment options (including brightness, contrast, colour correction and any other filter) before scanning – this will ensure that there are no editing ‘tweaks’ done at the time of the scanning (this is better done afterwards with dedicated picture editing software).
- It is recommended that you scan at a high resolution such as 300dpi.
- Scan in colour, even for black & white photographs. The subtle shades of sepia in old photos, and the various imperfections on the surface of the print (eg flecks of red or blue, or other subtle markings) may carry a lot of useful image data. If you scan in grayscale, you take away all that data, and the fibre or texture of the paper is flattened into the image.
- Be sure to capture all relevant sides of the item. For example, capture both sides of all the letters and photographs (if they have any handwriting on the back).
- Save the file in an ‘uncompressed’ format such as TIFF, which contains all the data the scanner picked up. A ‘compressed’ image, like a JPEG, takes the data from the scanner and reduces it, so the file size is smaller. The resulting image may look okay onscreen, but there will be much less detail to work with.
Managing your files
- Keep a record of your image files and what they show. A spreadsheet is one useful way of doing this. You may want to record this information alongside a catalogue of your collection. To find out how to catalogue your family collection, see here.
- Keep your own files in TIFF format and at the highest resolution possible but when submitting an image file to the EFW project, they should be converted to JPEG format first but don’t change the resolution.
Note: The highest resolution a typical monitor is capable of displaying is 72 dpi. So if a website displays a larger file, for example a 300 dpi, it won't look any better than a 72 dpi JPEG image on a website unless you want to zoom in.
- Keep backup copies of each image (preferably two) in a safe place.
- To submit your files, search for a record on the database. If it exists, add your file(s) to it. If not, create a new database entry and attach your file(s) to it.
When you create a digitised copy of an item, it is regarded as a new, unique work, meaning that it is subject to copyright laws. If you would like to find out more on a flexible range of protections and freedoms for your images, you may want to learn about Creative Commons licenses.
Sharing your images with the project
If you have any images connected with your soldier, you should send them to us by replying to the ‘Sign Up’ email after you have submitted the Soldier Form. The image files should be attached in JPEG format.
For each image, please provide the following basic information:
- Filename (these should be numbered sequentially)
- Caption (answering as concisely as possible: who, what, why, where and when)
- Name of photographer (if known)
- Source (name of the owner of the photograph or object)
So for example, if you wanted to share three images with us, you would submit something like this in your reply email:
Sardar Singh (standing, third from left), aged 25, in front of the family home in Jalandhar, Punjab, India, on the occasion of his marriage to Devi Kaur (seated, front row, centre) in 1910.
Photographed by Mela Ram
Courtesy of Gill Family
Subedar Sardar Singh (front row, second from right) with his regiment before embarking the ship for France, October 1914.
Photographed by Randolph Holmes
Aujla Family Collection
Indian Order of Merit, 3rd Class, awarded to Jemadar Sardar Singh for his gallantry in the action at Ypres in September 1915.
Photographed by Ricky Singh
Aujla Family Collection
After your images and captions have been reviewed by the EF&W Administrator they will be uploaded to a gallery in a page dedicated to your soldier in the ‘Citizen Historians in Action’ section of the website.