Toolkit: Grave Transformations

By Lisa Louise Cooke Premium

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario: You track down the cemetery where your ancestor was laid to rest and walk the rows until you discover his headstone. You start to break out in a happy dance—until you realize the worn inscription is impossible to read. What’s a genealogist to do?
Over the years, genealogists have tried various creative methods in an effort to glean genealogical clues from illegible inscriptions and epitaphs. But some techniques, such as shaving cream and rubbings, can actually do more harm than good.
Rather than rely on old methods that could leave Great-great-grandpa’s headstone worse for wear, why not draw on new technology to decipher that faded tombstone text without even touching the marker? All you need is a digital camera and basic photo-editing software. So bypass the Barbasol, and try these seven tricks for bringing inscriptions to light.
Watch our video of these techniques:

1. Snap the headstone.
Set your digital camera on the highest resolution setting. If possible, select TIFF file format. JPG, the default file type for most cameras, is a compressed format that loses detail each time it’s edited. (Bring extra memory cards, because TIFF files are much larger than the compressed JPG files.) Get as close as you can to the inscription without cutting off any text, then take several snapshots.
2. Download and save.

Back at your computer, download the best picture to your hard drive and rename it. I like to include a “1” at the beginning of a file name to indicate it’s the original image—for instance, 1HALEY.TIFF. Don’t edit the original. Save your altered images numerically as you go; that way, if you apply a setting you don’t like and can’t undo it, you’ll still have your last version saved.
3. Import the image.

Your computer or camera likely came with a basic photo-editing program already installed. If not, download Google’s free Picasa software <>, which I used in these examples. After launching the program, import your photo (look for a menu item such as Get Photos or Import). If your picture’s still a JPG, convert it to a TIFF now—choose File>Save As and pick TIFF from the drop-down menu.
4. Apply auto sharpen.

Locate the image in your Picasa photograph library and double-click on it to open it in the work area. You’ll find tools for enhancing your image in the left column. Click the Effects tab and select Sharpen. Use the toggle switch to fine-tune the sharpening effect, then click the Apply button.
5. Adjust brightness and contrast.

Now it’s time to alter the light applied to the image to bring out the text. Some programs have brightness and contrast tools that work well for this job. In Picasa, select the Tuning tab, and you’ll find toggle switches that allow you to experiment with Fill Light, Highlights and Shadow until you come up with most-readable image possible.
6. Go negative.

Some photo editing programs allow you to convert the picture to a negative of the image. Depending on the headstone, this can enhance readability—kind of like using the “inverse” view on microfilm readers. Although Picasa doesn’t offer this feature, you can achieve the same result by tinkering with the Highlights and Shadows settings on the Tuning tab.
7. Refine the settings.

Continue fiddling with the brightness, contrast and color controls for even sharper definition. Photo editing is a trial-and-error process, so don’t be afraid to try different techniques. With a little time and experimentation, you can create an image that’s much easier to read than the original and leaves your ancestor’s precious headstone just as you found it.

From the September 2009 Family Tree Magazine