Take Photos and Other Media

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Taking pictures and other medias to document a PCB is usually the first step in the process. The minimum requirement is a digital still camera, the higher resolution the better. Just to give you some indication, a 5-megapixel camera is more than enough; every modern camera is good enough for our purpose. What is not good is a phone camera because usually it has got a way inferior resolution, a very bad contrast range and it's very difficult to keep it steady.

The first step is to take pictures of the PCB; prepare a place that will become your "studio", take pictures of PCBs while they are vertically laying against a wall, others prefer to take pictures with the PCB flat on the ground. In both cases use a single color, flat, opaque, neutral background; avoid plain white, it will reverberate back to the camera; avoid multicolored tiles, they usually shine and tend to alter camera contrast; eventually you can use for your background a brown paper of the kind used to wrap up delivery parcels. If you take pictures of a vertical PCB use a tripod, even a very small one to hold the camera; if you do not have a tripod, put the camera at the same height of the PCB, possibly resting over some books with a rigid cover; do not hold the camera in your hands because it's much more easy to "move" the picture. If you take pictures of an horizontal PCB use a tripod again, of the kind with the tilting head to hold the camera horizontal as well; if you do not have a tripod hold the camera in your hands, try to stay over the PCB with your legs slightly open, and hold your breath while taking the picture; if possible try to lay against a wall, this will help you to remain steady. The lighting of your "studio" is very important: the best possible source of light is the sun, but it's not always available, therefore a very good alternative is a couple of halogen lamps of about 300-500W, illuminating the PCB from a few meters away. The very important thing is to avoid direct lighting of the PCB, but to illuminate it with light reflecting out of the walls and ceiling, resembling as much as possible the natural ambient light. NEVER use the flashlight incorporated into your camera, because it will reflect back from the PCB and "blind" the picture. A good thing is to clean the PCB from dust before taking pictures; if the PCB is very dirt, at least clean the surface of the ICs with a soft slightly humid cloth, so that markings and labels are clearly visible. Remember to take pictures of both sides of the PCB (components and solder), if the PCB consists of different boards packed one over the other, separate them and take pictures individually.

An even better method is to "scan" the PCB instead of taking pictures. For this method you will need an CCD flatbed scanner (a LED scanner is not good for the purpose, because it doesn't have the same depth of field as a CCD one, and the resulting scan will be blurred and out of focus). Remove the cover from the scanner to have more room to place the PCB on the scanning glass. Place your PCB on the scanning glass, align it accurately, and let it scan at a minimum of 200dpi (300 is better, a little bit slower). If the PCB is larger than the scanning windows, you will have to take multiple scans until you have covered the total surface of the PCB. Now repeat the process with the OTHER side of the PCB. All the resulting files are easily manipulated with a couple of graphics utilities: as an example, you can use ImageCompositeEditor to stitch together the different scans and get a single picture file of the whole PCB + Irfanview to trim the pictures and remove the not needed side parts, and to resize them.

If the PCB is working, it's now time to go to step two: taking pictures of the game in action. So, connect the PCB to your test rig, fire it up and let the game run for a few minutes so that your monitor gets to the right temperature. Calibrate your monitor to have a good full picture of the game, with warm saturated colors, and make sure that the full image is shown within the borders. Now switch off all ambient lights so that the monitor itself is the only source of light, and holding the camera in your hands keep as steady as possible and take pictures of the game at boot up, at title screen, at intro and attract mode, and during game as well. It is not important to have them at very high resolution, on the contrary 640x480 or 800x600 are more than good. Sometimes it's a good idea to film a few seconds of the game, especially if the game is extremely rare and there are no movies of it available on the net. A similar thing is valid for sounds: if the game is extremely rare or very old and there are no sample available, record the sounds of the game. There are 2 ways to do it: with a microphone or directly connecting the PCB to your computer sound card. With a microphone you get a lower quality samples, possibly degraded by the quality of the speakers on your test rig and by the quality of the microphone itself; but it's a simple method and it's highly recommended if you do not know how your PCB works. Connecting the PCB directly to your sound card requires a little of electronic knowledge, a soldering iron and a clear idea of what you are doing; if you do not know how to do it DO NOT DO IT! otherwise you will end up with a broken PCB and a broken sound card.