The Vital Records of Massachusetts 1841 to 1910 database on
NewEnglandAncestors.org is an important resource for all genealogists
with Massachusetts roots. The index is complete and easy to use. The records
themselves are produced as images of the handwritten originals and are being
added to the database over time. The images include data elements that most
members will value, such as precise dates, parents’ names and birthplaces, and
Viewing the online records can be frustrating, however, because the quality
of the images ranges from very clear to almost illegible. One problem frequently
encountered is that of low contrast, due either to over or under exposure of the
image itself. Such defects probably originated when the document was
photographed and would therefore also be encountered when the records are viewed
on microfilm at the Massachusetts Archives (the original state returns are also
kept at the Massachusetts Archives).
Members who have a photographic image processing application already have the
means to improve the legibility of documents that suffer from low contrast. I
use Adobe® Photoshop Elements 2.0 and have achieved similar results with the
software that came with my digital camera. The steps used to improve the
legibility of a database image are the same as those used to improve the quality
of a photograph. The images on the database are, after all, nothing more than
digitized photographs. Although Photoshop is widely viewed as the industry
standard in image processing, Microsoft’s® Digital Image Pro and Paint Shop® Pro
are two other examples of digital imaging software. The following information
is specific to Photoshop, although the end result can be achieved using other
When a poor image is encountered, the first step is to save the image onto
your computer’s hard disk. Start by using the viewer’s zoom and pan controls to
position the image on the screen. Zooming out allows the capture of a larger
portion of the document while zooming in results in a higher quality image.
Position the mouse cursor anywhere over the image and click once with the
right mouse button. This step brings up the following command menu.
Then move the mouse cursor down the list of commands until Save Image as . .
. is selected (indicated by blue highlighting) and click the left mouse
button once. This step brings up the Save As dialogue box, which allows you (1)
to enter a file name for the image and (2) to specify the location or folder in
which it is to be saved. The dialogue box also allows choosing between bitmap
files and JPEG files. I have used bitmap files because they produce slightly
clearer images, but at the cost of taking up much more space on the computer’s
hard disk. In many cases, the extra disk space consumed by the bitmap image will
not be justified by the minor improvement in the image’s quality.
It is important to remember the names of the folder and of the image itself
so that you can find them again, as well as the file type used (bitmap or JPEG).
If you are using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser, it is possible
to save an entire page or at least most of it (Figure 4). First in the image
browser, use the Image Properties command in the right click context menu to
learn the size of the whole photograph. Next, zoom out to the maximum amount
possible or use the Fit Image to Frame command in the context menu. Then, use
the Frame Size command in the same menu to choose Custom Size and make the frame
size the same size as the entire photograph. You may see that the image does not
take up the entire page, in which case it should be dragged so that the top and
left margins are in the upper left-hand corner of the image browser window. The
image may be wider than the maximum width of the viewer, 2,048 pixels, but this
should not matter because the page itself is usually not as wide as the complete
database image. For example, the full image used in the example was 3,400 pixels
wide and 1,900 pixels high, but after the unused pixels were removed, the page
(Figure 4) took up only 1,357 by 1,237 pixels.
The image resulting from the last step will probably not fit on your computer
screen, but again that doesn’t matter because the point is to save the image to
the computer’s hard disk, not to look at it. But you could use the Internet
Explorer scroll bars to view the enlarged image window if you so wanted. The
file will be very large if it is saved in a bitmap format: the page above from
the town of Rockport required 11MB; after it was cropped to show only the page,
it took 4.8MB (The JPEG file of the same page took only 328KB before cropping).
The next step is to enhance the image’s legibility with image processing
software. Open the image processing application and load the file that you saved
in the previous step.
“Low contrast” is an easy way to say that the bright and dark areas of an
image all fall within a narrow range of values. This condition can be shown
graphically in what is known as a light level histogram. In Photoshop Elements,
this graph can be viewed by clicking on the Enhance command on the menu bar,
then on the Adjust Brightness/Contrast command, and finally on the Levels
Note that the image values, shown in black, are clumped into a very narrow,
high curve that takes up less than a quarter of the width of the graph. The
narrowness of this curve is typical of a low contrast image. The position of the
curve toward the left hand, or dark, side of the graph is symptomatic of an
Underneath the graph, there are three adjustment controls, called sliders,
for shadows, midtones, and highlights. These can be manipulated by holding the
mouse cursor over them and pressing and holding down the left mouse button,
while moving the mouse to the left and right. In the lower right corner of the
window, be sure to check the Preview box so that the effect of the adjustments
can be seen as they are made.
By moving the sliders, the tonal range and the contrast of the image can be
increased. Move the slider on the right first — the one for the highlights in
the image — to the left until it is just under the righthand tail of the
histogram. This step alone will probably make the document readable. Next, move
the left slider to the right until it is just under the lefthand tail of the
histogram. These adjustments result in an immediate improvement to the
legibility of the document.
When the tails of the curve are long and flat, as in this example, further
improvement can be realized by moving the sliders closer to the middle, to where
the flat tails join the steeper part of the curve. Again, moving the right-hand
slider will have the most dramatic effect. Because the Preview box was checked,
the effect of moving the slider back and forth can be seen immediately. The
sliders can be moved independently of each other until the legibility of the
image has become optimized. Click on OK when you are satisfied with the
results. Very satisfactory results can often be achieved simply by clicking
on the Enhance command on the menu bar and then on Auto Levels or on the Auto
button in the Levels box instead of adjusting the individual sliders.
The last step is to save the enhanced image, if desired, or to take notes
from it now that it’s legible.
1 Adobe, Photoshop, and Photoshop Elements are either registered
trademarks or trademarks of Adobe Systems Incorporated.
2 Microsoft and Digital Image Pro are either registered trademarks
or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation.
Paint Shop, and Paint Shop Pro are either registered trademarks or trademarks
of Corel Corporation.
3 The menu can also be accessed by clicking the next to last
button on the right on the tool bar above the viewing frame.
4 Menu and toolbar commands used in the examples are shown in sans
5 Microsoft and Internet Explorer are trademarks of the Microsoft
6 Similar results can be achieved using the Brightness/Contrast
command instead of the Levels command in the Photoshop Elements Enhance: Adjust
Brightness/Contrast command. The Levels dialogue box gives the user a little
Eben W. Graves lives in South Norwalk, Connecticut, and is
currently working on a genealogy of the descendants of Henry Sewall of Coventry
and Manchester, England, and Newbury and Rowley, Massachusetts.