tags: ocr, mac
Originally Published: 2014-11-13

This is a short writeup of the working process I came up with for command-line OCR of a non-OCR’d PDF with searchable PDF output on OS X, after running into a thousand little gotchas. 1

Software Installation

  1. Install homebrew (if you haven’t already).
  2. Install ImageMagick (needs TIFF and Ghostscript support):

    brew install imagemagick
  3. Install Tesseract with all languages:

    brew install tesseract tesseract-lang
  4. Install pdftk server from the package installer.

Processing Workflow

I’m going to assume you have a non-OCR’d PDF you want to convert into a searchable PDF.

  1. Split and convert the PDF with ImageMagick convert:

    convert -density 300 input.pdf -type Grayscale -compress lzw -background white +matte -depth 32 page_%05d.tif
  2. OCR the pages with Tesseract: 2 3

    for i in page_*.tif; do echo $i; tesseract $i $(basename $i .tif) pdf; done
  3. Join your individual PDF files into a single, searchable PDF with pdftk: 4

    pdftk page_*.pdf cat output merged.pdf

Now merged.pdf should contain your searchable, OCR’d PDF. I’ve wrapped this workflow up into a script, or alternately you may want to see if the robust OCRmyPDF script works for your needs.


  1. A sampling of the various ways in which Tesseract/Leptonica is picky in its TIFF handling: Error in pixConvertRGBToGray: pixs not 32 bpp, Error in pixReadFromTiffStream: spp not in set, Error in pixReadStreamTiff: pix not read, Error in pixReadTiff: pix not read, Error in pixRead: pix not read, Error in findTiffCompression: function not present, Error in pixReadStream: Unknown format: no pix returned, Error in pixReadStream: tiff: no pix returned, Unsupported image type. 

  2. If your document isn’t in English, pass the -l tla flag as the first argument to tesseract. See the LANGUAGES section of man tesseract. You can also install and use your own training data, for example, for Ancient Greek or Latin. On OS X, you’ll want to copy the lang.traineddata file to /usr/local/share/tessdata

  3. If you have GNU Parallel installed (brew install parallel), you can parallelize this process:

    parallel --bar "tesseract {} {.} pdf 2>/dev/null" ::: page_*.tif

  4. I initially tried to use the join.py Preview Automator script that comes bundled with OS X (at /System/Library/Automator/Combine\ PDF\ Pages.action/Contents/Resources/join.py), but this seems to mangle the actual OCR text into unsearchable whitespace for me (confusingly, this preserves selectable line/character bounding boxes, so it looks like there’s OCR’d text there but there’s not). I originally suggested using Ghostscript to combine the PDF files with the command:

    gs -q -dNOPAUSE -dBATCH -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -sOutputFile=merged.pdf page_*.pdf

    However, this mangles non-Latin scripts. If you would still like to use Ghostscript instead of pdftk, the command:

    gs -q -dNOPAUSE -dBATCH -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -dCompatibilityLevel=1.4 -dPDFSETTINGS=/screen -dProvideUnicode -sOutputFile=merged.pdf page_*.pdf

    May give you good, relatively compressed results (from explicitly setting a more modern PDF compatibility level) while preserving non-Latin scripts.

    I realized at the end of writing this guide that you can also use convert to create a multipage TIFF (omit the _%05d format specifier in your output filename) and process/output that directly with Tesseract, but I like being able to parallelize the OCR,3 and recombining with pdftk gives me better compression in my testing.