by Tal Reiss


The various official documents you will find in your family research will help you trace and learn about your ancestors. Birth, marriage and death records (B.M.D.), immigration records, etc., will detail the basic “facts of life” required to be documented by the central governments.

Personal documents, including diaries, personal letters and autobiographical books, will help put together the “puzzle” in describing the personal style and nature of life of family members. Common to all documents and materials are the text content, from which you will usually receive direct information.

However, in order to “see the full picture”, you should also attach importance to the old photographs you have. Photographs, postcards, portraits, etc., may give you an idea of the personal lifestyle of family members during that historical period.

It has often been said that “one picture is worth a thousand words” and for good reason, one picture can convey many important and contributing visual schemes, which have not necessarily been clarified and interpreted in written documents.

“Squeezing the juice” from old photographs of your ancestors can give you meaningful information at any stage of your genealogical research, whether at the beginning – providing initial direction, or in the midst of it – as a source for cross-referencing and establishing information.

In this article, I will try to briefly present some tools on how to get the most out of your old photograph.

“Step by Step”

Step One – “Search The Attic” and take out the old dusty albums and, together with other family members, try to locate old photos of family members with whom you are less familiar and about whom you lack information.

Gather a number of photographs of the same ancient family member, taken alone and with other people. It is advisable to choose photographs in which you have identified as much background information as possible, including various items of clothing (holiday clothes, military uniforms, work clothes), objects, natural landscape / urban landscape and so on. Also look for photo postcards of the family member, behind which there is also text and possibly a stamp attached.


Step Two – Improve the Image Quality as much as possible, so that you can clearly identify all the details. Sunrays, media, framing, and various acid-containing volumes can cause images to fade and change.

Today there are free sites for improving images (also as apps). You need to scan the images to your computer and upload them to the website. Some sites will automatically perform digital image enhancement and some sites will allow you to perform image enhancement, using your customizations.  Among the free sites is: and

The My Heritage website incorporates a feature for automatic image enhancement and even animation. imagine, an old blurry photograph of a family member suddenly sharpens, takes on color and the figure comes to life with different facial expressions, throughout a short video.

Another option to consider is to restore and improve an original image, using a specialized photography lab, especially when it comes to old, complex and challenging quality photographs. For up to a few tens of shekels per picture, you may get a satisfactory result.


Step Three – Analyze the Details of the Image

Identification of the Character – first and foremost make sure that the character appearing in the image is relevant to your search, that it is indeed a family member you were looking for. The best ways are by explicitly writing on the photo/postcard and/or on the enclosed envelope, and identification by a family member or acquaintance.

Moreover, in order to associate a character in one picture with a figure in another and in different lifetimes, try to distinguish prominent and similar facial features and body characteristics. Consider, for example, the shape of the chin, the shape of the ears and nose, the width of the forehead, the hair, and its distribution on the head. These characteristics that are “inherited” between family generations will help identify and relate the character to your family.

Identification of Other Characters in the Picture – in some photographs you will identify the family member with another character, or with other characters. Try to find out if it is the character’s wife/husband (look at the physical proximity between them, look for wedding rings, a headscarf for a woman, and so on). Try to understand whether the characters are related to family or social, also through physical similarity, distinguishing age differences, uniform clothing items that indicate membership in a particular movement. Try to identify whether this is a specific event that is commemorated in the photo, such as a wedding and birthday.

Clothing Styles and “Accessories” – items of clothing and “accessories” may indicate a person’s lifestyle: religious / secular, socioeconomic status, dress according to the “fashion imperative”, certain ethnic clothing, dress in military uniform and bearing ranks and medals, clothing characteristic of a particular occupation. The accompanying clothing items, including hats, walking sticks, glasses, watches and jewelry, can all help date the photos (DATING for a certain period of time) and place the photo you found in the “timeline” of your research.

Here is a link to the website, which will help you date clothing styles throughout periods: frizzura and facial hair – the haircut [frizzure] (especially a woman’s special hairstyle) and the man’s facial hair – sideburns, mustache and beard, can attest to the “fashion imperative”, affiliation with a particular religious belief and social status.

Here is a link to a website that presents styles of mustaches and beards throughout history : objects.

Objects in the Background of the Picture – furniture, wall pictures, lamps, equipment and tools. which may imply, for example, social status, religious belief, or occupation.

Outdoor – A Photo Taken Outside, in the open air, can provide us with a lot of information about the location of the image and the period. In an urban environment you can be impressed by the types of cars and bicycles, buildings and monuments that characterize a particular area, the inscription of street signs (finding an address!), clothing characteristics of passersby pictured. A photo taken in nature can also indicate the seasons of the year and even the association of flora with a specific area.

Text in the Photo and Stamps– can provide information about where the letter was sent and dates.  Name of photography studio and paper manufacturer – After you have exhausted every bit of text that you could clearly distinguish in the photo image or photo postcard, try looking for another caption listing the name of the photography studio and the name of the paper manufacturer. Business details can add important information about the location of the studio – where the photo was taken and the dating of the photo.

Another Opinion from a Family Member – it is recommended to let another family member look at the photo. This person may notice details that have escaped your own notice…

Using the “Wisdom of the Masses” – search, for example, on Facebook for groups that concentrate on explaining and dating ancient items. Among the many groups, I found an active and effective group called “Genealogy CLUES – Dating Old Photographs” in this group you can upload old photographs, and group members will try to date the photos, taking into account the details of the photo, including clothing and accompanying items.



A studio photo of my great-grandparents, Moshe and Clara Chaya Reiss, and a later studio photo of Moshe Reiss in military uniform.



This article is written and presented for your use in order to promote and develop the practice of Jewish genealogy – the study of family roots.

Hope you find it helpful.

Good luck!

Tal Reiss

[email protected]


 Brief biography

I became interested in genealogy as a hobby after returning from a educational trip to Poland. I realized how little I knew about my family members who perished in the Holocaust and decided to conduct extensive private research, which was concluded by writing a family book. Even after writing the book, the urge to continue researching and expanding my knowledge in the field of genealogy persisted. I research, study, ask a lot, and share discoveries and findings that might be helpful to fellow researchers.