This article appeared in
August, 2014

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Scanning Certificates

About ten years ago, contributors began asking for advice on how they could make good images of their certificates. Their requests gradually increased to the point where I decided it would be easier to compile information in a special section on my web site. (See While I use railroad certificates for examples, the information on the site applies to all certificates from all specialties.

Cost. There are several reasons that collectors started asking for advice. The cost of scanners, especially letter-size (A4) scanners, dropped to below $100. They became more reliable and easier to use. Hard drive sizes increased and prices dropped so precipitously that it became possible to store hundreds of images on home computers without “breaking the bank.”

Uses. As prices dropped, it became cost-effective to make excellent full-color images for insurance and record-keeping purposes. Decent home scanners prompted collectors to start sending hundreds of images to help with my project; it seemed everyone enjoyed having a way to contribute to this hobby. Many of my contributors also started scanning certificates so they could post images to their own personal web sites for everyone else to see. And, of course, many collectors wanted images so they could sell certificates on eBay.

Investment necessary. As easy as it sounds, scanning certificates requires investment in both money and time. Letter-size scanners are affordable, but if someone wants to scan entire bonds, the cost for A3-size (tabloid) scanners can be a shock. Then there is the cost of software to manipulate images. Finally comes the time necessary to climb the steep learning curve in order to figure out both machinery and software. Fortunately, if collectors can avoid (or at least delay) becoming perfectionists, entry-level scanners and software will create perfectly acceptable images for as little as a $100.

Let’s look at the three concerns I hear most often.

What kinds of scanner should I buy? First off, you want a flatbed scanner. You NEVER want to send certificates through a feeding mechanism. While prices vary dramatically, most top-tier manufacturers have decent machinery that works well with either Windows, Mac or Linux computers. From my viewpoint, the weak link is not the hardware, but rather the software that controls scanners. The software that comes with most scanners is “adequate,” a term I do not use in a flattering way. If you don’t like the software that comes with your scanner, and I generally don’t, then you should check out VueScan, a third party vendor that writes software for almost every scanner. After avoiding the purchase for too long, I can now testify without reservation that VueScan is a great way to rid yourself of free, but barely usable, manufacturer software.

What if my scanner is too small to scan large certificates? Don’t worry. Simply install good “stitching” software. That is software that automatically stiches two or more images together. There are two tricks to stitching images. 1) Scan your certificates in pieces, all facing the same direction. 2) Insure adequate overlap (1.5 inches / 3 cm) between scans. My favorite stitching program is “Image Composite Editor” by Microsoft Research. It is free, but only works on the Windows platform.

What kind of software should I use to improve my images? This is the first question everyone asks after they have scanned a few items. They always want to fix images that are a little crooked or a little dark. Everyone has heard of Adobe Photoshop®, the 900-pound gorilla of image manipulation. Photoshop got big by creating incredible flexibility, power and features. It has a large selection of “plug-ins” created by third-party vendors that vastly expands Photoshop’s native abilities. Photoshop is very expensive and targeted to anyone intending to make a career in creative visual industries.

Photoshop competitors. Of course, Photoshop has several competitors. I would probably give the “Number 2 Award” to Photo Paint, a part of the Corel Suite since 1993. PaintShop Pro (developed by another company, but purchased by Corel in 2004) is equally well-respected. If someone wants to do image editing on the cheap, there is probably no better software than GIMP. I recently tested the latest version and managed excellent results, nearly equal to Photoshop. The main complaint is that GIMP is not as polished as the other products and is harder to get used to. But it is free. How-to books are available for all these products, including several for GIMP.

You might try searching for even more programs using the keywords, “photo manipulation software.” Many products are free. Programmers might take very different approaches in creating image editing programs, but they usually end up with remarkably similar capabilities. For those reasons, different types of people like different types of software and those users tend to become extremely loyal. Taking an agnostic approach, I suggest most programs will be sufficient for your collector needs. After all, most people don’t want something too fancy. They merely want to rotate images, crop them and clean them up a bit. However, if you anticipate needing more exotic tools such as color adjustment, vignetting, sharpening, distortion and so forth, you probably ought to spend more time on researching and testing.