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Photoshop

How to Make a Modern Photogram Using a Flatbed Scanner

By Tanya Goodall Smith on October 13th 2013

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

During my very first digital photography class (ok, it was my only digital photography class) at art school, I learned about a camera-less photography technique which produces an image called a Photogram. Artists like Man Ray and Pablo Picasso experimented with the technique, which is traditionally made by placing objects on photographic paper and then exposing the paper to light. Sometimes they would simply lay the paper and objects out in the sun, or expose it with an enlarger in the darkroom.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogramPhoto by Anna Atkins and Anne Dixon, 1854, Cyanotype, Via The J. Paul Getty Museum Open Content Program

In the 1800s Anna Atkins, an English Botanist and Photographer, used this contact print method to make photographic impressions of plants. I’ve always admired these Photograms and wanted to create something similar, with a modern twist. To create a modern photogram, I simply used my flatbed scanner instead of photo sensitive paper.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

Making Your Own Digital Photogram
Here’s What You’ll Need
Flatbed scanner
Plants or other subject matter
Photoshop or other image editing software (optional)
Construction paper
Paper weight

Here’s How to Do It
1. Gather your subject matter. I took my oldest son on a nature walk to find plants for our project. We threw rocks in the river, gathered different kinds of plants, and took pictures along the way.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

2. Place your chosen materials on a flatbed scanner. I wanted a look that had more depth and color than the original photograms. To get that depth, I left the scanner lid open and turned the lights off in my studio while scanning.

If your materials are too high off the scanner bed, like the tumble weeds in the image below, you might have to place a piece of construction paper on top and weight it down with a book or paper weight.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

3. Crop and touch up your image as needed in Photoshop. I left most of the dust specs in my images because I liked the way they looked. You could clean them up if you want by applying a dust and scratch filter or manually cloning out the blemishes.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

How to Get a More Traditional “Photogram” Look Using Photoshop:

1. Open your image in Photoshop.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

2. Change the mode to Greyscale and discard the color information.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

3. Bump up the brightness with a brightness/contrast adjustment layer. In this case I brought the brightness all the way up to 112.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

4. Convert the color mode to a duotone. This will actually end up being a monotone image because we are going to choose one color.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

5. I chose 100% cyan, but you could use any color you like.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

6. To further brighten the plant image, I brought the duotone curve down significantly until I was happy with how it looked.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

7. I added some noise to the image via a noise filter, just to give it a little more texture.

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

8. Then, I actually went back into the duotone menu and darkened the color a little bit. 100% cyan was burning my retinas. At this point, don’t forget to change the color mode to suit the output of your image.

Here’s the final photogram…

how-to-make-a-digital-photogram

And here’s a side-by-side comparison of the original by Anna Atkins and my digital version (not the same plant, obviously, though that would have been really cool…)

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I’ve been using scanned materials in elements of my work for over a decade now. The flatbed scanner is just another creative tool for me. How have you used it? If you haven’t already, how would you use this “camera-less” photography technique in your own work?

CREDITS: Photographs by Tanya Smith and the Getty Open Content Program have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artists.

Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at workstoryphotography.com.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Joseph Prusa

    Thanks for posting.

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  2. John Fobes

    With all due respect the art that you are making are more acurately described as scanograms. A scanner is a hybrid camera that uses a lens and a mirror to image with. A photogram is made by an entirely different syntax. Objecrs are placed upon photo sensitive materials and exposed to a light scource. A lens imaging device is not required to make a photogram, however, a scanogram is impossible to make without a lens, mirror, and a digital media recording device, as well as a computer program to alter the image and produce a faux representation of the scaned image. A scanogram is a valid art form, however, the syntax is so different that it should be placed in a new category of image making.
    Regards,
    John Fobes

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    • Allen Razdow

      Whether “scanogram” is more accurate is matter of opinion John. Personally, I’d call them “scans”. ‘Digital Photogram” makes it clear it’s a digital image referencing photograms. Informs the reader IMHO. Not sure your use of the word ‘syntax’ is accurate either sir. We’re all relived that you judge scanograms to be valid though :).

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    • John Fobes

      Mr Razdow, The term photographic syntax is used to reference the particular characteristic attributes a photographic process or equipment has upon the visual representation of a photograph. Examples of the tern “syntax” can be found in part one of “Keepers of Light : A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes by William Crawford. Publisher : Morgan and Morgan Dobbs Ferry, New York copyrighted 1979.  I want to make it clear that my initial comment had no ill will intended as your tone of articulation suggests. I don’t have a clue what  the abbreviation “IMHO” communicates to the reader,  so I will have to search for the probable meaning.

      Regards, 

      John Fobes

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