How to Find Photos of Your Ancestors

by Jayne Thompson ; Updated March 15, 2018

If you've ever wondered where you got your Roman nose or whether your relatives had the same deep-set eyes as you, then you may be in luck. It's never been easier to search for photos of ancestors that you have never seen before. Photographs can add color to your family tree and allow you to "meet" your ancestors face to face.

Genealogy Photo Searches

Assuming that you've searched your family's photo albums and have come up empty-handed, the next step is to search a photo repository at one of the popular genealogy websites. Family Search, for example, has a huge database of historic photos, some of which have been tagged with the identity of the people in them. Search by typing in the full name and hitting the "find photos" icon. If your ancestor has been tagged in any photograph, the image will come up in your results. You'll need to register with the website to use this service; fees may apply.

Passport Applications

Find My Past website has over one million U.S. passport application records dating from the late 1700s all the way to 1929. Starting on 21 December 1914, anyone who applied for a passport was legally required to include a photo. If your ancestor fits this timeline, you should get an image alongside a transcript of the application. Photographs show up on the second page of the application so be sure to use the "next" button in the image viewer to see the picture of your ancestor.

Military Records

If your ancestor served in the military, there's a good chance you'll find his photograph in his military personnel records. For discharge dates preceding 1955, the personnel file is now archival and any member of the public can apply for a copy. To do so, navigate to the National Archives website and follow the instructions for requesting records. In most cases, you'll fill out Standard Form 180 and mail it to the National Personnel Records Center in St Louis. If the military personnel record doesn't contain a photo, try googling the person's battalion. You may turn up a photograph that contains your ancestor and his service buddies.

Prison Records

Prison records are a good place to look for photos of ancestors as inmates were often photographed on admittance. You can check prison records by state at the Black Sheep Ancestors' website, which also contains historic court records and insane asylum admissions records. Ancestry.com also holds U.S. Penitentiary records for the period 1875 through 1963, which any account holder can search.

Newspaper Archives

From helping the community to getting married, if your ancestor did anything newsworthy, the event was probably covered in the local newspapers. Find My Past's newspaper archive lets you search for people by name, with the option of restricting the search fields to newspapers from a specific area. Another option is to contact clubs or societies local to your ancestors, to which they may have belonged. These societies often keep photographs of past membership groups.

About the Author

A former real estate lawyer, Jayne Thompson writes about law, business and corporate communications, drawing on 17 years’ experience in the legal sector. She holds a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Birmingham and a Masters in International Law from the University of East London.