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Saturday, February 7, 2009

When to Scan Art and When to Shoot It

It's not always obvious how best to get your art into a computer so that you can post it, email it, add to it or submit it. I think I can help.

Flat Art

It always seems like a scanner is good for flat art. And usually that's true. The exception is if your art has anything metallic, iridescent or shimmering. Scanners render these poorly, flat and uninteresting. A camera can never capture twinkle (and for pity's sake don't add any little flare stars to fake it!) but you can get a much better sense of metallic or (to a degree) iridescence.

Another thing: After you ladies get through with it, art is rarely really flat, I've found. My wife's journal won't even close. A lot of the charm of a journal is in its bookishness, and mashing the thing flat on the scanner can rob it of that charm. Any art that has been rippled or warped in the process of creation should really be photographed if you can in order to preserve the handmade appeal.

3-D Objects

3D objects are better photographed, usually. This includes flat art with lots of embellishments. Scanners using CMOS sensors like the super-skinny Canon scanners typically scan deep things horribly. Scanners with CCD sensors (a little more expensive, usually bigger) can get better results, occasionally almost photographic. At worst, you'll get that eerie front-to-back illumination that Maggie Taylor uses so effectively.


Most scanners do a fairly equivalent job of scanning. But they're built to be disposable, sad to say. If you're struggling with an old scanner that can't even scan a white piece of paper to a flat white scan, even after running the calibration function in its software, it's time for a new one. The good news is that you can get a pretty nice little CMOS scanner like a Canon LiDE
for like $60, and a nice CCD scanner for $150. I just bought a new one that uses LED's for the lights so it has like a 1-second warmup time, which will be nice. and a technology called Digital ICE which removes dust.

Most cameras have manual functions built-in that can allow you to get good results. But I'll save the details on that for another post. But I will mention the lighting, because that's usually more of the problem than the camera itself. If you don't have passable lighting, there's a good chance that the scanner will still do a better job.

The ideal lighting is this: Two diffuse light sources out at 45˚ from your art, on either side. By diffuse, I mean soft, like a frosted bulb instead of a clear bulb, only more diffuse than that. I've found some lovely gooseneck 50W halogen lamps at Target for like $8 each that I still use, but the bulbs and glass are clear, so I've had to diffuse them with tissue paper or "ripstop nylon" like kites and camping gear are made from.

As tempting as it is to just throw it on the scanner, I've started shooting more and more art. My 10 megapixel camera with a 60mm macro lens gave me a much sharper image of an old book than the scanner did at its highest optical resolution.

Equipment Settings

When you capture your image, whether scanning or shooting, always capture at the highest quality and resolution that you can tolerate. Never scann anything at less than 300dpi (dots per inch). If you think you might zoom in on something, say reusing a nice texture from some little bit of your piece, then up the resolution. Much above 600dpi and you're just slowing down Photoshop and filling your hard drive unnecessarily. The camera, too, has quality settings. They often list the frame size in the quality settings menu on the camera, like, 2048x1786 or something like that. Shoot at the highest resolution. If you need to send it as an email, save a low-resolution copy later -- don't try to scan at low resolution because you only plan to email it. Believe me, you'll be sorry. Photoshop has a "Save for Web & Devices" menu item that will save off your web/email-sized copy for you very nicely.

On the camera, it is often useful to select the Macro mode if you're shooting the art very close up. This is represented on most cameras with a tulip icon.

The camera has a self-timer too, which can be useful for this task. You see, when you push the button to take the picture it can jiggle the camera, making it blurry. If you've set the camera on a tripod or even one of those bean-filled neck pillows for stability, letting the self-timer mode delay the exposure gives the camera time to settle down, getting you a very sharp photo.

For flat art you want the sharpest picture possible. To do this, set the camera into "aperture-priority mode" if it has one (may be abbreviated Av, or just A -- as long as A doesn't mean Auto), and set the f-number as high as you can go with, like f22. This will keep the whole thing sharp, but the shutter will have to stay open for a long time to get enough light through. This means you cannot handhold the camera. You need a tripod, or some other support system.

Here's an exotic tip: Many point and shoot cameras come with a cable that allows you to hook the camera up to your TV. Customarily this is used for quickie slideshows, but what's less well-known is that the camera is likely to be sending out whatever the viewfinder sees as you set up the shot. This can allow you to adjust the lights while looking at a big TV instead of running back and forth between the stage and the camera.
Hope that helps.

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