As a person living with low vision and a print disability, I use digital scanning and OCR technologies to read text and enlarge other information so that I can see it more easily. One of my all-time favorite digital scanning apps is Microsoft Lens, and I have been using it since it was first released as Microsoft Office Lens back in 2016. While it’s not the only tool I use for making content accessible, Microsoft Lens has been a game changer for helping me quickly create scans and read information that I encounter in the classroom, in the workplace, and in other environments. Here is how I use Microsoft Lens with low vision in a variety of different contexts, and more information about Microsoft Lens accessibility for visual impairment.
Overview of Microsoft Lens
Microsoft Lens (formerly known as Microsoft Office Lens) is a free mobile digital scanning app available for all users with a Microsoft account- no Microsoft 365/Office subscription required. Microsoft Lens offers multiple options for scanning digital copies of business cards, documents, photos, whiteboards, and similar text-based content with the built-in device camera, and allows users to create high-quality OCR scans that can be exported into file formats that can be saved to the device or shared in another Microsoft application.
Microsoft Lens is available for iOS and Android devices and can be downloaded for free from the App Store/Google Play. It does not require an internet connection for scanning or saving directly to the device, however an internet or data connection is required for saving information to cloud services.
- Microsoft Lens on the App Store (apple.com)
- Microsoft Lens – Apps on Google Play
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: Smartphones
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: Tablets
Scanning content with Microsoft Lens
As soon as users open Microsoft Lens, they are shown a live view of their device’s back camera along with options for scanning content or uploading recent saved images from their camera roll. The image resolution can be adjusted by selecting the More Options button (which looks like three vertical dots)- resolution options may vary depending on the device and scanning option.
To scan content in Microsoft Lens, position the camera so the desired scan area is within the image frame- this can also be adjusted when editing the image. Use the Camera button to take a picture/scan content, and then review the image before saving or taking the next image in the set. Switching to another image mode will discard/delete the current images in a set, as users cannot scan multiple types of content in one set.
Microsoft Lens offers the following options for scanning content:
The Actions menu offers options for scanning specific types of content that can be copied or opened in other applications, including:
- Text, including handwritten and printed text. Printed text can be recognized in over 30 languages
- Printed table
- Read printed text with Immersive Reader
- Contact cards/contact information
- QR code
Document supports scanning printed text from a page, posters or flyers, pages from a book/menu, receipts, or other text-based content. Users can scan multiple pages into one file and pages can be automatically or manually straightened/cropped to ensure that the text is in focus and easy to read.
As a side note, I prefer to scan tables separately with the tool in the Actions tab so that they are easier to read. This means that I might have tables in a separate file from other text, but they are easier for me to enlarge and read in this format.
Whiteboard is optimized for scanning handwritten text from a blackboard, whiteboard, sketches, or dry-erase board, especially in classroom or meeting settings. The background is automatically adjusted to improve the contrast of the writing and make it easier to read. Multiple whiteboard images can be scanned and shared in one file.
With Business card, users can scan a copy of a business card and add the text to their contacts, copy text into another application, or zoom in on the image of the card. Business card is restricted to being exported as an image or as a Microsoft contact card.
Photo is the only option that supports the front-facing camera and can be used for scanning images or taking photos in real time. Users have the option of using a flash or using the pinch-to-zoom gesture to zoom in. Unlike other display modes, resolution cannot be adjusted for photos, but users can scan multiple photos at once.
- How To Make Historical Documents Accessible For Low Vision
- How To Make Things On The Board Easier To See
- Designing Business Cards For Low Vision
Editing and exporting scans
After scanning content, users can edit their images in a few different ways:
- Add Photo. Add another scan to the file, such as additional pages in a document or photos in a set.
- Filters. Adjust image lighting, contrast, and other qualities with pre-set filters. A mix of color, black-and-white, and negative filters are available for making information easier to read
- Crop. Adjust the image frame to straighten the image and remove any unnecessary background content
- Rotate. Rotate the display of the image
- Delete. Remove scanned image from set.
- Ink. Draw on an image with colored ink.
- Text. Add text in a colored text box.
- Reorder. Reorder multiple images in a file.
Once users have adjusted their images, users can select the Done button to choose how they want to export content. Before exporting, users can edit the title of the file as well- the default file name is a timestamp with the phrase Office Lens. Options for saving and exporting content include:
- Save to Gallery. Save the file as an image in the device gallery/camera roll
- PDF. Save the file as a PDF in device storage or in OneDrive.
- OneNote. Save content as a page in Microsoft OneNote, selecting the notebook and page section before exporting.
- OneDrive. Save the file as an image to OneDrive.
- Word (OCR Document). Save the file as a .DOC file in Microsoft Word. Text is scanned with Optical Character Recognition, and may require editing to fix spelling or formatting errors due to the limitations of OCR technology.
- PowerPoint. Save as a collection of PowerPoint slides in OneDrive.
- Open in Immersive Reader and read text out loud without saving the file. Users can select the Back button to save their file in another format after reading.
- Choosing High Contrast Color Schemes For Low Vision
- How I Use Microsoft Immersive Reader With Low Vision
- File Formats For Low Vision and Print Disabilities
- How I Use Microsoft OneNote With Low Vision
- Designing Accessible Documents With Microsoft Word
- How To Create Accessible PowerPoints
Using Microsoft Lens with assistive technology/Microsoft Lens accessibility settings
Microsoft Lens with large print and screen magnification
Microsoft Lens supports Dynamic Text/system font sizes, and can scan in text in larger font sizes as well- one limitation of my scanning pen is that I can’t scan text larger than size 24 pt font, but this isn’t an issue with Microsoft Lens.
Some of the icons for the editing screen are small, but can be enlarged with system magnification. On Android, users can also long-press on the icons and a large print text label for the function will appear. After using the app for years, I have memorized the location of icons and can select the options I need without looking or relying on icon details.
Microsoft Lens with text-to-speech
For users that do not want to use a screen reader but still benefit from having information read out loud, text-to-speak features like Speak Screen/Speak Text and Select-to-speak can read text and icon labels out loud, which is helpful when learning the location of icons. Scanned text can also be read out loud with Immersive Reader or in another application.
Microsoft Lens with TalkBack and VoiceOver screen readers
Great news- Microsoft Lens can be used independently by someone with TalkBack or VoiceOver screen readers! When scanning an image, Microsoft Lens provides information for users to position the page within a frame for easier cropping, and can provide information about items that are picked up by the camera. Text can be exported in an OCR format so that it can be read by screen readers or other assistive technologies in other applications.
Another free Microsoft application I recommend for screen reader users is Microsoft Seeing AI, which is available for iOS. I have a full post on this application linked below.
Microsoft Lens with peripheral accessories
Microsoft Lens doesn’t require any other accessories outside of a device camera, but there are still options for using it with other external accessories, including:
- Keyboard access for cropping images with a touchpad or keyboard
- Scanning stand or support for positioning the device camera for scanning documents or other text
- Clip-on phone lens. Microsoft Lens does not support connecting to an external camera lens, but a clip-on lens can provide additional magnification or filters as needed.
- Low Vision Accessibility Settings For Android Phones
- How To Make iPad Accessible for Low Vision
- ScanMarker Air: OCR Scanner Pen for Low Vision
- A to Z of Assistive Technology For Low Vision
- How To Use Text-To-Speech With Low Vision
- How To Use VoiceOver With Low Vision
- Microsoft Seeing AI And Low Vision
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: Keyboards
How I personally use Microsoft Lens
As a college student
I wish I had access to Microsoft Lens when I was in high school, but it was definitely a game changer when I started using it in college.
If I received a document, flyer, or other text-based content, I would scan it in with Microsoft Lens and zoom in on the scan with my phone or tablet so that it was easier to read, or I would copy the text into another application. This worked especially well for reading items that were posted on a bulletin board or that I couldn’t lay flat on a desk. I can also scan in assignments and save them as a PDF in OneDrive, and then edit/annotate them with Notability.
I used the whiteboard function in two different ways. When taking notes in class, I scan in copies of what my professor is writing on the dry-erase board to add to my notes, or copy what they are writing more easily. When doing homework, I use a small dry-erase board to show my work for problems and scan images of the whiteboard to attach to my assignment. This is especially helpful for math or assignments where I have to draw diagrams!
As an intern
I interned at Microsoft as a program management (PM) intern in 2019, and used Microsoft Lens on my phone in a few different contexts. Just like in college, I would scan in documents that I had trouble reading or things on the whiteboard, but I would also use it to save documents that I might need to access later that aren’t available online- things like the cafeteria menu, tech support documents, travel receipts, or other relevant documents.
If other people were writing on my whiteboard, I would scan in copies of the whiteboard after they finished writing, and ask for clarity if needed so I could make sure I was reading information correctly. In retrospect, I wish I used the digital whiteboard application Microsoft Whiteboard more often so that it would be easier for me to read what people were writing.
As a writer and blogger
I attend conferences and networking events as a writer and blogger, and often get handed a lot of business cards and documents. Since I can’t read small print due to low vision, I will scan copies of business cards and crop the backgrounds so I can more easily save them to my camera roll. I prefer this over scanning contact cards, since I also have the option of copying the text from an image or using other built-in features with the Photos app. I will also scan documents and other handouts, and return the physical copy when possible so I’m not holding onto a ton of pages I can’t read.
For my creative writing projects, I have a dedicated OneNote notebook for storing ideas and research. If I come across something that I think will be helpful, I can scan it with OneNote and add it to my notebook so I can incorporate it into something later on. Instead of just taking a photo with the camera, I can crop the image and filter it to ensure all of the information I need is easy to access.
As a person living with vision loss
When I’m not at work, at school, or pursuing other hobbies, I still use Microsoft Lens to help me with various tasks around the home. Some of the ways I’ve recently used the app include:
- Scanning recipes for a digital cookbook
- Viewing the ingredients list of an item in Immersive Reader so I can check for food allergens
- Scanning and storing documents I might need to reference later, such as a health insurance card or vet records for a pet
- Digitizing physical photos
- Taking a photo of a receipt and enlarging the text, or opening QR codes
- Enlarging signs or exhibit displays at a museum
- Notability and Low Vision
- How I Show Work For Math With Low Vision and Dysgraphia
- How I Use Microsoft Whiteboard With Low Vision
- How I Outline Research Papers With OneNote
- How To Create A Cookbook In Microsoft Office Sway
More tips for using Microsoft Lens
- Microsoft Lens gets a shoutout in a video I did in 2017 with Microsoft- Inclusion in Action: My Microsoft Feature
- Microsoft Lens does not offer a Windows application as of 2021. However, users can insert an image from their device camera in Microsoft OneNote, with options for scanning content as a document, photo, or whiteboard by selecting “Insert picture from camera”, taking an image with the Camera application, and then selecting Filter to choose the type of content. Document and whiteboard images captured with this option offer the same cropping options as Microsoft Lens.
- Want to send feedback to Microsoft? Select the More Options button, followed by Settings, and then select Send Feedback. I talk more about sending feedback to Microsoft in How To Use The Feedback Tool in Microsoft Office
- When uploading an image from the gallery, users can edit the image with the editing/cropping tool and export it in the file format of their choice. This is a quick way to convert images to PDF.
- Microsoft Lens does not require internet access for use, and does not pull in information from outside sources, so my professors were fine with me using it for class to enlarge assignments or scan copies of quizzes, as long as I deleted the files after I was finished.