Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Paper to Pixel to Paper Again: Part 4

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A guide to creating the best looking line art in print in the new digital print world
Part 4
Scanning & Imaging Continued


This is the fourth installment of Paper to Pixel to Paper Again, a series that explains (in an overly thorough manner) the how-to's of preparing line art (and later in the series, color art!) for print.

If you haven't done so yet, please go back and read the first and second and third installment, please do!

Come on now. I asked nicely...


Last week we ended in mid-discussion of oversize flatbed scanners, and other imaging techniques. In short, "How do I get my my drawings into this here teevee box?"

As I said last week, there are very few options out there for mid-range oversize flatbed scanners. Having slagged the Mustek, a useless paperweight, we move on to —

Plustek Opticbook A300

When we started into this project, this was an incredibly tempting piece of hardware. Unlike most other desktop flatbed scanners, it's capable of scanning at incredible speeds—between six and seven seconds per impression. And the large bay and easily movable lid made it pretty tempting as well for the oversize artwork.

So I did the best I could to "test" the scanner remotely. Spoke to multiple sales reps, to their tech staff, got some test scans made of various objects (i.e. dollar bills!) that I could compare on my end to other scanners. I saw that the impression was pretty soft (owing to the type of sensor used by the scanner—speed being its chief virtue, but with a corresponding tradeoff in sharpness), but would be workable with careful post-scan adjustment. 

And so we purchased the scanner and had it delivered to Dave, and he started the process of scanning the artwork.

Well, my friends, things don't always work in practice like they do in theory. There's some kind of strange...drift to the image capture of the A300 that makes it pretty much useless for anything but its original purpose, bulk scanning of text. It has wildly different exposure levels, seemingly at random, while scanning. This drift happens whether you're scanning with its native utility, or using your own dedicated scanning program. Is this something you can turn off somehow? A function happening in the driver? Unclear. Vuescan, a fantastic scanning program we'll be getting to later, made no difference in the result. I'm inclined to think it's something in the hardware.

Anyway, this drift meant that, before anything could be done with each scan, the exposure had to be adjusted by hand to correct the bizzaro changes from scan to scan, using the known elements of the page to adjust. Over the course of five hundred or so pages, this drove me more than a little crazy, and as other, crisper, scans came in from other sources, I began longing for greener, more color-faithful, pastures...

After working with these scans for the entirety of Church & State I, I implored (begged) (pleaded) (seriously, fax pleaded) with Dave to pretty pretty please purchase this brand new scanner that I'd been able to use over at Bob Chapman's place, a fancy-pants flatbed with great optical sharpness and fantastic color fidelity and...

Ahem. Well. More on that in a moment.

A portion of a randomly underexposed OpticBook scan, actual size. Click to embiggen or download.

This Opticbook scanner is now the dedicated Aardvark/Vanaheim correspondence scanner, a task it does very well. Really, though, don't pick it up for any graphics purposes. One day we'll live in a world with instant scanning and perfect image fidelity. But we're not there yet.

Which brings us to —

Hey, Can't I Just Scan My Giant Pages in Sections and Stitch Them Together in Photoshop?

Hey, sure, if you need to do this occasionally, go ahead! We do this for the covers and the double-page spreads of the Cerebus books, scanning with a good two inches of overlap per scan and then stitching them together. But if you need to do this more than, say, three images a week, and if you value your time, you should really consider splurging and getting something that will scan it in one shot.

How much do you get paid an hour? Divide the price of your Fantasy Caddillac Scanner by that number. That's the amount of hours of your labor that scanner is worth. It will save you time, it will save you frustration, it will save you that "OH NO I CAN SEE THE STITCHING" moment when you get your masterpiece back from the printer.

That being said, sometimes this is what you have to do. And if you have Photoshop, it's a heck of a lot easier than you think. 

Go to File->Automate->Photomerge. And then send me a check for $20.

You're welcome.

Oh hey, how about—

Hey, Can't I Just Put My Pages on A Copystand and Shoot Them With My Digital Camera?

Yes. In the future. When you travel to work by jet pack.

As of now, most DSLR cameras simply don't have the resolution, either in lenses or sensors, to be able to capture at the res you need for line art. Add to this problems with barrel distortion and other lens aberrations when you're shooting a flat piece of artwork without a specially designed lens, and it's just not feasible at the moment, even if you had your dedicated copy stand and $40,000 Hasselblad.

Give it another two decades.

But until then,

Hey, Can't I Just Take My Pages to the Local Office Depot or Fedex Office and Have Them Scan Them?

Well, you sure can, and if you have some Cerebus originals of your own, please do! And then email your 600 ppi scans to cerebusarthunt at gmail dot com. Fun, prizes, etc await.

But for any artwork you have in your own possession, you're better off scanning it on your own equipment.

Every Fedex and every Office Depot is currently using the same leased Xerox all-in-one color units. As one-off color printers, they're fantastic, as long as the person operating them knows which check boxes to un-check etc. But as scanners they're not ideal. They use the same kind of lightning-fast image element as the aforementioned Opticbook, and they automatically compensate with really aggressive wide-band software sharpening that can mess up your reproduction if you use mechanical tones or fine lines in your artwork. This can be turned off, if whomever you're speaking with at the Office Depot is willing to take the time to do so—but it leaves the image itself pretty soft.

A Xerox All-in-One scan, with no sharpening applied, actual size. Click to embiggen or download.

Overall? Works in a pinch, but less than ideal.

Hey, Can't I Just Use My Prosumer Desktop-All-in-One Thing That I Got For Fifty Bucks and/or From the Costco Dumpster?

If you're using a scanner that wasn't explicitly intended to scan artwork, make sure you test it at the resolution you intend to be scanning at, to see

a. how sharp the impression is, AT THAT RESOLUTION
b. making sure that the scanner software or driver isn't applying software sharpening.

There are a variety of otherwise good manufacturers (LOOKING AT YOU EPSON) who have their scan utilities automatically apply sharpening on their cheaper scanner models. This can't be turned off, but you can circumvent it by using a different scan utility. More on this in a later installment.

So. All this negativity, Sean. What IS ideal? Who DOES make a good scanner?
The Scanner of the Gods: Epson 10000XL

I'm not sure what it says about the state of graphics technology or the print industry that the greatest flatbed scanner known to man is more than a decade old now—but there you have it. There are newer scanners. There are more expensive scanners. But for scanning artwork, I don't think there are any better.

Do I need to prove it to you? Or do you trust me at this point?

Let me tell you, I was tempted to skip the last two weeks of writing this, replace those entries with the sentence"Buy Vuescan and an Epson 10000XL." But I think the details matter.

So here's all you need to know —

Ahhhhhh..... Epson 10000XL scan, actual size, raw. Click to embiggen or download.

Important facts to know before you go out and buy one of these puppies—

a. There are two versions of the 10000XL. One has a plastic lid and can only scan reflective documents, i.e. no transparencies, negative or positive, without the optional transparency adapter (which is actually a replacement lid with a lightsource). The second is EXACTLY THE SAME AS THE FIRST, except it comes with the transparency adapter and Silverfast software! So, if you find one without the transparency adapter, at a really good price, go for it, and pick up the adapter separately. If you don't need to scan transparent materials, well, there's your answer.

b. There is a newer model, the 11000XL. The only difference is they got rid of the Firewire port, and it costs a lot more. If you see a screaming deal on this one, there you go. There's no optical difference between the two that I know of.

c. Don't be scared by the several thousand dollar price tags. If you're patient, and you check Ebay and Amazon frequently, they can be had for less than $1000. Currently there's one listed on Amazon for $799 and another on Ebay sans lid, for $350 "But It Now"! (By the way, I would be sorely tempted by the latter, if I needed another one right now. After all, if you decide to buy the transparency unit in the future, it does function as a lid!) Mine cost $535 plus shipping, after watching Ebay for two weeks...

d. if you DO buy remotely, remember to ask the seller to lock the scanning mechanism before shipping (the lock, which protects the motor from damage and wear, is affixed to where the power supply goes on the back of the scanner)

... and that's all we have time for for now! Comments or questions? Hit me up in the comments! Thanks for the thoughtful comments and feedback I've been getting. I'll be incorporating responses into relevant portions of the upcoming sections. And now that we're really cooking with this series, I'd really appreciate it if you'd take the time to share it around, when you have the chance (and after you've snapped that scanner off of Ebay, presumably!)

Edit: It looks like Blogger, the platform that runs this blog, shaves down image size, so the above images are not 100 percent scanned size. For a future installment (or possibly an edit to this one) I'll find a host for those images so you can download the full res versions of these page excerpts.

Edit again: Well, this is clumsy, but it works.

Links to the three at-size scans mentioned above--

Sean Michael Robinson is a writer, artist, and musician. See more at


Unknown said...

Yes, what an ordeal. What Sean is leaving out is the weeks and weeks of faxes going back and forth trying to get the first scanner to work. "You should be seeing such and such on the screen." Well, okay, but I'm not. "That's strange. Okay. Try clicking on @#$%7689977" Okay. Got it. "What's on the screen now?" Nothing. There was a line that read...whatever it was...but it disappeared before I could read it. "Okay, try going back to the beginning."

I mean, it wasn't irritating because I was doing work at the same time. RIP KIRBY Commentaries? Just turn around and go back to work and wait for the next fax to come in. "Try this." Try that. Connect with the instruction just long enough to execute it and type a fax for Sean telling him what happened.

"Now there's two blue squares and two orange rectangles with little pictures in them."

Go STRAIGHT back to ACTUAL work. Fax comes in. "Does one of the pictures look like a little magnifying glass?" No. Go back to work.

Literally weeks of this, Sean finally gets the scanner to work. And we need another piece of software installed. Unfortunately the computer Sean had me buy didn't have a compartment for installing software. So he had to buy an "external software installer" and have it shipped to the Off-White House. Etc. etc. etc.

Weeks and weeks and weeks. And then, "I'm afraid this scanner isn't going to work. You have to buy another one."

Hopefully, I'll never again for the rest of my life have to engage with computers in that way.

One of the reasons that I insist on fax communications is so I have a record of these kinds of things for posterity in the Cerebus Archive. I'm at least smart enough not to try to do it by phone and eat up whole days getting run around the rat-maze. Same as my Paypal password hasn't worked for the last week or so. I try it once now and forget it. It'll either fix itself or it won't.

Tony Dunlop said...

I don't care what Damian says - I LOOOOVE that portrait of Jaka.

Unknown said...

Tony - Yeah, I was VERY happy with that section of the story. The idea that even THE PEOPLE'S PRINCESS has to take a turn being Betty in a Betty/Archie/Veronica scenario. Doesn't matter WHAT you do, you aren't going to be his first pick. So there's just NOTHING that's going to work. THE PRINCESS OF PALNU sitting and getting @#$%-faced trying to find just the right way to get through to him.

NOT going to happen.

I liked it particularly because Cerebus -- who she's OSTENSIBLY about to reunite with in True Love -- couldn't have been further from her thoughts or her heart. On "Juno" in more ways than one!

Anonymous said...

Excellent, painstaking research and thank you for this in-depth article, for it is hard to find such information about a technology that has so much inconsistency within this sea of scanner choices. Now I know the right scanner to look for! The only concern is whether the driver software will go out of date. This has rendered many old scanners I've had as useless. Perhaps this isn't likely since this is such a high-end model?

Sean R said...

Hello Anonymous!

Incredibly unlikely that the 10000XL will stop being supported. It was a very popular product and Epson continues to chug along. I'd also point out that Vuescan (incredible program) continues support for more than 5,000 (!) scanners, many of which would be bricks/paperweights without their software. So yeah, you've found your scanner!

Anonymous said...

Hello Sean, many thanks for your response. I was concerned about Vuescan carrying a '3rd party' viruses, I'll have to look into it more for sure. I look forward to perusing this excellent and valuable column series.

Sean R said...

Hello again Anonymous,

No viruses with Vuescan. It's a fantastic piece of software, the only professional-grade scanning software besides Silverfast--continually updated by one remarkable man (who's also remarkably helpful if you get in a bind with the software). Give it a shot. THere's a semi-functional demo available.