Genealogy and unidentified photographs seem to go hand and hand. Try these four tips to help you identify the individuals in your old family photos!
Old Family Photos

Tips for Identifying People In Old Family Photos

Identifying old family photographs does not have to be impossible! Tips to identify your ancestors and discover your family history in old family photos.

Genealogy research, old family photos and mystery individuals in those photos seem to go hand in hand!

(But they don’t have to!)

The old family photographs I share in this post arrived in a box originally marked “Richardson”.   Unfortunately, none of the photographs are labeled. (I’m sure your ancestors labeled all of their photographs, right?!)

I do strongly suspect the men are from my Richardson family of Pittsylvania County, VA.  There is a certain family “look” I have come to recognize in known Richardson family photos.

However, there is the distinct possibility some of these men and women were just friends of the family or were some of my Elliott ancestors. Just because the photos were in the Richardson box does not a guarantee all of these people were Richardsons. Don’t trust you ancestor or relative’s organizational skills! After all, these photographs were stored in a trunk for approximately 80 years – 50 of those years in a southern Virginia barn!

So, how about you?

Do you have unknown photographs in your closet?  Still wondering how to even start identifying the people in those family photographs?

These tips should get you started.

4 Tips for Identifying Old Family Photos

There are a number of ways to start identifying unidentified family photographs. While the process is not quick, it can be very rewarding!

Initially, when starting out, I was a bit overwhelmed with the process of identifying photographs.  My best tip for beginners is to start with just one photograph. Often we have several or even many photos to identify and the project just feels overwhelming. So, start with just one photograph.

Tips to help you identify your ancestors and discover your family history in those old family photos.
Pin for Future Reference!

Tip #1 –  Ask your family members.

I realize this is an obvious tip, but you would be surprised by the number of people who have not done this.

Do not just ask your close family members. Seek out more distant relatives.

Seek out collateral relatives. Share your photograph(s) with them and ask them to forward the photograph(s) to other family members they know. At times you may find yourself needing to do descendant research to find other living relatives to connect with. It is worth the time and effort.

The more eyes you have on your unidentified family photographs the better!

The photograph below is a good example of this concept.  This couple’s photograph sat for years in my unknown collection. I was consulting a Richardson researcher about a different photograph when my break came. He  glimpsed this photograph and identified the couple as his grandparents Matthew and Edna (Richardson) Yeaman.  This Richardson researcher was from Alaska and is my third cousin twice removed.

Remember: No relative is too far in distance or location on the family tree not to potentially have information on your photographs.

Tips to help you identify your ancestors and discover your family history in those old family photos.
Matthew and Edna (Richardson) Yeaman

The photograph below was emailed to multiple family members.  Many were distant cousins only known to me through collateral genealogy research and my hope is one of them will be able to identify this gentleman or lead me to someone else who might.  Just as you would network in the business world, network in the genealogy world.

Tip #2 –  Share Your Unidentified Photographs on Social Media


Share your unidentified photographs in pertinent Facebook groups such as genealogical societies, or Facebook pages dedicated to specific county genealogy and/or history groups. Does your extended family have their own Facebook group? (You can start one!)  Share your photographs there.

Examples of Facebook  groups for my Richardson photographs include  Pittsylvania County Genealogy, Virginia Genealogy, North Carolina Genealogy, U.S South Genealogy Research Community, and Halifax County, VA Genealogy and History.

If you have a number of photographs you want to share, set up an album in Google Photos or on Flickr.  You can share a link to the photo album in online groups without having to individually upload each photo. See an example of this in Using Flickr to Identify Your Ancestors.

Genealogy and unidentified photographs seem to go hand and hand. Try these four tips to help you identify the individuals in your old family photos!
Unknown Photograph – Possibly a Richardson of Pittsylvania Co., VA

Tip #3 – Websites Dedicated to Unidentified Photographs and Ancestors Lost and Found  are popular sites to share and search for ancestors’ photographs. Bonus: Both are free to use.   Upload your own unidentified photographs for help in identifying or you can search what others have posted.

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Search by surname, location or by the photographer’s name. You just might find ancestors’ photographs you recognize.

Be sure and check back on orphan photo sites periodically for updates.

>>>Wondering if old family photos exist for your family? Find 10 places to search for old family photographs in this FREE E-book. <<<

Google Image Search

Upload your unidentified photograph into Google’s Image search and see if the photograph appears anywhere else on the web.

Genealogy and unidentified photographs seem to go hand and hand. Try these four tips to help you identify the individuals in your old family photos!
Unknown Men of Pittsylvania County, VA

Perhaps the photograph is identified on someone else’s genealogy website/blog.  Someone else could be searching as well!

Identifying old unknown family photographs takes time. With a bit of effort and admittedly a bit of luck sometimes, too, you can put a name to an ancestor’s face.

Do you have an unknown photograph you are struggling to identify?

Work through these 4 tips above.  Share your findings in the comments below!

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  • Dixie Kline Richardson

    My husband is a descendant of Wm. Richardson, b. ca l800 in North Carolina. No other early information known; he ended up in Parke County, Indiana. Wm.’s son Jasper was a long, tall guy. My husband, Jasper’s great-grandson, is 6-4. The men in your pictures appear to have the same body type. Your tips are good ones. I collect antique photos of children; it’s a rare find when there is any info written on the backs. We may find a single picture but then discover in a search that distant family members also have the same picture. Grandparents often received those kid photos, as well as aunts and uncles.

    • Carolyn Skelton

      I am from Wickes Arkansas, just letting you know there are Ruchardsons all over Wickes some married Gillespy, Burkes, Herrings

  • Pam

    I’d add one more tool: Picassa. I’d scanned most of the photographs that I have, and use Picassa to tag the faces that I knew. The facial recognition software was able to make suggestions for some of my unknown photos. One photo was labeled with my great-grandfather’s name, but there were four men in the photo, and we weren’t sure which one he was. The program picked him out for us based on other known photos. I know this isn’t foolproof, but may be a place to start.

    • LisaL

      Picassa is a great addition to the list, Pam! I have used it in the past, but did not have great results with the facial recognition feature. Your success is very exciting! I need to try that again.

  • KayB

    When I a bunch of family photos I use a magnifying glass to check hairlines, eyebrows, noses, facial shapes and this works well if you have a known photo of a family member to use for comparison.
    Thanks for your tips. My local historical society has many unidentified photos.

  • Tbird9e

    Great post! I was also wondering about facial recognition. Facebook is pretty good about this, but as the folks in these photos are deceased they aren’t likely to have Facebook accounts! Anyway, I do think it is a useful tip and wonder if any other photo storage websites have this feature and if they do, how does their technology compare to that used by picassa?

    • LisaL

      So glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve used some of the facial recognition in Picassa with so-so results. While it may not recognize a person’s photo, picassa does often get them in the right family. In other words, it may match them with a cousin or a sibling. For photos where I don’t know which family line they are from, it gives me a starting point.

  • Amber Schamel

    Thanks for the informative post. I found it on Pinterest.

    I have one idea to add. If you have draft cards or something similar, it will give you basic information on the physical appearance of your relatives. You may be able to use that information to pinpoint which person in the picture is them.

  • Pauline

    I recently obtained a handful of old black and white photos circa 1920’s-1930’s and had no idea who they were of. They sat in a box until I posted them on Facebook (Family Genealogy Page I created) and within 6 hours EVERY photo had a name!! This really works 🙂

  • Naomie Moore, Castaic, CA

    I have loads of photos of people. All taken in Europe. I am first and last generation as I did not have children. Both my parents were single children. BUT no living relatives. What is written on the backs of a few of the photos is all in other languages and not legible. In addition, I do not use ANY social media. What do I do ??? was pointless as records were lost or destroyed in WWI and WWII. At this point I am thinking of giving away as I have no idea what to do with them.

    • LisaL

      You do have a challenge! You may want to have the writing on the backs of the photos translated by someone who speaks the language. You can also attempt to place the people in the photographs in time by their their clothing styles. Their fashions may also help determine an ethnicity. You can also try posting them on

  • Raymond Sanders

    Since I many old unidentified family photos, I found your post and replies

    But, your font color, at least on my android, makes for very difficult reading..
    Sure hope you will be able to Chang it to a much darker color.

  • Katherine Hobbs

    Dear Lisa This the first time I have seen your site and am interested. I am in Canada and am wondering if it will still be beneficial to me. Also, you have the same name as my cousin’s daughter, her married name Lisa Lisson. She is the CEO of Fedex Canada and has written a book about her life. Yours truly Kathy Hobbs.

    • LisaL

      Kathy, I’m so glad you found the site. I am a U.S. based researcher, but I try to write about strategies that are applicable to all genealogy researchers. I’ve heard of your cousin before – saw her on an episode of Undercover Boss. It’s fun to know another Lisa Lisson is in the world, too! 🙂

  • Kim

    First I*m am Canada as well and I find your site very helpful. I*ve been doing genealogy for
    48 years and it still amazes how much I can still learn.

  • Lana Freeman

    Many times when I am looking at old portraits (note photo’s) the photographer is named on the front or back with address (sometimes). This use to not be much help to me until I started doing ancestry. Now I can tell through many documents who might have been living in the area where it was taken. Also, when I have posted the pictures (photos and portraits) I have been able to find out through family and complete strangers who are some of the people in my pictures. I’ve been able to do this with others too. What great connections we have now.

    • LisaL

      That’s wonderful, Lana! I’ve used those photographer’s stamps as well and they have been a great help placing people in a specific time and place.

  • CarolynL

    I noticed in your article that you had Elliott ancestors. I am also an Elliott (the last of the line with the maiden name of Elliott). I come from a large family line of Elliotts, but the males had no male children and I appear to be the last female. Would be interested to see if we have the same ancestors.

    • LisaL

      My Elliotts are primarily from the Halifax County and Mecklenburg County, VA area. This is also a brick wall line for me. I do believe there may be lines that are in the Granville County area of NC.

      • Susan

        Lisal, I am from the family of Elliotts from Halifax County. I remember one of the ancestor’s name was Apple Elliott. Would be great to see if we were related. Email me if you would like. I also have relatives in Western Kentucky.

  • Joan E. Landers

    I also have family photos that were probably taken by my dad’s mother and possibly extended family members possibly from the late 1800’s to 1940’s. Most of the photos were not taken in a photography studio.
    Many of the photos were taken in Aroostook County, Maine.
    I also have Richardson ancestors who arrived and settled in the greater Boston, Massachusetts area in the mid-1630’s. Eventually some of them moved to other areas of MA, western Maine, and finally northern Maine.
    Do you have suggestions as to how I might be able to begin to identify them? I’ve thought perhaps of scanning them to my laptop to add to the genealogy of my dad’s lines. I don’t know if any of my extended family are still alive up there, or if any are doing genealogy. It has been forty years since I was last up there.

  • Sheila Olson

    I have had my husband scan all the old photos & have put them into a Google album. I have given the link to family including recently found relatives which has resulted in a few more names. I have one old photo album & a postcard book both from Sweden. It has helped that some of the Swedish relatives were able to decipher some of the writing on the postcards. Just posted an old photo in a Swedish site & have found possibly my grandfather’s occupation before he immigrated AND a new cousin who recognized his name! I will try a some of your suggestions. Thx!

  • Marianne Lisson Fulmer Pursell

    My Lisson family is originally from Bandon, Cork, and came through the Port of New York, & ended up in PA.
    I was named for my great grandmother, Mary Anne Lisson, who married a Fulmer. I just wanted to say Hi.

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