Digitize receipts, letters and photos

Keeping track of all receipts and letters that come in is a chore. Often it all ends up in a big pile. Not to mention all those photos tucked away deep in the attic. Time for autumn cleaning: get rid of that paper! We will help you bring order to chaos by digitizing receipts, letters and photos.

Tip 01: What to digitize?

Before we start, you determine exactly what you want to digitize. A good starting step is, for example, storing receipts and invoices: you want to keep them for a few years so that you still have warranty on the items, but physically storing them for a number of years can be difficult: you can easily lose them. You could also digitize your letters. Important letters and papers should be kept, but keeping everything in a big pile isn't great either. And if you scan those papers, you can also search the texts a lot easier. And do you also want to digitize your photos? If you have a lot of old photos in photo albums, it can be nice to have them digitally so you can share them with others and create new photo albums from them. The same applies to negatives, we will also work with them. Digitizing photos will be the most work.

Once you have determined what you want to digitize, first sort through the piles: sort everything and immediately throw away unimportant papers.

The easiest way to digitize your receipts is with your smartphone

Tip 02: Receipts

It is easiest to scan your receipts with your smartphone. In this way you can scan the receipt immediately after your purchase, so that you do not forget it and so that it is stored permanently. There are tons of apps for scanning receipts: Dropbox, Office Lens, Evernote, Adobe, Apple's Notes app, and more. Of course you can also just take a photo of the receipt, but the advantage of such a scan app (see tip 5) is that it cuts out the receipt and displays it just a little better. The receipt is then also saved as a PDF, which is more suitable for documents than, for example, jpg or png. An important issue with receipts is whether it is still necessary to keep the original. Unfortunately, that is not always so clear. There's a good chance that the store won't make it difficult, but the store could do that. This is especially the case with receipts without a unique tracking number, because then it is impossible to determine whether you bought it there or not. In principle, you do not need to keep receipts with such a unique serial number on paper. Please check with the store to be sure!

Tip 03: Letters

Digitizing letters is best done with a scanner, because with a smartphone you will quickly have problems with legibility. It does cost more work with a scanner, but the big advantage is that many scanners have OCR software available to recognize texts, see tip 6. If you have an all-in-one or separate scanner, you can of course use it. If you don't have one yet and are looking for a scanner, you can take a look at, for example, the Fujitsu ScanSnap. It works fast and is small and portable, so you can put it anywhere.

Many modern scanners have integration with cloud storage services, so you can scan directly to the cloud without a cable. You can then synchronize your files on your PC and continue working with them.

Tip 04: Photos

For photos, the quality of the digital version is much more important. You can scan photos with your smartphone, for example with the Google FotoScan app, see tip 5. However, the quality and flexibility of the settings is often better with a real scanner. If you want to digitize negatives, there are special scanners for that. You can also look into an app like FilmLab. That app promises to be able to convert negatives into beautiful photos, but at the time of writing no public test version is available yet.

Tip 05: Apps

Let's start with the smartphone first. To digitize receipts, you can use the Office Lens app on your smartphone. You can find it in the Android and iOS app store. After installing, open the app to get started and tap Allow access to give the app access to your photos. Also give the app access to the camera. After that it is a matter of choosing the type of document: for receipts is the best option Document. Make sure the receipt is clearly visible and press the red button to take a photo. Then you can trim the receipt. Tap on Ready when you're done, choose where to save the document. This can be done locally or in the Microsoft cloud (OneDrive or OneNote).

To digitize photos via an app, you can use Google FotoScan. It is available for Android and iOS. To get started with the app, simply hold the photos in front of the camera and press the scan button in the app. FotoScan will automatically rotate, crop and try to optimize the colors of the photos. You just have to take a picture of the picture and the rest will happen automatically. You can save the photo in your favorite cloud storage.

Ocr software can recognize the texts from your scanned letters

Tip 06: Scan

If you want better quality or, for example, quickly digitize letters, it is better to use a scanner. OCR is especially useful for letters, software that comes standard with a number of scanners. Ocr stands for optical character recognition, or optical character recognition. This converts an image to text. A free program that can do this is FreeOCR for Windows. Unfortunately, it was last updated in 2015. You can download FreeOCR here. Install and open the program. Click at the top Open PDF to open a PDF or click Open to open an image (for example, if you had your letter saved as a jpg file). Right click at OCR Language on eng and then click on the OCRbutton to convert the image to text. The result can differ greatly per document. If the result is good enough, you can, for example, save it separately as a txt file next to the scan. For optimal results: make sure you scan in the highest possible resolution (see tip 7), but note that a lot of storage space can be used.

Tip 07: NAPS2

All scanner manufacturers include software for scanning. If you don't like it or if you miss functions in it, you can take a look at NAPS2. It also has OCR built in. You download NAPS2 here. Open the file and complete the installation procedure by following the wizard (the default settings are fine). Then start the program via the start menu. To scan, click the scan button. Enter a name for the scanner at Screen name and click Select device. Choose your device from the list and click OK. Choose at Page size in front of A4 and for Resolution choose the dpi (see tip 8). click on OK. Then it is scanned. You can then put another page under it and on again scan to press. The page appears in the overview window. If you click PDF, merge all scanned documents into one PDF document. You can double-click on a scanned document to edit it, for example to rotate or crop it. To apply ocr in NAPS2, click OCR. Then click English in the list, click the checkbox and click To download. After downloading, check the option Make PDFs searchable through OCR and click OK. Also make sure OCR Language on English stands. If you then save the documents as PDF and press Ctrl+F in Adobe and search for a term, it will be found if ocr was successful.

Tip 08: Dpi

The resolution of scans is shown in dpi: dots per inch. This determines the resolution and thus the quality of your image. The higher the dpi, the higher the quality, but also the longer it takes for the scanner to be ready and the more storage space the scan takes. So: too high and you'll be waiting a long time and your storage space will be used up in no time, too low and your scanned document is a block party. In general, for letters and invoices, a dpi of 300 is a good balance between quality and speed. For photos, you'll soon want to go for something like 600 dpi or higher. Vegatives or really small photos that you want to be able to show larger, simply take the maximum dpi of your scanner.

Digital Notes

Something we still do on paper is taking notes. You don't seem to get away with it. More and more laptops have touch screens and with a digital pen you can easily take notes in your favorite app, such as OneNote or Evernote. It will take some getting used to, writing with such a digital pen. For the best results - if you are in the market for a new laptop - choose a laptop with Windows Ink support, which is especially suitable for using a digital pen. If you really can't do without your paper, you can also take a look at a livescribe notebook from, for example, Moleskine. You wouldn't say it's digital from the outside: it's just analog paper with a pen. Yet you can make your notes on the paper and then transfer them to your tablet or smartphone with the push of a button. There you can simply edit your notes as text and make adjustments. Unfortunately, the Moleskine Smart Writing Set costs around 230 euros.

Tip 09: Naming

After the receipt or letter has been scanned, you don't want to just throw it in a folder and never be able to find it again. You need to properly organize your files on your PC or laptop. If you sync your files with your favorite cloud service, you can also add and view them from your smartphone. Pay attention to the security of the cloud service, in any case use a strong password and enable two-factor authentication.

A logical folder structure depends on what you like. For letters, for example, the structure year / month (and optionally / day), so you will get all months within the 2017 folder. Tip: number those months so that they appear in order in your folder structure, and if necessary add the year again, handy to keep an overview. If you have a lot of files, you will get all days again within the folder 01 January. After that it is a matter of renaming the file and placing it in a logical folder structure. That renaming is also something you should pay attention to: give your files a consistent name. If you mix multiple name types, it can quickly become difficult to find your files. Think about this beforehand: changing it afterwards is a lot of work. A default naming convention can be company_subject.pdf for letters or purchase_date_model_number_device_type.pdf.

Which file format is best depends on your requirements and capabilities

Tip 10: File type

For example, in scanning software, you can choose different file types when saving your files. Which file format is best depends on your requirements and capabilities. If you have a lot of storage space, you can opt for tiff for your photos. This preserves the quality, because tiff does not apply compression. There is only one suitable format for letters: PDF. The great thing about PDF is that a document can contain multiple pages and the format supports OCR for easy searching of the files. For receipts you can use pdf, or something like jpeg or png. Note that jpeg uses a lot of compression, so the quality can be poor. So always test whether your files are still readable.

Tip 11: Archiving

To archive your files and keep them for a long time, it is best to store them in several places so that you have a backup. Our experience shows that it is useful to save completed years or quarters by burning them to a DVD or putting them on an external hard drive, which you only connect to the computer when you need the files. A copy of a nas is of course always a good solution. By the way, realize that a DVD does not last forever and that an external hard drive can also fail. If you really want to make sure that your data is well preserved, you can take a look at M-Discs. That's a special DVD-like disc designed to last a thousand years. You do need a special burner for it, but once burned you can use an M-Disc in any DVD reader. But we can imagine that you think this is a bit too much of a good thing. You can also choose to store your files in the cloud, we recommend that you do this securely!

Tip 12: Backups

If you scan all your documents and store them digitally, you want to be sure that the documents are stored properly. It is important to make backups. That can be done in different ways. The easiest way is to use Windows' built-in backup feature. For that you go to the app Institutions in Windows 10 and then to Update & Security / Backup. click on Add a station and choose an (external) drive from the list. Then click More options. Make sure to Back up these folders the folder with your documents is in between. If not, add it yourself with the button Add a folder. Click on Back up now to back up immediately.

Tip 13: Windows Explorer Plugins

You probably manage your documents with Windows Explorer. Unfortunately, it is not that powerful, but with some extra software you can do a bit more. With the Folder Ico tool, for example, you can organize folders in colors and categories in the explorer for a better overview. Unfortunately, this plug-in costs a bit: 10 dollars (approx. 8.85 euros) per computer. The Clover tool gives your explorer Chrome-like tabs. Seer is also useful. On macOS, if you select a file and press the spacebar, you can quickly preview it. With Seer, that functionality also comes to the explorer. That way you can browse through all your files a lot faster. The Windows Explorer preview pane does not work great and always takes up a lot of space.

Seer makes browsing a preview of your files a lot faster

Tip 14: XYPlorer

Unfortunately, the explorer has very limited possibilities to effectively manage your letters and receipts. In addition to plug-ins as in the previous tip, you can also look at alternatives, such as XYPlorer. With that program you have the option to place files in a color category and to label all files (Windows Explorer can only label certain file formats). You can also create virtual collections, save search results and it can help you with repetitive tasks. This program costs 40 dollars, which is about 34 euros. Another option is Directory Opus 12, which also allows you to label and categorize by color. Directory Opus has a free version available with limited functionality.

Tip 15: PDF and Word

Scanned PDF documents can be opened with modern versions of Word, after which Word automatically applies OCR and immediately turns it into a scanned document. The quality of the result varies per document. We are using Word 2016 with the July 2017 updates. Open Word and click Open other documents at the bottom of. click on To leaf through and now browse to the PDF document you want to convert to Word file and click To open. A message appears that the document is being converted and that the results may differ: especially with many pictures in the letter or receipt, the result will be disappointing. click on OK and wait for a while for the conversion to finish. Then you see the result. Ideally, you save both the docx file and PDF file, so that you always have the original.

Tip 16: Manage documents

If you really want to take it seriously with the digitization of your receipts and especially letters, you can take a look at a document management system (DMS). This allows you to systematically store your documents, attach notes to them and easily find and sort them. A free and good DMS is Mayan EDMS. To start that, you need a server with Docker. Docker is available on a number of NAS, but can also be installed on Windows or macOS. Read here how to get this going.

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