Home: Scanning Slides and Negatives: Flatbed Scanner Photography

Flatbed Scanner Photography:
a cool tool for camera-less photography

Flatbed scanner photography, oak leaf in fall colors
Leaves make beautiful scanner photos!

With flatbed scanner photography we use a scanner as a camera. In the right hands, the result is some fascinating, intriguing, and just-plain-fun close-up photography.

It's like having a macro photography studio on your desktop without tripods, backgrounds, or studio lighting. Give it a try, and you'll find practical and creative possibilities galore!

If you need to review some of the basics of film and flatbed scanners, visit the Scanning Slides and Negatives page. I'll discuss some of the scanning options, including some of the scanner software settings and how to prepare your originals.

This page is for fun, and to encourage you to make your own scanner art! I'll show off some of what I've done, and then you'll get a chance to share your scanner photography. Everyone's a winner!

Five flatbed scanner photography tips:

  1. Pick subjects that have at least one flat surface.

  2. When scanning hard objects, be careful not to scratch the glass!

  3. Scanner photography works with any flatbed scanner, but you'll double your options if you use a scanner that handles both reflective and translucent originals. In the latter case, backlighting reveals structure and adds a special "glow" to the object.

  4. Use your scanner's close-up photography capability by zooming in on your subjects with the crop feature, and try high resolutions (3000 dpi and above) to create files that display large on your screen or in prints. 

  5. Wet and messy objects are cool to scan (fruits and vegetables, sliced thin, come to mind), but be sure to clean the scanner glass very well, and don't let any moisture reach the edges of the glass! If that's too risky for your taste (and honestly, water and electronics do not play nicely together!), sandwich your subject in between two sheets of clear plastic, such as a heavyweight sheet protector from an office supply store.

Flatbed scanner photography, butterfly

Choosing a background

With flatbed scanner photography, we have a choice of backgrounds: white or black, depending on whether the lid is open or closed. White comes from the inside of the lid, black backgrounds come from an open lid in a darkened room.

We have a choice of backgrounds only when scanning with the reflected light setting (light from below). Transmitted light scanners have their light source in the lid itself, so leaving the lid open defeats the purpose!

Which background we choose is both aesthetic and practical. White backgrounds have a clean, pristine appeal, but subjects on black backgrounds stand out dramatically. Closing the lid flattens the subject for a crisp appearance; leaving the lid open may be preferred for scanning delicate objects.

Flatbed scanner photography, oak leaf in fall colors
Lid closed = white background

Flatbed scanner photography, oak leaf in fall colors
Lid closed = black background

It's probably just a matter of time before scanners start delivering a choice of backgrounds in the form of interchangeable cover slides!

About Newton rings

Newton rings are halo-shaped interference pattern artifacts caused by a flat surface in contact with a not-so-flat surface. The concentric rings are caused by variations in light refracting on and around the surfaces, and in the spaces between them. They are a common problem when scanning film strips placed directly on the scanner glass.

Flatbed scanner photography, Newton rings
Newton rings at high magnification,
reflected light setting

Fortunately, flatbed scanners that accept slides and negatives have film holders that maintain space between the film and glass. This eliminates any ring artifacts.

For other subjects (as in the example above, a polished stone laid directly onto the glass), other tricks are in order. "Anti-Newton ring glass" has a lightly etched surface, which breaks up the light rays bouncing between the surfaces. Some scanners have interchangeable glass surfaces to accommodate anti-Newton glass. This gets rid of the rings, but can degrade the image because the scanner sensor lies between the subject and the frosted glass.

If Newton rings are a problem, consider a fluid-mount scanner for your flatbed scanner photography. This eliminates both air spaces and the rings. They are messy and time-consuming to use, but they ensure perfect contact between glass and subject without the tiny air spaces.

Scanner Photography: disadvantages

With any new photography trick or technique, there are trade-offs to be accounted for, and flatbed scanner photography is no different:
  • Flat, even lighting can be boring.
  • Shooting from a variety of angles is next to impossible.
  • Restricted to flat materials.
Despite these limitations, I hope you'll agree that scanners are useful and flexible tools that add one more arrow to our macro photography quiver.


Flatbed scanner photography oak leaf Flatbed scanner photography flourite slab
Same leaf as above, but zoomed in tight
A slab of the mineral flourite, scanned with backlight
Flatbed scanner photography snakeskin Flatbed scanner photography green pepper macro
A piece of snake skin showing individual scales It's a slice of green pepper in backlight, revealing juicy cells

Scanner photos: subjects, topics, and inspiration

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