Scanner vs Photographer about Genealogy Documents

Scanning vs Photographing Genealogy Documents

When would photographing your genealogy documents serve you better than scanning them?

If you have inherited a mountain or room full of genealogy papers or you need to downsize your archive, you need to digitize the contents so others can access and use the data. The overwhelming task forces the challenge of quality vs efficiency to the forefront and you’re wondering if you should scan your documents or digitize them.

General Differences Between Scanning and Photographing Your Genealogy Documents

Scanning Documents

  • Scanned images have a better resolution
  • They have better color depth on a bits-per-pixel basis.
  • Lighting is uniform lighting.
  • You avoid optical distortion as you do not have to adjust the focus.
  • Best suited for flat objects.
  • Scans take more time than photographs.

Photographing Documents

  • It takes less time to photograph a document.
  • Reduces handling of fragile documents.
  • Reduces the appearance of dust particles.
  • Camera are more portable than scanners.

Advice For Deciding Between Scanning and Photographing Your Genealogy Documents

Some archivists suggest that you should scan contemporary documents and use a camera for items of archaeological significance.

In my experience, flip that advice around unless you have a set-up like the one in the video below.

Making Preservation More Affordable - TxSGS Capture Set
Watch this video on YouTube.

For modern documents, snap a picture… or better yet -- receive ‘BORN DIGITAL’ version of the documents.

Let the size and flatness of the historical document be your guide along with the technology available to you or documents.

  • Use a photographic capture kit if you have the funds and space to set one up.
  • A scanner works best for most projects (just wipe the glass clean regularly).
  • Use a camera in a pinch.

For more tips for those facing family history downsizing challenges, order our book: Downsizing with Family History in Mind.

Should you be scanning or photographing your genealogy documents. 

Document scanner and photographer #genealogy

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.


  • Marian Wood

    Whether we scan or photo, we still have the option of optimizing the image by changing the lighting or cropping after the fact! I often tinker a little, to make something more visible or in better contrast.

  • Art Taylor

    In your first bullet point, “Scanned imagines have a better resolution”, what are the ‘Imagines’? Hopefully, just a typo.

    Scanned images might or might not have better resolution than photographed images. Some digital cameras have higher resolution than some scanners. Some cameras also, when using the RAW mode, have better color reproduction and higher Dmax (range from pure white to pure black).

    A versatile flatbed scanner, like the Epson V800/V850, can scan reflective originals up to about letter size in one pass, as well as slides and transparencies up to 8″ x 10″, but needs a lot of desk space, is fairly heavy, and expensive. It is also slow for high resolution scans.

    A comparable financial investment in a copy stand or tripod, DSLR or mirrorless camera with 1:1 macro lens, and two LED lights, need not take up much more physical space when in use; can digitize virtually any size slide/negative/reflective original; frequently at higher resolution; is easily transportable for digitizing originals while visiting relatives; and takes fractions of a second per image instead of seconds or minutes per image with a scanner. It’s also better for digitizing 3-D artifacts. When one is looking at digitizing thousands of prints, slides, or negatives, especially with a variety of sizes, the reduction in time to digitize each is significant.

    The Center for Railroad Photography and Art, where they have the older Epson V-700 scanner, have switched to using a DSLR for nearly all of their work since they deal with collections of 10s of thousands of slides per collection. They’ve found the camera RAW (NEF from Nikon in their case), give them more image data to work with in post digitizing editing. Peter Krogh also works with the Library of Congress for using digital cameras to digitize their collections, so LOC evidently gets better results with photography.

    Taking a digital photo or using a scanning app on a phone or tablet may be quick and easy, but in many cases, will yield a lower quality image for archival purposes.

    • Family History Fanatics

      Digital cameras are ideal for 3-D objects. I couldn’t agree more. I also find a camera helps for documents that do not lay flat (warped by age or water damage).

      For many home scanning projects, a scanner doesn’t necessarily need to take up that much space. There are many aspects to scanning and photography that the set up. Scanners are typically plug and go without too much additional technology skill. Having photographed my family’s paper archive and memorabilia archive, I learned a lot but I will still recommend scanning before photographing documents.

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