Illustrating Circuit Boards in a Manual

In mid-September, 1999, I posted an inquiry to ASTD's Technical Training Mailing list concerning producing images of circuit boards for use in training manuals.  I asked the following questions.

1.  Is it feasible to consider photography of these boards for black-and-white reproduction?

2.   If so, can I reasonable produce the photographs in-house using a  digital camera?

          2 1/2.   What special lighting, if any, would I require to get  good  reproduction?

Here are some of the responses I received.  They break down into the following categories:

General Comments  General Comments:  Digital vs. Film

Photograhy: Lighting  Photography, with an Emphasis on Lighting

General: Video Capture General Comments:   Video Capture
Scanners  Using a Scanner

General Comments:  Digital vs. Film

From Kari Klein

Hi Frank! I used to be a photographer specializing in black and white photography and digital design. In response to your questions:

1- Yes. Your best reproduction would be from black and white photos, but color photos taken in good light will convert over, too.

2- Yes. The digital cameras that I have seen and used have been of good quality for the photos. Also, since it is digital, it is easy to manuver into your layout on the computer.

2 1/2- Just make sure you are in a well-lit room and that you have a portable light to shine on the object you are photographing.

From Colleen P. Kulikowski

Produce those photographs with a normal camera - preferrably with Black and White Film (better contrast) and develop those photos at a Kodak processing with an additional disk of images. These work out best. A second option is have a photograph and pay the extra money and have them scanned (highest resolution) into computer JPEGs. Either method ensures the highest quality output for black and white manuals. The digital cameras do a nice job, but I find the first method much better --now if you have state of the art digital camera, you might be able to get better results.... But economy seems to be an issue for you....

 From Steve Berian

Yes, you could use a digital camera. Try to get one with at least 1000 x 1000 dpi resolution.  Use "day-light" color corrected fluorescent lamps, or electronic flash [strobes], mounted Left & Right at 45o to the subject plane, so that the subject is illuminated w/ approximately 120 +/- 15 footcandles. The angle of the lights is important to cancel shadows, [caused by components mounted on the PC boards].

Using a copystand is very helpful. Also get the Kodak book on Macro-photography.

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Photography, with an Emphasis on Lighting

From Warren Phillips

 I have the following suggestions.

1. Lighting will be very important! If possible shoot in a studio where lighting can be better controlled.

2. Film can capture details that digital can not. And you can shoot in B&W.

3. Then have the film digitized - scanned or some film developing houses do this.

4. The expertise of a professional photographer is invaluable here. Small changes in camera settings, lighting adjustments, film types make huge differences.

My experience with even very expensive digital cameras, was that fine resolution and small differences in lighting could not be captured.

A photograph on file takes up very little space but contains a very high level of detail. The equivalent digital file would be very, very large.

You can then digitize the photograph at various levels of resolution, optimized for the end use - web graphics vs print.


The advantage of digital is that it is fast - which is useful for capturing and distributing changes in the interim, until high quality photography can be accomplished.

Medium and wide shots can be accomplished with a digital camera, where fine detail is not critical.


In some cases, no matter what digital format you go to, you lose details in a photographic image. Options in that case require the use of a graphic artist to:

* Enhance the digital image, or add information.

* Trace the photograph and build a graphic which shows the necessary detail.

* Produce a rendering / technical illustration (2D/3D)

* Use both photographs and graphics.

From Ronald Scro

 Photographing circuit boards is a relatively easy task. You didn't mention how the manuals are reproduced. Are they offset-printed, laser-printed, or photocopied?

If your digital camera can accomodate an appropriate resolution for the particular manual reproduction method you are using, then it should be fine. You can also photograph the boards with film and then scan the photographs. You must remember that the photographs will need to be screened for the printing process if you are using an offset method. This can be accomplished with most desktop publishing programs. Screening renders the shades of grey into black dots of various sizes (to simulate shades of grey) since, unlike a photograph, offset printing can only transfer solid color (in this case black) to the paper.

Since you are shooting black&white then color temperature is not an issue and you have a choice of many different sources of light. Flat lighting, that is light that is diffused and not reaching the board from a steep angle but rather "straight on" from the perspective of the camera, will reduce the shadows but not accentuate the depth of the components. Hard, raking light will accentuate the depth of components but will create harsh shadows. Experiment to see  what type of lighting makes what you want to see easily  viewable. Probably somewhat flat lighting will work best, expecially for lower resolution applications.

You will also have to deal with the shadow that the board creates on the surface where it is placed for shooting. I've sometimes elevated the board from the background with some nonreflective glass to eliminate this shadow. It takes a little practice so you may want to omit this enhancement.

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General Comments:   Video Capture

From Shaun Browne

We have been very successful using video cameras and a peripheral called Snappy, which captures video images very well.

Because it scans the image 8 times (according to the info provided), it makes a much clearer image than, say, a Sony Mavica (which we have used). Because most video cameras work at low light, this tool has been a real help to us. The Snappy, including software, costs $200.00 in Canada.

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Using a Scanner

From John Sulzmann  

If you can remove the circuit boards from whatever equipment they're in, try scanning them! I have had tremendous results (sharpness, contrast, color, brightness) by just placing the boards on a flatbed scanner and scanning them, then doing a little brightness and contrast adjustment in photo processing software, such as Photoshop.

From David Hirsch     

Have you considered trying to lay the boards onto a flatbed scanner and trying to scan them. I don't know how big they are or what their depth is, but it is just a thought worth trying.

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Copyright Copyright 1998 Frank W. Bell, Jr.

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