Fixing old photographs

Old family photos are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for family historians, but often when you find them they have been damaged over the years. I have been practising my photo-editing skills to overcome this problem.

I have used Paintshop Pro for years. I know it’s not the industry standard; when I was deciding between it and the similarly priced Photoshop Elements (the cut-price version of Adobe Photoshop, which is very expensive) I decided that Photoshop Elements was going to take too long to learn and I just didn’t have time.

That was years ago, and Photoshop Elements has come a long way. I have continued to upgrade Paintshop Pro until this last one, and I still like it for some things like lightening up the photos I’ve taken of archival documents. Last year I was persuaded to buy Photoshop Elements for fixing scratches in photos because it does it so well and so easily. They have really tried to make Elements easier for novices to use since my first trial all those years ago.

This is one I worked on the other night for a client using Photoshop Elements. The brickwork was particularly tricky!

Unedited photo


Here is the photo after I had a go at it:

Edited photo

I spent about an hour on this on my laptop while watching TV. When I got to the bottom left corner I just decided that there was too much woodwork anyway and cropped the bottom off. There’s still more I could do. I was a bit nervous about his eye but I think it works.

Photoshop Elements and Paintshop Pro are about $100, depending on where you live; less for an upgrade. Paintshop Pro has most of the same tools as Photoshop Elements but Elements has a very cool brush  that lets you paint along a scratch and it takes the image on either side and fills it in for you. It’s like magic!

Online software

Today I attended a Dear Myrtle webinar on free online photo editing software, and was introduced to PicMonkey. It is fully-featured photo editing software that runs online. You can start editing without even signing up, upload (or drag) the photo you want to edit, and the resulting photo is stored on your computer, not on the website. And it’s free! I was very impressed.

Have a look at PicMonkey. Save a copy of your photo, upload the copy, and see what you can do. You can always undo what you’ve done, or rub it out with the eraser, so don’t be afraid to experiment. And you have your original stored safely because you made a copy to edit. Always make a copy before editing.

I highly recommend Myrtle’s webinar for a demonstration of how easy it is if you’ve never played with photo editing before. She recorded it so it should become available soon.

Charles Johnson, prisoner and father

When the grandmother of one of my clients was born there was no father listed on the birth certificate. When she married she stated her father to be a Charles Johnson, but there was no other evidence of this, or indeed of any link between Charles and and the mother Isabella Staader.

At least there was a name to go on, and the place where the child was born. A search of the digitised newspapers on Trove had given a short account of a trial in which Charles was convicted in January 1887 of assault and sentenced to 12 months hard labour at Tamworth Gaol. The woman he assaulted was Isabella Staader.

SMH 18970201 p5 Johnson and Staader

Sydney Morning Herald 1st Feb 1897 p.5

Further searches revealed more information. The NSW Police Gazettes reported his arrest (without bail), sentence and release. He is the Return of Prisoners, showing his sentence:

Charles is about half way down. He was charged with “Wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm” on Isabella Staader. He was tried at Tamworth Quarter Sessions on 29th January 1897, and sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour at  Tamworth Gaol.

Later in the same year he appears in a list of Prisoners Discharged to Freedom. The printing is even smaller than in the page above so I haven’t posted an image. It describes not only his crime, sentence and date and place of trial, but some additional information – his native place was Tamworth, NSW; year of birth was 1862; height 5 feet 5 inches; fresh complexion; brown hair and eyes; regular nose, mouth and chin; and this was his first conviction.

The Index to Gaol Photographs on the State Records NSW website does not include those taken at Tamworth Gaol, but there is a full index at the Western Sydney Records Centre. There he was: Charles Johnston in Tamworth Gaol. The presence or absence of the T in the name was a minor inconvenience – if they didn’t always spell names the same way there is no reason for us to be pedantic about it.

SRNSW Gaol Photograph 1897 Charles Johnston

SRNSW: Department of Corrective Services, Photograph Description Book, Tamworth Gaol, 1894-1929.

The page is wrinkled where the photographs have been stuck on.  We now know quite a lot more about Charles Johnson, including some more accurate information, as I suspect the Description Book is more accurate than the Police Gazette. He had light brown hair and blue eyes, with a cut under his left eye. He weighed 130 pounds. He was Church of England and he could read and write.

We may not know exactly what was going on between Charles and Isabella, but we now have an idea of when it might have come to an end. Perhaps she took him back when he got out of gaol; certainly his child knew that he was her father.

Often the father of an illegitimate child can never be found. Sadly, if there was domestic violence, it may be possible to find out quite a bit about him.

The full citation for the page from the Description Book is :

State Records NSW: Department of Corrective Services, ‘Photograph Description Book, Tamworth Gaol, 1894-1929’, [3/5997]; item 49 for Charles Johnson.

The square brackets seem to interfere with the formatting in the picture caption.

Digital secrets from the Mormons

At the recent Family History Conference at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City Barry J. Ewell held a session on using your digital camera and scanner for family history research. He shared some of his secrets with the participants, and I think they are worth repeating here for an Australian audience.

Digital camera

1. Ideally your camera should have between 5 and 8 megapixels, and a wide-angle lense. This gives the best possible detail without making the files too unwieldy to use. The wide-angle lense enables both pages of a book to be photographed at once. If you are shopping for a camera I would also add a “document” setting or similar that allows you to turn the camera on and start shooting without having to adjust the flash and macro settings every time – I wish mine did this!

Digital image of pages in a book

2. Take images of the pages of a book, instead of using the photocopier. Barry uses a small desk tripod and takes the book over near a window. I’ve found that a window isn’t always available, but if you position yourself so that you don’t get a shadow from the light behind you you should be OK. Don’t use the flash – it’s damaging to old documents, annoying for other patrons, and creates a glare in the photograph.

3. Use photo software to brighten up the photos of the pages. Auto-contrast adjustment makes the page whiter and the printing darker, which is what you want. Barry uses Adobe Photoshop Elements, which is relatively inexpensive. I use PaintShop Pro, a similarly-priced application that is, in my opinion, easier to learn, although these days I often use Google’s Picasa or the Picture Viewer that came with Windows Vista for this brightening up task – it’s quicker and easier to scroll through each photo and fix it, although the Windows Viewer doesn’t create a backup of the photograph.

4. Use a metal cookie-sheet and magnets to hold curling pages or photographs down. He has a metal sheet to which he has stuck white shelf-liner paper to give a white background, then uses magnet strips from a craft store to hold down the document or photograph. I can see this working well for pages from a probate packet and I’m keen to try it!

5. Take overlapping photos of large documents and then stitch them together. Large documents such as maps, architectural drawings, or even old wills, can be photographed in overlapping sections. You can then stitch the sections together at home with your photo editing software. This works well as long as you keep the sections the same – make sure you have the camera the same distance from the document each time.


Document showing bleed through

1. Use OCR software to scan a document into editable text. Optical Character Recognition software turns printed text documents into an editable document in Word or similar that you can cut and paste into your own document. The quality of the recognition varies with the quality of the document – old newspapers are tricky, new books are fairly straightforward. I’ve used this to scan copies of old electoral rolls for a district into a spreadsheet, and although I had a lot of checking and fixing to do, it was much quicker and easier than typing the whole thing out!

2. Use dark backing paper to scan a document that has bleed through from the other side. If you are able to scan a document that has the text on the reverse side showing through you can put black construction paper behind (on top) of it when scanning. This blocks the text on the other side. I have some prime examples of this, which unfortunately I had to photograph rather than scan, but it’s a neat trick!

You can read Michael De Groote’s full article about this presentation on the Mormon website here.

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