Finding clues in old photographs

A strong resemblance can often tell you what side of the family the person in a photo is from, but after that you’re on your own. You have to seek out clues in the photos to help you learn more about the subject.

Fortunately, photos from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are filled with clues if you look hard enough.

It helps if you have a good knowledge of your family already. Ask relatives specific questions about family members they knew: things such as numbers of siblings, hair colour and comparative heights can all help when trying to unravel the people in photographs.


Records and the census can also help to decipher clues, especially when trying to work out which members of the family were living together at any one time.

Make sure you keep a record of the number of children in different generations and their ages in relation to one another: this can really help with later photographs when people’s appearances can have changed radically.

If you’re lucky enough to have a studio imprint on your photograph, you can do even more detective work to find out when that studio was in business, which would give you a rough time frame as to when the photo was taken. This can pinpoint the generation really specifically.


Clothing and hairstyles are also a great help in dating photographs. A detailed book on costumes could really help here, or simply describing a type of skirt in an online search engine could give you a good lead.

And finally, don’t forget to look at the finer detail. Candid photographs, in particular, can give you plenty of clues about your ancestors’ hobbies and interests: background information that will really bring them to life.

Click here to read more about identifying photos.