Hang It Up

The Search for the Best Scan 

By Deborah Shaw 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 17, Issue 1


Note: This article was originally written in January 2011. Where technology is concerned, change is the only constant. Some of the technological details below may or may not apply to your scanning service, but the basic information, and all of the questions are still worthwhile.

Very few of us should be, or could be, providing our own scans of our artwork. We can’t afford the professional equipment, we can’t maintain it, and, if we did take the time to (continuously) learn what we would need to know to be good at scanning, we wouldn’t have any time available to paint or draw. Desktop scanners are fine as working tools, but they never can achieve the quality we need for submission of our work to shows or for printing.

In the last issue, we strongly recommended having your artwork professionally scanned or photographed. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s harder than it should be to find a professional scanning service that will do a good job. To make matters even more complicated, it’s quite probable that your scanning service might do a great job on your watercolors, for example, but not-so-great on your graphite or silverpoint piece. This column covers what to look for in a great scanner.

1. Meet with your new potential scanning service before you will ever need them.

A great scanner is an artist in their own right. I always make an appointment with a new scanning service, meet with them to show them the range of my work (watercolor, colored pencil and graphite), and ask a few questions. The good ones are always busy, so I let them know I need at least 20 minutes of their time. I have a checklist and take notes. If I’m satisfied with their answers, I give them a small test watercolor to do for me – sometimes the same one I’ve had other scanners do so I can compare them. I also always ask them to drop out the background as part of the test.

The questions:

2. Do you work with artists regularly? If so, do you work with watercolor artists or ______ (insert your favorite medium)?
I have a brilliant scanning service that will only do my commercial work; they will not work with any fine artists. They maintain (rightly so) that fine art is so subjective, they would lose their shirt providing fine art scans, and that they can’t keep switching their equipment to accommodate the needs of a piece of art. Which brings us to the next question:

3. Are your machines calibrated for a particular art medium?

For scanners, time is money, and so most scanning services have their equipment calibrated for a particular type of work. For example, I found a scanner who had a 56” flatbed scanner, and had a great reputation in the plein aire art community. He did an awful job on my test scan. Dreadful. It turned out that his machines were calibrated for oils, not watercolor. Keep in mind that it can take two to three days to re-calibrate a professional scanner. So, they’re not going to be changing on the fly. Find out what they do best. Only a few at the very top of their game can do all media, and they usually have multiple machines with different calibrations, or pre-programmed calibrations for different types of work.

4. Do you use “auto” features on your scanner(s)?

We’re hoping the answer to this question is “no”. Many franchise scanning services have popped up all over. Although they’re cheap and fast, most of them have their scanners set on “auto” for color and sharpening. This allows them to be fast, but it also means that no human eyes view the piece on the scanner before the scan is completed. The computer automatically decides how to treat the range of colors, and automatically sharpens the image as it scans. This alone could be a subject for an entire column, but suffice it to say it’s a disaster for a botanical artist. With these parameters, it’s next to impossible to adjust color later, and all those beautiful gradations in your painting can come out harsh and with banding (visible stripes).

5. Do you preview before scanning?

This relates to #4 above. We want a “yes” answer here, which will mean that they run a “test” scan through the computer, a human expert will look at it and will make adjustments before they create the scan that you pay for. It essentially means that they create two scans for every final one scan. It’s more expensive, and it’s better work.

6. What is the maximum size of your scanner, and how do you handle large-scale work?

If your work is too large for their flat bed or drum scanner, they may use a photographic method, sometimes called a copy stand. Or, they may scan it in pieces and then “stitch” it together. Each of these methods can work well in professional hands, and, in fact, scanning services are moving to copy stand types of image capture, rather than flatbed or drum scanning (fodder for another column). It’s nice to know, however, the maximum size of your artwork that can be scanned directly, and which technique the service is using for a particular painting.

7. Do you provide printed proofs for color matching?

The answer needs to be “yes”, they provide printed proofs – not a view on their monitor, nor a copy emailed to you. They should print a small area of your painting, usually a tricky bit that encompasses the color range. Ask how many rounds of color adjustments are included in the scanning price. Be prepared to pay more if you’ve used a pigment that cannot be reproduced and a lot of adjustments need to be made. Each round of color adjustments should be accompanied by another round of printed proofs.

8. What are your charges for retouching and/or post-scan work?

This includes:

  • Color adjustments
  • Dropping out backgrounds
  • Creating masks for color adjustments

Rates are between $45- $90/hour (or more!) above the cost of the scan, depending on your geographical area. Don’t be frightened by the hourly rate, however, as a pro might be able to accomplish the task in a half-hour or less – the same task might take one of us mere mortals an entire day or more. While you’re asking about pricing, find out the estimated costs for scans on an example artwork you’ve brought. Some scanning services price on a fees per MB, some on an hourly rate and some charge a few additional dollars to put your work on a CD. Some charge additional for printed proofs. Find out all the possible costs.

9. What types of files do you provide?

It would be wonderful if they provided you with the .psd layered files for each scan. Most provide .tif and/or .jpg files in RGB (red/green/blue) color mode, commonly used for onscreen images. You may also have need for CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) color mode, commonly used for printing. Significant color shifts occur when an RGB file is changed to CMYK. It’s best to have the scanning service change the file to CMYK and correct the color shift for you. This may cost extra, or, if they know about it before they start the job, they might just throw it in for free. (The color profile isn’t important for submissions to ASBA exhibitions or the Journal, as the printer/designer standardizes all color profiles for the catalogs.) 

10. How many “bits”?  8, 16, 32, 48?
This is a question only if you’re technically minded and you have requirements for what you need for your own computer. The more bits the better, but the outside world (and your computer at home) might not be able to cope with lots of bits, and the file sizes get exponentially larger.

11. Other important (and obvious) questions?

  • What is your lead time (ordinary time elapsed from receipt of job and completion of job)?  
  • What do rush charges cost?
  • What do you need from me?
  • What would make me a good customer?. In this vein, tell your scanning service what’s important to you as a botanical artist.               

There are a few things you want to tell your scanning service, namely, what’s important to you as a botanical artist.

Trust me, it’s different than what they hear from most of their other customers. Talk with them about:

  • Fine, smooth gradations.
  • Color matching (in ranking of importance). You may not be able to match every color perfectly.
  • Dropping out the backgrounds (if appropriate).
  • Focusing on fine detail.

If you will be getting giclée prints, you may want to ask your service the following:

  • Do you profile your papers?
  • Do you accept files you haven’t scanned, and, if so, are there any additional charges?
  • What color space do you prefer? (This is important only if you’re bringing them files you’ve worked on or had done elsewhere.)
  • What are your archival procedures?
  • Do you have UV protection for prints?
  • Do you have any adjunct services?
  • Certificates of authentication
  • Archiving digital files
  • Archival boxing and envelopes

Once you’ve found your scanning service of choice and used them a number of times, they’ll almost be able to read your mind. Always keep your eyes open for new shops, however, for additional resources in a rush, or who might do better with a particular medium (graphite is particularly difficult and could be the subject of its own column).  Additionally, there is also always the possibility of heartbreak when your favorite scanner operator moves away (as is happening to me now) or, they must close their doors.

  • rose petal with smooth gradation as painted
  • rose petal that's been "sharpened"
  • rose petal that has banding due to poor scanning