I have old family photos, some with info written on the back or on a bit of paper included behind the photo in a frame (e.g. date, event description, and/or people in the photo).

What's an effective way to record this information in a digitized format? The annotation sometimes provides important information -- date of a wedding, best man, etc.

What's the right way to cite such a source?

  • 1
    Although I'm not personally sure about the use of "annotate" here, this is good general question about how to maintain value in photographic memorabilia (artifacts). While this question is general, I hope we encourage specific questions (and visuals) on these topics as questions about many/most artifacts/documents/records will be valuable and interesting in the context of those specifics.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 10, 2012 at 16:54
  • @GeneJ: I'm open to suggestions for a better word...
    – bstpierre
    Oct 10, 2012 at 17:15
  • 1
    It's not entirely clear from the question whether you are asking how to digitise the image (scanner, camera, etc.), how to technically annotate an image (metadata, raster text) or what the citation format should be (e.g. Evidence Explained).
    – Mat
    Oct 10, 2012 at 18:28
  • 1
    Hmm. Another random thought. Is digital archival of the reverse side of the image important. It could be important to have a graphical copy of the notes as well as a textual version - useful if the wording is not clear, or one wants to compare handwriting on another piece of evidence.
    – Mat
    Oct 13, 2012 at 12:02
  • 1
    @Mat - that's why I scan both sides ... If I didn't "need" it, it was still cheap to do :)
    – warren
    Oct 25, 2012 at 5:49

4 Answers 4


As @warren said, a multi-page PDF is the best way (that I know of) to record the source as you have it complete with annotations.

Based on Elizabeth Shown Mills' guidance in "Evidence Explained", if you can be specific about who took the photograph, or other information, I would cite the digital image as:

PhotographerSurname, Anthony FirstName. Photograph, ca. YYYY. Digital Image. Privately held by Acacia Brun, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], Town, County, Country. Year it was held.

If you have less information and want to cite the original:

Pierre Family Collection. Photograph. Privately held by Acacia Brun, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], Town, County, Country. Year it was held.


The method I use is to do a multipage scan into a PDF (or similar format) that captures both the front and back of the photo.

If you then have a PDF editing tool, you can add typed text with captions, dates, etc to mirror the hand-written information, and provide a searchable document.


With any digitized image, each processing step loses quality. So, the best technical solution to annotate an image (whether collected as an original digital image, scanned or re-photographed) would not change the actual content. Modifying a image to add raster text for example would cause the decompression recompression cycle to degrade the image.

Many image formats including JPEG allow metadata through mechanism such as EXIF to be recorded. By recording your citation in a metadata comment, it remains as plain text and therefore searchable rather than rastered onto the image. It also means that the citation and the source data are one and the same object, if you share the image, the citation goes with it. If you were to record the citation elsewhere (separate document, Genealogy database) it is easy to separate the two.

Viewing of any recorded metadata will require support in the viewer you are using; this could prove difficult if you want to view it from desktop genealogy software.

  • 2
    Digitized images don't lose quality if the format is lossless, such as TIFF. Many lossless formats support metadata reading and writing in Exif, XMP, etc. You'll need viewer support to handle both cases, as you say. Adobe Acrobat supports ZIP compression of images, which will result in lossless encoding, and gives you the rich annotation capabilities mentioned above.
    – fbrereto
    Oct 10, 2012 at 20:20

Another option that hasn't been mentioned here is to use "buddy files". This low-tech solution has advantages because the text is clear and editable, it is searchable, and it will not get wiped by some photo-editing s/w like the Exif/XMP meta-data. It is also possible to add keywords or search terms of your own choosing, and even full transcriptions.

A "buddy file" (or "sidecar file") is a separate file that shares the same name, but with a different file-type (i.e. different file extension). For instance, having a tony.jpg image and a tony.notes text file. This may sound almost too trivial, but the difference is when they are linked by a bit of software.

One free Windows example of such software is MetaProxy, which works with all image types and many document types too. It will open the image (or document) in your usual registered application, and then either display the buddy file by the side of it or overlaid on the bottom third of it. It also supports image collections, and there is also a Mac equivalent.

  • This is what I do. Also, I scan the front and back separately, so I have three files: 'Tony-Front.tiff', 'Tony-Back.tiff', and 'Tony.txt' Jun 2, 2020 at 16:12
  • All the MetaProxy does, Marshall, is to automatically display them (image and text) together. This is no mean feat under Windows because it has so many rules and mechanisms.P.S. It would also cope with the front and back images, plus the text :-)
    – ACProctor
    Jun 2, 2020 at 17:14
  • Too bad I don't have a Windows box :-). But I see there's a Mac version; I'll check it out. Jun 2, 2020 at 19:42
  • There's also a facebook support group for the both versions.
    – ACProctor
    Jun 3, 2020 at 21:07

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