We need your help! A great scan is only possible one a great photo of a business card – and we mean great. That’s not to say it’s easy to take good photos of business cards, far from it, in fact taking good pictures of business cards is almost an art! The good news is that after a bit of practice, anyone should be able to take great photos in any normal light condition. Witnesses can confirm that I have been the star attraction scanning business cards in a crowded bar with dim lighting (really).

One more thing before we go into details of picture taking: many expect optical character recognition (OCR) to “just work” and pretty much recognize text in any photos where they can read the text. This is a major source of disappointment to some because OCR apps don’t have the insights people have and may fail on photos where a person can still make out the text. So we need you to help by taking the very best pictures you can take! If you are disappointed with any scan result, please email it to us at info@scanbizcards.com so we can tell you what’s wrong.

iPhone 4s, iPhone 4 or iPhone 3GS required
Let’s start with your camera. If you are using the iPhone 3G (sold at Apple stores until mid-June 2009 but also offered beyond June at AT&T stores), you’re in trouble … a quick check if you are not sure: run the camera application and check the bottom right of the gray toolbar at the bottom. If it has a slider to select still pictures or video, you’re good, it’s the iPhone 3GS or later. Otherwise, here is the problem: the iPhone 3G camera is not able to focus at the close range required to take clear images of business cards. The best you’ll be able to do is something like this – and that’s barely readable to the human eye, let alone to an OCR program. A solution for the iPhone 3G is to purchase the Griffin Clarifi close-up lens accessory, I recently spoke to a ScanBizCards user who reported scanning upwards of 80 cards with the iPhone 3G and this lens, although he did mention experiencing 60% or so accuracy which is not as high as we achieve with other models.
UPDATE: unfortunately the recently released iPod Touch 4 is also not suitable for taking good images of business cards. This time the issue is not so much the close-up ability, it’s simply the low resolution: only 1M pixels (compared to the iPhone 3GS 3M pixels and the iPhone 4 4M pixels).
UPDATE 03/2011: sure enough, the camera of the new iPad 2 unveiled March 11, 2011 is also not suitable for taking good images of business cards. Its back-facing camera has the same resolution as the iPod Touch 4 and the front-facing camera is worse.
UPDATE 11/2011: the iPhone 4S really rocks for ScanBizCards – much faster scanning, photos are super sharp which means higher OCR accuracy, and the flash really works well which means it’s feasible to take photos of cards in pitch darkness (really).
Of course if you have an iPod Touch 4, iPhone 3G or iPad 2 you always have the option to take pictures using a different camera or scanner, import them into your device, scan them to then use any of the ScanBizCards features. Subscribers to the optional Web Sync service can upload card images in bulk which really makes the process very easy: uploaded cards are synced back to the device and you will find them in Recent Cards ready to be scanned.
ANDROID:If you are using our application on Android phones: Android is new (and exciting) for us but there are many different devices and we would appreciate your feedback about the photo quality on your phone! So far we have found that all Android 2.0 phones we had tested had adequate camera but please let us know if it’s not the case for your device: open a scanned card within the app and use the “Forward Card” action to send us a copy.

Use a Tripod!
A truly amazing solution to most of the problems below is the Joby Gorillamobile mini-tripod for the iPhone: set it at just the right height (which means having the text as large as possible), make sure the iPhone is perfectly parallel to the desk and you essentially get the very best photo you can take with your iPhone. No more shaking/blurriness. You can now touch the screen to help the iPhone focus without fear of making the camera shake. I have a Gorillapod tripod myself and I highly recommend it! Note: the iPhone 4 version has just been released, if you have the iPhone 3G/3GS make sure to select the older model of the Gorillapod.
Patrick's Gorillapod in action

Bigger is Better
Size does matter when it comes to OCR – larger text scans much better – so try to have the card fill-up as much of the camera viewport as possible, which means get as close as possible while still capturing the text you want.

Parallel
Have the card edges be parallel to the camera viewport – OCR software assumes text lines are more or less horizontal are are tolerant only of a reasonable angle. Pretend you are parallel-parking at your driver license test with a particularly demanding examiner!

Natural or diffuse light
Natural light is best and the main reason is that it’s diffuse and it’s white light. This is why images scan actually better in the morning light than in the afternoon where direct sun light creates non-uniform coloring on the card background. In particular, stay away from incandescent light bulbs or at least keep your distance. This image is a case where I fell victim myself when I thought I’d get best results right under a spotlight – big mistake, just using the natural light in the room one feet away from that light produced much better results [Update: ScanBizCards V2.70 and beyond actually does well on that card now that we preprocess the images to handle such issues but it’s still best to avoid these situation – if only to have better looking pictures in the 3D cards view!]

Steady
If the text is blurred, the card is almost certain to not scan properly at all. Because the image is taken at close range, any movement will cause significant blurriness. Holding your breadth does help, and so does leaning against a wall (don’t laugh – in fact you can lean against a person too) but the easiest way to help with the stability is to make sure the card itself is steady, by placing it on a desk instead of holding it in your hand. This is obviously not possible if you are performing party tricks in a crowded bar or if you need to get the card closer to a light source. A couple of business card scanning applications implement a feature to capture the image when no motion is detected, which helps – we have on the to-do list to implement this feature as well.

Shadows
It’s very difficult to take a close-up image of a business card without casting a shadow on the card. Architects have an annoying tendency to attach lights to ceilings rather than floors, the sun is inconveniently placed above our heads most of the day and Apple made the iPhone screen so big compared to a business card (as if having a great multimedia experience and running apps on a great looking screen was more important than taking good pictures of business cards) that by the time you placed a card flat on a desk and came close to it so that it fills the screen, your chances of not casting a shadow are slim. It’s clearly a conspiracy against business cards and shadows used to be a vexing problem for us, killing the ability of the OCR to recognize text in the obscured areas. I am happy to report that starting with ScanBizCards V2.70 we efficiently preprocess the image to remove shadows prior to recognizing text so hopefully this particular issue should be behind us. As I result, I had to move this image from the “Scanning Failures” section of our sample images page to the “Good Images” section.

No reflections
Unlike shadows where the text is still identifiable, there is no recovering from reflections hitting text on a card. They just obliterate the text they hit and even if a reflection kills only a portion of a letter, you might still recognize it but the OCR won’t. Direct exposure to sun rays may cause reflections and glossy cards may cause reflections in any lighting situation and may be hard to avoid entirely: in that case, try to move the card a bit until the reflections hit areas where there is no text.

Focus Not you, the camera … the iPhone 3GS has a built-in autofocus which usually does a great job at focusing on the card but on occasion, it doesn’t or – more precisely – is not yet or no longer in focus because your hand moved. You can help it along by touching the card image, within the pale blue focus square in the middle of the viewport or on a different part of the image if you’d like to focus there instead. Important: Nicolas Nelken pointed out an interesting tidbit about the iPhone 3GS focus. If you place the cards on a dark background and touch the background to focus there instead of on the card, the iPhone will brighten up the lighter part of the image, resulting in a much brighter card image, which may scan better but also looks better in the “cover flow” 3D view.

Rescan
If an initial scan of a card was generally good but missed out entire sections or specific lines, this may call for a “rescan”, which means scanning the image again but this time cropping the image only around the missed text. Important: ScanBizCards “starts fresh” when rescanning a section of the image by removing items from a previous scans. If the previous scan includes elements you want to preserve, please validate them in the “View Details” screen, which means touching the item then touching “Save” to confirm (even if not making changes to the item). You can tell an item is validated by the fact that it shows a little check mark next to it instead of the usual arrow. We’ll take it as a cue that you are happy with this item and will not replace it when rescanning.

References

  • Gallery: you may find it useful to take a look at our Sample Images page for examples of good and bad images of business cards (there is a link to that page within the application’s help as well).
  • Samples: we also included a handful of images within the application itself, under the “Sample Images” card folder, you are welcome to scan them and see what happens
  • Support: disappointed by a card image you feel we should have scanned better? Please forward that card image along with the text results (we will keep the card strictly confidential). Just use our Send To Friend function from the Card View screen and email it to info@scanbizcards.com.