Photogenealogy: how to sort and organise your family history photos


27 May 2022
Ann Larkham takes a look at how to organise your digital and physical family history photos, making them easier to find, share and enjoy.

What is photo genealogy?

Do you have old family photographs? If you do, you are your family’s memory keeper and you may be interested in photogenealogy.

Photogenealogy is the art and science of caring for and enjoying family history photographs. Not just for the sake of the photographs themselves, but because each photograph is a precious genealogical time capsule of clues, memories and stories.

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Photogenealogy brings together best practices and industry standards from other disciplines to create an efficient process that results in a treasured legacy.

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How to sort and organise your family history photos

One of the key categories of photogenealogy is knowing how to sort and organise your family history photo collection. 

The aim of sorting and organising is to make your family history photographs, both digital and physical, easier to find, share and enjoy. Photographs can be organised by size, format, family, Ahnentafel number, generation, event, or theme. They can also be organised chronologically or geographically, or in any other way that reflects how you think about your photographs, and more importantly, how you will use them.

As a family historian, you may already have a computer-based filing system for your genealogical documents. This existing system can provide the basis for the storage of both digital and physical photographs, or you can set up a new system using your computer’s file organising program. Alternatively, you can use Adobe Bridge, which is a free cross-platform file browser that allows you to organise, search and add metadata to your photographs.

Other programs are available that can perform these functions too, for example, Adobe Lightroom (subscription required). This and other similar programs, of which there are many, use facial recognition and machine learning to identify individuals in photographs, which helps with the organising process. Programs differ in cost, the algorithms used, resolutions of stored images, ability to add and retrieve metadata, upload/download restrictions and attitudes towards your privacy and control. Choosing the best program for yourself depends on the relative value you place on these features.

Organising digital family history photographs begins with removing the ‘Dups & Duds’. Dups are duplicate photographs and duds are, well…duds; those photographs that are really badly framed or poorly focused (although these issues can sometimes be improved or corrected). Removing duds comes with an important caveat: content always tops quality – if the only photograph you have of a family member is badly framed and out of focus, it should remain in your collection.

Next, metadata and file names are added to digital photographs, before storing them in a simple folder structure in your Digital Photo Hub (the place where you store all your digital photographs, either on your computer's hard drive on an external hard drive).

How do I identify people in photographs?

While organising, you may find photographs of unknown people which can cause a dilemma: to keep or to discard? Having an “Unknown” folder in your Digital Photo Hub as a home for these orphan photographs is a prudent solution. You may not know who the subjects are at the moment, but with further research they may be identifiable and then the photographs will become a valuable part of your family collection.

To help with the task of identifying people in photographs you can ask relatives, refer to a family tree or timeline, consult reference books and websites, or conduct additional genealogical research. If you intend to sort chronologically, photograph dating knowledge will be essential.

Photograph dating is a fascinating and absorbing activity. Many resources are available to help you. Especially useful are those from Jayne Shrimpton, who has authored several books and articles including many for Family Tree magazine (see Jayne’s regular Photo Corner column each issue of Family Tree). Robert Pols and Stephen Gill have also authored excellent books, and there are many useful online resources available.

Ann Larkham is a qualified genealogist, passionate photogenealogist and fledgling author, who is planning a photogenealogy book and business to help others on their photogenealogy journeys. Follow her on Twitter @photogenealogy or find out more on her website.

Text extracted for an in-depth article on photogenealogy in the July 2022 issue of Family Tree magazine. Get your copy here.