How to Convert Images and PDFs to Text Using Google Documents!

Google's powerful suite of tools makes copying text from images or PDFs a complete breeze!
Odin Odin (181)
5 minutes

We've all been there before: we have one copy of some vital document to which there is no editable, digital copy. In the olden times, one would have to transcribe every bit of text manually, spending hours on a task less interesting, and infinititely more frustrating, than peeling potatoes.

For decades, only an elite few had access to nearly magical hardware and software, tools of great arcane power that could transform text on a hard page into something editable by all. But no longer. Thanks to Google's powerful interconnected suite of tools, it's a process that whizzes by, and enables anyone with a free Google account to tackle even the most daunting of transcription problems.

Best of all, this particular method also works for PDF files!

Looking for a way to transcribe images to text while out on the town? Google makes this easy as well. Android and iPhone users can download the Google Lens app from the app store and use this to manually capture the text of anything the camera is pointed toward! Check out our guide for phones, here.

You can also grab text directly from images uploaded to Google Photos, learn how by clicking here!

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Enable conversions in Google Drive
Enable conversions in Google Drive

Conversions are usually enabled by default, but if yours isn't, you'll just need to double-check and make sure that it is.

  1. Open Google Drive.
  2. Click on the Gear Icon near the upper right.
  3. Click on Settings
  4. Under the "Convert Uploads" section, make sure the box is checked.
Using the feature
Using the feature

It doesn't matter if what you're trying to upload is a PDF file or an image, this method works for both. The clearer the image or PDF is, the better the process will turn out, however.

The best way to ensure a high-quality image for conversion is to scan the source directly using a printer scanner (not simply a photo). This works great for physical materials that you want to be able to easily convert to a digital, editable copy.

The process will also work with images captured from a phone, however. But, be warned that the result might require a bit more fine-tuning afterward since fuzzy images can result in errors in the converted text.

Upload your image or PDF to Google Drive
Upload your image or PDF to Google Drive

Once you've uploaded your image to Google Drive, it doesn't convert automatically. You need to select it for conversion manually using Google Documents.

  1. Right-click on the image or PDF you wish to convert. This will bring up a context menu.
  2. Click "Open With" from near the top of this menu.
  3. Select "Google Documents"

Wait a few moments for Google to do its thing. After a momentary wait, a new Google Document will be created in the same folder as the original file, and using that file's name.

  • PDF Files If you uploaded a PDF, the text contents of the PDF will now exist within your new Google Document.
  • Images If you uplaoded an image, inside your new Google Document, you will find a copy of the original image on the top page, followed by the converted text from that image below.

Here is an example of a selection from a test text I uploaded as an image, this is from Cory Doctorow's book How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.

How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism-original
How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism Original

And here is a screen capture of the text that Google converted from my upload:

How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism-converted
How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism Converted

As you can see, it did a pretty great job of pulling out the text, though it failed at detecting a header and lumped that in with the body. It also missed a few minor elements, like one of the parenthesis around "correct". Still, correcting for that a heck of a lot faster than re-typing it all!

Optical Character Recognition
Optical Character Recognition

This amazing feat isn't accomplished by magic, but by an extremely advanced form of OCR (Optical Character Recognition). Google scans your file and tries to match whatever it sees against a massive body of possible images; this allows Google to recognize even some wonkier handwriting.

However, the process isn't perfect, even with typed letters. Make sure you do your due dilligence and proofread your newly converted text, otherwise you can end up with some really weird errors sneaking through.

Likewise, OCR only captures text and associated symbols (though Google can sometimes capture emoticons!). What it will not do is capture the structure of a document. Don't expect to be able to upload an editable Dungeons & Dragons character sheet -- you're only going to be able to upload the text, not all the lines and boxes.

Copy any text with nothing but your smartphone and this one Google app!
Odin Odin (181)

Text surrounds us everywhere we go, and oftentimes we want to remember the text we encounter.