Stamp watermarks are important. They can make the difference between an ordinary stamp worth a few pennies and one worth hundreds of pounds.
Reversed, inverted, reversed and inverted, sideways or sideways inverted, what watermark is present and how it is oriented is something us stamp collectors would like to know.
But figuring out the watermark and which way up it is is not always an easy job. In some stamps it’s easy, the watermark is clear when you place the stamp face down on a black surface and it’s simple to tell which way up it is. In other cases it’s extremely difficult to see a watermark clearly, or even anything at all.
Stamp Watermarks Detecting Methods
There are a couple of methods to make stamp watermarks easier to see, with their various advantages and drawbacks:
- Use watermark detector fluid or lighter fuel on the back of a used stamp. Don’t try this on a mint stamp as it will disturb the gum. These fluids may be flammable and/or toxic.
- Buy a watermark detector. These reportedly work well but are expensive.
I started looking around for alternatives, taking pictures with my iphone and using different light colours, to see if it made any difference. But without any luck. Then I thought, well I have a scanner and could that not do the job?
This is a work in progress and I want to show my efforts in scanning various stamps to get the best view of the watermark. I’ll cover getting the best scan of the face of my stamps in another article. I’m not a sophisticated user of scanners or image editing software so this is how I tried to make best use of these systems to improve my philatelic skills.
Why Scan Stamps and Stamp Watermarks?
I tried to take photos of stamps and it didn’t go very well. You can see the listings on Ebay that have been photographed, they’re the terrible ones out of focus and where the stamp is a minor part of the overall picture. Photographing stamps demands a tripod, lighting and a macro lens for close-up shots so that makes it a skilled job without any particular advantages over scanning.
When I tried the scanner I was converted right away! It’s really easy to scan your stamps and manipulate them in an image editing program so you get a great image you can put on a web page. And it’ll look good when you magnify it to fill most of the page too.
Using The Scanner
I have a normal flatbed scanner, a Canon Pixma MG5250 combination printer and scanner. It’s a few years old now but is still doing a good job. This is how I set it up for scanning stamps, either the faces or the reverse.
- Set to copy the image onto a USB drive (thumb stick), if you have a USB port on your scanner. I’ve lost the wireless connection since I messed around with the printing software so I have to use a USB! But it works well.
- Choose a small size to copy. I’m not sure this is important but I choose 10×6 inches.
- Choose a jpeg as the file type. A pdf can’t be manipulated in an image editing program and I don’t understand TIFF files.
- Put a black piece of card over the stamp (remember the part against the glass will scan, not the bit looking up at you! Yes, it’s easy to do that wrong).
- Choose colour scan for the faces of stamps. I haven’t decided on the best for the backs of stamps yet.
- Check the preview (if you have one) to make sure the stamps are far enough apart and away from the margins to crop them easily in your image editor. Having them as square as possible to the scanner will reduce your work in levelling them up later.
- Complete the scan.
- Put your USB into your PC or Mac
- Open in your image editor.
Image Editing Software
I have Adobe Photoshop Elements 15, it’s quite enough for me. In fact it’s way too sophisticated for me but does the job. The main Photoshop program is much more expensive and way over the top. Elements is £69.99 (approx $90) but the full Photoshop program is much more expensive.
So I fiddled about with all the options on the menu of Elements, not knowing what I was doing but trying everything to see what worked and what didn’t. It came up with some interesting results and quite a lot of failures.
Stamp Watermarks – Enhancing The Image
I tried the technique first on two of my prize stamps, the mint Lagos 5 shilling blue SG28 and the used 10 shilling purple-brown SG29. These two images are what I got with just plain scanning and no image manipulation.
Admittedly on this five shilling blue you can see the Crown CA watermark without too much trouble.
The watermark image itself is round the other way because it is “seen” from the front of the stamp officially.
So the normal image when you look at the back is a mirror-image. Well, that’s almost clear!
The back of this 10 shilling purple-brown is less accommodating but we can see the ghost of a watermark in the lower right quarter.
Of course, on both these stamps there is no question of which watermark is actually present. But they are the first two stamps I tried this with and they illustrate the process well
The First Effect – Equalize
I can’t profess to choosing this effect as I only found it by trial and error. I imported the above images into PSE (Photoshop Elements) and tried every command to see what effect that had on the stamp watermarks.
But when I discovered Equalize I knew it was a winner. You go to Filter – Adjustments – Equalize in the menu structure.
When you apply Equalize, PSE finds the lightest areas in your image and makes them white. At the same time it makes the darkest areas black. So it carries the dark/light business to extremes, showing up the two divisions in the image. Here’s what happened to the two QV Lagos stamps.
You can see this makes the watermark jump out immediately, enough to positively identify it on these two stamps.
5 shilling left. the 10 shilling is less clear as it is a “messier” stamp with a cancellation, a hinge remnant and some pencil writing. But it’s good enough to identify the watermark.
However I did go a bit further in search of an even clearer picture.
The Second Effect – Contrast and Darken
Under Enhance on the menu, go to Enhance-Adjust Lighting-Brightness/Contrast. Then increase the contrast to 100 and the brightness to around -85 and this really brings out the image.
See both stamps again after this transformation. This is fun! Well what passes for fun for a stamp collector, anyhow.
The Third Effect – High Pass Filter
Sounds a bit Clint Eastwood I know. If you feel lucky, go to Filter-Other-High Pass and choose around 167 as a balance between seeing the watermark and getting rid of the other dark areas which don’t contribute anything. So the scans look like this.
Now, I’m not sure that all these steps are necessary but it’s amusing to try them out and see if they can help with working out those watermarks that can make so much difference.
Trying other, later, watermarks on Nigerian stamps is proving more difficult so I aim to update this ongoing effort as I hopefully make progress.