3 Tips for Identifying Old Family Photos

May 5, 2016  - by 

For the family historian, few things are as precious as an old family photo. These photos can serve as a tangible link to the past.

“Family photos are powerful,” said Maureen Taylor, in her presentation at the 2016 RootsTech conference. “Each one of your family photographs tells a story, and each one of your family photographs can be just as powerful to you and to your family history.”

While we all cherish the family photos that remind us of a fishing trip with grandpa or a vacation with cousins, it’s likely that we also have some unidentified photos, and we’re anxious to figure out who is in the picture and when it was taken.

If you don’t have a strategy to follow, identifying old photos can be a long, tedious, and sometimes frustrating process. Here are three questions to ask yourself as you begin to identify these unknown photos.

What Type of Photograph Is It?

There were a few types of photographs that were popular throughout the 19th century, so by asking yourself “What type of photo is this?” you’ll be able to gain information as to when and where the photo might have been taken.

Daguerreotypes were taken as portraits between about 1840 and the mid-1860s,” said Taylor. “A second type of photograph is an ambrotype. Patented in 1854, they remained popular until the early 1870s.”

Other photographs could be tintypes. A tintype is a photograph created on a thin sheet of metal. Tintypes were patented in 1856 and were popular throughout the 1860s and the 1870s.

Who Was the Photographer?

After determining what type of photo you’re looking at, Taylor suggests searching for the photographer’s name.

“If there is a photographer’s name on the print, it’s usually on the front,” she said. “If you find a name, you want to research the photographer like they’re a member of your family. You want to treat them like family, using all those genealogical documents that you use for researching your family.”

In some cases, a photographer’s logo or imprint is on the back of the image.
“Photographer’s logos provide valuable clues when [you are] attempting to identify a photograph, including the location where the photograph was taken,” writes professional genealogist Lisa Lisson. “Research into the photographer can provide a time frame for the photograph as well.”

What Type of Props Are in the Picture?

Successful family photo detectives have trained eyes that can quickly recognize and identify even the slightest of clues that are hidden in old photos.

3 Tips for Identifying Old Family Photos
“What types of props might be in a picture?” asked Taylor to the RootsTech audience as she displayed this photo of a little girl holding a doll. “Her clothing clues tell me something about her. It’s probably the early 1870s, and what is she wearing around her neck? A scallop shell necklace.”

Taylor noted that this necklace could indicate that this girl lived close to the coast, or perhaps it was a gift from a relative who did.

Whatever the prop may be, it could hold an important clue into unlocking the mystery ancestor in the photo.

“Props can be difficult or impossible to identify, but they typically played an important role in an ancestor’s life,” wrote Taylor in her book Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries.

What tips do you use to identify old family photos? Tweet us @RootsTechConf.


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  1. I started to do my tree in 1997 . As I looked . I found my one tree is done back to 1608 . As the surname is Tallman . But as I looked I found almost nothing as far as pictures go. I found Cousins I never knew I had . Then out of the blue one of my father’s cousins called me and asked if I wanted a bible. She was going to throw it out . No. I’ll take it .now this bible could have been her husband’s side I had no idea. . As I was about to leave I asked about them bible . So she gave it to me . As she did she asked do I know who the people are in it .. Omg pictures. Then I looked at them I realized it was my great great grandmother, her son and pictures of my grand mother as a child . I can tell most of them but I got some I’m still trying to figure out . I can’t tell if they are GGGmas brother or sons . .

  2. I think it is smart to figure out what type of photo it is. Like everyone says, a picture really is worth a thousand words. It can really help determine what is going on at that period of time. It also can help identify people in your family and who knew who.

  3. I have a family history dating back to the 1550’s in England and France. I also have dozens and dozens of old photos going back to the late 1800’s including many of the original glass negatives of many of the original prints. I am able to identify most of them. Fortunately for me, my grandfather was a professional photographer and this is where most of these came from. He was born in 1881 and died in 1958. Among the collection are two that I simply cannot identify and I am certain that they are relatives. They were certainly taken before 1881 and I believe they are the tin type photographs. The emulsion in very fragile and I had to have them professionally copied in order to preserve them. If I could date them then I might be able to figure out who they are. There are some clues. One of the young lady showing her wearing a necklace and then I have a picture of an older lady known to be my great-great-grandmother wearing the exact same necklace when she was probably in her 60’s. There is a matching picture of a young man who looks remarkably like my great-grandfather but I know that it is not him because I have pictures of my great-grandfather at about the same age. I have always been inclined to believe that these two young people are my great-great-grandparents, but I cannot prove it. Can you give me any idea where I might be able to send a copy of the pictures to see if they can be dated by their clothing, particularly the lady. I have tried and failed. I have also looked for computer software that can “age” or reverse aging that might help, but I cannot find that either. This is a lot of words for a simple question but I hope you can help.

  4. My mom is a photo hoarder, but that is in no way a bad thing. She is the one that the family comes to when they are looking for old family photos, and she has an excellent memory for identifying the people in the photos. This article is very helpful for looking at clues to identify the origins of old photos. My husband’s family is from Samoa, so it is more necessary for us to so a little investigating to understand where their photos were taken.

  5. Thank you, some of the most useful practical information I have come across for the hard task of getting some order in the boxes of photos that people have given me. Excellent and so easy to put into practice.

  6. i heard family search was going to have face recognition software to tell if same person in another photo young or old that can compare the photos. i sure hope so for i have a few i cannot tell for sure.

  7. I inherited the family historian role when my sister abandoned all our photos with her estranged husband. He was going to throw them out but fortunately I was there to retrieve them.

    Most of our family photos are easily identified, but many of the personal shots taken on Kodak Brownies are not well documented and will never be identified.

    As a rule of thumb, one should at least put the date, subject(s), and location on every photo you take, even those you don’t put in albums. You never know where they will end up or how that Information could be useful in the future. Digital images capture a lot of that information now, but the formats may become unreadable in the future so print them out and try to preserve them as long as possible. Inkjet images printed on non-acid free paper will last about as long as a newspaper clipping.

  8. I like what Maureen said about how family photos are powerful due to the story they tell. I recently discovered a few old family photos when I was tidying up my attic over the weekend. Reading your article made me excited to find a photo restoration service to enhance and preserve the pictures!