Trying to identify your ancestor in that old family photograph? Start by learning the different types of antique photographs?
Old Family Photos

How to Identify 5 Main Types of Old Photographs

Dating old photographs provides clues to identifying your ancestors in the old family photos. The type of photo indicates the date a photo was taken.

Photographs are  among some of the most treasured family heirlooms.

Our children today grow up being photographed almost daily. Point a camera at a young child and they automatically smile. Check any teen or young adult or grandparent (!) and you are likely to find hundreds of photographs on their smartphone.

[I think my great-grandmother Esther Richardson Talbott would have completely embraced the smartphone and its picture taking possibilities!]

But this hasn’t always been the case.

Having one’s photograph taken was an occasion that needed to be planned and perhaps saved for. Even candid photographs needed some forethought.

Those old photographs that have been passed down through the family are special. They provide us with a connection, and they give us a glimpse into what physical traits we might have inherited.

Unfortunately, like us today, our ancestors did not always label their photographs.  At least mine did not.

What do you as the family historian do?

What are the first steps you can take to identify the people in the photographs?

The first step in identifying an old family photograph is to determine the date or date range the photo was taken.

For example, if you determine your family photograph of an adult was taken in the 1910’s, but the ancestor you thought it was died in the 1890’s, you need to consider other candidates.

Start your photo identification process by determining what type of photograph you are looking at. The type of photograph will give you a time frame for when that photograph was taken.

The 5 MainTypes of Old Photographs

To determine the date a photograph may have been taken, family historians need to understand a bit about the evolution of pictures through the 19th and 20th centuries. We need to know the basic characterisitcs of the old photograph types.

Explore below 5 old photo types and antique photographs.

 1. Daguerreotype (1840’s – early 1860)

Daguerreotypes were popular from the 1840’s -1860’s. They are typically small with the most common size being 2 3/4 x 3 1/2 inches and housed in a case.  Developed by  Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre, the daguerreotype involved exposing a silver plated sheet of copper to a chemical fumes. Since the daguerreotype is on polished silver, it is reflective like a mirror.  The image appears to almost “float”.  Daguerreotypes are very fragile.  They should be stored away from direct light and away from extreme temperatures. (In other words, keep them out of your attic!)

You can find more information about daguerreotypes at The Daguerreian Society.

Example of Daguerreotype - Old Photographs with young girl
Example of Daguerreotype (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

 2. Ambrotypes (1855-1865)

Ambrotypes are in small hinged cases like the daguerreotypes, but do not have that reflective, mirror-like quality. Ambrotypes are produced by the wet collodion plating or an emulsions process and the image is created on the glass.  These, too, were fragile and were placed in small hinged cases. Like the daguerreotype, keep them out of direct sunlight and away from extreme temperatures.

Learn more about Ambrotypes at the


Example of old photograph Ambrotype of young man sitting down
Example of Ambrotype (Source: Library of Congress)

3. Tintypes (1856-1890’s)

Tintypes were popular for more than 30 years. Instead of glass, the image was on an iron plate.  Early tintypes were in small, hinged cases like the daguerreotypes and the ambrotypes. However, the cases were soon replaced by paper sleeves.  Often today, tintypes are found in one’s collection without the sleeves.

In the 1890’s the tintypes were popular in carnivals. These images often show our ancestors in more relaxed poses.

Because the tintype was popular for so many years, the researcher needs to study the fashions worn by the tintype subjects to narrow the time frame for the photograph. [Learn the next steps to dating your old family photos.]

Find more information about tintypes at

Example of a Tintype of 3 men - one with beard and 2 clean shaven
Example of a Tintype (from personal collection of Lisa Lisson)

4. Cartes des Visites  (Introduced in 1859)

These small albumen printed photographs were popular in the 1860’s-1870’s.  Measuring 2 1/2″ by 4″, the photographs were mounted on a thick paper similar to a think card stock or cardboard and used much as the calling card was used in the 1850’s.  The Civil War saw a rise in the carte de visite’s popularity as soldiers and families exchanged photographs.

When dating cartes des visites, keep a couple of things in mind:

  • The thinner the cardboard mount the earlier the date.
  • Early CDV’s (1860’s) had square corners. Later (1870’s) CDV’s had rounded corners.

Read more about Cartes des Visites  (CDV) at The American Museum of Photography’s website.

Carte-de-visite D T Richardson
Carte de Visiste

5. Cabinet Cards (1860-Early 1900’s)

Cabinet cards and cartes des visites (CDV) are often confused. Like the CDV, the cabinet card was also an albumen print on thin paper and mounted on thicker paper. The primary difference is the cabinet card is larger and may have a photographer’s logo on the reverse side. The cabinet card reached its peak popularity in the 1880’s but continued to be used in the early 1900’s.

Because the cabinet card was used for many years, studying the types and colors of the papers used are essential to determining the age.

Keep these general guidelines in mind when examining your cabinet card:

  • The cardboard mount is thicker than the CDV.
  • Later cabinet cards (1880’s) were starting to have beveled edges. Those edges may have a gold or silver color. A scalloped border indicates a cabinet card from ~1886 – 1900.
  • The color of the cardboard mount is a important. The darker colors such as brown, burgundy, green, or black were later (1880’s and 1890’s).
  • Borders on a cabinet also help in dating the photo. Early cabinet cards had no borders. A single line border dates to 1885 – 1900. Embossed patterns for a border were used from 1894 – 1900. Lastly, an artistic underscore is from 1886 – 1896.
  • Imprinted photographer’s marks or any artwork on the back of the cabinet aid in dating the cabinet card as well.  In general, the fancier or more elaborate the design the later the date of the photo.

Explore the characteristics of the popular cabinet card in this video:

For more on dating cabinet cards and examples of cabinet cards, see this post on the National Media Museum’s blog.

Cabinet Card Old photograph of man and young boy with red thin border
Cabinet Card

Bonus: Antique Hand Painted Photographs

Antique hand-painted photographs were popular from the 1850s into the 1900s.

These photographs were produced by skilled artists who would paint directly onto the photographic print using a fine brush and oil paints. The result was a one-of-a-kind image that had a beautiful, painterly quality. These photographs were often used to create family portraits or commemorative images, and they were highly valued for their unique and personal nature.

1861 photo of woman that has been hand colored

Source: Library of Congress

One way to identify an antique hand-painted photograph is to look for brushstrokes and areas of paint that are thicker or more textured than others, indicating that the image has been painted over. Additionally, these photographs may have a slightly glossy or varnished surface, which can help to protect the paint and give the image a beautiful sheen.

The popularity of hand-painted photographs peaked during the 1860s and 1870s, with the rise of the carte de visite format. Their popularity continued in the mid-1940’s.

The Brownie Camera – Photographs for the Masses

In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie camera.  Marketed toward children, this was the first camera for the general public.  Taking photographs was now the cheapest it had ever been and did not require the owner to have a dark room or studio.

The Brownie was a big hit with amateur photographers who wanted to capture everyday moments and memories. It was small and portable, allowing people to take it with them wherever they went. The camera used roll film, which made it easy to take multiple photos without the need for complex equipment or darkroom processing.

The Brownie Camera

The Brownie’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 20th century, with millions of units sold around the world. 

The Kodak Brownie camera had a significant impact on the way we document our lives, and it paved the way for the development of modern photography. Even today, the Brownie remains an iconic symbol of the early days of photography, and its impact on popular culture and technology is still felt today.

My ancestors certainly took advantage of the Brownie camera.

Now, if they had just labeled those photos……

For more about the Brownie camera see The Brownie Camera Page.

3 Common Places to Look For Old Family Photos

What if your family does not have any old photographs? No old daguerreotypes tucked in the back of a drawer. No cabinet cards found in a photo album. No heritage photographs of any kind found.

Admittedly, finding those photographs can be tough if your family line did not inherit them, but you do have options for places to look. Three often overlooked sources for old photos include:

  1. Ebay  – Sadly, old family ephemera including photographs of all types end up on an online auction site. Often viewed as just antique photos for sale, they do represent someone’s family history! 
  2. Orphan Photo Sites is an often used orphaned photo site for sharing and finding old family photos.
  3. Other Family Lines – Remember, just because your family line does not have any old photos, other family lines might! Reach out to distant cousins and family members to see who in the family is the keeper of the family photos….and the family history! In my family, that’s ME!

Learn more about where to find old family photographs here.

For More Resources on Identifying Older Photographs:

Learn More About Old Family Photographs in These Posts:

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