Negatives, Old Photos, and Boxes, Oh My!

If that box of photos you have includes some old family photos, you may run into challenges identifying who is in those precious old photos.  One of my grandmothers consistently wrote on the back of photos–names, dates, places–so that they are easily identified every time.  Not all of us are so lucky!  So if it falls to YOU to be the identifier of the names, dates, and places, here are some helps.

Three Resources for Identifying Old Photos

Identifying who is in an old photo can have its challenges, but learning a few tools can help.  There are several great online resources to guide you as you try to identify old family photos.  I’ve listed three here for you, and each one has a link with much more information than the simple overview I’m listing here, so be sure to click around.

Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective, has a lot of tips and resources, including:

  • how to date old family photographs, with hints on 19th century hairstyles and fashions
  • how to identify family photos
  • how to identify Civil War photos

AncestralFindings has some thorough information and steps about:

  • how to date old photographs
  • how to identify people in them

Here are 5 steps from ThoughtCo for help identifying people in old family photographs:

  1. identify the type of photograph
  2. identify the photographer
  3. look for clues in scenes and settings
  4. look for clues in hairstyles and clothing
  5. use your current knowledge as a resource

They’re Identified.  Now What?

First, write.  After identifying who is in the photo, write it down.  Your notations will be helpful to you as you look at the photo again in the future, but it obviously also helps other people who wouldn’t otherwise know who is in the picture.  When you write, include any necessary details, such as where you got your information or how you identified the person.  If you are guessing, be sure you write that as well.  If you use clues to guess at a date (such as hairstyles and clothing as mentioned earlier), give a date range and acknowledge your guess by writing something like “probably 1920s” or “around 1850-1860.”

Second, preserve.  It’s important to get this treasure out of the box where you found it.  It can’t stay there.  Although printed photos can last upwards of 200 years, the condition in which the photo is preserved strongly contributes to its longevity.  Photos should be protected from light and dust and heat using acid-free, lignin-free products.  (If you don’t know what that means, that’s okay.  Most products you can buy these days for preserving photos are that way.  If you’re using photo albums from the 70s or 80s, though…  Don’t.  Acids in the pages will eat up the photo!)

A Protective Home

When you place your photo in an album, scrapbook, or digital storybook, you are not just preserving it, but you are creating a place where you can tell its story.  Writing on the back of photos like my grandmother did is a start (although, honestly, sometimes the pen made indentations on the front, and sometimes using the wrong kind of pen rubbed off onto other photos), but there’s a better way.  A photo needs a protective home where details can be preserved, too.  Whether you scan your photos and preserve them digitally, such as in a leatherbound storybook with a dust jacket like this one shown here, or you simply put your photos in a store-bought album, you’re prolonging their life!  You’re making them available to future generations, and you’re better able to enjoy them yourself right now.

Negatives and Slides

Like their digital file (jpeg) counterpart today, negatives are a backup of the real thing:  a photo.  Negatives and slides are a more recent development in photography, so you may not have as much trouble identifying people in them.  It will probably be easier for you to ask other family members for help in identifying people in slides and negatives because those lifetimes probably overlapped.  People still living will likely know who is in negatives and slides.

If you find yourself in possession of negatives, the first thing to do is figure out if these are photos you already have or not.  Hold them up to the light and see if they look familiar.  Next, decide if these are photos you want to have or not.  Print as needed.  Many photo developing places continue to print photos from negatives.  There is also an option to get a digital version of the photos on CD with the same order.  You can even just order a CD from the negatives if you prefer.  Once you’ve printed and preserved the photos from the negatives, store them like you would any other backup:  in a safe place away from the elements.

Bring Your Old Photos To Life

The more you can learn about the person in the photo, the more valuable it becomes.  Identifying a photo as “Barbara Smith, about 1890” makes a world of difference!  Putting the name with the face and connecting her to your family is an exciting, meaningful, important thing.  But finding out even more makes that person REAL.  Using websites like or might give you additional information, but it also might connect you with a distant cousin who may have more information than you do.

The work of identifying a family member in a photo and learning more about them is one of the most rewarding parts of family history, or just being a family.

“My ancestors not only passed down their physical traits to me and their other descendants but also their beliefs, hopes, dreams, and fears. As I reflected on the human family, I realized we are all connected, all one family.”  ~Valerie Atkisson

So find your connections.  Learn, write, and preserve.

~Jennifer  #familyhistoryfriday




Jennifer Wise

consultant at Heritage Makers
I'm Jennifer, and I'm passionate about connections.I enjoy helping people discover the very real benefits of preserving stories, photos, and memories because of the impact they have on children, families, and individuals. I blog weekly at sharing tips, ideas, solutions, and inspiration, and I'm over at, too. Learn more about me at the "About" tab.

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