Rules for Identifying Photographs: Create a Timeline

By Maureen A. Taylor

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Timelines are great organizational tools for research. They help you place your ancestor in time within historical context. They can also assist with photo identification.

Last week I wrote about studying the photo first. Imagine you have several photos of who you think is the same person. Laine Farley has an album and wonders if she has several images of the same people.

My advice is to date the photos first by looking at clothing, photo format, and photographer.


Next make scans of the images at a minimum of 600 dpi tiff as a preservation copy. Make a copy at 300 dpi jpg for sharing.

Once she has a tentative time frame for the images, think about how old the person she thinks it is would be in those years. Is the person too old or too young, then go back and look at the clues again. If it still isn’t a match, then you can eliminate those images as a possibility.

I use a free online platform called (Express Web) to create collages of faces for side-by-side comparison. Sure you can use facial recognition in programs like Photos for the Mac, but I prefer to line up the faces. You can watch a person age in their portraits.


Facial recognition looks at multiple points in a persons face but it doesn’t examine all the other clues in a picture. At least not yet.

identifying photographs

See the problem. Four men with mustaches. Will the real James Mathew Farley stand up?

What do you think? Here’s the problem. Farley was born in 1859.

There are many possibilities:

  • There is a picture of Farley’s father
  • Farley could have brother’s
  • None of them are Farley

Only by studying the family history will she be able to sort them out. The c. 1870 could be as late as 1875.

identifying photographs

Want to become a photo detective like Maureen? Our Family Photo Detective book will teach readers how to identify and verify people in family photographs by comparing facial features in a collection of photos.