Photo enhancement for old tombstones
January 4, 2010 12:40 PM   Subscribe

Calling all Photoshop and photo enhancement experts, and/or people who can pick out Hebrew letters: help me digitally fiddle with these photos of old weathered Romanian-Jewish tombstones to make the inscriptions clearer, so that I can hopefully get the Hebrew writing on them translated.

I have received a number of digital photographs that were recently taken in an old Jewish cemetery in northern Romania.* I have had a native Hebrew speaker volunteer to translate all of the tombstone inscriptions for me, which I am compiling into a spreadsheet to submit to the JOWBR, except for a few photos where the stones' surfaces were too weathered or damaged for her to make out any of their words.

Here are the six full-size unedited original digital photos that she could not make out, and then my crude attempts at playing with the "Levels" command in Photoshop to bring out the Hebrew lettering:

Can anyone give any suggestions as to how to further enhance the photo quality so that more of the writing can be made visible? I feel like for some of them, the enhancement may need to be done in two separate parts because the top and bottom parts of the tombstones have very different ranges of gray.

(Translations cheerfully accepted too!)

*Săcel (a.k.a. Szacsal or Izaszacsal), Maramureş county, Romania -- formerly Máramaros county, Hungary
posted by Asparagirl to Computers & Internet (7 answers total)
Try looking at each color channel separately (R, G & B). Noise is often in just one channel.

Pick the color channel that has the least noise and work with just that one, playing with contract, levels, etc.
posted by kdern at 12:53 PM on January 4, 2010

Quick and dirty - convert to black and white and maximize contrast.
posted by zippy at 12:54 PM on January 4, 2010

I find a really good method to help pick things out whether I'm working in colour or black and white, is to create a new layer on top, bucket-filled with black or maybe a deep red (depends on the image) and then set it to overlay, include, exclude, that sort of thing (again, which depends on the kind of image) - then play with the opacity of the filtered layer. You can find some real sweet spots that way, exploring the settings, which will give you the most contrast in the right parts of the spectrum.

Advantage there is you can do that in sections quite easily so as to work with images where you need to do something different for bits of it.
posted by opsin at 2:23 PM on January 4, 2010

Unfortunately there's not a TON that can be done, in my opinion, about these. The lighting is verrrry even so there's not a lot of distinction (even hidden in the channels) to pick out.

If at ALL possible, it would be very helpful to have whoever took the photos simply return at noon on a cloudless day....or dusk, with a flashlight held off to the side. Since the letters generally are carved, enhancing their shadows with real light would certainly help them stand out.

Failing that, the clearest information is on the blue channel. Green's particularly noisy. Honestly just a bit of adjusting the levels was the only useful thing I could come up with.

Playing with a couple of the suggestions above yielded this for #8, which helped the part in the middle but really didn't do anything useful for the top.
posted by carlh at 5:02 PM on January 4, 2010

Seconding carlh--get more shadowed pictures that show the relief, or even better, rubbings.
These are pretty impossible.
posted by hexatron at 5:30 PM on January 4, 2010

These are very hard to read. In case this helps, here is my experience reading Jewish headstones from Hungary:

There are two typical formats. One says something like
"Here Lies" (the Hebrew letters Pe Nun)
A line or two praising the deceased, usually beginning with the Hebrew letters Alef Yud Shin or Alef Shin Heh ("a man ..." or "a woman ...")
SOANDSO (in larger letters) son/daughter of
Soandso (the Hebrew letters Ayin heh will mean that the parent is deceased)
Deceased on the XXth day of the month of YYYY
In the year ZZZZZ
May s/he rest in peace (the Hebrew letters Taf Nun Tzade Bet Mem)
This is sometimes followed by the Hebrew letters Shin Alef standing for "his/her mother's name was" and the mother's name - very handy for genealogists!

The other format is similar but instead of a line or two of praise it has an acrostic verse spelling out the first, perhaps the whole name of the deceased. You will recognise these because you get a long block of text with the initial letters highlighted. It's a very useful backup when parts of the inscription are illegible.

Anyway, I hope this helps; feel free to MeMail me with any questions.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:29 PM on January 4, 2010

Fluent Hebrew reader here. The inscriptions are pretty much illegible. Any chance of getting your local assistant to rub or trace the letters for you?
posted by AngerBoy at 9:07 AM on January 6, 2010

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