Using a scanner to digitize primary sources like photographs, documents and original artwork for your stories is the rock solid foundation of digital storytelling. But choosing and using a scanner can be a challenge. My own research this week, visiting local stores and poking around on the internet, turned up incredible combinations of scanner/printer/copier/fax/microwave oven devices. OK, maybe not microwave ovens, but you see how closely related scanning technology is to the others. I’m going to avoid discussing these multifunction machines (though I did help three friends set them up with their new systems this fall) and concentrate on the basics.
You can get a very nice USB scanner for about $49. You may still have parallel and SCSI scanners around in your school and they should work just fine as long as there is a computer port to connect them to. I am going to sidestep the various software that is included with scanners and sold separately, possibly even downloadable from the manufacturers’ websites, and just generically discuss the process of getting a real tangible piece of paper into the 0’s and 1’s that your storytelling program of choice can manipulate and display. I will say that once your scanner’s drivers are loaded and recognized, programs like PhotoShop and FireWorks will let you scan with them. I will also take this opportunity to endorse a shareware program that seems to be the Swiss Army knife of getting the most out of any brand of scanner (especially older ones) on both Macs and PC’s: VueScan is $49.95 for the basic version. And Ed Hamrick is probably the international poster boy of support and updates.
As far as bells and whistles go, I urge you to consider having at least one film scanner or photo scanner that can specifically handle slides and negatives. A lot of my wife’s family pictures are slides so I invested in both a film scanner and later a photo scanner with slide/film capability to let me archive those images from the middle of the last century. The film scanner also came in very handy when we did storytelling workshops with senior citizens in my former district.
I talked a bit about picture formats (“A Picture by any other Name”) and the advantages of scanning at a higher dpi (dots per inch) when you are going to use the “Ken Burns” effect to move around a photograph (“Pixel Perfect”). You can get an idea of the quality this gives you by comparing these three versions of this same 3×4 inch photograph. Though the ruler size is exactly the same, the larger dpi versions will spread their pixels wider and wider on your computer screen depending on what your resolution is set to. That’s me in my great-grandmother’s lap: four generations of O’Briens! I’m going to “Ken Burns” this photo and make a quick story from it in the next couple of days in order to highlight yet another program. In the meantime consider the size and quality of these pictures. The first was scanned at 72 dpi is 287×213 pixels and takes up 60 kb. The second was scanned at 150 dpi is 597×444 pixels and takes up 259 kb. Finally, I scanned the highest quality picture at 300 dpi and it weighs in at 1194×888 and 1 mb. This last one just about fills my laptop monitor that is set to a resolution of 1440×852. If your monitor is set to a more conventional 800×600 or 1024×768, you will have to scroll around to see the whole picture.
P.S. I forgot to mention that you should save your scanned images in an uncompressed format such as BMP, PICT or TIFF for the best quality.