Using PicMonkey to edit images of historical documents used in genealogy research and make them easier to read and analyze. The document can be cropped, highlighted, sharpened, enlarged....Many possibilities exist to make your document more easily read.
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

How Picmonkey Will Aide Your Genealogy Research

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“How do you read those old documents?!”

This is a  common genealogy research question I get frequently from my non-genealogy friends and newbie genealogists as well – especially those of us who need a little more help with our vision these days !  Bifocals, trifocals, progressive lenses…..I might have a little experience with  that.

Wills, estate records, tax records, court minutes…..these are all records we as genealogists use on a regular basis. Typically I will take a digital photograph of documents I use.  Finding our ancestors’ documents in a legible script and well preserved can make us just giddy.  Unfortunately, not all documents  age well for a variety of factors. Reading an original or a microfilmed document where the ink is faded and/or the script is small and cramped can give the most ardent genealogist a case of eye strain.  (I might have experience with too.)

Admittedly, practice, practice, practice helps with reading historical documents.  But using a photo editing software or website can help decipher a document that is not in the best shape.

How Does PicMonkey Help the Genealogy Researcher?

PicMonkey is an online photo editing site I use the most often. I have been using PicMonkey for several years to edit photographs, create collages and create fun images to use here on the blog.

[**Updated Oct 2017: Sadly, PicMonkey no longer offers a free version.  They do offer a free 7 day trial.  I chose to purchase a basic subscription, because I find the service invaluable to my research and blogging.]

Regardless of the photo editing program you use, the principle of  using these programs to enhance documents for easier reading is the same.

Using PicMonkey to edit images of historical records makes them easier to read and analyze.  With photo editing, the document can be cropped, highlighted, sharpened, enlarged….Many possibilities exist to make your document more easily read.

Here is a copy of George Howard’s Wake County, NC will dated 1871. (This is the first page only of George’s will.  If you are researching the Howard family and are interested in the rest of George’s will, leave me a comment.  I’ll be happy to share the will in its entirety.)

Will of George Howard 1871

Let’s walk through this example. Go to PicMonkey and upload a jpeg file of your document.   Click the “Edit” button and follow the prompts.

Picmonkey Howard Will Upload

This is what it will look like once you upload the photo of our document:

Picmonkey Howard Will

The tabs on the left of the screen allow you to edit your photo of the the document.  You can crop, rotate the document, adjust the exposure and so on. I first cropped and then autoenhanced this document.

Picmonkey Howard Will

Next, enlarge the document.  This alone will make the document much easier to read.

Will of George Howard

The bottom right hand area of this will is darkened and difficult to read. I used the exposure tab to adjust the the brightness of the the will.  This did not take care of the entire issue, but certainly made more of the will readable.

Will of George Howard

Lastly, when you have the document edited to the best possible reading quality for you, save your edited photo to your computer for future use.

Will of George Howard

In talking with fellow genealogists and blog readers, many use Adobe Photoshop to edit and organize their photos. Adobe Photoshop is a good option if you have both documents you want to decipher and heirloom photographs needing editing/repairing and organizing.

So, add photo editing software to your genealogy toolbox and get started.

Have you had a success with using photo editing software to read a document or even a photograph?  Leave your comment below and share your success story!

Note:  If you research the Howard/Harward family of NC, leave me a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.


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PicMonkey and other photo editing software can be used in your genealogy research to enhance document images for easier reading and analysis.
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  • Brandy Heineman

    Thanks for the tip! I have friends who love PicMonkey, though I haven’t used it myself yet.

    I do have a recent success story to share: I had a hundred-year-old postcard I wanted to blog about. The handwriting was unschooled and it was written in pencil–very faded. I deciphered it by putting a copy in good ol’ MS Paint, enlarging the image, and using a stylus to trace the letter forms in a brighter color. The finished product was almost perfectly legible.

      • Pamela Wilson

        Lisa, I have so many questions, I wish I could talk with you. I am now retired so have a lot of free time to do my genealogy. It is so interesting I have a hard time leaving it alone. One of my biggest questions is: How can I be sure that my ancestors are “really” mine? I have gone back to 16th, 17th, 18th, and even 20th gggf and gggm. There are several “famous” persons that have surfaced; A Marshal of England, a Cardinal(Catholic), Knights, Barons, Earls; ancestors that lived in a castle, which is now a historic site. A renowned Rabbi and a Governor of the colony of Connecticut, back in the 1600’s. I want to know FOR SURE that these are my ancestors! My biggest roadblock has been name changes and multiple spellings for the surename. One was the name Treat; which I have gravitated to use for this lineage? Several spellings (with acknowledgements) have been; Trott, Trotte, Dart, Trett! Then you have the problem of the same name used over and over; Richard, Robert, Sebastian, William, Margarethe, Elizabeth, Elisabeth, Marie, Maria, etc! And, OMG, let’s not forget, just plain, rediculous errors done by other investigators. I have found, while investigating census’ that names were constantly mispelled. Probably because of language barriers, and census takers just not caring. I really want to know where to go to find answers; to be sure. Can you give me any guidance? I think what I have found is true, but I want to be sure. Thank you for any guidance you may give, Pam Wilson, RN, BSN.
        [email protected]

        • LisaL

          You ask a great question. To know which ancestor is really yours, you’ll need verify each generation back. Start with yourself and your parents, them move back to your grandparents, etc. Confirm each generation’s parentage. Don’t skip a generation, because you could end up going down the wrong line. It’s a lot of work, but so much fun!

    • sue

      I use by photo editing software Adobe Elements. It’s great. Sometimes if I reverse the document to a negative, I can read it better. That being said the document needs to be saved as a .jpg before using the software.

  • loraine goodhue

    Loved your article. So many folks do not realize the importance of enlarging an image to be able to read easier. Another thing that has helped me in many instances. Images that cannot be read well can sometimes be brought out with yellow or orange cellophane over the page.
    It is always fun searching.

    • LisaL

      Great tip about using yellow or orange cellophane to help read a document. I had never heard of that! Thanks for sharing that!

  • Nancy Caton

    I am researching a Howard family in Lincoln/Catawba/Gaston Counties, NC. Not sure if they tie in to yours, but here goes. Henry Eli Howard (1820-95) born in either Illinois or North Carolina. He married Elizabeth Deal, likely the daughter of Simon Deal & Mary or Molly Coons. He appearsin the 1850 and 1860 census in Jacob’s Fork, Catawba Co, NC. He enlisted in 1864 in Co A (the German Volunteers) in the18th NC Infantry, and was paroled at Appomattox 19 April 1965. Returned to Catawba Co, and was enumerated there in 1870, and in River Bend, Gaston Co, NC in 1880. He and Elizabeth first had 7 daughters and then one son, Simon Henry Howard, b 1863.

    I do not yet know who Henry’s father is. The family story about the Deals is that they made the Communion wine for the local Lutheran church, came from Pennsylvania Dutch territory and still spoke German at home. Simon’s sisters certainly had Germanic names (Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Minerva)

    Does Henry fit in with any of your Howards?

    • LisaL

      Nancy, I don’t think these are “my Howards”. The Howards (Harwards) of Chatham/Wake/Lee counties, NC came to NC from VA and are of English descent. I’ll keep my eyes open for those Catawba County Howards, just in case.

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