Our Mobile Copy-stand: The Review

This post is largely based on my experience of using the copy-stand for Culture in Transit’s work with institutions. Maggie & Sarah’s experience of using the copy-stand in a community event setting varies and they’ll address their thoughts/experience separately.

A copy-stand is a device used to capture images or text with a camera. It is used by cultural heritage institutions as an alternative to book scanners or flatbed scanners to digitize historical material.

Generally, a copy-stand is kept in one place, hence is static and (broadly speaking) thought does not need to given to weight or portability of the equipment. A copy-stand usually consists of a baseboard with a center column affixed to it, to which the camera can be mounted. Photographic lights are mostly also used as part of the set-up.

From the outset, we knew we needed to get creative with our interpretation of a copy-stand that could be transported as part of our mobile kit. Heavy baseboards and center columns would just not be feasible, so our attention turned to tripods and material backdrops as alternatives.

The CIT team, as well as some colleagues at METRO have prior experience digitizing historical material, so we knew broadly what pieces of kit we needed. What we didn’t have, was experience building a kit whose first requirement was to be mobile. In today’s age, with all of the advances made in developing lightweight materials, you’d think it would be easy to compile a kit of super lightweight components. As we soon learned, this is not the case.    

After research and a bit of trial and error, we settled on a Canon digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, a tripod that inverts, so the camera can be mounted to it pointing downward, a grey backdrop and daylight balance compact fluorescent desktop lamps.

Our copy-stand set-up

Our copy-stand set-up


Since we first compiled the kit back in June, it’s undergone a few modifications and the community and institution kits have diverged slightly. The two differences, are the tripod and the lights. We’ve chosen to only make the changes to one kit because the copy-stand has not been used as readily at community scanning events as it’s been used at METRO member institutions.

Here’s the kit review breakdown;

CameraCanon EOS Rebel T5 DSLR Camera with 18­-55mm Lens

The Canon Rebel T5

The Canon Rebel T5

  • Positives:
    • The camera comes with good software to allow for remote shooting through computer. This has the advantage of not needing to touch the camera whilst affixed to the tripod, negating the risk of accidentally moving it from its precise, perfect angle!
    • In an institutional setting, I have produced good, clear images with the camera. The only caveat to this was at the Wildlife Conservation Society (METRO’s pilot institution) some images of text based material came out slightly unfocused. We hadn’t refined our QA processes yet so unfortunately a few images were unusable. We quickly realized we needed to allow for the step of ensuring the camera is focused for every single shot and not relying on the camera to autofocus itself. Whilst using the EOS Utility software for remote shooting, the focus adjusts from auto to manual, requiring the additional step of ensuring the focus is accurate before image capture every time.
  • Negatives:
    • The biggest obstacle/downside to the camera is lens curvature. This will always present as a problem due to the nature of the construction of the lens. We looked into purchasing a wide angle or macro lens as an alternative but after a bit more in-depth research and asking the advice of the creator of the website Preserving History, we chose to continue on with the lens we have. The Canon EOS T5 has a 1.6 crop factor, meaning the lens mm gets multiplied by 1.6, thus the maximum zoom of 35 mm on the Canon lens is equivalent to 56 mm (35 x 1.6) on a traditional film camera. If we ensure we shoot at 35mm, we diminish the lens curvature issue. The tripod also allows the ability to move the camera closer to the equipment if necessary, instead of zooming with the lens. This issue hasn’t completely gone away as I’ve learned whilst using the copy-stand at Yeshiva University, digitizing posters. I would still be interested in experimenting with a different lens to try and combat this issue and reduce the need for heavy post-processing image editing.      
    • The software used for remote shooting drains the battery very quickly. After an hours work with it onsite at the Wildlife Conservation Society, the battery was dead. We had already purchased a spare camera battery, so we just added one more spare battery to the kit so whilst one is charging and one is in use, we still have a spare to rely on.


Original (and still part of community kit) – Beike BK-555 Foldable Tripod Monopod with Ball Head

  • Positives:
    • Lightweight.
    • Folds down to fit into backpack neatly.

      The original Beike tripod fits neatly in our kit backpack

      The original Beike tripod fits neatly in our kit backpack

  • Negatives:
    • As it’s so lightweight it wasn’t as sturdy as we’d have liked.
    • The tripods were low-quality and began to fall apart quickly.

Alternative (and part of institution kit) – Oben AT­3461 Aluminum Tripod With BA­117T Ball Head

  • Positives:
    • Legs extend out more than original tripod so gives greater flexibility on size of material we can digitize.
  • Negatives
    • Longer legs means it no longer fits into the backpack and needs to be carried separately.
    • Heavier than the original tripod and more expensive.
    • This is a broader negative that would concern any tripod used for a copy-stand, not just this one; as the support column on a static copy-stand is mounted perpendicular to the base, you are able to get the camera perfectly parallel to the base every time. With a tripod – you cannot. We overcame this issue by purchasing a spirit level to check the camera’s angle before every use. 

The tripod on the left is our Oben tripod, used in the institution kit – one of the positives is the greater leg length.

Verdict: I prefer the alternative tripod we purchased because of its greater stability and leg length. We purchased this as an alternative because when the first tripod arrived, we were concerned it wasn’t robust enough – the positive of it being lightweight, meant the negative of it seeming quite flimsy. I contacted B&H (whose expertise we relied on quite a bit for different pieces of kit) and asked what their best tripod was that inverted and was lightweight and they suggested the Oben. Yes, it is heavier than the Beike and more expensive but on balance, for the sort of work we are doing and the need to produce high-quality output, the extra money and weight has been worth it.      

BackdropePhotoInc 10x10ft solid grey muslin backdrop

  • Positives:
    • Excellent color for photographic work.
    • It works for our purposes as it can be folded up and transported in our backpack.
  • Negatives:
    • Large, very large! It was quite unwieldy to use at first due to its size, so we cut it up into three more manageable pieces.
    • The biggest problem with it is material type. It creases extremely easily and the creases are hard to get out. This can affect the quality of the master image if the creases can be seen in the background.

Verdict: The problem with this bit of kit is I don’t know what a good alternative for use in a mobile kit would be. A backboard, however lightweight would not work as well, as it would need to be limited to a specific size to be packed into our photo case or backpack. We did also give some thought to grey seamless paper (example) too, however because of our need to be portable, paper would not travel well and would be far too easily damaged and creased/possibly ripped. So, on the whole, whilst it’s frustrating that the material creases, it is an excellent colour and adequate backdrop for the work.   


Original (and still part of community kit) – CowboyStudio Photography Table Top Photo Studio Lighting Kit

The original lights, still part of the community kit.

The original lights, still part of the community kit.

  • Positives:
    • Easy to put together, comes in multiple parts which allows for easy transportation.
    • Affordable – the kit cost $42 (price correct as of June 2015) for two lights including the bulbs.
  • Negatives:
    • Not very robust – a screw already lost on one kit.
    • Bulbs get hot quite quickly.
    • Even though these lights come equipped with the most suitable bulbs for digitization work (5000K Daylight Balance Compact Fluorescent), they seemed a little to dim to light the material adequately. The material I have digitized with the lights, has had to be lightened a touch in Photoshop.

Alternative (and part of institution kit) – Genaray SpectroLED Outfit 500 Daylight LED Light

The Generay LED lights now part of the institution kit.

The Generay LED lights now part of the institution kit.

  • Positives:
    • Easy to put together and come in their own carry case.
    • As they’re LED, they produce less heat and UV emissions than fluorescent bulbs.
    • Directly comparing them to the other lights I’ve used, they produce a much brighter, more even distribution of light across the material to be digitized.
    • They have a 100-0% dimming function which is extremely useful functionality as it enables you to adapt the lighting dependent on your circumstance. A drawback of a mobile digitization service is you cannot control what environment you will be digitizing in, hence can be limited in your ability to control any natural/artificial light. Having the dimming functionality allows a little more control over lighting of material onsite.
    • Light enough to be picked up and moved around to suit the needs of the digitization. Related to this, they are battery powered, so are no power leads to contend with when positioning and repositioning them.
  • Negatives:
    • Very expensive ($419 per light – price correct as of December 2015). They also do not come with a stand, so that is an additional cost (n.b. we purchased these light stands for the lights on the advice of a B&H rep and they’re great, no complaints).
    • The batteries lasted a total of 2.5 hours of continuous use before they began dying.
    • Related to the previous point, the batteries take a long time to re-charge, around 4 hours. This has the distinct disadvantage of leaving you unable to use the copy-stand for a significant period of time. Knowing this, I adjusted my workflow to work on image editing and metadata whilst the batteries charged, so no real time was lost. An alternative, if workflow adjustment isn’t an option, would be to purchase spare batteries. However, they are expensive ($60 each as at January 2016) and you would need four, which significantly bumps up the cost the lights overall.  

Verdict: Directly comparing them to the original lights we purchased, I prefer these. They produce a better, brighter and more even light for digitization work and I prefer that they are battery powered rather than mains powered so they can be can easily moved around with no wire repositioning. They do come at a cost though. I would recommend purchasing spare batteries for the lights and so for a light set (a light, two spare batteries and a light-stand) you’re looking at over $550 (approx price accurate as at January 2016).  

Solving the problem of not having any glass to flatten rolled posters with book strips and weights.

Solving the problem of not having any glass to flatten rolled posters with book strips and weights.

Other observations
One challenge I faced at my latest host institution, Yeshiva University, was digitizing rolled posters. The ideal solution to rolled material and a feature of traditional copy-stands and book scanners is plexi-glass or a variation of that. I have always had it in mind we could face this issue during the course of the project but again, we have the problem of transporting plexi-glass or variant as part of the mobile kit. As with a copy-stand backboard, it would need to be a certain size to fit into the camera carry case or backpack. This would limit the size of the material we could digitize to the dimensions of the case we were using. Another option could be to purchase a carry case – similar to this – large enough to accommodate plexiglass but again, adding more bulk to the kit. I’ve overcome this obstacle by purchasing thick archival quality book strips and book weights (these and these) to hold the item down at the top and bottom. It’s worked well with the rolled posters at Yeshiva – you have to be careful to angle the lights so the book strips do not catch any light reflection but overall, I’m very happy with this solution.

Is the copy-stand kit mobile? A dictionary will give you the following definition of mobile; “capable of moving or being moved readily”. Based on this definition alone, yes the copy-stand kit is mobile. However, this does not take into account the weight of each item and the transportation case, which hampers its ability to be truly lightweight and mobile.

Putting personal emotions about the copy-stand aside – the kit we have compiled is perfectly functional and more than adequate at digitizing and producing archival quality master images of historical material which is the crux of our needs for it.

The problem, I think, comes with comparisons. We (I know I do) are comparing our kit to a more traditional, in-house copy-stand setup, that can be used in a controlled environment. The two scenarios – in-house and out in the field – are just too different with too many variant factors to be worth comparing. Whilst we’ll never be able to truly replicate an in-house model, what we’ve compiled gives us the ability to provide a service to assist those who have neither the means or the capability to digitize their materials.

Perhaps the key lies in switching careers to design and manufacture high quality, lightweight, and affordable cultural heritage digitization equipment!

**This post has focused on the most important parts of the copy-stand kit – the camera, tripod, lights and backdrop. We will be writing another post reviewing our ancillary kit items that are used with the copy-stand and/or scanner.**