Genealogists have lots of uses for scanners. We like to make digital images of information from books, court records, old maps, and even records found on microfilm. High quality portable scanners are inexpensive these days, typically $50 and up. You can occasionally find them at even lower prices if you watch the sales. However, convenience is always an issue. Do you really want to carry a portable scanner with you at all times just in case you happen to encounter something you want to digitize?
Actually, you probably already have such a scanner with you every time you leave the house.
Today’s Apple and Android smartphones typically have excellent, high-quality digital cameras built in. These make terrific scanners. Need to digitize a record in the deed books or the receipt you just received from a fast food restaurant? Make sure you have good lighting and snap a picture of it. I have been doing that for years and find it works well.
The handheld cell phone’s camera may not create images that look as good as those produced by a good flatbed scanner. You might not want to scan documents or photographs you later wish to publish in a book. However, the images are always more than “good enough” for my personal notes. I also travel a lot and I used to collect all sorts of pieces of paper as receipts from restaurants, taxi cabs, shuttle buses, and more. Keeping paper receipts for tax purposes results in a mountain of paper receipts of all shapes and sizes. I find it much easier to store and retrieve the receipts electronically. I snap a picture, file it, and then throw the paper copy away. I have read that the Internal Revenue Service actually prefers digital images when doing an audit. The IRS auditors also do not like to wrestle with hundreds of pieces of paper, they find digital images easier to work with.
For some time, I simply snapped pictures and saved them to various folders in my desktop computer’s hard drive, along with backup copies in the cloud. However, using a specialized app installed in the cell phone results in additional convenience and often also results in higher quality images. Some have automatic page edge detection so that all you save is the paper, not the surrounding background. Others create PDF files as well as the more common JPG images. Some even feature direct upload to Dropbox, Google Drive or Evernote so that the user doesn’t have to remember to do that manually at a later date.
Best of all, using a cell phone camera to digitize images does not harm the paper being digitized. Most other scanners require placing the old or delicate piece of paper into the scanner and, worst of all, some scanners move the document being scanned through a series of rollers. Never attempt to do that with anything fragile! Even sending a photograph through rollers that bend the item being scanned can result in damage to the photograph. Using a cell phone’s camera avoids those problems as the cell phone never touches the item being digitized.
All of today’s “cell phone scanning” apps are much cheaper than buying an additional scanner. All the apps I am about to describe are available in the Apple iPhone and iPad App Store or in the Google Play Store for Android systems.
Of all the available cell phone “scanning” apps, my favorite is TurboScan for the iPhone. This $1.99 product allows the user to create multiple-page PDFs, as well as JPEGs. It provides edge detection and adjustable contrast settings for the camera’s settings. The images of color photographs captured by TurboScan are not high quality but does create excellent black-and-white reproductions of documents and even of faded cash register receipts. It includes a “SureScan 3x” feature which merges three exposures, an excellent tool for use in low-light situations. The results typically are much better than the simple photographs you snap without using specialized software.
Scanner Pro for iPhone and iPad is probably the “top of the line” portable scanning app. It is the most expensive of the apps I have seen with a price tag of a mighty $6.99. (Do you really still want to buy a scanner for $50 or more?) Scanner Pro includes real-time border detection for better framing as well as iCloud sync for keeping your scans backed up and in sync with your devices and direct upload to Dropbox, Google Drive and Evernote. If you need an app that does everything, Scanner Pro is probably it.
CamScanner+ is a $4.99 app for iPhone and iPad that allows the user to fax scans directly (for a fee), tag entries, collaborate, identify text and even set a passcode to secure your private documents. There’s a free version available that uses advertisements and watermarks your scans, among other limitations. I believe it works well but I abandoned FAXing years ago so I don’t use CamScanner+ . However, if you still use a FAX machine, CamScanner+ may be a good choice for you.
CamScanner+ is also available for Android devices. A free version is available that watermarks your scans and limits some of the app’s more useful features. In effect, the free version is useful as a free trial but not something you would want to keep and use regularly. Who wants scanned images with watermarks prominently displayed? You can try out the free version and, if you decide you like it, then pay $4.99 for a full-featured version without watermarks.
Mobile Document Scanner, also known as MDScanner, sells for $4.99. It features multi-page support. That is, instead of having to take 10 pictures of a 10-page document and then having to store them as 10 separate files, Mobile Document Scanner allows the user to take the 10 different pictures and then stores the result in one larger file that contains all 10 pages. It also includes edge detection of each document and a range of processing options for making text, pictures or whiteboard drawings stand out. I believe the Android user will find Mobile Document Scanner to be an excellent choice for digitizing all sorts of documents you encounter while out and about.
Whatever your choice of software, using a cell phone’s camera provides a lot of capability in a convenient package you probably already have with you. On your next trip to a library or archive that allows scanning or picture taking, try using your cell phone’s camera. I suspect you will like the results.