How to find photos of your ancestors

5-6 minute read

By The Findmypast Team | May 22, 2020

Where to find old family photos

Have you ever wondered where your relatives got their upturned noses, turned-out ears or mousy hair that never quite sits flat? Finding and examining old family photos can reveal the secrets.

Old family photos are a fantastic way of bringing you a little closer to your ancestors. They can help you better understand the people who have shaped who you are today and who you could become in the future.

You may be lucky enough to have dozens or even hundreds of photographs of the people in your family tree, smiling back at you through the years. It's more likely, however, that there are ancestors and relatives of yours that you've never seen other than as names in family records. Making the most of your old photos can help you add a wealth of colour to your family history, and you might be surprised by how many you can find right here at Findmypast.

Your relative doesn't even have to have committed a crime or made headlines to have their likeness documented (although that can help). Certain record sets are much more likely to have photos than others. Here are some of the record sets you should be searching to meet your ancestors face-to-face.

The Findmypast Photo Collection

The clue is in the name. The Findmypast Photo Collection consists of thousands of old photos, snapshots in time, reframed for today. Whether it's VE Day celebrations, a family funeral or your relative's school days, you could discover amazing moments from the past that you'll cherish forever.

The collection contains records and photos on a range of different topics including:

What's more, the information that was recorded on the back of each print has been carefully transcribed, making it quick and easy to pinpoint a relative or event.

Hospital and prison records

Hospital and prison records provide one of the best opportunities to find photos of your ancestors, as patients and internees were often photographed on admittance.

Even if you don't find a photo of your ancestor in these records, you'll often find rich physical and mental descriptions to help paint a picture of what they were like as a person.

If you do find your ancestor in hospital or prison records, be sure to also check old newspapers to see if you can find an article that puts their internment in context. In some cases, you may even find a photo of them printed with the story.

Passport applications

Our United States Passport Applications records are another good resource for finding a photo of your ancestor. This record set has nearly one million names starting from the early 19th century to 1929. If your ancestor applied for a passport after 21 December 1914, they were required by law to submit a photo with the application. These appear on the second page of the online record.

Old passport photos.

Remember, your relative doesn't have to have travelled to have applied for a passport, so it pays to check, even if your family settled in the States and never came home.

Business directories

If your ancestors ran a family business, check out our business and social history directories. These records sometimes include photos of the owners outside the premises, or, in some extraordinary cases, painted portraits to showcase an advertising artist's work.

Military records

If like many people, you have ancestors who served, there's a good chance you'll find their face in either military records or local newspapers, which would often run stories on men and women serving the country, particularly during the World Wars.

Old military photos

If their military service record doesn't include an image, try looking at records held for their battalion or platoon. It may be that you're lucky enough to strike upon a regimental photograph that contains your ancestors and their comrades.

Historical newspapers

Another place to look for photos is among our millions historical newspaper pages. If your ancestor served in the military during the World Wars, start with a search for their name, with the option of narrowing the search fields to newspapers from the local area. If that doesn't return any results, try searching for the name of their regiment for group photos.

Military personnel aren't the only ones who could end up featured in all their glory in the pages of newspapers. Wedding photos often appeared in smaller publications, or even nationals if the match was newsworthy enough.

War brides in ww2

Much like today, someone receiving an award, running a local business or taking part in community service has a good chance of being recognised in the press. Photos of school excursions or charity fundraisers were popular, so try keeping your search as broad as possible, making sure to take a look for any clubs or societies local to your ancestors, to which they may have belonged.

Photos of old sports teams

It's a long shot, but simply searching for the area your relatives lived during certain dates could turn up surprising results. Photos of residents often appear under ambiguous headlines such as "Fun in the Snow" or "A Day at the Races", and you may just recognise a certain upturned nose in your searches.

Have you discovered a photo of your ancestor on Findmypast? We'd love to hear about it. Reach out to us on social media using #WhereWillYourPastTakeYou?

More on this topic:

Share this article

About the author

Findmypast blog writersThe Findmypast team