Identifying Unknown Family Photos for Genealogy

How to Use Photo Clues to Identify Family Members in Old Pictures

Identifying Unknown Family Photos for Genealogy

Photo Credit: lizzelizzel Flickr via Compfight cc

One of the most enjoyable tasks of family history research is sitting down to sift through old family photo albums. While some may spark fond memories from childhood, or even help us recall events our parents and grandparents shared about their own lives, other photographs have narratives that remain unidentified. At one point or another in your research, you will stumble upon these pictures of relatives or distant ancestors whom you don’t recognize at all. It can certainly drive you crazy at times as you wonder, “Who is this ancestor, anyway?” and “What is this person’s story?”

Instead of continuing to wonder, use these photo clues and identification tips to help you decipher when pictures may have been taken, and figure out which relatives are in the photos.

4 Smart Tips for Identifying Unknown Family Photos

1.) Always Ask, First

Before you dive right into trying to identify old photos yourself, it’s important to ask your living family members about any unidentified photos you come across. This step can sometimes save you precious time. Scan and share the picture with distant relatives and pay a visit to any local relatives to see if anyone knows who is in the photo, where it may have been taken, and what time period. Aunt Maggie or Uncle Bob may know something about the photo, or even be able to share personal stories of the unknown relative, which can make for an even more robust family tree. Even if your family members can offer up just a small tidbit of information, that may be all you need to kickstart your photo identification journey.

2.) Determine the Date

Figuring out the time period a certain photo was taken is one of the most crucial elements of identifying unknown family photos. In fact, if you don’t know this information, you likely won’t be able to determine who is in the photo, or even why the photo was taken. Certain hairstyles, clothing styles, the type of photography used and even the items in the background can all offer some big clues as to when a photograph was taken. Simply determining the type of photograph you’re looking at can often help you figure out the time period in which a photo was taken (give or take a few years). For example, daguerreotypes were popular back in 1839 and up through 1860, whereas tintypes were introduced in 1856.

Photo Identification Tip! The following articles can help you decipher old family photos by type, vintage hairstyle and clothing style:

3.) Figure Out Who is in the Photo

Once you identify the approximate time period or location of a photograph, you may be able to then guess which ancestor(s) are in the photo. If you know that certain ancestors or family members lived in a particular location during a particular time, this may be all you need to make a reasonable guess of who it is you’re looking at. Ask your family members or consult your prior family history research to compare ages and the time the photo was taken in order to be sure.

Additionally, some family heirlooms may be in the background of old photographs. If you have that family heirloom on hand, or if another living family member is storing it, this information can also help you determine who is in the photo. If more than one person is in the photo, and you recognize at least one of the people, this may also help you make another reasonable guess — especially if a couple is posing with their children. The knowledge you gain from the time period of a photo, location and other clues can also be helpful in eliminating family members that were born at much earlier or later times. 

4.) Share Your Old Family Photos Online

If you’re still at a loss as to who you are looking at in your unidentified family pictures, it’s always a great idea to share your old photos with others online. Certain social media sites like Pinterest and Facebook can be helpful when trying to identify family members in old photos, or even the era the photo may be from. This is because other family historians frequently use these sites for their own research and may have some insight into what you’re looking at. On Pinterest, try creating boards for unidentified photos and include any information you may have (i.e. the state or county where the photo was taken, a surname of one of the people in the photo, the type of photo). This information may lead other helpful genealogists to your photo.

Additionally, websites like Family Old PhotosAncestors Lost and Found and others allow you to upload your photographs so other researchers can help you identify them.

Photo Identification Tip! Try using the Crestleaf Online Family Tree and Timeline to share your unidentified family photos online and invite family members to collaborate. They may know something about your old photos, and vice versa! 

Do you have other tips for identifying unknown family photos? Let us know on Twitter! Then add your newly identified photos and ancestors to your Crestleaf Family Tree.