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Providing Identification for your Family Photographs

​​​​Blog originally posted April 22, 2020

This is a nice photograph of five women enjoying a drink on a clear spring day (before social distancing came into effect)Unfortunately that is about all that can be said about this photoWe don’t know the names of the people pictured, what their relationships were, or what town or village they were living inWe don’t know the exact year the photograph was taken or on what occasion.

Unidentifed photograph of five women
983-16, Unidentified​ photograph, n.d.

This picture, along with many others, was donated to the Simcoe County Archives without any identification from the donor. It’s a very common situationOften donors themselves aren’t sure of who is in the photographsalthough they may be family members. Sometime photographs are inherited,​ or found, and no one remembers the people in the photos.  There is still a lot we can learn from a photo like this, but without knowing the whowhere, and when, we lose a lot of important context. 

The good news is that this is an easy (and actually pretty fun) problem to solve. Taking some time to go through family photos and add a bit of information about them is a great at-home project to undertake during social distancing. Staff at the  Archives have put together a list of tips and best practices for identifying and describing family photographs to get you started.


Three women posing nest to each other

2019-135, McKinlay photo album photograph (front), 1945

McKinlay photo album photograph back

2019-135, McKinlay photo album photograph (back), 1945

Information to include when identifying photos

  • Who is in the photo? Identify everyone you recognize and include their position in the photo (For example: Left to right; Margaret McLaren, Bessie McKinlay, Gertie Mitchell​). Be sure to include first and last names if you know them.  And don’t forget to identify the pets! 

  • Where was the photo taken? Include the town or city and any information you have about the venue or building. Was the picture taken at the Orillia Opera House? Is it Nana Mary’s house at 123 Elm Street, Midland? Include the address if you know it!
  • When was the photo taken? Include the date in as much detail as possible. This could be “June 14, 1945”, or “Graduation 1945” depending on what you know. 

  • What is the photograph showing? Was it taken at a special event? A graduation or birthday? Include these details in your description. 

  • Remember, the more information the better! 

How to record information

You can record this information on the back of photographs, written lightly in pencil. In a pinch, pen can be used although it is not ideal from a preservation stand point. If using pen, remember to write lightly to avoid damaging the photograph. Always write on the back of the photo and give the ink time to dry before putting the photo away. 

 Pro tips:  

  • Write on the back of photos 
  • Write lightly, but not so lightly that your writing can’t be read 
  • Use pencil if possible 
  • If using pen, make sure to let the ink dry! 

 For digital photos 

Today, most photographs are taken with digital cameras and result in digital files rather than hard copy photos. There are a few ways to add information to these digital files to ensure they are identifiable in future.  

One of the most straightforward ways to describe your digital photos is to create an identification key. This ID key will ensure that each file (identified by its file title) will have whowhat, where and when associated with it.   

ID keys can be as simple or complicated as you like. You can change the file titles of your photos to something descriptive, or you can use the name generated by your camera or device. You can create your key as a Word document, or try an Excel spreadsheet. 

Sample key:

File title 




July 1, 2009 

Canada Day Parade, Dunlop Street, Barrie.  


July 2, 2009 

Miller family home. 123 Elm Street, Orillia.  


July 3, 2009 

Miller family picnic, Awenda Provincial Park. Left to right: Jane Miller,  


 Simcoe County Archives has created a basic template​ in Word that you are welcome to use.​


 Those are just a few tips to get you started on identifying your family photos. We hope you have fun!