Quickly Scan a Textbook With a Camera

In my college life, I've had this thought cross my mind every semester - "Hrm, what if I can borrow someone's book for the weekend, and copy it!". It's an appealing thought considering the average college textbook is upwards of $80. However, I never really thought it was a practical idea.

However, one day I realized that digital cameras nowadays are actually pretty decent scanners! You're not going to get super high quality scans like you would with a regular scanner, but you won't have to spend a day just to scan one book. In fact, I've scanned a 600+ page history book in under 2 hours!

In this instructable I will show you the methods I used to both capture every page of a book with a digital camera, and later process the images into a readable PDF file using cheap/free software.

This information is for educational purposes only. I am in no way responsible for anything illegal you do with this knowledge.

Teacher Notes

Teachers! Did you use this instructable in your classroom?
Add a Teacher Note to share how you incorporated it into your lesson.

Step 1: Theory and Materials

The basic idea for this method is very simple. Have a camera set up on a tripod facing down on a book. Take a picture, turn the page...and repeat.

Basic requirements:

Digital Camera - It doesn't need to have too many fancy features, but it does have to have some way of triggering it remotely. My camera has 6 megapixels and the images turned out pretty readable (I wouldn't recommend any lower than 6, though it never hurts to try).

Tripod - A basic tripod with adjustable legs.

Remote control / Cable release - You need some way of firing the camera without touching it. This is important because of two reasons. Firstly, you don't want shaky images. Second, and more importantly, you're going to want to move as little as possible between flipping the pages and firing the camera. You will to be making the same motion hundreds of times, and having to get up and fire your camera, or reach in awkward positions will definitely wear you out. If you don't have a remote control or shutter release cable, there are a bunch of instructables showing you how to make your own =).

A heavy weight - The tripod is going to be in an awkward position and will need extra support on the back leg to stop it from falling over.

Lighting - At least two lights are recommended. You also may need something to diffuse the lighting, like wax paper.

A PC - Preferably windows based (software will be described below).

These programs are required if you want to turn your book into an Adobe PDF file for easy reading.

Snapter - This is an EXTREMELY useful program I was very lucky to find. It makes cropping all of your images into separate pages very easy, and it's pretty cheap ($50 - about half the price of the average textbook). Sorry Linux and Mac people, this program only works on windows. If you don't want to use snapter, there are programs that can do batch processing, but these require little bit more effort.

Bullzip - This free program lets you compile all your pictures into a PDF file. Bullzip is also windows only but there are plenty of alternatives for Linux and Mac.

Step 2: Basic Setup

Setting up is pretty easy, but getting everything perfect takes a bit of time.

1) Set up tripod - Attach the camera to the tripod and set it up so that the camera is facing directly downward. Do this by first positioning two legs in front of the camera, with one leg in behind. Then, extend the legs out so that the the legs in the front are shorter than the leg in the back.

2) Secure tripod - As you will notice, the tripod in this position has a tendency to fall over. Somehow tie a weight onto the back leg (use your imagination) so that your tripod is nice and secure.

3) Rough Set-up - Adjust the camera so that it is facing straight down (I used a level for this, but it's not necessary). Place the book on a solid colored surface and place it in the center of the frame. Try to get it centered and straight. Later, you will make more minor adjustments but for now this is fine.

4) (Optional) Place Support under front cover - I found it helpful for the first couple of pages of the book to place an object about the size of the book's spine under the front cover. This helps keep the book down without having to bend the front cover all the way down to the floor.

Step 3: Lighting

Lighting is one of the trickiest parts of this process

What you're aiming for in this step is to have consistent lighting over the entire book. You don't want to have a shadow in the middle fo the spine, and you want to minimize highlights as much as possible (this becomes harder to do with glossy books, but still possible).

You should try experimenting yourself with this step.

The most popular method I found online was to have two light sources, one on the left and one on the right of the book. The problem I had with this method was that because of the curvature of the book, the light tended to reflect off the pages and create nasty highlights. I found it better to place a light source in front and behind the book, as low as possible. This way, the light is reflected in front of and behind the camera.

Also, you can try using a diffuser of some kind (like wax paper) to create more even lighting. This will make it easier with glossy books, but I got by without it.

Step 4: Take Test Shots and Adjust

This step is probably the most time consuming in the set-up process. You should take several pictures and check them on a computer screen to make sure everything is perfect. It's a huge pain to have to re-do most or all of your work because the set up wasn't good.

This is the procedure I used to adjust my set-up:

Adjust positioning - Make sure the book is directly under the camera. Make sure it is as straight as possible in the viewfinder, and try to get it centered too.

Zooming - You want both pages of the book to be visible in one shot, this will make things go twice as fast! Zoom in until as much as you can while still maintaining some space around the book. Remember that the book will be moving around a bit as you're flipping pages (mostly to the left) so position it accordingly. You can also make some marks with a pencil to note the position of the book so you don't have to check the camera every time the book moves.

Exposure & White Balance - The picture needs to be fairly light without washing anything out. If it's too dark, it will be stressful to read (black text on a gray background). Try to get the background to appear as white as possible. Also, I forgot to do this, but you should use the custom white balance feature if it is available to you if you're doing a color book.

Lighting - Follow the tips in the last step to try to get as consistent lighting as possible. Check on a computer screen that the image is easy to read and that no parts of the page are washed out.

Step 5: Shoot the Images!

This is obviously going to be the most time consuming part, but it should end up going pretty quickly once you get the hang of it.

I would highly recommend shooting about 10-20 test pages, processing them, and making sure you're satisfied with the final outcome. I don't mean just looking at the images on your computer, but actually processing them as I will describe in the next couple of steps. There's nothing more discouraging than to have to scan the same book twice because your shots didn't come out right.

There's not much I can say in this step. Just try to get as comfortable as you can on the floor and start taking pictures. Don't be afraid to keep your finger in the shot at the edge of the book to hold the page down. However, if you do this make sure you don't move the page while you're taking the picture or else it will come out blurred.

Step 6: Processing the Images

This step might actually take longer than taking the actual pictures, but it won't require much effort on your part (I just had the images process overnight on my computer).

The first thing you're going to have to do is split each image in half, so that you have one image for the left page and another one for the right. This is where Snapter comes in.

Here are the basics -

1) Start up snapter
2) On the left side, select the icon that shows a book
3) Browse to the folder you saved your pictures in and select all of them (ctrl+a)
4) Click on the box that says "Output" If you're doing a black and white book, go to photometric enhancement and select Grayscale
5) Click on Process
6) When all the pictures are done, they will show up in the box on the right. Right-click on them and select "Save All..." and select a folder to save your processed images to

Step 7: Making a PDF With Bullzip

This step is fairly easy and fast

Navigate to the folder with all your processed images in it, and select everything.

1) Right-click and click on print
2) Select "Bullzip PDF Printer" as the printer

Now you will have to play with the settings a little to get a balance between image quality and file size. I tried to keep my books around 1-2mb for every 10 pages.
Try playing with the "Quality" first and mess around with the DPI. If you need more settings to mess with follow these steps:

1) In Vista, click on "Options" in the bottom right corner (not sure about XP)
2) Click on "Printer properties"
3) Click on "Advanced"

Now you can do more fine-tuning until you get a readable image that doesn't use up too much space.

Step 8: Share!

Help your buddies out and spread the word! Maybe if you help several of your classmates in one of your classes, they will decide to scan a book themselves for their other classes and maybe even help you out with another book of yours.

You can optionally share your content on a P2P network. A really great resource is www.textbooktorrents.com . Someone may have even already scanned your book for you!
EDIT - Unfortunately, textbooktorrents has been down for the past couple of weeks. I spoke to some guys in #textbooktorrents on irc.p2p-network.net and they said they're working hard to try to get it back online as quickly as possible.

The Instructables Book Contest

Participated in the
The Instructables Book Contest

1 Person Made This Project!


  • Instrument Contest

    Instrument Contest
  • Make it Glow Contest

    Make it Glow Contest
  • STEM Contest

    STEM Contest

41 Discussions


1 year ago

For OCR you can use AABBY Finereader. It's not free ($260 for standard) but it's "out there" if you know what I mean. Windows and Mac only.


2 years ago

Hi! I just thought I would add a suggestion. Instead of using a camera, most smart phones today are able to use a multitude of free scanner apps. I have one on my iPhone and tablet and they work amazingly in that they can adjust traditional photographs into more "scanned" looking PDFs. In other words you will not end up with what is essentially a yellow-tinted photograph, but instead a sharper, high contrast black text on white "scan" instead! The only downside is that the perspective is never really as perfect as using a traditional flat scanner, but this is negligible - after all, it is free! I am currently looking for options to scan my traditional textbooks into PDFs -> uploading them to Google Drive to read them anywhere. The only thing is that it's time consuming. But more power to us (smarter) penny-pinching college students!


3 years ago

I did this when I went to college, but a slightly different tactic. I took the book to the library where they do book maintenance and had the spine cut off. That made it a stack of loose papers, and the auto-feeder scanned the whole book in less than 5 minutes. That also makes it unsellable back to the store however. You can get it re-spined at a copy center, but it will still be damaged goods. One person made up his loss by selling the digital copies afterward, but that was illegal.

The ArtfullD

4 years ago

If this works. A vidoecam and screenshot software (like picpick <freeware) might be quicker


4 years ago on Introduction

Good technique to scan the any textbox with the help of camera.



6 years ago on Introduction

If you have several books to copy it would be easier to use a copy stand, you could buy one or better still make your own. I made a copy stand from an old enlarger .and it works very well. I think I would photograph one page at a time rather than two. Here is an example of an enlarger manual that I copied: PDF FILE


6 years ago on Introduction

look like a lot of company is doing this.
look at this xcanex


7 years ago on Introduction

Scan Tailor is free and open source software. You can crop, split pages in two, deskew etc.


7 years ago on Step 6

What an OCR program? after you take the pics use Snapter to crop the pics. What about making them into a PDF and making them searchable?


7 years ago on Introduction

I just spent ~$500 on textbooks for three classes because the teachers were strict saying that if you don't have the book by the second week, your dropped. Couldn't do amazon and get the books here on time so I had to go to the College bookstore =(

Some guy in my class scanned every single page and returned it to the bookstore for full price. He said it took him 6-8 hours to do it.

I plan to scan the ones that I want to keep for future reference and sell them outside the class when the next semester comes. Screw selling it back to the bookstore. They want to give $2 for a $80 book when I checked last time.

This seems like a quicker way to do it compared to scanning it page by page.


7 years ago on Introduction

This is cool, but there are some book scanning services/companies that will scan your books for you:


It's a cool article, but I like to just send in my books to have them scanned. They have options where you can search for words after too, called OCR it's pretty cool especially for textbooks.


10 years ago on Introduction

can this software do batch photo editing. For example changing the color balance so that all the page are white.

2 replies

9 years ago on Step 6

(sorry for possible bad english, I am not english speaker)

This is an interesting article about an very interesting and very useful activity that is not enough done for people.

You can scanner many books as books friends to lend you or books you to take from public library, and this manner you extend your private library for no cost.

For now I have scanned and "ebooking" over 300 books with this method , and growing.

I do some steps a little bit different respect this tutorial. For me a very important detail with no mention in article is an software or hardware intervalomenter wich fire camera each X seconds. I work with software intervalometer included at Eos Utility software and computer connected to canon 400D. Minimun time between photos for this software is 5 seconds... I tried less time with other procedeures , but camera begin to fail some photos with less seconds.
At this rate you have photographied 24 pages a minute. An 240 page book, then, need only 10 minutes to be photographied completely.

I think that book have to be in a table, with the tripod over the table too , and you confortably seated with book in front of you. Its a mechanical task turning pages each 5 seconds or less (some seconds spare at this rate) , but is not tiring task and you can listen music or podcasts while you do it. Its very useful too buy two metal clamps as this: http://www.toolstation.com/images/library/stock/webbig/14106.jpg At any hardware store sell you very cheap. You will utilize this pieces for immobilize the book , wich is placed with inferior pages side coinciding with table side nearest you. Then you fix open book with the two clamps , one for first book page (cover book) and other for last page.

For image proccess I utilize two programs: Advanced Batch Converter for turning 180º each photo (with windows can be done same with two 90 º turns) and Image Cutter for cut photos into two pages and eliminates image parts around book pages.

Finally for transform all pages in an ebook I utilize Image to Pdf v2.1.0


10 years ago on Introduction

Thanks a lot for posting this instructable! This is gonna be so useful when school starts. As for Linux alternatives to the apps mentioned, you could use GIMP with the DBP plugin (I think this is available in the Ubuntu repos as part of the package gimp-plugin-registry) to crop and/or adjust color balance. Then you could import the cropped images to gscan2pdf and have that export all the pages to a pdf. It won't adjust for page curvature and perspective like snapter does, but if you shoot the photographs straight-on it'll be close enough.


10 years ago on Step 3

To avoid highlights and shadows you need a well diffused light. There are a few ways you can do this.

1) Use expensive professional lighting umbrellas.
2) Take the photos outside on a bright but cloudy day.
3) Use a home-made light box/light tent. There are several Instructables on this https://www.instructables.com/id/Photography-Light-Box/


10 years ago on Introduction

great instructable! i am going to do this with the books that are ridiculously oversized, that I have to bring home every night. Also a nice tip is to anyone with a psp (custom firmware only, search if confused) and use a nice little homebrew program to take the book with me on vacation or at friends houses ect.

1 reply