My husband and I, and our siblings, are now the oldest generation in our families. We have photos which have been discovered or have come down to us when our parents died. I have another friend who is younger than me who is in the same situation; she is researching her mother-in-law's family. What can we do to identify the people in the photos?

Here's what I've considered so far:

  • Step 1: Try to date the photos. (There are many resources on the net about how to do this, including related questions here on SE, and my friend and I have already discussed this pretty thoroughly.)
  • Step 2: Try to determine where the photos were taken, if not already known. In some cases, I might be able to figure out candidates in the photos by checking known addresses of relatives against Google Street View.
  • Step 3: Look for more distant cousins who might have other pictures to compare against.
  • Step 4: Compare photos to other photos found online (yearbook collections, photos posted on Ancestry trees, newspaper photos, Dead Fred, Lost Faces, etc).

I haven't experimented with facial recognition software, so I don't know how effective that might be. One especially challenging case -- my husband's family has a set of twins. I don't know if they are identicals or fraternals.

If we were in our parents' hometown (sadly, we aren't) we could:

  • ask mom's neighbors, members of her church, or any related societies she might have belonged to (One might be able to find mom's neighbors from the period in the photos from city directories or the 1940 Census. Obituaries can list social clubs -- my aunt's obituary is a masterpiece of genealogical writing in that respect.)
  • attend her school's reunion
  • ask lodge members, if any of the relatives were members
  • ask people in the same military unit, for relatives who were veterans
  • attend meetings of the local historical society or genealogical society
  • look for other photos in local libraries and local archives

Note: Several of these helpful suggestions for finding local people to consult came from @Canadian Girl Scout in today's weekly chat.
Are there other obvious things I've missed?

Looking for houses and identifiable landmarks seems like a good place to start for the city photos, but I don't know what to do about the photos taken in a rural setting. I'd especially welcome suggestions there for my friend in the Midwest. @Canadian Girl Scout suggested agricultural societies as one possibility.

  • Today's weekly chat was "Holiday genealogy". If you are having a family gathering during this holiday season, collect recipes, interview relatives, and identify those photos before it is too late.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 6:24
  • PhotographySE has many related Q/As on digital asset management, origanizing photos, etc. so the question was meant to bring out the genealogical aspects of this problem.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 19:23
  • 1
    I'm sure you've already considered this, but keep in mind that people have a tendency to collect photos that today appear completely random, or that could easily be mistaken for another relative based on the date. I found a photo of my 2x great grandfather's grandson that no one in our family had ever heard of. If it hadn't been labeled, it would have been impossible to identify. Likewise, my grandmother kept photos of people who were like third cousins once removed. You may need to cast a very wide net indeed to try to identify some of them.
    – Jack
    Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 3:29

6 Answers 6


I have a box of photos from different families and still bother sorting them and identifying the people displayed. You named plenty good ideas whom to contact to help you. Focus on group photos if available, also those which exist elsewhere. Especially wedding photos are somewhat “standardized”, people are arranged according to their relationship and status.

It might be helpful not only to ask “Who could this be?” but also “Which photo could show uncle Richard?” / “Who could be uncle Richard in this photo?” Make sure that you have covered siblings (and their partners, children and if possible even their grandchildren) of your ancestors in your research, this will make things a lot easier.

Structure your efforts in a spreadsheet on your computer. Label the photos and use a line in your spreadsheet for every single photo. So you don’t need to sort the photos manually by now, but you can use advanced sorting and filtering options in Excel/Numbers/Calc to put them into a new perspective.

As columns you can use: studio name (print/stamp on backside), studio location, measurements, brand of photographic paper (there is often a small print on the back). Consider this to be your metadata. Then add columns like known place, known person, time and description, if any. Do not make any assumptions so far. The next columns are for clues (place, person, time again) and identifications by others (a single column for everyone involved). The last columns should contain your assumptions.

When sorting according to studio, time and other aspects you will certainly see connections you never had seen in piles of photos on your desk or floor. Good luck!

  • Thanks! We had already discussed sorting the photos by type of photo paper, studio, etc, but hadn't progressed to making a spreadsheet to record that data. The personal photos I have that are from a professional studio were taken by a family friend -- one of the to-do items is to research how long her studio was in business. (Those photos are my immediate family, so I can identify all the people in those, and remember approximately when they were taken, but I should document that.)
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 18:20
  • One warning from prior experience: you can use spreadsheets to act as a flat-file database, but if you are using them to sort your data, use caution! A friend was keeping his book database in a spreadsheet. He sorted his file without making sure that all the columns in the spreadsheet were selected, then saved his file before he noticed his error -- thus divorcing some of the information in his sheet from the item it belonged to. Be very careful when sorting data for analysis -- if you need different sorts for reference, it's safer to make a copy and sort on the copy.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 18:46

Colin's suggestion to seek newspaper photos is a good one. Jan Murphy's statement about online microfilmed papers being less than clear is also valid. However, many of those news photographs are filed away by newspapers as a hedge against future needs.

Those real, clear, sharp photographs or negatives may still exist in the newspaper's files. I would anticipate a reproduction fee, of course, but it couldn't hurt to ask about this, especially if the family was active in the community and the community was small. You have to decide how important one of those photos is to you. (Be sure to ask about copyright and re-use permission.)

  • However, photos supplied by the family (for birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) were returned to the family. Newspaper (and TV station) archives are sometimes purged or re-located.
    – bgwiehle
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 15:18
  • One of the photos I found was a story about my family's church, which means I have a pointer to church records. I don't remember seeing a photo credit on the story; it is possible that the church provided the photo. I agree with bgwiehle that it may not be possible to get the photos, but the only way to find out is to ask. Another possibility is to search for a better-generation digital image or microfilm of the historical newspaper. Fulton History's sitemaster gives a general statement about the provenance of his film; too bad other sites don't bother.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 18:58

A couple of other places to consider looking:

  1. Local newspapers to where your ancestors lived to see if there are any other photos of them that you can compare to.
  2. Search on the internet using the photo comparison sites such as TinEye to see if anyone else has put the photo online.
  • One difficulty with searching local newspapers is that the quality of photos via services like Genealogy Bank is often pretty crappy. I've found newspaper articles with photos of my family, but they are nothing to write home about. Not all the newspapers still exist; if they do, one could ask the newspaper if they can provide a better copy. Thanks for the link to TinEye.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 18:15

An innovative idea you could try would be to use a tool such as Google Picasa, which can use facial recognition to organize photos.

See the information and video about this in the Lifehacker article: Picasa 3.5 Organizes Your Photos with Facial Recognition.

If you tag the people who you positively know, then Picasa will learn from it and may give you clues as to other photos that the same people may also be in.

If you tag the same person with different ages, looks (hair styles, has or doesn't have glasses) and angles (front, left side, right side) then it will learn better.

For people in pictures that you have never identified, Picasa will still try to identify them. Even if they are the wrong person, it will be a person who may have similar looks. That may indicate a relative of some sort, may help you identify the side of the family the relative is on and further your research into finding who that person is. Or it may not find a match which could indicate that the person may not be a relative, but may instead be a neighbor or friend.

Remember that such tools do give you false-positives. The people it thinks are in the pictures may not be correct. You should just use this as a clue, and not mark them unless you are convinced that it is the person, and you should document that you used facial recognition of Picasa as your source.

There are many other programs you can use other than Picasa that include facial recognition. In fact, you probably should use more than one for these unknown people, because different recognition programs may give different suggestions. Other such programs include Microsoft Live Photo Gallery, iPhoto, Photoshop Elements and others.

  • I forgot to search PhotographySE before writing the question; answers about the current features of photo software might be found there, as well as MANY Q/As about organizing photos. "So little time, so much to know!"
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Dec 8, 2013 at 19:08

Think whether you may know an artist in your family. Someone who does portraits. If you have such a relative, or even a friend, they have an "eye" that others don't and may help in dating the photos or picking out the same people at different ages. This is human facial recognition. Think about who you know in the family who may resemble the subjects. Get out pictures of them and compare.

Also, make a list of everyone in your tree who could possibly be in the pictures. Usually you are talking about two, maybe three, generations before your now deceased parents. Try to match the names on that list with the faces.

Infants and children are very helpful in dating photos. So are clothing styles, etc. Study the fashions worn by the subjects, and then narrow down the possibilities by estimating ages.

Family group photos have a certain number of people in them, usually from one or two generations (parents and children). Chances are they include the entire family. If they are broken into portraits, often family members are wearing the same clothes that they wore as a group. Print out your list again with families grouped together. The number of people in the family can help identify the family and even pinpoint a time.


My best luck so far has been from distant cousins. A 3rd cousin recently inherited several boxes of unidentified photos from her mother, so I volunteered to scan them and show them around at a reunion this past summer. We were able to identify about half of them. Then I put the remaining unknown photos on a website, and sent links to other family researchers I encountered on Ancestry.com or other places on the net.

Reunion Photos 1

Reunion Photos 2

We've identified several more this way. Also posted the links to county message boards and local societies on Facebook with zero results.

If the photos are in albums, I would consider each album as a separate collection. This may help identify time periods or even single out mom's family vs. dad's family.

Make a cd to send to cousins, and you can make about 100 4x6 prints for under $20 to take to a reunion. If most are from the same town, contact their local paper with the cutest pictures and a weblink to a flicker account or a website where locals can sift through them.

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