Home scanners, more often known as all-in-one printers that print, scan, and do other funky stuff, might seem like one of those gadgets that just sits there and does nothing. It’s one of those machines that sit there looking all technical and pretty, yet it’s seldom used. Then when you do power it up, you find yourself trawling through the bits and bobs drawers to find the instruction manual to use it.
Here, we’ll lay out how to master scanning without consulting your owner manual…
The scan starts with the drivers to make them function
There are different software drivers to power the hardware you plug into your computer. In all Windows 10 operating systems, there is already a “Windows Fax and Scan” program. This is a barebones program but you will find that there are other scan drivers on your computer that are specific to the brand of printer you’re using. Epson, Brother and HP are all manufacturers and will bundle their own drivers so you can get the most out of the device. If for whatever reason there’s a driver fault with your scanner, you can revert to the Windows Fax and Scan program that will let you do the basics.
The basics of scanning photographs
Scanning is the simple process of transferring physical data into digital data. Sounds simple enough, but it can’t do the impossible. If the details aren’t there to begin with, they cannot be made up.
DPI, PPI, or are they really just the same?
DPI stands for Dots Per Inch, and PPI – Pixels Per Inch. DPI is used for printing, and pixels are for displaying digital data on your computer screen or a digital picture frame. Despite the two being used for different purposes, scanner settings tend to use DPI settings when it’s really PPI it should be. Not our fault because we don’t make the printers.
Why the DPI matters
The reason there’s so much emphasis put on the DPI settings you scan at is because of the affect it has on your final scan. The DPI settings will determine:
- The details captured within the image
- The resolution size
- The final file size
For the three reasons listed above, you should not allow the scan time to determine the DPI you scan at. The lower the resolution is the faster the scan time, making it an incentive to opt for the lowest resolution.
That’s one mistake you don’t want to make because most photographs have a coverage of at least 200 to 300 dots per inch. Those need transferred to pixels per inch so if you scan a photo at 150 dpi, you’re losing up to half the amount of detail captured in the original photograph. It’s the same thing that happens with file compression. Compress a file and it’ll shrink its size because of throw away data.
Ideally, no photograph scan should have throw away data. All the details that are in the original can be captured in digital format, and that’s what you get (mostly) when you scan at 300 dpi. You can scan higher than that if you like, but why would you?
Because you think you’ll get more data captured by scanning at a higher resolution?
That’s a fallacy because as already mentioned, most prints only contain up to 300 dots per inch. Scanning at 1200 dpi becomes a pointless exercise because there aren’t that many dots to capture. It is possible, albeit rare to have prints in as high a quality as 600 dpi, in which case the higher resolution would be best. However, since it’s rare you’ll have that high a quality of image resolution, 300 dpi is the most used settings because it’s enough to capture as much data within a photo and make an exact duplication of all the details within the photograph.
Essentially, you need your DPI set to create a digital master copy of your photograph with as much details as possible extracted, converted into a manageable file size while giving you enough resolution to work with if you decide later that you’d like to edit the digital copies.
Here’s something cool if you’re lucky enough to find film negatives in your collection
Negatives have the highest quality and despite being invented long before the scanner, they do work with the latest technology. No dark room needed!
If you find an old Kodak envelope and still have the negatives in the envelope, you can pop the negatives into the scanner and create digital copies from those.
Since most of us have either thrown out or lost our old negatives, we’re focusing on scanning printed photographs here, so for those who have kept the negatives this guide from PopPhoto.com will walk you through the steps to scan from negatives. That will give you the highest quality.
For the rest of us with no negatives…
Experiment first with different DPI settings with just the one photo. Your scanner will have different DPI settings to choose from; from 50 DPI and sometimes going as high as 9600 dpi. Despite the ability to go to super high resolution scanning, you’re best to resist the urge, because you cannot capture data that isn’t there to begin with.
The higher the resolution is, the higher the file size will be. If you plan to transfer your digital photos onto a DVD, you can find high resolution scans will produce far too high a file size and only allow for a few photos per 4.7 GB recordable DVD.
That’s why you should experiment with the settings first. Scan at different DPI settings, then pull each scanned photo up and assess the level of details you’ve captured. Once you reach a stage where there’s no visible difference after zooming in to see the finer details, that’s the stop point and your ideal scan resolution. It’ll mostly be 300 dpi so if you’d rather skip the experimentation part, just go with that setting.
Always scan photos individually
The scanning of original photos is a process and a time investment. There will be some readers here who have hundreds – if not thousands – of photographs and what the scanning process is doing is creating a digital archive of those photos.
To get the best possible scans, resist the urge to scan multiple photos at once. As most of your pictures are going to be no larger than 8 x 10s, you could speed the process up by scanning a few at a time but be warned that if you do, you’re risking shadows from each affecting the quality of the final scans. Nor do you get the advantage of the advanced stuff that you’ll discover further down the page.
When you put your photograph onto the flatbed of the scanner, get it right to the edge of the flatbed lip. There are features in most scanners that let you just drop the item onto the flatbed and then you can straighten it before you create the final scan. Don’t do that because every adjustment you make will affect the quality, and likewise, the automatic adjustments scanner drivers do to enhance the image quality will be affected when you have multiple scans happening at once. Always opt for individual scanning to minimise alterations.
Saving images in the right format
The format you choose to save your finished digital photograph matters. There are two categories for file formats:
- Lossy – data is lost when the file size reduces. The most used lossy formats are JPEG and GIF.
- Lossless – Preserves all the data captured in the image. The most used lossless formats are TIFF, BMP, and PNG.
File compression overview
When you scan your photos, you need to select the type of file you want to save it as. For the average person who doesn’t know about file formats, it’s usually the first option that’s selected without a second thought.
You should give it a second thought because it affects more than the file size. RAW image files are used by professional photographers who use photo-editing software to touch up their images. For the average person, this isn’t required.
The problem with RAW file formats is that they are huge in size. The reason being they retain all the image details caught at the time the picture was taken on a digital camera. Since you’re only scanning the photographs, there is no need to save as RAW files because you’re only capturing the data from the image and some of that will already have been lost. What you have left, you need to keep, but you can’t have an image gallery of massive file sizes. File compression is needed to store the photos before you reach your storage limitation. This is more important for those of you with a laptop with only 1 GB or 2 GB of storage because the higher the file sizes are, the sooner your machine will reach its limit and run out of storage space.
When you save your image, you want to compress it to reduce the file size. TIFF, PNG and JPEG will do that, but you need to choose one that’s lossless to retain all the image details your scan has captured.
Put simply, save as TIFF or PNG and never JPEG. The only time you’ll find a JPEG image file suitable is for emailing them over to someone or uploading to social media because JPEG file compression creates the smallest file size possible. However, it also compromises the quality because some data is lost in the compression process. Save as TIFF or PNG and you’ll retain the full details within the photograph.
Advanced options using the scanner driver
If you have the option of “professional mode” for your scanner, that’s the mode to operate in. It gives you a lot more options to control the quality of your scans. There will be a variety of options, but there are only a few areas to focus on for improved scans. The first is the 24-bit colour option because that’s what most graphic files are. DPI should be set for 300 and if you plan on making enlargements to the image, go for a higher resolution but remember it will increase the file size.
The real win with the scanner driver is the fact you can make adjustments to colour saturation without decreasing image quality.
What mostly happens with traditional scanning is the photo is scanned to the computer and then an image editing program is used to improve the colour or general quality, when in fact, the opposite happens.
When you do large adjustments to image files using editing software, each change is destructive to the original image. For that reason, you are best to make a copy of a digital image and never do editing on the original scan you have because edits throw away some of the details within the photo, which you’ll have taken your time to ensure your scans retain as much detail as possible. It defeats the purpose to do all that and then let editing software throw away some details.
To combat that, you can use the scanner driver settings to control brightness, saturation, and contrast before the scan, which essentially saves you having to edit the images later and destroy some of the details.
With quality scans, you can essentially create your own digital library of photographs. What you can do with that is something you cannot and will never be able to do without looking weird. Walk around a shop with your photographs, put them into frames, and see what they look like before you buy them.
Can you imagine doing that?
You can do that in the digital era. All you need is a quality scan of your photos and then you can use those digital copies with our online print and frame service and see what your framed photo will look like before you buy it.