How to Scan or Photograph Coins

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Scanning Coins using a flat bed scanner
One of the easiest ways to get pictures of coins is by using a flat bed scanner. You can achieve very good pictures using a scanner, but they are unlikely to be of Auction Catalogue quality.

In simple terms, make sure both the scanner glass and the coin are clean and free of dust (use a soft dry cloth), place the coin on the scanner and scan! In a matter of seconds you have a picture.

Dots Per Inch – DPI
As you will probably wish to view a larger image than the actual coin, you should scan at a higher resolution. 300 DPI is usually acceptable, but you could try 600 or even more. The trade off here is with image size on the computer. The higher the DPI, the larger the image file created.

Scanning Direction
Most scanners will sweep from top to bottom (or from right to left) and it is useful to know which direction your scanner scans from. Try placing the coin so the top is scanned first. This usually gives the best image. However, it is often worth experimenting by rotating the coin and scanning again.

Background Colour
Most scanners have a white back ground (some black). It is worth trying different coloured back grounds to scan against. Generally an even grey background shows off a coin by providing the optimum contrast. Again, this will vary with the colour and composition of the coin you are scanning.

The background usually appears darkest where it is closest to the coin, as the coin forces it away from the glass. This results in a background showing colour variation. One way to get around this is to not use the usual scanner lid as the background. Instead, leave the top of the scanner open, and create a new raised background. One simple way to do this is with the top of a coffee jar. Take the jar top and cut a circular background the size of the inside of the lid. Stick the background inside the lid, so that when you place the lid over the coin and onto the scanner the background sits just higher than the coin. Now when you scan, you see the ring of the coffee lid with the coin inside. Simply crop out the coin image (see later). One variation with this is to use a reflective film (tin foil) around the inside of the side of the lid. This will help reflect the light of the scanner back onto the coin and the background.

Most coins have two sides, and the accepted way to display a coin is with the obverse and reverse next to each other. Simply scan both sides using the same dpi (to maintain image size), closely crop the coins, and paste them together. There are many software packages that will do this, for example, Paint Shop Pro, Photo Shop and Irfanview. Some software will even allow you to make the background transparent.

Photographing Coins
Taking photographs of coins can be difficult, but can also give excellent Auction Catalogue results. Things have been made much simpler with the introduction of digital cameras, where you get instant feed back (rather than waiting for prints) and allow low cost experimentation (take many pictures, and delete all but the best)

Macro Digital Cameras
To get close enough to the coin to give good results, you really need a digital camera with a macro function, or a digital camera with a macro lens adapter. This usually means that you can get the camera to within just a few centimeters of the coin, making the coin almost fill the view finder.

Camera Stand
With the camera so close to the image, it is very easy to get “shake” on the picture, where the camera moves even slightly while the picture is being taken. The best way to avoid this is to invest in a close up camera stand, or to make something to rest the camera on – try a large shoe box with a hole cut for the camera lens.

Most cameras have a flash, and this can be used to illuminate the coin, but it usually results in a flat looking image. More acceptable images can be achieved using directional light, giving some shadow to the coin. This usually helps to make the coin look more 3 dimensional, and often helps to better show up any legends. A simple desk top lamp with a flexible neck or head works well – even better two lamps. If you can, use daylight bulbs (they simulate day light and usually look blue in colour), although most cameras can adjust for artificial light. Place the lights at about 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, and angled in at the coin.

A plain grey background usually gives results with clear definition between background and coin, but experiment with different background colours as coin colour and composition varies. Placing the coin on an object that is smaller than the coin (so the camera cannot see it) raises the coin from the back ground keeping the coin in focus, but helping the background to fade back – try a 1-2 cm section cut out of a plastic biro.

There are no rules about how to take the best picture of a coin, and usually experimentation is best. One final tip though, if the coin features a face, concentrate on the eye – usually if you get the eye looking right, a great picture follows. Try rotating the coin, so the light catches it at different angles.
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