Scanography means using a flatbed scanner to make photographs, a technique that has become popular over the last two decades.
In 2000 I realized a flatbed scanner could be used to scan 3D objects. I had just connected my first Epson scanner to a computer. Anxious to see if it worked, I set the resolution to 800 dpi, placed my palm on the glass surface where a document would normally go, then hit the scan button.
Every wrinkle and line was reproduced with absolutely stunning clarity. And my scanography explorations began.
How It Works
To make a scanner photograph, you arrange objects on the scanner’s glass flatbed with the lid propped open or removed. Literally you are using the scanner as your camera to image whatever you place on the glass.
However, scanography has some unique attributes and advantages especially when compared to shooting with a camera.
Because objects are sitting on a transparent glass surface, they can seem to float, suspended in space. “Joy”, which reads like an exploding flower captured by high-speed flash, is actually the result of careful placement of each tulip pedal onto the flatbed glass. Gravity is defied giving some subject matter a surrealistic effect.
Depth of Field is limited to less than half an inch from the glass surface. Think of the glass as your macro focus point. As you get farther from the flatbed glass the focus gets softer. Use this to your advantage by placing the subject you want to be sharpest right on the glass flatbed.
This can be a challenge with complex 3D objects. One solution I have used with flowers is to remove petals to reveal the interior parts. This allows the inside of the flower to be in contact with the glass therefore visible and sharper.
The type of scanner used, CCD or CIS, also has a big effect on sharpness. Understanding that sharpness is not the only thing that creates the illusion of depth in a photograph is also important. Tonal differences, lighting, leading lines, arrangement of space can work along with the amazing resolution to give scanner photographs more depth.
CCD vs CIS for Scanner Photography
There are two types of scanners popular for scanner photography: CCD (charged coupled device) and CIS (Contact Image Sensor).
Here are a few practical things to know about each type.
A CCD scanner will always be more expensive. Most scanners over $400 are likely CCDs and conversely most inexpensive scanners are CIS. A CCD scanner has about ten times more depth of field than a CIS (about 10mm versus 1mm above the glass will be sharp).
Also with CCD the subject illumination will be more even and brighter as you get farther from glass compared to CIS, which falls off rapidly. Sharpness is noticeably better with CCD as is dynamic range or ability to capture larger tonal and colour ranges.
Many CIS scanners can be used upside down or on their sides whereas CCD’s likely need adaptations to work in different orientations.
It would seem that CCD is the clear winner especially if you are after maximum detail and sharpness. But consider we are talking about technical details here that may not matter to some people. And don’t forget it is the photographer that creates the photo NOT the camera (or scanner in this case).
So in my mind, equipment quality, though important, is not something to stop one from producing a great scanner photograph. Use any scanner you have on hand.
As with scanners any software will do the job so perhaps start by using the software that came with your scanner. If you want something better look into Silverfast or Vuescan.
Currently I use Epson Perfection (CCD) scanners, three different ones, and Vuescan software.
TIP: Check for dust when scanning. Everything will be enlarged along with your subject matter, including dust specks. Begin by thoroughly cleaning your scanner glass. Otherwise, you will become very good friends with Photoshop’s Stamp and Healing Brush tools.
Bigger Is Better
For me the intial draw to scanography was the high resolution. Twenty years ago digital SLRs had very limited resolution. When I saw what a scanner could do I was hooked. Think of a scanner as an 8.5 x 11 inch sensor – even today’s DSLR’s cannot compete.
It’s all in the numbers! File sizes can be upwards of 500 MB depending on the selected scanner dpi.
For example, a 5 x 7- inch area scanned at 2400 dpi in16 bits makes a 1150 MB file (over 1 GB)! When printed at 300 dpi, the subject can be enlarged 8 times. The higher the scanning dpi, the more pixels you have to work with and the greater your enlargement can be.
Often scanner specs are quoted as two numbers 3200/6400 – the lower of these two is the actual optical resolution of the scanner. Using a dpi setting above this only results in interpolation of information so best not to use a dpi setting above the true optical resolution.
My working method is to use the scanner software’s Preview option at lower resolution (300dpi) to check placement and rearrange subject matter until the image on the computer screen matches the one I’ve envisioned or is something worth capturing.
I use tweezers and chopsticks, Qtips, gently and carefully moving things so they don’t smear or scratch the glass. Some folks have suggested caulking the edges of the glass with clear silicon to keep dust and pollen out of the inside.
This is a good idea if you are putting water on the scanner for sure. Clear tape is easier to remove but you lose a bit of image area.
I have taken scanners apart to clean the inside glass surface which needs doing every few years. All these things void any warranty that might apply but if you are careful it’s worth the risk. Buying a used scanner might be a good place to start as the risk does not outweigh the investment and there are plenty out there to be had for less than $100.
High resolution scanning follows when the preview scan looks good. Imagine the possibility of vibrant hyper realistic four-foot tall poppies. Be sure to view all of your preview and final scans at 100% magnification to check your scanner art work.
Look for focus, is there dust that could be cleaned off without moving your subject matter?
Now step back from your computer screen and view the entire image onscreen from 5 feet away.
Does the image have a good flow to it? Any distracting elements? Does the composition work? Is there a stronger way to arrange the elements for more impact?
Evaluate your preview composition while you are doing a high resolution scan, it takes several minutes. Afterwards you may spend a little more time reworking things for an even better result, if not, you still have your original high resolution scan to go back to.
A simple way to determine resolution to use for scanning is knowing that 300dpi is a standard printing resolution so if you are scanning an 8×10” area on your flatbed with resolution set to 300 dpi you will end up enough resolution to make an 8×10 inch print.
I use a 44” wide HP printer and like to print big, hence the reason I am using mostly 1200 dpi and higher as my final scan resolution.
TIP: Scan at a higher resolution than you require for printing, downsizing will increase quality and likely the day will come when you want to make a bigger print or to enlarge a section of your initial scan.
Flowers and plants are popular subject matter for scanography, everyone appreciates their beauty, colour and interesting details. Usually cut flowers would be the logical choice but I have scanned a potted plant or two.
Obviously you must handle flowers with care. They are very fragile, and the petals will crease easily. Try to prop them up by the stems so that the foreground petals are not flattening out pressing into the scanner surface.
Store the flowers in a cool place before scanning and keep the cut ends wet while working with them. A florist’s water pick can keep the flower from wilting quickly.
If keeping flowers for several days, give them flower food to extend their life and keep the water in their vase fresh and cool.
Perhaps starting with flowers that are flatter or more sturdy would be a good place to begin. Dahlias, pansies, miniature sunflowers are easy to handle compared to orchids.
Have everything you might need on hand (scissors, tape, props, lighting, background material etc) and the scanner ready to go before you start placing the flowers.
Best also to have a starting composition worked out in your mind.
For me, a successful image has both a mysterious quality and the ability to ignite people’s imagination. When setting up the flowers and other objects, I pay close attention to placement that will imply gesture, action or emotion.
Structural parts of flowers and plants often mirror human or animal physiology, taking on individual personalities like characters onstage.
The bends in leaves and withered look of three tulips inspired the photography idea above titled “Old Friends”.
Scanography Ideas – What Else Can You Photograph
You don’t need to limit your subjects to natural ones either. As part of a fundraising exhibit I was asked to create a scanography piece using 100 bicycle parts.
“Rock Shox Rider” was the result of a day of fun placing and moving metal bike parts on the scanner. Background colourful streaks resulted from waving reflective bike parts in background during scanning.
The circular sun shape is a bike part I spun like a top while the scanner passed under it. I was very excited about the result which by the way is the most high resolution photo of my career.
Personally I like to work with subject matter that has a theme. If you’d like an assignment perhaps the theme ‘Collections’ could inspire and get you scanning.
Scanographers around the world are using just about anything one can imagine as their subject matter – rocks, body parts, animals, moving subjects, ink on glass, even rebuilding scanners into large format cameras.
How to Use Ice in Scanography
One challenge is working from the back of the composition as normally objects go face down onto the glass so you are not seeing what the scanner will see until you complete a low resolution scan and view it onscreen.
I have adapted one of my Epson scanners to work upside down but it comes with its own challenges. I do use it, held by a large camera stand, to scan live moths and other things but mostly for scanning ice.
‘On Ice’ is a continuing series of flowers and other organic subject matter frozen into a block of ice or cubes. You can scan these as they are melting for some very interesting effects.
DO NOT put ice directly onto a scanner or like me you will be disassembling your scanner to clean condensation from the interior of the glass.
The potential for icy textures is appealing. While the ice is melting its texture is constantly changing. Almost always the ice is lit from below for a more transparent look.
Composition is tricky when scanning ice. The flowers can move somewhat as they freeze, and you have to hurry because it’s melting.
The light coming from the scanner bar has a unique quality to it. It’s different than lighting something with a single burst of flash or natural light coming from the sun on a clear sky day.
It’s more akin to that softer light you experience on an overcast day from many different angles. Your subject matter is being lit by a moving bar of light and the light seems to wrap itself around objects as it passes by.
The farther these objects are from the scanner glass, the darker they will be. White objects placed right on the glass can turn out too light and lack details, things farthest away from the glass will be quite dark. It’s possible to recover some of the the blown out highlight detail after scanning but best to capture maximum highlight detail in the original scan.
You can control this through the scanner software. A scan that is too dark will still contain most of the dynamic range of your subject that you can recover later. One that is too light will lack adequate highlight detail.
Scanned objects also may look too flat, lacking in contrast. To enhance depth, dimension, texture and colour, you can balance additional lights with the wraparound soft scanner lighting. I utilize various light sources sometimes directly but often diffused/filtered through Mylar or colour gels.
Any continuous light source will work, even flashlights. Tungsten will tend to give a warmer reddish cast, LED cooler colour.
If your scanner has a built in transparency adapter to scan slides you can even use that as your primary light source for a more transparent x-ray quality or backlighting effect.
What I Do to Edit Scanography
After the scan is complete I use Photoshop’s Curves to control contrast, looking for a pleasing range of tones with good detail in Highlights and Shadows. I fine tune colour in Photoshop with Hue/Saturation tool or locally with the Sponge tool.
There is usually work with the dodge/burn tools to compensate for imbalances due to subject tonality or distance from the scanners moving light bar creating falloff of light. Successful dodging and burning goes a long way to create more depth in the image. The dodge and burn tools are important to understand – play with the Range Settings (H/L Midtone Shadow) for more control.
If the colour is adversely affected, duplicate the background layer, do your dodging and burning on this layer then set the layer blend mode to Luminosity.
The photos below show the original scan on left and reworked using Photoshop – tonally balanced result on right mostly with dodge and burn tools.
Which Backgrounds Work Best
Unless you are planning to scan something very thin, you will need to prop the scanner lid out of the way or remove it to accommodate your 3D subject matter. Some non-removable lids adjust for the thickness of a book but the weight of them pressing on fragile objects like flowers would be an issue.
For a solid black background try working in a darker room, covering the objects with a black cloth or build a black box around the edge and top of your scanner. Black adds contrast and drama, you see this background used frequently with flowers. A different look can be achieved by suspending other background materials above your objects.
For a softer look, handmade paper or natural materials work well as backgrounds. Other backgrounds I’ve used include tiles and slate, large leaves and other flowers, photographs, aluminium, large pieces of bark, translucent mylar, glass mirrors and reflective objects.
Also consider the foreground. You could place a translucent material like lace or thin rice paper directly on the glass and your subject on top. Scanning through can add interesting textures and depth.
To achieve a painterly or underwater effect I have experimented with scanning through textured glass as in the example “Rose Bouquet”.
The background needs to be a few inches bigger than the flatbed glass especially if it is suspended several inches above the glass.
Using Live Insects
Most exciting to me is using live critters in my scanography work for effects that break into new photographic territory. When living insects move during scanning, they create colourful digital tracks.
If you keep your live insects in the fridge for a few minutes before scanning it slows them down. Try different dpi settings to capture their movements. A small brush works well for gentle wrangling.
My best scanography image involves over 300 spiderlings that bound a flower to the scanners glass with their dense webbing. I’ve also worked with moths, caterpillars, silkworms, ants and a newt. Be careful not to harm these little critters or keep them posing for too long.
While nature unfolds, the scanner’s myopic lens and light source pass over, converting what it sees to digital information, witnessing each passing moment of time. Photo scanography has allowed me to observe and record nature in a unique way and opened up new creative opportunities.
Perhaps there is an imaging tool on your desk masquerading as a document scanner that calls to your imagination?
© JANET DWYER 2018