Scan This, Mr. Spock!

Everybody knows what a printer is good for, but what can you do with a scanner? Most printers currently sold are either 3-in-1 (Printer, scanner, copier) or 4-in1 (Printer, scanner, copier, fax), so you probably have a scanner right now.

Scanners are either the flatbed or feed-through variety. Feed-through types are best for office use, because while you can run a stack of pages through them at once, they’re no good for scanning photos, odd size documents, fragile documents, or pages from books. Most users will be happiest with a flatbed; in this type, you just lay the document face down on the glass like a copier. Some better office scanners have both a flatbed and an automatic document feeder, combining the functions of both types. You get what you pay for when you buy a scanner. If you want very high resolution scans for editing purposes, or if you scan photo slides and negatives, get one with a resolution of at least 2400 DPI (Dots Per Inch), preferably 4800 DPI. For everyday use, 1200 will be okay.

Scanning photos to convert them to digital format is probably the most obvious use, but scanning documents and turning them into editable text is less well known. This is done with special software known as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This software will process a good scan of a document and Recognize the text characters, outputting a text file rather than a non-editable image. It’s not perfect; anything scanned with OCR needs to be proofread and corrected. The cleaner and clearer your original is, the less correcting will be needed. If the scanned document is in multiple columns, has images, or has fancy fonts, your odds of getting a usable text file are slimmer. Some OCR software is better than others at this, but the simpler a document is, the better your chances.

Scanning your old slides and negatives from non-digital photography is a bit of a specialized field. If you have a lot of this to do, I recommend getting a special scanner designed for such work. The problem is, you need a light source behind the slide or negative in order to get a good image. If you have only a few slides and you don’t want to invest in a special scanner, you have a couple of alternatives. Some photo labs have the means to scan slides and negatives for a small fee, and their scans may be better than you can do yourself. Or, you can try using a slide viewer or light table and a good digital camera with close-up capability to do it yourself.

Negatives, of course, need some additional processing to convert them into usable images. The first thing you’ll need is a photo-editing program that will convert an image into a negative. (Converting a negative to a negative makes it a positive.) There will also need to be some color correction done, and that may take some trial and error. Unless you are familiar with advanced photo editing software, negative scanning may be best left to the lab.

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