Into the Heart of Europe: Traveling to Estonia to Digitize Film and Glass Plates
Headquartered in Tartu, Estonia, the National Archives of Estonia is the government agency responsible for ensuring Estonia’s written memory and documented cultural heritage are preserved and made as broadly accessible as possible. The National Archives collects and preserves records documenting history, culture, nationhood, and social conditions in Estonia, with 10 million records in just about every form and condition going as far back as A.D. 1240, and about 25 million digital images that are free to access on the web.
The National Archives of Estonia chose DT Heritage’s service bureau Pixel Acuity to digitize a collection of approximately 100,000 pieces of film and glass-plate transmissive materials amassed from several collections and cultural heritage institutions around Estonia — including some beautiful portraits from the Photo Museum of Tallinn City, excavations from the Tallinn University Archeological Collection, and even Estonian art exhibits from the Estonian Art Museum.
The Pixel Acuity team went to two different locations in Estonia to execute all the digitization on-site. Even during an international pandemic, they were able to make the appropriate arrangements to get staff and equipment to Estonia safely and within the U.S. and Estonia’s guidelines. Their work has yielded high-quality, preservation-grade, FADGI 4-Star images, and when the digitization is finished, all the post processing will happen remotely from one of the DT Heritage offices in the United States using a secure cloud-based workflow.
The DT Atom is a tabletop platform that’s compact, flexible, and portable — perfect for this project because on-site personnel had to move the whole setup from one location to another. The team swapped the standard reflective top for a DT Film Scanning Kit, which delivers high-speed, FADGI 4-Star-compliant film scanning at incredible resolution and is many times faster than legacy scanning equipment.
Image capture came from the 100MP Phase One iXG camera, which is designed expressly for cultural heritage environments with high-volume production needs. The camera renders crucial precision focus and the highest possible resolution and color accuracy at speeds not possible with DSLRs.
One of the many reasons the iXG camera was right for this project is because of its ability to autofocus. Glass-plate negatives can vary in thickness and often require refocusing from piece to piece. The iXG’s autofocus feature makes this process faster, more consistent, and easier for the technician.
This hardware setup allowed for the safest and most efficient material handling, limiting the amount of time each asset was handled and exposed to light.
Our Capabilities At Work
In January 2021, Pixel Acuity founder Eric Philcox and a U.S.-based team of Pixel Acuity’s highly specialized, highly experienced photographers traveled to Estonia to kick off the project. These photographers have more than 50 years of experience among them in film imaging, fine-art photography, and digitizing fine-art collections for multiple institutions, collections, and museums around the world.
Each shooter worked with two Estonian material handlers who were hired for the project and trained by Pixel Acuity to handle and process the film in preparation for shooting.
Pixel Acuity designed a physical workflow to accommodate two handlers and a photographer. Both handlers worked closely to load and unload the material, keeping track of what needed to be shot and what material was already digitized.
Besides the special difficulty of getting people and equipment into the country during a pandemic with a 10-day quarantine, the most challenging part of this project was organizing the archive in a way that made sense for rapid capture — a completely new concept to the National Archives staff. Each of the 22 different institutions had a different naming system. Project manager and photographer Joy Smith worked with the archive manager to come up with a naming system that worked with both the institution’s existing naming convention and a more standard naming scheme that makes sense while shooting.
The National Archives of Estonia is relying on Pixel Acuity to handle all aspects of the digitization workflow from start to finish, along with subsequent post production. To make it happen, the photographers stay in Estonia for 7-8 weeks at a time, overlapping by a few days to ensure a smooth transition. Once digitization is complete, the team will go back to the United States to perform post-processing.
From Unimaginable To Reality
The digitization project started at the beginning of February 2021, and by April, Pixel Acuity imaging professionals had already digitized/shot over 65,000 pieces of film and almost 6,000 glass plates in Tallinn.
The combination of an expert workflow, highly experienced shooters, and a single Atom Digitization System completed the imaging phase of this project a week ahead of schedule — a timeframe National Archives staff deemed “unimaginable.”
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