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Thrifty Thursday: The Digital Herbarium

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Thrifty Thursdays feature photographs taken with equipment costing less than $500.

[HP deskjet F4280 printer/scanner - $150]

This week’s inexpensive photo project makes use of a desktop scanner to translate a living plant into a digital specimen. Creating virtual natural history collections is an activity well-suited for elementary school science classrooms, for children old enough to use computers, or as a novel way to create nature art to hang on your walls.

Here is my recipe for the image of a small grass plant:

  1. Carefully dig up a plant, with roots intact, small enough to fit on a scanner.
  2. Wash the plant thoroughly in running water to separate soil from the roots.
  3. Dip roots generously in a glass of water to spread them out, then insert a paper towel to hold roots in spread position while slowly removing the plant from water.
  4. Set plant to dry until all visible water droplets have evaporated.
  5. Arrange plant on scanner, and scan at desired resolution. I recommend resolutions higher than 300 dpi.
  6. Clean up any stray dirt, adjust levels, and add text in a photo-editing program.
Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. TheHymenopteran 6:28 pm 05/16/2013

    I’m confused. You achieved the above image by placing the plant specimen on the scanner and scanning? I would have expected it to look far different. That image looks like it was taken by a regular camera?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 6:53 pm 05/16/2013

    I added slight vignetting to the corners in post to give the image a “regular camera” look. It looks much more conventionally scanned when unmodified.

    Link to this
  3. 3. ceratina 5:06 pm 05/18/2013

    Note that you need a CCD scanner for this to work. CCDs have pretty good depth of field (~8mm up). Portable and many multifunction printers use a CIS (contact image sensor), which usually has a dismal depth of field of ~1 mm. I got burned by this several years ago, and was only able to rectify it this month. Since my new scanner is primarily a film scanner, I’ll have to protect the glass when doing things like this. Is there a good choice of transparent material to use? I assume that something stiff would be easier to work with than something like cling film. Presumably newton’s rings will also be a problem.

    Good article showing the difference between CCD and CIS:

    Link to this

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