Marja-Leena Rathje
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3D scanning techniques


I love how blogging can foster some interesting conversations and connections, and sometimes give food for more blogging material. A few weeks ago, British blogger Barrett Bonden of Works Well expressed interest in the equipment I use in my photography, then mentioned it in his article Beauty's hardware.

Then Barrett emailed me:

I'm really fascinated with your use of a scanner to image 3D objects. My scanner is a cheapo, has no such facility (the hinged lid would have crushed your wonderful onion skins, for instance) and I've always wanted something better. I Googled your scanner [Epson Perfection 4990 Photo] and could see it was superior (although the prices range from £125 to £500-plus and I'm rather hoping yours wasn't at the higher end). There was no indication, though, about how it handles 3D objects. I realise I'm trading on your skills as a professional here but I'd be very grateful if you could explain please.

My reply with some edits: I had the same concerns about crushing objects. In my earlier experiments, I would lay a cloth, black or white or other over the objects, leaving the lid open of course. I've even used a shoebox. The most recent experiments like the onion skins were with nothing at all, still with the lid open and I was astounded that I'd get a black background! Now why didn't I think of that in the first place?!

I spent more money (though got it 'on sale') choosing the Epson Perfection 4990 Photo scanner because I needed the higher resolutions for my digital printmaking, and also because this scanner allows transparency and slide scanning, including odd sizes. My husband's collection of old extra large slides would not fit the slide scanner I used to have (which became obsolete technology, sigh). I haven't actually tried the slide scanning out much yet - I think that may become a retirement project. Plus my late father-in-law, a professional photographer left thousands of slides... if we have the energy to sort through these one day. We don't have a working slide projector that fits these, another story of obsolescence!

Barrett's response: As simple as that! And there I was dreaming up all sorts of technoid-solutions. As a retired journalist I am horribly tempted to outscoop you on this - old, unpleasant habits die hard. I'm joking but you must blog it. Millions will profit and I'll be able, knowledgeably, to refer in future blogs to the Rathje 3D Scan.

Well (she chuckles), I don't know about my rights to the technique and millions profiting from it because I think the real pros have been doing this for a long time already. Serious photography is a more recent development and branch in my art practice, previously it was a tool for image capture for my photo-based printmaking such as photo-etching and then archival inkjet printing.

I prefer using the scanner to capture small objects because I think the results are far better than with the camera, at least in my hands, because I can choose very high resolutions (pixels). This allows me to enlarge or magnify the image to a great extent. This can give some wonderful and exciting surprises, such as shown in this my favourite post on scanning.

I thought of linking to some of my other 'object scans' but found far too many to choose from! If new readers (like you, Barrett) are so inclined and have a lot of time, check out my images in Photoworks on the side though not all the photos are scans. It's dawned on me that 'scanning' could have been another category here to improve the search!


Regarding the images here... during my recent purging of old magazines, I had found these dried leaves in one of several Finnish magazines passed on to me years ago by a friend's Finnish mother who passed away a few months ago. That dear association as well as Barrett's question compelled me to save them digitally. The one up top is scanned with the lid down, the lower one with the lid up. I've even 'blown up' a section (below) so you can see the incredible detail possible, though much is lost in compressing for the web.

I should add that the quality of the scanning software provided by the scanner may be another important detail to look into when shopping around. As for photo-editing software, as a professional artist I use PhotoShop exclusively, but I would imagine similar things can be achieved with cheaper consumer level software if you are not planning on doing a lot of large printing. As a Mac user, i find Apple's iPhoto is good at a more basic level. I've not done any serious comparisons with other software, so please do your own research if you are shopping around. Best of luck in your search, Barrett, and thanks for the interesting conversation!


Addendum: If you are interested, learn more from my scan tests.


interesting, Marja-Leena. Thanks for posting this info. I love the leaves. It is a great way to preserve -- and share -- memories such as too often are left between the pages of books no one reads any longer.

Marja-Leena, these are beautiful. Thank you for generously sharing your process. I'll have to try scanning with the lid up...

That's it...I am hooked. I caught myself looking at variuos objects on the dinner table tonight and wondering how they would scan!

Oh I would love to get a scanner but there's no room on the computer desk right now. I still use my old Gateway computer for the internet.

Taina, thanks! I'm glad this is of interest to you.

Pica, I hope you enjoy your scanning!

Rosie, that's great. Hope you'll show your results.

Cathy, you just have to get rid of your old computer then :-)

I'm delighted to have played a small part in triggering this fascinating and useful blog. I have a whole host of other questions for Marja-Leena about technology and techniques (subjects of my own blog) associated with creating works of art but given her conscientiousness in answering this one I'll be parsimonious about dishing them out. One other thing - what's a good price for an Epson Perfection 4990?

I love scanning leaves, and also scanned some stones a few years back for use in digitally printed cloth to make a quilt. With the stones came my first scan with lid open, and like you was delighted that the background just read black.

David Hockney's sister scans all sorts of things, like real fish for instance - not that I would like to clean my scanner after that one!,,1492131,00.html

And this link has a tiny bit of film:

Barrett, ask away! I'm happy to share my knowledge though I don't claim to be an expert. As you can see in the comment following yours, Olga is another artist who uses her scanner in her work! Many artists do like to make use of the newest technologies often in their own unique way, sometimes pushing the boundaries in new ways never intended for the equipment or material. The 'net is wonderful for sharing all these ways, isn't it?

I had to search our files for the receipt. It was purchased spring 2006 for $590 CAN plus taxes. Not cheap but not very high end either. This was also before our dollar surpassed the US one though that hasn't always translated into any savings here.

Olga, I knew that the scanner was one of your tools in your artistic process. I bet you knew about scanning with the lid open and without cloth covers long before I discovered it, hah! Thanks so much for all the great links about David Hockney's sister whom I did not know about! Good for her in taking a new direction in her work at her age. I also enjoyed learning more about the Hockney family.

PS. What scanner do you have?

Loved reading this too, Marja-Leena! (Isn't it fascinating how different objects look depending on the background?) But what I especially respond to is your interest in the natural world and the way you present things so that we look more closely. These dried leaves are so beautiful - and all those different shades of brown! The scanner seems to pick up the nuances perfectly.

Thanks for your keen observations, Beth! I should have actually had a more 3D object for this post, but hoped the linked images would make up for it. Do you use a scanner in your work?

My scanner won't do the black background thing, I tried it with some flowers and also a sprouted cobnut I dug up in the garden, but the bacground's just off-white. Also only the parts in direct contact with the glass were in focus. So I painted the cobnut instead! Perhaps I'm doing something wrong.

Anyway, I love your results!

Lucy, now that's interesting! So there are such differences in scanners, I didn't know! Now that gives another focus for the scanner-shoppers. If you want a dark background, you can use a dark cloth or box like i did in my ignorance. The focus thing may vary with the scanners too it seems, but maybe that can give you exciting results. Will you show them on your blog? (What's a cobnut?)

Marja-Leena, I've been scanning ever since I had one of those roller things that I had to run over whatever I wanted to scan. This one is a marvel in comparison: Epson GT-5500 which I've had for some years now with no complaints - except from time to time I would like it to be twice as big. But then I do like to have restrictions to work against, so all in all it's wonderful.

You have inflamed us all with a desire to have a go with the lid open. I'm going to try it. Shortly.

Olga, a scanner with 'roller things' is something I've not seen so that shows what a newbie I am. My first scanner was a Umax that I bought at the same time as my first computer in '97. That's when I really joined the computer age. I still miss that scanner because it had a larger flatbed or screen area in the same desk space. I had to part with it when I moved on to newer computers and operating systems. In fact just the other week in our purges we gave it away to a place we found that refurbishes old computers for the use of the poor in our community. Oh, I admit to also wanting a bigger scanner!

Anna, go for it! Enjoy, and show us what you do!

I have the great advantage of being married to an IT specialist who gave me access to computers years before they were widespread. I fell in love with the Xerox Star in his office in I think 1981, and wanted one ever since. My first one all to myself was in 1985 to help me write a book - a word processor really. The scanner I had was in the early 90s, and was about 4" wide, and had to be pulled steadily over whatever was to be scanned - the picture file being built up in strips. The computer equivalent to early weaving perhaps!! I would find it impossible now, but as I was designing repeat patterns for knitwear it was ok then.

They're great images, M-L, and I enjoyed learning about your technique. Sure wish i could get my old HP scanner working!

Dave, thanks. I'm glad you learned something. I too wish you could do some scanning with all the wonderful material you have around your place.