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Creative Applications of Digital Photography, the Scan-O-Gram - Introduction, Conclusion

image scanner images technology

Rochester Institute of Technology


Many teachers, artists, and practitioners of imaging technologies are fascinated by the multitude of possibilities for creative expression made possible by the digital revolution. Today’s technologies can unlock the magic of imaging in ways that could never have been considered just a few short years ago with conventional photography.

Initially, I did not find photography to be a magical experience until I watched my first black and white print develop in the darkroom. The process of picture taking and the image I imagined while pressing the shutter were not always synonymous. I experimented with different papers and fabric, homemade emulsions, toning, hand-coloring, drawing, and marking on images to achieve images that were more what I was looking for. Often, though, there was still something missing. The lack of control in achieving my “mind’s eye’s” compositions and the experience of serendipitous joy in watching the image appear in the developer tray were, for a period, elusive outcomes for me. The tediousness of the darkroom and the guaranteed cleanup afterward were also less than thrilling for me.

As digital imaging began to emerge, image-makers like me immediately saw the creative potential and possibilities. However, there were not a lot of options in the early days. Software and computers were still very limited. Scanning film (the only input option at that time) was time consuming, laborious, and unpredictable. And then there was the problem of finding a quality photographic “output.” There was virtually nothing available except for dot-matrix printers, dye sublimation, or going back to analog materials. But one could see that the technology was coming and exciting things were on the horizon.

The late 80s and very early 90s utilized still video cameras as the direct camera capture technology, which was the forerunner of today’s digital cameras. Suddenly (and with great excitement I might add!) the world of image making was changed by the immediacy of the new process. The limitations of film and processing were gone and experimentation was wide open. It was possible to photograph objects—opaque and transparent on a light table using this single fluorescent light source for illumination. The ability to evaluate the image immediately after capture allowed for instant composition and lighting modifications. The resolution of the first cameras was disappointingly low and so was the image quality. At the time, the only accessible output technologies did not allow for marking and drawing onto the substrates. Not long after these experiments, flatbed scanners became more accessible and produced better images. The first subject I worked with on a scanner was a milkweed pod from the garden. I placed it on the glass of the flatbed and tried a scan. The scanner generated so much heat that the pod burst open and I was completely smitten while watching the image appear on my screen. From that experience grew my love of the digital scan-o-gram and using the scanner as a camera.

For many, scan-o-grams are about the relationship of the object to the device. There is a serendipity that occurs when the scanner’s internal light source illuminates the object—hidden textures and details are revealed. It is the relationship between the scanner and object that is difficult to replicate with other forms of image making. There is a hyperreal quality to these images that brings the minute details often missed in the world and nature—the space and moments in-between. With today’s exquisite output quality and high resolution, it is possible to reveal these gorgeous details that would otherwise go unseen or missed if you were simply walking by.

To produce a scan-o-gram, objects are composed on the flatbed scanner glass. Things are added or removed and then quick pre-scans are performed. Based on what is seen in the software preview window, the composition can be altered or adjusted—just as one might do based on looking at the ground glass from a large-format camera. Once satisfied with the composition, you can make the final scan and save the image using an image-editing software such as Adobe Photoshop®. After years of experimenting, I have found that the best way to “clean” the background is to actually get rid of it. One of the best methods is to create a mask (using a channel-based technique) around each element in the image and add a new black background layer. This gives the images an incredible depth and a look that I’ve coined as “Elvis Velvet Black” when printed (via inkjet) with pigment inks on high quality cotton rag paper or fabric.

Today’s technology and software allows the scanner to be profiled and calibrated so that the majority of color and exposure adjustments can be done within the scanner interface. When done properly, it is not unusual for the images to need no further color correction within Photoshop. Scanning in 16-bit to a wide-gamut RGB working space (ProPhoto) preserves all of the colors and tonality that the scanner can capture. Then use Photoshop to “paint with light” (dodge and burn on a separate layer) for local control of density.

The following steps represent the workflow that was used for the images reproduced with this essay.

  1. Calibrate (determine optimal gamma) and profile the scanner.
  2. Clean and re-clean the glass!
  3. Adjust the scanner interface to match the output resolution and size requirements.
  4. Turn off all auto features (except for focus) and sharpening in the scanning software.
  5. Set the bit depth to 16-bit.
  6. Assign an RGB working space via the scanner’s color management controls (in this case, ProPhoto) and the correct input (scanner) profile.
  7. Arrange the objects on the scanner glass.
  8. Include a grayscale step wedge for the preview scan.
  9. Leave the top of the scanner open.
  10. Be aware that if overhead lights are left on, they can create a colorcast and unwanted reflections.
  11. Optimize the scan by setting the white, black, and mid-tone utilizing the step wedge.
  12. Make the scan.
  13. Open the file in an image-editing program such as Adobe Photoshop and make additional corrections, manipulations and, of course, eliminate all the dust and scratches from the scanner glass.
  14. The image may be printed on any number of substrates and devices that are available today.


The concept of a scan-o-gram is as old as photography itself. Digital technology enables new levels of creativity for curious image-makers. The important thing to remember when attempting new things with digital image making is that a complete understanding of the technology is imperative to achieve serious, consistent, high quality results. Additionally, a willingness to work through challenges associated with learning the scanner’s software and hardware will be required to ultimately free up one’s creativity. As the technology becomes more transparent, it allows the creative muses to take over.

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