The process of scanning graphic images has many pitfalls. Resolution? Color depth? OCR? This section will demystify
some of the complexities of scanning and help you produce better scans without creating huge, unworkable files.
"Scanning Resolution" refers to how finely spaced the dots that comprise a scanned image should be. A typical
resolution is 600 dots per inch (600 dpi), which means that for every inch across the image, the scanner reads 600
tiny dots of color (or "Pixels").
Choosing The Optimum Resolution:|
The most common problem encountered when scanning an image for printing, especially with today's hi-res scanners,
is that of choosing the ideal scanning resolution.
Don't Scan More Than You'll Print!
- Too low a resolution will produce blurry printouts;
- Too high a resolution will take much longer to scan and will create a huge, unmanageable file that takes up
enormous amounts of disk space.
Beyond a certain point, scanning at even higher resolution will not result in higher print quality. The
reason for this is that whilst scanned images contain millions of colors, most color printers use only four
individual colors, known as CMYK. This gives them effectively only eight colors to work with:
Printers Use "Dithering":
- The pure colors Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Black;
- The mixed colors Blue (=cyan+magenta), Green (=cyan+yellow) and Red (=magenta+yellow);
- The color White (unprinted paper).
To achieve what looks like a full rainbow palette of colors, printers use a process called "dithering" to
mix those dots of color. For example, to create the purplish-blue of this Rainbow Lorikeet's face might require
eight dots of cyan, six of magenta, four of yellow and two of black. The dots are both small enough and close
enough together that we perceive them as that shade of purplish-blue.
As a result, color printers generally only achieve a visible resolution of around 1/4 of their actual resolution
when printing color images because the dots of color are scattered over a larger area. The exception is when they
are printing any of those eight colors, which they can therefore output continuously without "dithering". (eg.
The solid black lines in this Rainbow Lorikeet image, or pure black text, or a pure magenta border).
Rule Of Thumb:
A fairly good general rule for choosing the scanning resolution based on the type of image and expected use is
therefore as follows:
- For black and white images, such as logos, scan at the same resolution at which you will be printing. For
example, if you have a 600 dpi laser printer, scan the logo at 600 dpi.
- For color images, such as photos, scan at around 1/4 the resolution of your printer. Thus, if you are
printing to a 1440 dpi color printer, scan at about 360 dpi.
Enlarging or Reducing:|
Note that if you will be printing an enlargement, you should increase the scanning resolution accordingly, or
decrease it when printing smaller.
For example, let's say you were scanning a 6" x 4" photo and printing to a 600dpi color printer. If you wanted
the printout to be the same size as the original, you could scan at 150dpi (= 1/4 the resolution of the printer).
If instead you wanted the printout to fit onto a full A4 page (11.69" x 8.27"), which is about double the size,
you should also double the scanning resolution to about 300dpi. This doesn't need to be exact - you could always
scan at a little higher resolution just to be sure.
Scanning Color Depth
"Colour Depth" or "Colour Mode" refers to how much color information should be scanned or saved for each dot
(pixel). The higher the color mode, the better the quality. The tradeoffs are that it takes a longer time to scan
and that the finished graphic file takes up more disk space.
Common Color Depths:|
There are four common color depths used by scanners:
With today's computers being both fast and high capacity, it's quite feasible nowadays to simply scan everything
in Full Color mode, which is the native mode of the scanner. The scanned images can then be converted to lower
quality modes later if required.
- Full color (also known as 24 bit or 32 bit color)
- Indexed color (also known as 8 bit color)
- Greyscale (also known as Black & White Photo)
- Monochrome (also known as B&W, Bitmap, or 1 bit)
Rule Of Thumb:
A fairly good general rule for choosing the color depth based on the type of image and expected use is therefore as
- Color photos & pictures should be scanned in Full Color mode.
- Sepia photos, or old black and white photos that have faded or yellowed and for which you want to retain the
character, should be scanned in Full Color mode.
- Black & white photos & pictures, or ones that you will be printing in black & white, should be scanned in Greyscale
- Black & white logos should be scanned in Monochrome mode.
- Text that you want to reprint should be scanned in Greyscale, as this reproduces fine subtleties better than
Scanning Text / OCR:|
Some scanners also have a mode called "Text" or "OCR" (Optical Character Recognition). This differs in that it does
two things: Firstly, it scans in the best mode to give a clear image with good contrast, then it proceeds to "Read"
the scanned dots and attempts to convert the picture of the page into text.
For example, a single letter "G" would take dozens of bytes to store all the dots that make up its scanned image.
By using OCR to recognise those dots as the letter "G", it then only takes a single byte to store the value
"71", which is the ASCII code for the letter "G".
OCR has two key advantages. Firstly, the converted text page requires much less storage than the scanned image of
that page. Secondly, the resulting text can be edited in a word processor, sent via e-mail, etc.
Tip: When scanning from newspapers or other thin paper with printing on both sides, use a dark backing sheet behind
the page you are scanning so that the printing on the other side doesn't show through.
Saving Scanned Images
| There are dozens of graphic file formats in use today, each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses.
See my separate page on Graphics File
Formats for more details on some of the more common ones.
Scanning Implies Certain Uses:|
Assuming that it is generally either photos or logos that are being scanned, and that they are generally being
used either for printing or for the Internet (web sites, e-mails, etc), this simplifies the choices somewhat.
Rule Of Thumb:
A fairly good general rule for choosing the file format based on the type of image and expected use is therefore as
The reason TIF format is suggested for print use is that the resulting file is as close as possible to the original
scanned image, whilst JPG and GIF have each undergone compression and have lost some image quality.
- Printing Use:
- Internet Use:
- JPG is best for photos;
- GIF or PNG are best for logos.
This page last updated: 29-Aug-2010. Copyright © 1999-2010 by
Ian W. Fieggen. All rights reserved.