Jul 10, 2020

My Heritage Photo Enhancement Feature

July 10, 2020

The other day we had a rainy morning, so I took the opportunity of an indoor day to explore the latest My Heritage feature, which they call a Photo Enhancer. A few months ago I wrote about their earlier photo colorization feature whereby with just the press of a button black and white photos are almost instantly colorized. This latest feature is essentially the same, except that it enhances and sharpens old photos instead of colorizing them (although you can easily colorize them at the same time by selecting the colorization button).


Since many of the photos that genealogists treasure are blurry or washed out, this is potentially a great tool. I played with it for longer than I should have the other day, and I found it to be a mixed bag. The enhancement only works for faces, so if you’re trying to sharpen a background, it won’t help much. However, I found that in many cases it changed what was originally not much more than a blurry oval into a recognizable person. It was especially effective when it was combined with the colorization tool. I had a photo of two sisters, my great grandmother and my great grand aunt. My great grandmother’s face was quite clear in the original photo, so the enhancement didn’t change her picture too much, but my great grand aunt’s face was much less defined in the original photo. Enhancing and coloring her picture brought her to life. While the photo is being enhanced, the program shows a waving magic wand, and in that case it was an accurate analogy. The enhanced photo showed facial definition and skin tones so clearly that it was almost as if it had been taken just yesterday. It really did feel like magic.


I found that enhancing photos worked best with higher resolution photos, although it did help sharpen some scans of old newspaper photos that weren’t very clear. In some of the lower resolution photos, there apparently wasn’t much to work with, and the enhanced photos were mere caricatures.  If a lower resolution copy is all you have, enhancing it may not help a lot, but it’s still worth trying. Even a slight improvement can be helpful.


On the whole, I think that both the colorization and facial enhancement features are fun to play with, and you can easily get caught up with them and spend a lot of time just trying them out on various photos. For my own family photos, the tools are still not terribly helpful since the colorization process invariably gives all of my family members brown eyes, and I know that at least the last few generations all had blue eyes, without a brown eye in the bunch. Since blue eyes are mostly recessive, that means that earlier generations most likely had blue eyes as well, no matter what My Heritage’s program thinks. The same situation seems to occur with red hair, which also runs in my family. My Heritage has yet to colorize anyone in my family with red hair, even though I know that several of them had bright red locks. The enhancement feature does sharpen some of the faces in old photos, which is a benefit in a blurry or washed out photo, but in my particular case, I have a hard time reconciling the final brown-eyed, brown haired woman in the picture with my blue-eyed, red-haired grandmother, even if her facial features are more distinct.


None of this means I don’t think these features are worthwhile; I would just caution anyone who uses them to remember that they really aren’t magic, in spite of the wand. I’m going to keep playing with them, but will also keep in mind the fact that they aren’t necessarily 100% accurate.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large