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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    Hey Soldier, What’s Your Name? Crowdsourcing IDs in Old Group Photos [TUTORIAL]

    Group photographs can be challenging. You may have a few in your family photo collection— unidentified headless relatives, blurred ancestors, people with phone poles sprouting from their heads.

    Many times group photos are taken as an afterthought, “Quick, Quick, before everyone leaves, let’s get a picture.” We’re lucky if we get a single name hastily scrawled on the back of the picture, let alone a detailed identification of everyone in the group.

    I recently took second look at my paternal grandparents’ photo collection and the unidentified groups captured in film. A few years ago Dad gave me several old black photo albums and a few envelopes of loose snapshots. My grandmother was a schoolteacher for many years, and her attention to detail shows in the neat notes written in the margins of color photos. She adds dates, places, and events, but it’s hard to name a dozen people on the margin of a 4 x 4-inch print.

    One old black photo album includes pages of farms and farmers alongside snapshots of happy couples picnicking and sober young men in army uniforms.  A sepia snapshot shows “Corp.” Walter G. May with a group of men all standing at stern attention. 

    Notes in the photo album indicate that Walter was stationed at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas for basic training. I’ve learned that the camp was ground zero for the 1918 Great Pandemic that killed more people than any other disease in recorded history. Fortunately for our family, Walter’s unit, the 314th Motor Supply Train left Funston in June 1918 a few months ahead of the crises that began that autumn. 

    I wonder if any other men were from his hometown of Bennet, Nebraska, or if he kept in touch with them after the war. Who are these men?

    I need a good, sharp digital image to share on public genealogy sites, and maybe – just, maybe – someone will spot their grandfather or uncle in the photo.  To maximize my chances of success, I’ll need fast-loading web-resolution digital images, and print-quality images for anyone who might want a copy to print out for their own family research. It might also be helpful to offer a built in identification key and caption with the information I already know and my contact info. Here’s my plan for creating Group Photo Bait, designed to make it easy for people to identify people they know and respond with the information.

    Digitizing Group Photos

    Group photos often show small individual faces that can become grainy or blurry when scanned at a low resolution and then enlarged. In this example, I am using Adobe Photoshop Elements, a popular editing tool for both Windows and Mac computers. Here’s my step-by-step process:

    1. Scan each image with these settings: 1600 dpi, color, JPG (or TIFF format)

    I typically use TIFF, and make a final JPG copy to share. Use the format that suits your needs and equipment. This resolution should capture detail in the small faces of a group photo. If the faces are really tiny, I bump up the resolution to 2400.

    2. Open the photo in  or your photo editor. If the scan is in JPG format, make a copy of the JPG to edit.

    Note: I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 6 for my photo management and basic editing. I recommend Picasa, Apple Photos, or Adobe Lightroom because these are all non-destructive editing programs. This means that any changes are written as instructions rather than actual changes to the file, so there’s no need to work on a copy of the TIFF file. If you use a photo editing program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements, make a copy of your newly scanned JPG images before proceeding. For more info on choosing and using a photo editor, see chapter three in my book, How to Archive Family Photos. 

    3. Crop the photo, deleting unnecessary background. You may want to leave the margins to include printed dates or handwritten notes. If you crop closely to show only the group, save the original uncropped version as well.

    4. Apply color-restoration to faded or color damaged photos. Use the Auto Color function or tweak the brightness, contrast, and other sliders until the photo looks the way you want it. Use a light touch aiming to restore clarity rather than make the picture pixel-perfect.

    5. Add a title, caption, and keywords. Depending on your photo editor, this could be called Information, Metadata, or Keywords. Include your email or website in the caption, along with as much information as you know. 

    6. Save as a JPG image 300 dpi. This will preserve a print-quality image for anyone who may want to print a copy and preserve a high-resolution photo for close examination on a computer screen or tablet. 

    7. Give your photo a meaningful filename. Use a surname, event, or location as part of the filename, and add “print” as a reminder of the quality, for example: 


    8. Next, create an identification key to help people viewing the photos. 

    (…and now a brief interlude about identification keys and photo captions).

    Key vs. Caption

    As a high school and college student I worked at our local town newspaper, filling in as reporter, photographer, proofreader, as needed. One of my jobs was to write photo captions, many photo captions. A caption is not a key. A caption presents information about the people, places, or events shown in a photograph. A key, however, is a kind of symbolic shorthand to identify people, places, or events.

    Photos have captions, maps and charts use keys. And yes, there are exceptions. Before Mapquest and Google Maps we used paper road maps with little symbols to indicate Campgrounds, Churches, and Gas Stations.

    Use a caption to share information about the people or events in the photo; use a key as a tool to identify individuals. If you are working with a large group photo with many individuals, you may need to use a key as part of the caption, but more on that in another post.

    How to Write a Photo Caption

    The standard method used to write a caption in print media lists names in individual rows, from left to right as you would read a line of print on a page. Using this standard format eliminates the need for sketches and numbers, and lets people know what to expect when they want to know more about the photo. Use this format for groups of more than two people:

    May album 1964 034

    EXAMPLE : Edna and Walter May visited Beulah and Onno Valentine
    in Grand Island, Nebraska, June 1964. Seated in the Valentine
    living room, from left: Onno, Beulah, and Walter.

    When you have two people, names are listed as they appear in the photo from left to right.

    May album 1964 031

    EXAMPLE: Walter and Edna May in front of the Valentine Motel,
    Grand Island, Nebraska, June 1964.

    One Row or Two?

    For a large group, use rows. Or, if the people are standing in rows but their heads appear in a relatively straight line, use an imaginary line as your base to establish a single row “from left.” Either of these examples works; use whichever seems more clear to the reader.

    In this example, eight soldiers are shown in two distinct rows, but because their heads appear staggered creating one line, either of the following caption formats is fine:

    314th dml

    Example of caption for two rows:

    Soldiers at Camp Funston, about 1918 (from left): Front: Adams, Brown, Chester, Dixon; Back: Edwards, Finch, Golden, Higgins.

    Example of caption using one row:

    Soldiers at Camp Funston, about 1918 (from left): Adams, Edwards, Brown, Finch, Chester, Golden, Dixon, Higgins.

    When to Use a Key

    A map key or legend “unlocks” the code of symbols to help us understand the map. A key is also useful for labeling a group photo of unidentified people when the goal is to identify individuals. The Identification Key should be simple and intuitive. It should be so easy to use that anyone recognizing a person in the picture can respond with a minimum of effort. 

    The simplest Identification Key uses numbers with a corresponding list below the photo for names. Think of this as a fill-in-the-blanks form and add names as you learn new information.

    Soldier ID dml

    Group Photo Numbering Tips

    • Use numbers to identify individuals; one number per face. 
    • Do not number totally obscured faces, but if identification might be possible from a distinctive hat, hairstyle, or other feature do include the person in your number key.
    • Avoid mixing names and numbers. It’s okay to add a name to a number, but don’t skip numbering someone because you know their name. 
    • If you are circulating several photos, use the same format for all photos, do not use rows in one photo and lines in another. 
    • To keep the identification with the photo, it’s a good idea to have a caption area above or below the picture with space for any information you know, the identification key, and your contact information.

    (we now return to the Tutorial segment of this post)

    9. Add caption, key, and contact information to the photo. There are many ways to add this information. Here are two possible methods:

    1. Place your photo in a word processing document, type your caption or identifying information, and then save the document using SAVE AS: DOC or PDF. This is the file you will share with others.

    2. Add the caption using a photo editor like Photoshop Elements or a free online editor like PicMonkey. In Photoshop Elements, create a new document and then place the photo leaving room for a caption. In PicMonkey, use the collage tool and adjust the size of the spaces to accommodate your text. I find it easiest to type my caption in a text editor and use cut-and-paste to place it in the photo editor. Add the numbers as text boxes and position for each person. I think it helps the viewer to see the number directly on the person’s chest, close to their face.

    10. Use the Save AS or Export command to save the final file in JPG format which will be a smaller file size good for emailing and posting online. I’ve found that 90 dpi with a maximum file size of 500 K to 1500 K creates an adequate image for online viewing.

    Finally, share your photo widely, anywhere potential researchers might spot your photo and be able to identify the individuals. Here are a few places to get started:

    • ancestor page for your ancestor
    • Fold3 memorial page (you did create one for your ancestor?)
    • Find a Grave
    • WikiTree
    • FamilySearch
    • Your blog or website
    • Facebook – your page, society page, military page, club page, etc.
    • My Heritage
    • Mocavo
    • Dead Fred

    You don’t have to add your photo everywhere at once. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to keep the file active and add notes or new links frequently.

    Veteran genealogists will tell you that it can take some time to reap the rewards from “cousin bait” but you never know when you might catch “the big one.”

    If you have questions about working with old group photos, please leave a note in the comments to this post. You’ll find more ideas and step-by-step tutorials in my new book How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally  including:

    • scanner settings
    • digital filenaming and file organization
    • working with file formats
    • choosing and using photo editors
    • creating projects with the free online editor PicMonkey

    Photos of large groups need creative solutions to design an Identification Key and captions. Stay tuned for more on this subject, and please leave a comment if you have a method you’ve found to be successful.

    Read more about working with unidentified group photos in "How Bad Photos Can Make Good Genealogy" at the Blogj.

    When you use the book and software affiliate links in this post for your purchase, you help stay online and it doesn't cost you a penny more. Thanks for your support!


    Back Up Your Research: Paper and Digital Webinar

    Digital backups are easier than ever with new software, tools, and services. Join me Tuesday, July 28 for a live webinar Backup Your Research: Print and Digital featuring easy backup solutions for every genealogist. Whether you want to maintain complete control with local backup storage or automate storage in the Cloud and forget about it, there’s a backup program for you.

    Backup Your Research Webinar

    I admit that I’m more than a little paranoid about losing my research data, especially the hundreds of TIFF images I’ve carefully scanned from my personal family archive. I use a combination of local storage on external hard drives and automated cloud storage to provide peace-of-mind backups of all my data.

    Unfortunately, our family has learned the hard way that it’s way too easy to lose files in a digital disaster. The Number One culprit seems to be that handy “Delete” button on the keyboard. Have you ever done it? Copied some files from one location to another, deleted photos, and then discovered that the copy didn’t quite finish? Ugh. Lost photos. That’s what happened to my sister. She lost years of family photos, and when she turned to Facebook to recover some images, she was devastated to discover that Facebook saves radically optimized versions. Those files were fine for web sharing but weren’t the quality needed for photo books and printing. 

    Double-check your backup program to be sure you follow the Backup 3-2-1 maxim:

    3 copies

    2 different media

    1 copy offsite

    My favorite routine includes two different external hard-drives plus Cloud storage. And I always keep the original paper photographs or documents — one more copy is another chance for long-term preservation. I first heard Curt Wichter from the Allen County Public Library mention this great advice:

    LOCKSS — Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe

    If you're looking for solutions and strategies to safeguard your genealogy research--- paper and digital, I hope you'll join me at the Family Tree University live webinar Backup Your Research: Print and Digital. Click HERE to register today.


    Mondays with Myrt on Organizing Old Family Photos

    I'm so glad that I'm not the only one drowning in old photos. The response to Organizing Old Family Photos with the Parking Lot System shows that a lot of family historians struggle with how to sort, label, store, and digitize family photographs, old negatives, and unidentified old photos. Last week I joined Dear MYRTLE and Cousin Russ Worthington for Mondays with Mryt Google Hangout on Air, and we had a great time chatting about the plethora of photographs demanding our attention.

    A Plethora of Photographs

    The show begins with general news from DearMyrt and a conversation with blogger Randy Seaver about online family information; our chat about organizing photos begins about minute 33:50.

    Dear MYRTLE, aka Pat Richley-Erickson, hosts a weekly genealogy Hangout on Air to discuss what's new in the world of genealogy. I love "hanging out" with Myrt and Russ and the regulars at Myrt's. It's a friendly way to start to week and catch up on news and events I might have missed.

    The show is Live each Monday morning at noon Eastern US, 11 am Central, 10 am Mountain US, and 9 am Pacific US. And, if you miss the live show, you can check out the Google + Page for the discussion and link to the YouTube recorded edition. There's no charge to participate or view the show; but if you like what you see, you're welcome to "Pay What You Want" via contribution at the Mondays with Myrt website. 

    Visit DearMYRTLE's Genealogy Community on Google+ for the discussion and questions that followed our chat.


    Organizing Old Family Photos With the Parking Lot System

    Organize 1

    Old family photos are like cars, aren’t they? They need a place to live out of the elements when they aren’t being displayed or driven (your pictures do take you places, don't they?). Hold that thought.

    This morning I spent a few hours with a box of UFO photos I’ve had since the twilight year between the deaths of my mother and my aunt, exactly one year and one day apart. One winter morning after Mom had passed away, her older sister called and said that she had found a box of old family photographs she wanted to give me. It was a bright spot in a very bleak year.

    She wanted to split the driving distance and meet in a park where her husband planned to take a hike. Which explains why we sat in the front seat of her car with an old cardboard boot box filled with older family pictures. The box held a motley assortment of black-and-white snapshots, tintypes, and 19th century cabinet cards. Auntie seemed to think most of the photos were from her father’s side of the family, but we only had a short time to look through the contents together and make notes of any people she knew.

    I brought the box home and transferred the contents from the boot box to a similar sized archival box. When Auntie passed away a few months later I wished I had pushed for more information about how and where she found the box of photos. It’s been waiting patiently for a little attention until today.

    The Sorting Dilemna 

    When I first started working with my family photo collection, I couldn’t decide on the “best” method for organizing the original prints. Should I sort by person? by event? (good for groups), by place? by type of photo? or by some assigned catalog number? I tried different methods and finally came up with a hybrid system that works fairly well. How I sort and organize depends on the project, or the end goal.

    My objective for The Boot Box (that’s the official box label) was to sort, identify if possible, prioritize next steps, and move the contents  to suitable storage. I am confident that the photos are all from the Brown/Kinsel side of the family, so I’m not worried about creating chaos in my archival closet. I’d like to integrate these loose photos with other sets so that I have a chance of recognizing people or events. My method for unpacking the box is something I came up with several years ago, and it works well for preliminary sorting and organizing. I call it “The Parking Lot Method."


    Organize a Box of Old Family Photos

    I like to work with one box at a time. I spent about two hours sorting through photos in The Boot Box, making preliminary identifications, inventorying the contents, and placing items in new storage. The Jane and John Does I call UFOs.

    Step by step, here’s what I did:

    1. Wash hands.

    2. Unroll a large sheet of white butcher paper on the dining room table. I like paper better than a cotton sheet because the photos don’t get caught on the fabric. This is the “parking lot."

    3. Unpack the box in layers, keeping any groups together. The contents had been shuffled so many times that there wasn’t much order except the little stacks made by Auntie the day we looked at the photos together.

    4. Survey the contents. It takes a little time to really look at what you have, to notice the families and events that are pictured. When you feel like the faces begin to look familiar, start sorting.

    Organize 3

    5. Label 3x5 cards with names, places, or whatever makes sense. These will be the “parking spaces.” Group photos together with the “parking” label. I had a pile of UFO babies, and another I labeled Friends & Family. I recognized some family groups and found captions or notes that helped identify pictures. I found:

    • 8 family groups of snapshots and small photos
    • 1 group UFO Friends & Family 1940-50
    • 1 group UFO Friends & Family pre 1920
    • 1 group UFO Colorado and Kansas
    • 1 group UFO Children
    • 1 group large photos
    • 1 old photo album falling apart
    • 2 small albums
    • several postcards, most blank
    • misc. ephemera: unused address book, calendar, Christmas card, etc.

    Organize Family Photos

    6. I brought my grandmother’s photo album to the table and reviewed it for captions and notes. This helped me identify several more people and places.

    Old family photo album

    Murphy lois ruth 1

    The note on the reverse side of this Real Photo Post Card identified the children as “Lois” and “Ruth” and the writer as “Lora,” and showed a postmark date of 4 April 1912. The photo album page shows photos captioned with “Ruth & Lois Murphy” next to a picture of “Laura Goodbar and Ruth and Lois.” Great clues!

    7. Some photos looked like extras from an album in the box that was falling apart. Most didn’t have captions, but I grouped them together. Other UFO photos were grouped by type of photo or place — several were obviously from a farm, others from a trip.

    8. Each set of photos was placed in an acid-free photo envelope or archival folder labeled with the name and notes about any interesting photos.

    Organize 5

    Photos grouped by person and listed on the inventory sheet with notes for Next Steps.

    9. Each envelope or folder was listed on an inventory sheet with notes and next steps. I’ve decided to scan the photos in at least one folder and send the images to a cousin. Maybe she will recognize the people. I also made a note to check out the album that’s falling apart, for scanning and possibly removing the photos.

    10. The contents of The Boot Box was organized and moved to 12 archival photo envelopes, 4 file folders, and one book box for the albums. The inventory sheet reminds me what I found and what I need to do next. 

    The “parking lot” system helps organize different kinds of photos as you work and makes it easy to keep track of your photo sets and groups. Of course, the best part is discovering a true classic as you study your family’s past.

    For help with scanning resolution, naming files, and organizing your digital image library, see Part One in How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally (paperback, PDF, and Kindle editions) available from Shop Family Tree and

    Disclosure: Affiliate links help keep this website online.


    Were Your Early Ancestors Part of the Great Migration? Find Out Free This Week

    NEHGS July 4th  Great Migration promo press release

    I have a few ancestors who should be named on these lists. . . do you? This week you can check out all online searchable databases related to The Great Migration — those early American colonists who came across the Atlantic from 1620 to 1640 — at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society website

    If you’re a frequent visitor to The Family Curator you may know that NEHGS and the website are among my very favorite places to research, not only because I have New England roots but because I love discovering names from history books listed right alongside my lesser known ancestors. It makes my people seem more real somehow, to know they too had a place in history.

    I didn’t learn about my New England family history until fairly recently; unfortunately, shortly after my younger son graduated from a Massachusetts college and came back to California to live at home. Oh the research trips I could have enjoyed! Fortunately, Mr. Curator likes New England too, and we’ve been able to visit those ancestral states many times since graduation day, with a few productive stopovers to research at NEHGS on Newbury Street. I won’t be traveling this weekend, though, except virtually at

    More details from NEHGS:

    Inspiration for a nation—born in the Great Migration.

    To salute the anniversary of our nation’s independence, NEHGS announces FREE access to all online searchable databases related to the Great Migration on  A unique foundation of governance and religion was brought by the 20,000 men, women, and children who crossed the Atlantic between 1620 and 1640, seeking opportunity and relief in New England, in the period known as the Great Migration. These are the Mayflower names, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and the families that delight and provide rich insights for genealogists and family historians.  Since 1988 NEHGS has sponsored the Great Migration Study Project. The results are yours to research FREE all week, starting Wednesday, July 1, through Wednesday, July 8.

    Find us on Google+