Genealogy Series: Identifying Old Photographs

Did you recently find a box of old family photos? When working on your family tree, photographs offer a vital piece of information. A photograph can show you a glimpse into your family’s history.  Identifying the people or location may require a lot a research and a little luck.

Best Ways to Identify Old Photographs

When dealing with old family photographs, start with organization. Store your valuable pictures in photo boxes, photo albums or other protectable containers. If you decide to use albums, consider the 3 ring binder types. The photo binders allow you to protect photos and insert notepaper with details of your photo. Keeping all your information in one location will help in your future genealogy research.

1. Go with What You Know

If you are lucky, some of the photographs may have names written on the back. Or you will be able to identify your family members simply on sight. When using the 3 ring binder method, you can make notes of the known family members. Numbering the photos and logging the information on to your computer is another great option for keeping track.  

2. Ask Family Members

Older family members are a key resource. Spending the afternoon with your parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles may provide you with valuable information on your photos. At the same time, you may learn more personal stories about the people in the photograph.

3. Analyze the Photograph

Your actual photograph may hold numerous clues to help you identify the person in the photo.

·        The Photographer: Many older photographs were printed with the photographer’s name and the place of business stamped on the front. Researching the photographer and the location enables you to narrow down your search.

·        Clothing Style: Check your potential family member’s appearance. The type of clothing, hairstyle, jewelry, dolls, or other items may hold valuable clues. Learning about different fashion trends will help you in narrowing down the year and location of the photograph.

·        Background: Along with appearance, noticing the background of the photograph is another way to find clues. Helping you narrow down the year, studio photos may have props or furniture that can be dated.  Analyzing the background of outdoor photographs or candid photos may allow you to identify a building, a home, landscape, or other information.

4. Type of Photograph

Daguerreotype to the digital era, the landscape of photography is ever changing. The type of photograph may help you identify or narrow down the year. Early photographs are specific to the time period. For example, a daguerreotype was first introduced in 1839 to the general public. The tintype was popular after 1860. Knowing the different eras of photography will help you narrow down the year.

5. Online Databases

Using online databases or social platforms can help you narrow your search, gain insight and meet new people who are interested in exploring family history. Many groups on social websites focus on specific locations. Generally, the members are friendly, knowledgeable resources who are more than happy to help you learn about your photo or answer questions about research. Regardless of the type, keep a record of your resources. Some information may not be as reliable or accurate. But later, you may come across another valuable resource to back up your assumptions.


Learning about your family history is a fun way to spend your leisure time. Photographs are a valuable clue.  Identifying the photographs may take research and persistence. But the reward is unmeasurable.

Author: Rebecca C.

I am just a person who loves to photograph and write about the world around me.

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