Photos as a Genealogical Research Tool


I have now been researching the family roots for many years. Over the years, I have become known within the family as the family historian, the keeper of the data and when all else fails, the person to give old photos to.
Over the years I’ve accumulated quite a lot of photos. They have been stored in boxes and like everyone else, I thought that one day, I really ought to sort them out. “Sorting them out” was a very vague term that meant that either I was going to put them into albums so that they would fit tidily on a bookshelf or else I’d scan them and put them on to a disc.
Did I think that they were useful to my genealogical research? Not really.
For a long time I was avid in my genealogical research. I found names and dates. I found little snippets of information that were like gold dust to me. I was gradually able to build a family tree which so far stretches back to 1590.
Somewhere along the line, came the thought “I wonder what they looked like?”
When I came to a brick wall in my research and wasn’t progressing very far, I thought that I would turn to the photographs stored away.
I was sitting on a goldmine of information and by following these tips you can find out so much more about your family tree.


• First of all, check the back of the photos for any names or dates. If a photo is identified as a particular person, you can then pick them out in other photos.
• Study photos with a good magnifying glass. (On one of my photos, I found a very small notation in pencil marked against one of the people – marked with the words “Uncle Bob”. This gave me a name to match against the data I already had. There may be other notes which will give you a hint.
• Is the person wearing a wedding ring? If the photo is dated, then you know you can look for the details of a spouse prior to that date.
• Is the person in military uniform? Can you make out any of the badges on the uniform? This can help you identify which regiment and then to which person in your tree it can possibly apply to.
• If one of the people that you can now identify is standing in a family group, you should be able to identify who is probably who.
• If one of the people that you can now identify is standing next to a woman in a wedding dress, your data should now help you to identify the wife.
• Are there family resemblances that can help you identify a photograph? I had a photo which I’d previously just flicked past as I thought it was a photo of my father taken in WW2. On closer inspection with a magnifying glass, I found that a man in the background was actually my ancestor and the photo was taken in WW1. The man that I thought was my father was so like him that I researched further and found that he was a brother of my ancestor and was in the same regiment. Without that photo, I would never have looked for further military information.
• There are software applications, many of them free – Picassa is one which you may find very useful. Some genealogy sites offer a face recognition service. This can help you identify people in old photos.


Photos, I have found, can add flesh to your genealogical research. It puts a face to the name and brings people back to life. Photos of the people and the places where they lived and grew up are invaluable to researchers. A photo is a snapshot in time. For that second, their image and that moment in time is frozen forever. It’s also a valuable lesson to take the time to write on the back of all your photos with the date and as much information as you can about the photograph so that your own history won’t be lost.