Scanning Orchids

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Editors Note:- I used to believe that the digital camera had replaced scanning orchids until I was contacted by Nathan Rae, a graphic artist producing wonderful scans of orchids amongst other things.  Nathan uses two scanners to scan the flowers followed by some clever post processing to produce some very detailed images.  


For those people who have a computer and scanner, you have an alternative to using a camera to photograph your orchid flowers. Flat bed scanners can be used to produce high quality images of many orchid flowers. Using this method, you can get some extremely good results, even good enough to publish in orchid magazines. The only problem with scanning your orchid flower is that you can't scan from the side, or scan the whole orchid. Scanning is only suitable for things that don't have much depth, such as the front view of an orchid flower. Generally, this is not a problem, as the front view is the most common direction for photographing an orchid.

For those who don't know much about computers, a flat bed scanner is a piece of equipment which can be connected to a computer to electronically record an image of a piece of paper. It looks somewhat like a photocopier top in that it is a box with a hinging lid onto which you place the original copy and a light passes over the original in the scanning process. Generally, you scan a photo so that it can be included in a document you produce. Anyway, now everyone knows what a scanner is, back to scanning orchids.

The Scanning Method

I am not suggesting you put the orchid flower onto the scanner and close the lid to crush the flower. This might work, but is not very good treatment for the average orchid flower. What I have found is that many scanners are 3D scanners, or at least can scan 3 dimensional objects. That is, you don't only have to scan a piece of paper on the scanner glass. You can place an object with thickness on the scanner glass and scan it quite successfully as long as it is not too thick. With my scanner, things less than about 2cm (1 inch) seem to scan successfully.

Scanning an Orchid - Click to enlarge

The process I use to scan an orchid flower is to firstly remove the scanner lid, which for my scanner just lifts off. Next, I turn the scanner on its side so the glass is nearly vertical (about 80 degrees). I have found that if I make the glass vertical, the scanner head falls forward from its runners onto the inside of the glass and doesn't move properly. Anyway, with the glass nearly vertical, I can then slide the orchid pot up to the scanner so the flower is touching the scanner glass. Sometimes I may need to put objects under the orchid pot to prop the plant at a suitable angle so the flower is square to the glass. You must prop the orchid in position and not attempt to hold it in position by hand, as you cannot hold the flower still enough by hand for a good quality scan. Once in position, I can then successfully scan the flower. To make a nice contrasting background, I normally hold a piece of black material behind light flowers or light material (or paper) behind a dark flower. I have also had much success with draping the material over the top of the scanner and onto the orchid.

If the orchid is too tall for the scanner, I place the scanner on the side of a shelf and the orchid on something below the scanner such that the flower is at scanner height. Alternatively, you can place the scanner in the normal horizontal orientation and lay the orchid down so that the flower is on the glass. Using this method works fine, but the bark tends to fall out of the pot, so it can get messy.

Scanning a tall orchid - Click to enlarge

WARNING:-  If you place the scanner partly over the edge of a shelf to scan tall orchid flowers as in this photo, remember that the moving scan head is the heaviest part of the scanner.  The moving scanner head may cause the scanner to overbalance and fall from the shelf.  (I know this from first hand experience at which time I also proved scanners can bounce without damage, although I would not recommend reproducing this experiment.)

Anyway, after doing all this work, you can produce quite a nice scan of the flower. With my scanner, I can successfully scan a light coloured flower up to about 3cm (1.25 inch) thick. Very dark flowers must only be about 1.5cm (0.5 inch) in thickness for a good quality scan. The limitation on my scanner is that the image gets darker the further you are from the scanner glass. You can increase the brightness of the final image to overcome this, but if you increase the brightness too much, the image gets grainy. Thus, the furthermost part of the flower can't be too far from the glass. This is generally only a problem with extremely dark Paphiopedilums, which are about as thick as my scanner will scan and still give a decent reproduction.

Adjusting The Scanned Image

Flower Scan - Click to Enlarge Once you have scanned you orchid flower, you will probably need to adjust the result, so you will also need photo-editing software. Most scanners come with this software, so you should already have the required software. I personally use Paint Shop Pro (shareware freely available on the web), but virtually any photo editing software should work.
Orchid Flower Rotated - Click to Enlarge The first thing you will generally need to do is to rotate the flower image to straighten it. You may only need to rotate the flower 90o to allow for the scanner being on its side, but often you will need to rotate the image a few degrees for flowers that are not perfectly straight.
Just the Orchid Flower Once this is done, you will next want to clip out the area of the scan you wish to keep.
Final Flower Scan - Click to Enlarge Lastly, you may need to adjust the brightness of the image, as most scans turn out too dark.

By the way, this is a Clanathe William Murray flower.

For my scanner, I have found that the best result is gained by adjusting the final image rather than adjusting the scanner settings. I will adjust the image gamma setting or brightness/contrast or even the luminance, depending on which control gives the best results for the particular image. I have not determined which control suits which type of image yet, but the controls give varying quality results depending on the exact type of image. I can only suggest that you try these different controls for each image to determine what works best for your scanner and image.

The final quality of your scans of flowers will depend on your scanner. My scanner is a very inexpensive scanner called a Vision Scan, which works quite well scanning flowers. I have also tried some HP scanners and they also do a good job. Unfortunately, the Cannon led scanners cannot scan 3D objects as anything not directly on the scan glass is out of focus, so these scanners are not suitable for scanning your flowers. Probably, most flat bed scanners will work well, but it would be wise to try them before you buy if you wish to scan your flowers.

If you have a scanner, try scanning your flowers. You might just be surprised at how easy it is and the quality of the images.

Scanned Orchid Flower Examples

Have a look at some examples of orchid flowers I have scanned.

Author:  Graham Corbin


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