HOW *I* DO IT :: Scanning

For the preceding parts of this series:

Part 1: Tools Baby Tools
Part 2: Secondary Tools
Part 3: Comics Process

So we’ve covered tools, and made a comic–but in order to color the comic, put it online, print it in a book, spam everyone we know with links to the comic and book and the print series based on the comic, etc., we’re going to have to get that comic into the computer. We have to turn all that PAPER and INK and INSPIRATION into LIGHT, baby! I’m going to use this week’s strip, FACES OF ROBOCOP, which you can see the completed version of right here.

While I’m pretty self-deprecating about my art and comics and self and whatever, I’m pretty good at this sort of production work. Even though 100% of what I’ve learned over the years is a great shambling Frankenstein monster of different approaches and overheard tidbits.¬†Different people have different approaches, but my approach is basically a) the sharpest black lineart possible, b) flat colors in Photoshop layered underneath the art. I know a lot–a lot–of people who use Manga Studio to color their comics, and by all accounts it’s the bee’s knees, but I haven’t figured out how to use it yet. It’s not the most intuitive program in the world. But I will! Also plenty of people use other programs, or work in a more richly textured analog style, say watercolors or something else that would mean a different process. I work as simple as I can–I’m a little bit obsessive, and the less things I give myself to potentially obsess over, the better.

There are a couple of really basic things I’ve learned over the years, in terms of production in general and scanning in particular, that have been really eye-opening and that fundamentally changed the way I approach this stuff. The first of these is that Photoshop is almost definitely going to be better at dealing with images than any scanner driver, unless you’ve got some kind of Hubble Space Scanner hooked up to your laptop. Your scanner’s bundled software is almost certainly designed for an unsophisticated user–for instance if my dad wants to scan some photos of his grandkids that my brother took and got printed out at the drugstore, then sure, the scanner software is fine for him. But for you, Photoshop–and probably any halfway robust imaging software, honestly, but I use Photoshop–is going to be much much better for what you need. All you REALLY need the scanner to do is to take the best-possible photograph of your art; Photoshop will take it from there in terms of adjusting things to where you want them.

So to that end, let’s take a picture. I have an Epson GT-15000 that I bought for a bajillion dollars back in 2006 when I was still gainfully employed and thought I needed a massive scanner–back then I worked really big, like 14×17 big half the time. Now you can fit most of my biggest strips in between your math notes in your Trapper Keeper, but whatever. It was pricey, but the Epson has really lasted a long time, with almost no problems. And over the last three years of more serious cartooning, I fire it up almost every day.

Oh sorry I got distracted there. Okay so I go to File > Import and then pick my scanner from the choices of scanners that are displayed. If your scanner is properly installed, it should pop up there. Photoshop opens up your scanner’s software as a separate dialogue box. It’ll look different from the pictured box, but the important thing is to disable pretty much anything that your scanner is going to do to the image. Which I’ve more or less done–the important choices to make are

1) scan as grayscale, NOT as bitmap
2) If you have a choice of quality, always pick “best”–otherwise the software will throw out pixels it thinks you might not need, and you want ALL the pixels
3) Set your resolution to 1200.

Or whatever you work at, but for my money there’s not a reason to scan at less than 600dpi. Even if you’re going to work at a lower resolution, having that nice, juicy, high-res scan for your archives will help you if you ever want to print something big, or if technology improves so that higher dpi is easier to work with, etc. Think of your naked scan as something you can stick in your files as a high fidelity backup, just in case. I always use 1200dpi for anything that’s b&w lineart, and I’ll tell you why in a little bit. Be patient.

Once you have your presets sussed out, actually scan the thing, however that works with your scanner. It’ll most likely pop up in Photoshop. Go ahead and save this raw, naked, primordial scan as a TIF, with whatever naming convention you use. I’m a big fan of versioning, so I named mine “faces-of-robocop_gscale_scan-1200dpi.tif” “TIF” stands for “Tagged Image File,” which is gobbledy-gook. But for our purposes, a tif is a compressable file format that features lossless compression, can handle layers, and is readable by pretty much any other piece of software, so you won’t have some art director complaining because his Pagemaker 95 can’t handle your fancy-dan Photoshop files. Choose “LZW” under compression–it’s a lossless form of compression that will shrink your file-size somewhat, but without losing any actual data.

This is just one panel of my scan, but I want a nice close look for us to talk about. You can see all kinds of stuff in there, right? The off-white of the paper, the actual pen strokes in the black of Robocop’s head, etc. Not to mention all my pencil lines, which I didn’t erase yet. I often don’t erase them at all, but I will eventually for this one because I bet someone is going to buy the heck out of the original art.

Photoshop will get rid of all that stuff in like two seconds, here’s what I do:

1) Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels (or CTRL + L) to open the Levels dialogue box. With Preview checked, fiddle with the left and right sliders. Basically you want to dial the worst of the pencil lines/page tint/etc out by lightening with the right slider, then juice up the blacks a little so they’re more regular and less greyish with the left slider. It doesn’t take much, but you’ll get a sense of that with time. You can toggle that Preview box to see how the original looked too. Mine looked like this:

Basically we’re just upping the contrast a little, but just a little. We’re going to get rid of the other grey in just a little bit. We’re going to wash that grey right out of our Robocop!

Okay this next thing Cliff Chiang taught me, and it’s a super good trick. It especially helps if you have a LOT of fine detail, double-especially if it’s all clotted together, like hatching. Go to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask to open the Unsharp Mask dialogue. It’s going to look like you’re blurring up your image in a weird way, but what you’re actually doing is telling Photoshop to separate white pixels and black pixels just a little more clearly, which LOOKS like it’s blurring them, but in fact is making them even sharper, which helps with our next step. But for now:

I usually set mine to Amount: 50%, Radius: 7.5px, Threshold: 7. But that’s just from playing with it some. I’m mystified as to what that stuff means in anything but the most general possible sense. But that works for me. Here’s what it looks like before:

And then after a little unsharpetizing:

Crazy looking, huh? It looks like you’re messing it up, but remember we’re so close that your eyeball doesn’t even know what’s going on. This is an extreme closeup of a 1/16th of a page panel, and the page is letter-size.

Once you’ve got all that done, we’re ready for the OTHER of the 2 big things that changed the way I think about production. It’s basic to a lot of people, so don’t laugh! Hey, I’m self-taught, and this one blew my mind when I figured it out. For black and white line art, you will pretty much ALWAYS get a better result if you threshold your lineart. What “threshold” means is pretty much what it sounds like: Photoshop is basically saying that everything on one side or the other of a movable “threshold” is either a white pixel or a black pixel. A lot of people who do a lot of print work are already familiar with this, but for people like me who are sticklers, it’s easy to get spooked by everything turning all jagged and 8-bit looking all of a sudden.

Listen, I get it. But besides the more obvious benefits of thresholding (enormously decreased file-size, much easier to use with colors later, etc), the thing I never realized is this: at high resolution, whether it’s 1200dpi or 600dpi, you just plain can’t see those little jagged edges–your eyeball literally CANNOT SEE THEM–it fills in the space between them with what it expects to be there. When you zoom in you’re like hey what’s the deal, but the reason we’re working at high resolution is so stuff like this doesn’t matter. That’s the whole point!

And here’s the real kicker: the same way that Photoshop is better than your scanner at dealing with pixel data, the reverse is true of printers. The simpler you can make things for a printer, the better, especially if you’re dealing with mid-range desktop printers, or even Kinko’s-level printers. If you send your printer a high res file of a bunch of fancy ink washes and gradation and blurry edges, your printer will try its best to do right by you, but it’s going to have to figure out how to render that subtle gradation by splashing ink or toner or dust or orange juice or whatever it runs on, onto PAPER. If you give your printer thresholded line art, you can almost hear it exhale in relief: “oh snap, black or white, I GOT THIS!” Or when you take your files to a place like Kinko’s or Staples, and some poor guy making $8.50 an hour and hating his job and not really sure how to run that big fancy printer anyway so he just runs your file through it and hopes for the best–that thresholded file is as close to dummyproof as you’re going to get. You can see the difference yourself–print a copy of your black and white lineart file before and after thresholding, and there’s a marked jump in print quality. Plain and simple, your printer is confused by rendering anti-aliasing. When you ask it to guess how grey or not grey a certain pixel will be, it’s not going to do a very good job–it’s a printer, not a guesser.

Just as your eye is adding in information that isn’t there when you look at things like this at actual size, the printer tries to do the same. But your printer just isn’t good at it–so we want to control that process as much as we can to get the best possible result.

Anyway, enough proselytizing. I threshold pretty much everything now except color work or inkwashes–if there’s not a real need for gradation of some kind, you always get a better result printing that way. Once your file is thresholded, go ahead and clean up any little mistakes or rough edges, or places where you drew outside the lines. With the Pencil and Erase tools, it’s pretty easy to fix any pixels you want fixed.

Now that your file is all nice and tight and shiny, convert it to a bitmap: Image > Mode > Bitmap. You’ll get a dialogue that asks what method you’d like to use, just go with Threshold, which you’ve already done anyway, so it’s not going to actually change anything. Basically, “bitmap” just makes it official–you’ve converted your file to just black and white bits. And now it’s gone from the 50MB of its initial scan to about 1MB, and gotten sharper and sexier in the process. Save the bitmap as a different version; I called mine faces-of-robocop_bitmap-1200dpi.tif. Again choose–heck, always choose, in terms of comics work–LZW compression. Now you should have your original scan and a cleaned up bitmap version. Here’s what mine looks like, full-page:

Next week I’ll go over coloring this file, and we’ll turn the bitmap into the color file. But for now, you should concentrate on having yourself an awesome week and maybe treat yourself to a fancy meal–hey, you deserve it. And if you find yourself bored, you can always check out the final colored strip again and relieve the madness of Robocop in cartoon form, or check out Cliff Chiang, or read the previous articles in this series:

Part 1: Tools Baby Tools
Part 2: Secondary Tools
Part 3: Comics Process

17 thoughts on “HOW *I* DO IT :: Scanning

  1. rm

    Also, surprised about Thresholding, I never do it, my stuff looks terrible, especially dry brush bits. And I like a tiny tiny little greyness to ink, it gives the thing a somewhat raw unpolished touch.

  2. Adam

    Great post. For all the times that I used the unsharp mask in design work I never thought to use it for this process, thanks for the tip.

    Also one thing that has saved me a lot of time is recording this all as an action. Although you lose a little fine control on each individual image being able to press one button and all the steps happening automatically is nice.

  3. Mike

    Really appreciate this “how to” series too. I tried this and can’t believe the results. Excellent. Thanks so much.

  4. BradyDale

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    It just so happens that last night was the first time I used the levels tool in Photoshop Elements to improve the contrast on my line art and I nearly cried it was so much better. I remember reading about this whole thresholding business when I read How to Make Webcomics but I never really played with it. I need to.

    One challenge for me, that I need to figure out, is I like to hand color with a bunch of grays, which I definitely found got a bit funky when I played around with the sliders, but I’m sure I can get better with it.

    I wish I could understand what any of the thousands of Photoshop terms meant!

    P.S. Your personification of the printer was really funny.

  5. Brian Fies

    I always enjoy looks at process and this is helpful. Like you, I learned a lot on my own, made mistakes and had friends show me better forehead-smacking ways. In particular, your advice to work at 1200 dpi (or the highest your computer can handle) is very important. Two thoughts:

    Thresholding seems like an unnecessary step if you’re just going to convert it into Bitmap later anyway. The result is the same, I think.

    Also, I’d disagree with saving any of these original or intermediate files as TIFs. They’re huge! In Photoshop, I’d recommend working and saving everything right up until the final product as a PSD file. It’s Photoshop’s “native” format and the file size is a lot more manageable, particularly with color or a lot of layers. If someone needs a copy for a particular purpose (publishing, posting to the Web) you can always save a PSD as a TIF, JPG, PDF or anything else.

    Just my approach and opinions with which reasonable people can disagree, of course. That’s part of the fun of art. Nice series, I look forward to more.

  6. DHARBIN! Post author

    I’m interested in this “psd > tif” question, Brian–although I don’t have any real scientific data. Recently me and Zack Soto tried to hash this out on Twitter, but both of our data sets were pretty anecdotal, and the consensus seemed to be “sometimes one is better than the other, depending.” But I’m ready to believe !

  7. DHARBIN! Post author

    Oh and I forgot to say–the reason I threshold as its own step is that usually I’m going ahead and coloring everything under that thresholded artwork (as I’ll go into in the next post), so the bitmap file is just a low file-size version I keep, and occasionally will print b&w from, or layer in an InDesign process.

    But yeah, you can choose 50/50 threshold under the bitmap options, and it’s the same thing.

  8. Jacob Covey

    Dustin, it’s great whenever people share their knowledge of production with others. Glad you’re doing this for people.

    There is all kinds of back-and-forth we could have about the details but I wanted to offer a couple quick notes from my experience as Art Director at Fantagraphics, etc.:

    1. I think you’re working on a program older than CS5, yes? Recently Photoshop stopped allowing a person to do the Import>File step you mentioned. You have to use your scanner’s software. In my experience, I disagree that it makes any more sense to scan through Photoshop than your scanner’s software (if you have a half-decent scanner of any kind). It’s just much easier. But now that’s not an option.

    2. I don’t even have the energy anymore to listen to the same litany of protests that artists give for why NOT to bitmap. But I want to back you up for those reading: There’s no good reason not to bitmap if you’re working with hard blacks. If you’re using continuous tone (shades of gray) then maybe you don’t bitmap. Maybe. Jordan Crane is the last word on this sort of thing and he insists that a person should use a diffusion dither bitmap on continuous tone. However, this definitely has more ramifications and I can’t heartily suggest everyone do it. With hard black line art, threshold those blacks and do a 50% bitmap as you said. Period. The Dharbin knows.

    3. Your scanning instructions lack one critical point: The goal is to have your line art file at 1200 dpi for the size it will be reproducing. That is, if you draw at 200% of final size, you can scan at 600 dpi if you want. It’s just a matter of ratios. That said: Always scan larger than smaller. And, yes, it makes a difference even if you can’t detect it yourself. Never go lower than 600 and always aim for 1200. If you end up in a pickle, it’s often better to res-up your artwork and do a little blurring to make it 600 dpi than it is to make, say, a 400 dpi bitmap or to allow your work to get hazy as a grayscale file. (For esoteric reference: When you see a really huge piece of line art used on a book I worked on, it’s often been blown up from the smaller file size doing just this. I don’t generally have access to the original work to make larger scans.)

    4. I know of no reason a person should save their files as PSDs and not TIFs. If you want to keep a backup of the original un-bitmapped file as a PSD, that seems like a good idea. I don’t, but artists might want to. When producing books, I just worry about that final press file. When I have a good bitmap file it gets saved as a TIF. For one thing this is a more universal format. The other reason is that I use PSD files as a way to mark a file as being layered or in-progress.

    Hope this was a helpful addition.


  9. DHARBIN! Post author

    Jacob, getting free lessons from you has made this whole post worthwhile. Please feel free to chime in any time you like, and disagree PLEASE, as now I have more grist to chew on.

    In answer to your point 1: my (anecdotal, non-scientific) experience with scanner drivers has always been terrible, and since I started letting Photoshop drive, I felt more “in control.” Having said that, it’s probably as much because I unchecked EVERY scanner option and went from the ground up in Photoshop–meaning I unchecked things the scanner might have been doing that I didn’t understand and thus were producing iffy results when not used properly. And yeah, I’m on CS3.

    Good call on the print-size thing, and I left that step out of my process for some reason. I had indeed cropped the original scan to the size I print at (about 6″ x 7.5″). I’ll edit the post accordingly!

  10. Matt

    Excellent post! It’s always great to see how others go through a process, and I really appreciate your attention to detail. I’ve been using Photoshop to edit my comics for years, but it has been entirely self-taught, and this has shown me the light on so many different topics. Thanks for keeping it simple and straightforward, and I look forward to more in this series!

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  13. Dan Lynch

    I’ve been doing the Levels thing for a while now, it’s awesome. But I just tried Unsharp Mask & Threshold. THEY ROCK! Wow… What a difference.

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