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Your Scanner Invites You to Create Exquisite Images

Image © Janet Dwyer

by Janet Dwyer—

Often people who see my exhibition prints are floored by the larger than life detail, then stunned when told my ‘camera’ is a scanner. Scanners create some unique effects due to their myopic vision, wrap around quality of lighting, and moving lens. The lens records and lights the objects from several different points of view as it travels past them.

In the early 2000s I connected my first Epson scanner to a computer and, anxious to see if it worked, set the resolution to 800 dpi and looked for something flat to scan. My hand was the nearest thing around so I pressed it against the glass surface where a document would normally go and hit the scan button. Every wrinkle and line was reproduced with absolutely stunning clarity. It was a life changing moment for me.

Making a photo with your scanner can be easy. Just open the lid and arrange some objects on the glass. Keep the lid open or, if you know you’re going to use it exclusively for scanographs, remove it and use the scanner as your camera to photograph whatever you place on the glass. Scanography has some unique attributes and advantages when compared to shooting with a camera. Objects are sitting on a glass surface which is transparent—they seem to float, suspended in space.

Depth of Field (sharp focus) is limited to less than half an inch from the glass surface which is to your point of sharpest focus. As you get farther from the flatbed glass the focus gets softer. Use this to your advantage by placing the object you want to be sharpest right on the glass flatbed. This can be a challenge and require some advanced planning.  Tonal differences, lighting, leading lines, arrangement of space can work along with the amazing resolution to give scanner photographs more depth. And you have lots of opportunities to try different approaches; don’t worry, your subjects will be very cooperative.

Image © Janet Dwyer

There are other factors that determine depth of field, the main one being   the scanner itself and whether it uses a CIS (Contact Image Sensor) or CCD (Charged Coupled Device). A CCD scanner is usually be more expensive; however recently they have come down in price. A CCD scanner has more   depth of field than a CIS and usually gives better subject illumination.

Most photographers remember the adage that “the best camera is the one you have with you at the time.” My advice, therefore, is to begin by using any scanner you have on hand and know that there is always something better out there. As for software, begin with what with comes with your scanner. Currently I use Epson Perfection (CCD) scanners and Vuescan software. Vuescan has a feature that  allows me to rotate my previews so they may be viewed in either vertical or horizontal orientation, or even upside down

Image © Janet Dwyer

Check for dust when scanning. You will become very good friends with Photoshop’s Stamp and Healing Brush tools. Everything will be enlarged along with your subject matter, including dust specks, so begin by thoroughly cleaning your scanner glass. Don’t spray glass cleaning fluid directly on it; rather spray it onto a microfiber cloth first and use the moist cloth to clean the glass.

It’s important not to get liquids at the edge of the glass or they may seep into the scanner and create a problem. Some scanographers have suggested caulking the edges of the glass with clear silicon to repel moisture, dust and pollen. Clear tape is another option but you may lose a bit of the image area.

Image © Janet Dwyer

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 a resolution of 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.

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 (or even larger, depending on how picky you are).

Image © Janet Dwyer

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. It’s always better to scan at a higher resolution than you require for printing as downsizing will usually increase quality and likely the day will come when you’ll want to make a bigger print or enlarge a section of your initial scan. That said, be prepared for some very large files by having enough hard drive (ore other) storage space to accommodate them, plus be aware that some image programs and printers have a limit on what file sizes they can handle.

Now let’s turn to lighting and backgrounds. Your subject matter is being lit by a moving bar of light thar 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 blown out highlight detail after scanning but strive to capture maximum highlight detail in the original scan. This is controlled in the scanner software: a scan that is too dark will still contain most of the dynamic range of your subject which can be recovered later, one that is too light will lack adequate highlight detail.

Image © Janet Dwyer

You can use any kind of background that appeals to you—handmade papers, printed materials, tiles, cloth, or natural materials like large leaves  And don’t forget that you can add supplementary light to your objects, by using side lighting, even flashlights and other light sources. The beauty of supplementary lighting is that  it adds depth, dimension, texture and interest along side the more frontal scanner bar lighting.

Personally I like to work with subject matter that has a theme but feel free to make your own decisions based on what inspires you. If you’d like an assignment perhaps the theme ‘Collections’ could inspire you to get going on 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, mechanical objects and more.

Image © Janet Dwyer

Using a scanner to make art opens up opportunities to be creative and look at photography in a whole new way. It is a new imaging tool just waiting to do more than copy dull black and white documents.


Janet Dwyer began her photographic career in 1973 and works as a freelance photographer, photo educator and photo artist. Her freelance specialty is documenting works of art for artists, museums and galleries but her personal photography is an exploration utilizing a flatbed scanner as an imaging tool using natural elements, mostly flowers, to create relationships and surreal combinations of forms and textures engaged in a dialogue.


 This  scan uses an additional light to add texture and  highlights. Elements are positioned and preview scans  are done. The subject is then covered with what will be its background, in this case a handmade paper. After several preview scans are made to determine the final composition, a high resolution version is done. Image © Janet Dwyer


Visit Janet’s website to view more scanography images.

Scanographers share techniques for photoscanography.

David Hamrick’s VUESCAN scanning software for scanners old and new.

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Original Publication Date: September 17, 2021

Article Last updated: September 15, 2023

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