John Prather

By far, one of the things that has drawn me to family research are family photographs. I have collected hundreds of pictures over the years from various family members.

I have “picture envy” for the collections of some of my friends (one of my favorites is the header on Mel Collier’s blog).

The idea of capturing a small moment in time and trying to discern their experiences really appeals to me. I have noticed a lot of pictures with cars; what is it about cars that everybody seems to have posed in front of them?

Even the small things included in the pictures that I imagine had some meaning, like bibles, kerchiefs, and gloves.

In recent years, I’ve been drawn to photographs that show  more social history. By this, I mean pictures taken outside, in the fields, on the city street, or on the front stoop of a home.

Also immensely important are the photographs of our family houses, cemeteries, churches, and schools. Have you taken pictures of your home, church, and school? The wrecking ball will come sooner or later, so capture that history now!

Here are some helpful tips for family photographs I’ve collected over the years, perhaps a few items will be new to you:

Scanning and Editing

1. Buy a lightweight, portable scanner for travel use. I have an old one that I bought years ago and it still goes with me on trips to scan photographs.

When relatives have pictures, I make a point to come over with my compact scanner so their precious photos do not leave their hands. Of course, now they have the handheld models, but I still prefer to have a flatbed scanner.

2. Scan every picture at least “300” dpi. That’s computer-speak for “dots-per-inch.” Dpi is chosen within the scanner settings before you scan.

If you have a small picture, like the ones produced from those old Brownie cameras, scan them in at “400″ dpi, or preferably 600 dpi.

These settings will enable you to make larger copies in the future. When I first started, I did not know this. I scanned a lot of pictures in lower resolutions which means they don’t scale well when I try to enlarge them.

They don’t print very well either. That was a lesson learned the hard way.

3.  Save your newly scanned pictures in the “TIFF” format. This format captures more information than “JPEG,” “BMP,” or “GIF.” You can always save copies of the picture in other formats, but you want your Master Scans to be in TIFF.

4. Make minor adjustments to faded, torn or otherwise time-damaged family photographs easily with most off-the-shelf photo editing software. Here are some suggested packages for purchase. However, the same edits can be made at no cost using  freeware like GIMP.

You can easily perform actions in editing software such as “Auto Contrast,” “Auto-Color” and “Auto-Levels” that instantly improve photos without any skills on your part.

But don’t be afraid to pay someone to fix a precious photograph. The expense is well-worth the money. Go to this post, on the bottom, to see a picture I repaired using

Old Albums and Frames

Crabbing on the Doc

Crabbing on the Doc

5. Remove old pictures from frames and albums (if you can do it without damage) and inspect the back for clues.

If you’re lucky, something may be scrawled on the back.

Use the photographer’s studio mark (which might be on the front) to narrow down the time and place.

That little bit of information has helped me to break through brick walls in my research.

6. Many old family photographs were placed in antique glass frames a hundred+ years ago. Don’t try to remove old photos if they stick to the frame or glass. Take a digital camera and photograph the picture, and create a new copy.

With glass, you’ll have to play around with the angle and lighting to get a good copy, but it’s better than risking damage to the picture.

I do this with oversize photographs as well that will not fit on a scanner bed.

First Store

First Store


Prathers on Horseback

Prathers on Horseback

Storage and Display

7. Do not display original copies of historical photographs on the wall. This was commonly done in the past, but when that house is gone, many times those photographs are lost or no one knows what happened to them.

Sunlight also damages pictures over time. Scan copies of the originals and display those copies in your home.

8. Store original photos in acid-free boxes in an environment free from temperature fluctuations or  the possibility of water damage.

Get them out attics and basements. There are companies that sell boxes and other storage solutions. I also bought storage containers for all the old negatives I own that don’t exist in our new digital world!

Waldon Waters

Waldon Waters

In Closing

9. Keep up with changing technology. Many companies can convert your old 8mm movies reels to DVD and digital video files.

My great-uncle got many of his reels converted by Costco for less than a hundred dollars.

They added music to the background (since those tapes had no sound). They also separated video scenes into chapters and sent us a link to view the footage.

Many of the people in those reels are deceased now, so those films are priceless.

Companies will also digitize VHS and audio tapes. I have digitized all my old family interviews so that the files are now on my hard drive. Many companies will scan your old photographs for you and return them in digitized form.

Beulah Waters

Beulah Waters

10. Have a backup plan for all those photographs. I’m a little obsessive in this department, so I have two separate hard drives  AND I keep a copy at my parent’s houses.

Recently, I started storing pictures in the Cloud using Amazon. They offer UNLIMITED picture storage through their Prime program.

It matters less what you do, and more that you have a backup plan and follow it. I think I would have to be committed if I lost my pictures and genealogy research.

Oh yes! I made copies of all the historical family pictures on DVD, and gave a copy to each relative. Now everyone has all the pictures I have and there’s no fighting. At least not over pictures;)

In the comments, please feel free to share any other suggestions you may have. What has worked well for you when saving your precious family photographs and other related memorabilia?


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