Many people have asked me about how I photograph plates, so I decided to capture what I have been telling people over the years. I hope you find this guide useful and please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions.

Photographing plates is two-step process. The first is the actual capturing of the image, but what people don’t realize is that a second step is involved – processing the image.

What You Need

You will need something to photograph the plate against. I use a sheet of plywood that has been painted white. I have several sets of small nails hanging from them – one for regular 6x12 plates, one for motorcycles, and a third for the 1976 and 1977 Bahamas issues (which used a wide bolt slot).

...and a camera. Any digital camera above 4 megapixels will do fine. Since I do a lot of photography in my spare time, I use a 10 megapixel Cannon Rebel XTi with a 24-70 USM 2.8L lens. I use the lowest quality setting on the camera, which is 3888x2592 and the lowest ISO setting, which is ISO 200.

Where to Photograph

There is only one place I can recommend - outdoors, in the shade. Outdoors because of the natural light and in the shade so there will be no shadows or reflections. Taking photos indoors is a difficult process for a few reasons:

  • Unless you have plenty of windows, there usually is not enough light inside, so a flash will be required. As you probably have experienced, reflective plates cannot be photographed with flash in automatic cameras.
  • Many times there is enough reflected color in the room that causes the plate to appear tinted in the photograph. For example, if there are a lot of red curtains in the room, white plates will have a pink hue to them.
  • Fluorescent lights have an incomplete light spectrum, so unless you have the option to use the Tungsten White Balance in your camera, the colors will appear off.

How to Photograph

If there is anything you should take away from this guide, it is the following technique I use to photograph a plate:

Stand back from the plate. If you get to close, the plate will not appear square, but rather “pin cushioned”. Because you will crop the photo later, you can leave plenty of space around the plate. This is an effect of the lens you are using and is most pronounced in point and shoot cameras. The closer you get to the plate, the more it will pin cushion.

Make sure the face of the plate is parallel to the back of camera. If it is not, the plate will appear trapezoidal. This means to pay attention to both up/down and left/right.

To make this an easy and repetitive process, I hang the plywood from the outside wall of a shed at eye height. This makes sure that the plate is dead-on in the up/down plane. I then mark a spot three feet back directly in front of the plate. This makes sure the plate is square on the left/right plane.

Processing the Image

You can use any image processing tools that allow you to crop and do color adjustments. This includes numerous open source tools and commercial products. I use Adobe Lightroom and highly recommend this product for any serious photographer.

These are the steps that I go through when processing the photo. Although they seem complicated, each photo takes only one minute to process.

Here is the original photo downloaded off the camera:

You will notice that the photograph has plenty of extra space around the license plate to prevent pin cushioning and the colors are off. Once the photo has been cropped and adjusted, the plate will have nice straight edges and the colors will match perfectly!

First, if the image was taken crooked, I straighten it. Then, crop the image to the borders of the plate:

Now the photograph consists of just the license plate.

As you can see, the plate appears dark and the colors are incorrect. Cameras rarely get the colors correct, so adjusting colors is expected. I now apply exposure and color balancing. First, I apply the "Auto Color" option, which allows the image processing tool to take its best guess as to how to adjust correctly the photograph. In many cases, this is all that is needed. This is the result of applying the Auto Color option in Lightroom:

Close, however, in this case, the colors are still slightly off - the plate is too orange and the blues are incorrect. I then fine-tune the colors using the Hue, Saturation, and Intensity controls to get the colors correct. In Lightroom, there are sliders to do such adjustments, and these are the adjustments I used to make the colors in the photo match the actual plate:

...and the finished plate:

The nice thing about Lightroom is that these adjustments can be saved and reapplied to other images. Therefore, I saved the above adjustments as "1976 Bahamas", and now this is a one-click process!