How to Date Photos When Even Your Family Can’t Remember Them!

by | Last updated Apr 21, 2017 | Organizing Digitals, Organizing Originals, Scanning Photos | 16 comments

“A couple of years ago, I started organizing my digital photos the way you showed in your naming scanned photos post, instead of by subject, etc.

I'm just now starting to archive all the photos my Mom has. As we are taking them out of the albums (which, by the way, I hate those old “magnetic” albums–the photos stick to the pages), she is telling me who is in the pictures, etc.

Most of the ones we are doing now are the real old ones–her family photos and my Dad's family photos. Some are dated and/or have captions to help identify them, but several don't.

The problem is she can't always narrow down the date enough to come up with a year. So that's causing me to have a lot of photos with '19xx-xx-xx' as the date. There aren't really any other family members who will know the answer so I doubt if the dates will ever be completed.

Any suggestions as to how to handle situations like this so I don't have a long list of '19xx' photos?

Thanks for your help.”

Patty D.

Patty, you are certainly not alone.

I would suspect that most family photo collections have a considerable amount of paper prints that weren't dated or even captioned.

Back then, it was probably so easy to think you would always be around to tell someone anything they wanted to know about your photos.

back of a scanned photo with the January 25th written but no year

Sometimes your prints will have part of the date, but then what year was it taken?  [back of a print]

But, now we know that simply isn't the case. Important people's memories fade over time, forgetting these fine and seemingly unimportant details.

And even sadder, important people in our lives eventually pass, leaving us with only the memories they have successfully communicated to us.

I must admit, my Mother is the last link to many of my family photos. Every day I wait to have her assist me with captioning info and dating our collection, is a day closer to the time I will be on my own for all of this information.

My Photo Naming Method

In Patty's question, if you are confused by what she meant by naming her photos with “x's” like in the example “19xx”, she is referring to a 3-part post series I wrote that explains a method I came up with to name your photos that will chronologically sort them when you know the dates they were taken, as well as the times you don't.

The basics of it are that you start off the filename of a photo with the date it was taken. If there is any part of the date you don't know, you replace it with an “x”, keeping the length of the date consistent with all of the other images in your collection.

I find it to be very useful in many ways.

The Unseen Benefits of This Naming Method

So Patty, first, and most importantly, I wouldn't worry about having too many images labeled “19xx-xx-xx” right now.

Personally, I would rather see you mark them this way now, even though you are still a little bit hesitant and uncomfortable with how many of them you have. Because, if you remove this information, you might be upset with yourself later for not making the effort to keep up with it. It won't hurt anything for this info to be there.

In fact, it can only help you later to save time.


Sometime later, when you are going through your collection and you find an image marked “19xx-xx-xx”, this will immediately let you know this is an image you are still doing investigative work on.

If this highly specific formatting wasn't part of your workflow, then you might mistakenly make the assumption that you just forgot to include any kind of dating information in the filename or the caption within this photo.


This will possibly cause you to spend even more time recreating the research all over again to find out when this photo was taken that you initially spent time doing.


Additionally, it will now be documented for whomever inherits all of your work, that you didn't know this information.

It's possible for some of us who are taking it upon ourselves to archive our family's photos to just glance through many of our photos and remember what work we still have to do on them — such as finding out the date when particular photos were taken.

But, put yourself in the position of someone who might take over your collection at whatever state it's going to be in. They won't have all of your knowledge from all the time you spent with your collection.

Just seeing those photos marked with x's will let this person know you did your best to find out when the photo was taken, but just never found out for sure.

Having “198x-xx-xx” will be far more helpful than no date at all.

So if you can help it, don't “burn your clues”.


Some Suggestions How to Find the Missing Dates for Your Digital and Scanned Photos

Partially put together Jigsaw puzzle

Photo by olgaberrios.

There isn't one single system or method I know of that will work with all photos.

Like it or not, this is going to become investigative work for you.

And so if it makes it seem more fun, think of it like you're putting together a giant and colorful jigsaw puzzle!

A few pieces will fit together easily and give you immediate confidence and satisfaction.

But other times, you're going to have to set pieces aside and wait until you gather more clues to help you figure out how they all fit together as a whole.

So here are a few ideas that should help you find dates for these photographs.

Look For Processing Dates on Your Photographs

You can't rule out looking for missing date information in places that are sometimes obvious yet easy to overlook. One of these places is the markings photo processors left us when developing our film.

When I was growing up, my Dad shot slides with his big fancy camera, and my Mom shot prints on her “point and shoot” one.

Early last year, I found a collection of prints from a family vacation we took to Disney World. I wasn't sure when this trip was just from looking at them. My Mother was nice and wrote captions on the backs, but this time she didn't include the month or even the year that it happened.

Months later, I happened to come across a few slides my Dad took at a big theme park. Come to find out, they just happened to be from that same trip to Disney World!

And it gets even better. Most slides have a date printed or stamped on them when they were developed.


I can't say for sure this is the exact month and year we took our trip. But chances are, my Dad had the film developed that same month or the month after. So this date gets me really close at least!


Blowup image of the photo processing date stamped into a 35 mm slide mount

Often, depending on the material the slide mount is made from, the photo processing date is either printed or stamped. You can see in this blowup image the stamped date that is almost invisible to the naked eye.

So now, I can merge my Dad's slides with my Mom's prints from this same trip into a single event  for example in photo managing software like iPhoto or Aperture, or an album in Picasa. Then I can label all of them with this month and year I found on the slides.

Like I was saying, it's really is like investigative work at times. As I piece together groups of photos, misplaced in different boxes and bags in my parent's house, I am finding clues that add up over time. And then I can really get a lot further into the process of chronologically placing these groups or events in order.


As far as prints, I rarely see any identifiable markings on their backs from processors. But, occasionally I will find a batch or two that were developed by a company that did print the processing date. Usually they are really faint and appear as almost watermarks.

So don't rule this method for prints out completely.

Look For Dates In Original Packaging Materials

Various photo processing envelopes prints came in.

Various photo processing envelopes prints came in.

Look on and through any packaging your photos have been stored in all of these years.

Sometimes, they are actually being stored in the original envelopes or boxes the prints and slides came back from the developers in.

There might be processing date stamps, printed copyright dates, or other visual clues to help you narrow down a date.

I've actually found a few paper cash register receipts from the developers with the date of purchase right there at the top, stuffed in the envelope with our stored prints!

And it's possible that original Kodak envelope your prints might still be stored in will have “Copyright Kodak © 1983” in fine print somewhere.

Blowup image of the copyright date printed on the 35mm negative holder from a film processor

I found this copyright date printed on the plastic 35mm negative holder we got from the film processor.

Study the Aging Process In Your Photos

Try getting a good start organizing your undated photos chronologically by how a person ages in them.

Some will be harder than others to decipher — sometimes a person won't appear to change much from one year to another. But, other times it will be noticeable and you can say, “Well my sister was clearly a baby here in these, and she's a senior in high school is those.”

So now you can mark the baby photos, “198x-xx-xx” and the others in the high school group “1999-xx-xx”. Then you can start putting other age groups of photos in and around those two “tent poles” of dates.

This might be the best way for old photos of your parents — especially the ones before you were present.


Sometimes just getting a few “tent poles” of big or medium sized groups of time like this might help jog the memory of family members or friends that can help you.


The initial unorganized state of chaos could be overwhelming to some people. But, once you have the beginnings of actual order, memories may come back.

Such as a sister looking at an old birthday party photo and immediately saying:

Oh look, I remember when she got that pony!

I was so jealous! I remember exactly three years later I asked Mother for a pony for my birthday because (our older sister) Emily got one that year!

And now, that photo of your sibling riding her new pony has a “date” correlation to the photo of another sibling getting her first pony.

I know, this is an extreme example I just made up. How many girls really get ponies.

Or do they?

Write Out Timelines To Create “Tent Poles”

This goes along well with the last suggestion about ordering photos by how a person is aging in them.

If for example, you are trying to organize a large collection of photos of your Mom, ask her to write out a simple timeline (outline) of her life in chronological order. Note as any dates as she can remember or you can help her recover. Be sure to list all major life events and the locations they occurred. Think of it like a “road map”.

These big “life moments” will be established now as these “tent poles” that are so important when you come upon photos you don't know where they chronologically belong.

My Grandmother travelled with my Mother all over the United States while she was growing up. They lived in many places before finally settling in Kentucky as adults.

For someone like myself who isn't good maintaining this chronology of “history” in my memory, having a timeline written or typed out is extremely beneficial in reconstructing someone's life in photographs.

Find Clues From the Time Period In Your Photos

I have few really old photos in our collection — I mean ones that date back into the really early 1900's and mid to late 1800's.

But for these, identifying clues such as the type of photograph, or the fashion subjects are wearing in the photo, could be important clues in discovering when the photo was taken.

For someone like myself who still knows little about any type of photo before the film stocks used in the 1970's, research will show there used to be types of photographs called daguerreotype, cabinet card and tintype.

Who knew! Right?

Four ladies completely dressed up to go out on the town back in the 1960's.

This sure isn't the 1980's!

For example, if any of these are found to be represented in your collection, you will be able to narrow down a period of time when this type of photography was often used.


The same with fashion and clothing — even in more recent decades. The 1980's here in the United States wasn't the only year for iconic fashion!

Other periods had their own stand-out identifying style you can be on the look-out for. Especially with hats and other decorative accents like jewelry, scarves and shawls.

Also, take into consideration the colors and patterns used not only in clothing, but also in the furniture and items throughout a photograph. These are often clues to help you pinpoint a date range of a photo.

little boy standing in front of a rattan-like couch clearly made in the 1960's to 1970's

That's little ol' me standing in front of a couch that couldn't have been the product of that many decades! Easy detective work here.

Seek Help From Outside Family and Friends in Your Photographs

Of course it's probably already occurred to you to ask your immediate family about the missing dates of certain photographs. But, you should also consider going outside of your safe “comfort zone” and get in contact with distant family members and friends that appear in some of your photos.

Now, I know you probably haven't spoken to some of them in years or maybe even decades. And there might even be a good and unspeakable reason why you haven't!


But putting those negative stories and police records aside, consider how much knowledge they may recall that you and your immediate family can't.


You could call them up — yes speak to them live on your telephone (read as “cell phone” for the younger generations). Or you could friend them on whatever social networking site is popular or maybe email them. And while the U.S. Postal Service is still in business, you could even send them a real paper letter!

They may LOVE you for showing or giving them a copy of an old photo they were in! Stories you had completely forgotten about might start gushing out of them.

Remember, a photo of a birthday party may represent just another party you had growing up to you. But to your cousin, or that odd hairy neighbor who lived down the street from you that just happened to drop by that day, it might have been a life changing experience for them!

Everyone is unique and files away memories in their brains differently than someone else.

So don't be surprised if you hear something insane yet useful from your long-lost friend like:

Oh of course I remember that birthday party of yours! You were so cute then. You had that cake decorated like a choo-choo train!

And it was 1976. I remember that because my son had just turned 4 as well, just the month before, and so I knew exactly what present would be perfect for me to get you. It was popular at that time and so it was difficult to find in stores, so I bought one for both of you at the same time!

Start Organizing By Using Batches

After reading all of this, you too might feel just like Patty D. currently does — completely stressed out when looking in your one giant folder on your computers' hard drive full of hundreds of undated photos.

You probably feel like you aren't getting anywhere when you see all of your undated “misfit” photos.


Please know that, when trying to implement any of the suggestions I just gave you, just making small baby steps of progress now will feel like great strides at times later.

Just get a start.


You can do this by putting your “misfits” in small “batches” rather than by the specific years that might be your ultimate goal.

For example, if you can't figure out if a photo was taken in 1984, 1985 or even 1986, maybe a way to make it easier for you to organize right now is to store this “198x-xx-xx” photo in a folder or “Event” called “1980's Unsorted”. Then make similar folders for the other decades, just like this one, for the remaining “misfit” photos.

Or maybe you could break it down a little bit further. You could create a “1980's Early” and “1980's Late” if having 2 for each decades is then possible.

See… baby steps.


Another system entirely could be to make a “Mom” and a “Dad” top-level folder. Then inside of each of those, have folders to separate out your ‘misfits' like “Baby”, “Toddler”, “Early Childhood”, “Late Childhood”, “Teenager”, “Young Adult” …etc


Do whatever it takes, just to get you a little bit further along in organizing, sorting and labeling!

Get the ball rolling.


And if this helps you to know, I scan my prints and slides completely out of order. And then I move the photos around in my photo manager Aperture to put them into some sense of chronological order using many of the above techniques.

I find this method to be easier for me because I am quick and comfortable with computers. So know this is a great option if you are the same way.

Others however feel better organizing and sorting their prints first before scanning them.

If I personally had to do it this way, I never would have gotten started because like I said, our photos are almost completely out of order and my parents live 2,500 miles away. It would have been extremely challenging to organize the entire collection first without their physical presence and help.

Whichever works best for you is your best course of action.


So wrapping this up, Patty D, I am so glad to hear you have such a good start on your photo collection. I bet it feels good!

And this was a great question you asked by the way. It's a question without an easy and single definitive answer that will work for everyone. So, that means there are many people out there asking it. So thank you for asking me!

I hope some of this will be of help to you. I'm sure some of it is obvious and you've already thought with it. But, maybe the way in which I wrote it out will shake loose something in your head that could possibly help you out more.


And for you, reading this, I am sure these suggestions are just the beginning of what could help Patty and others out with this problem.

Can you think of any other ideas that may have helped you out that could help someone organize and date their photos that I didn't mention here?

I would love to know your ideas. Just let me know in the comments below.


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The remainder of the slides came first. Then I started work on the prints in the photograph albums that I had lovingly curated over the decades. The physical albums had started to deteriorate to the extent that some of them were falling apart. Scanning the prints was an ideal way to remedy this. I also scanned in all the prints that had not made the cut for the photograph albums but I had kept nevertheless. I also spent several months scanning in approximately 4,000 negatives. All in all I must have scanned nearly ten thousand photographs in one form or another.

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Googled your article I am scanning over 50 years of photo’s and slides for my church’s youth mission group. Not sure how I’m going to organize them for display but for now it’s by year. I have found some slides that have Jul 77017 stamped on them. Would I be right to assume they are from July of 1977? I’m not sure what the 017 refers to but the same is stamped on all the slides.


The july of 1977 is when the slides were developed, so depending on how long the roll took to use, could have been that month, or a few months prior. 017 could be the roll number. Film was taped together into huge rolls for developing and that number would have been where to cut so the right person got the right pics


You can use items in the photos that tend to not be around for long and keep changing or tech that can be dated to a certain year. See a CD player in the photo? Can’t be earlier than 1983. A can of “New coke” – likely 1985. Box of cereal, candy bars or something else with packaging changes can likely be looked up.


Great, thanks for sharing this post.Really looking forward to read more. Much obliged.

Art Taylor
Coins: 45
Art Taylor

Last night I found a very interesting and FREE ebook, in .pdf format. It’s a collection of posts from Maureen Taylor’s blog, The Photo Detective. Copy and paste into your browser’s address bar this url:

You should arrive at a Google search results page with the desired link at the very top. Click on text (probably blue to indicate a link) that reads:

[PDF] Best of the Photo Detective – Family Tree Magazine

Your browser should give you the option to ‘Open’ or ‘Save’ the actual .pdf file. Click on the ‘Open’ button to view the file on your screen, then save it using the menu File>Save or Save As. To download the file and save it to disk for later viewing, click on the ‘Save’ button instead.

Since it appears to be a reprint of articles from the print magazine, minus columns of ads on many pages, the .pdf pages vary in size from what appears to be the top 1/2 or 1/3 of a page, to a full length single column, to a full 3-column page. The information seems to all be present, the layout just looks a little unusual when viewed in Acrobat Reader as ‘single page’.

The price is right, there’s no need to provide an email address or any other information, and there’s lots of good information in the publication.


Art Taylor
Coins: 45
Art Taylor

If you haven’t checked any of Maureen Taylor’s (no known relation to me) books, I highly recommend them. For anyone seriously interested in family history, including photo identification, they’re excellent reference books and should be in your personal library.

Halvor Moorshead, publisher of Family Chronicle magazine and editor of several books about dating old photos, has one of a series of articles about dating photos at Also visit the shopping page on the Family Chronicle site for other good reference books.

Curtis, you might be surprised to learn that there are likely many families with their own printed and bound family history/genealogy books. They are often works of love, frequently privately published in limited numbers for distribution only to family members and perhaps a few very close family friends. Serious genealogists sometimes feel that the results of their years of research work and effort should be shared with the rest of the family, often as a form of reward for contributing information and possibly photos to complete the family tree and history. The age of the POD (Print On Demand) publishers, which arrived about 10 years ago, has made it much easier for individuals to get their work into print at a reasonable cost. The current availability of user-friendly software for page layout has also been beneficial to such individuals. Genealogy magazines in general may carry ads from PODs who specialize in family history publications.

“Photo Detectives”, while possibly a trade marked name for Ms. Taylor, would certainly be another potential category for your Photo Services Business Directory. There are a few others in the field, although Maureen is the established leader of the pack.

Mary Gilbert
Mary Gilbert

I have read in several places about Maureen Taylor photo detective. There is lots on information to find by looking up her name. Here’s a couple of interesting links I found, but there are many more The webinar can’t be viewed anymore but the pdf was still downloadable and had useful information and many links.

Art Taylor
Coins: 45
Art Taylor

Hi Patty,

Glad to have been able to help. As you’ve discovered, having some genealogical information available can be a BIG help in dating photos. Conversely, IF there are names, dates, or other information, on the photos or recognizable within the images themselves, that information can be helpful in writing genealogy books, even if such books are never released beyond the family involved. As you’ve found, genealogy research results can be helpful for identifying photo collections so if one should come across old post cards, birth, wedding, or death notes among photos, they are also well worth scanning and including in the same sequence as the accompanying photos so they are also preserved for future generations.

Pols’ book about dating 20th century photos concentrates mainly on the years up to about 1950 with only limited information about later photos. He does, however, stress the importance of those of who can remember the people and places shown, and hopefully, the occasion when each photo was made, actually recording that information in a form and place that we and/or others in the future will be able to find and use. As he says, our memories tend to fade as we get older so we won’t necessarily remember all the details of any particular shot. Also, if something should happen to us so we no longer are available to work with our photo collections, anyone else who might inherit our work won’t have access to that information if we don’t record it while we can. They’d be in the same kind of situation we’re in now with many of the photos we’ve inherited that have little or no information with them.

Curtis and I have agreed to me doing one, or more likely a series, of guest posts about the topic of dating and identifying old photos but it won’t appear before April this year since I have several time commitments until then. However, keep following the blog and you’ll be seeing more about the topic in a few months. (We’re also considering some posts about memoir writing and perhaps touching on genealogy, again for sometime later this year.)

In Curtis’s reply to my first comment, he mentions a number like [23-4]. My guess is that, as he suspects, that’s a reference to the negative number on a roll of film, especially 35 mm film. However, unless he finds a strip of negatives with the negative of the print’s image, it’s not likely to be of much help in dating that shot, unless shots before or after that one, but on the same strip of negatives, are datable. IF the strip of negatives is with the other strips from that roll, which should have numbers like [00-01] through to [35-6] or maybe [36-7], [37-8], or [38-9], if the film originally had a nominal 36 exposures, there might be other negatives that provide dating clues. Originally 35 mm film was available in 12 or 24 exposure rolls, then 36 exposure rolls were made available. Later, the 12-exposure rolls were discontinued and 24-exposure rolls were replaced with 27-exposure rolls. Since film manufacturers like Kodak and Fuji usually include a generous amount of leader film to load the camera and still get the nominal maximum number of frames on a roll, even if a bit of film at the start of the roll got exposed to light during the loading operation, some photographers managed to become very familiar with loading their particular camera(s) and could usually squeeze in an extra frame or two. With the Minolta Maxxum cameras I used, I was disappointed to not get 38 frames on a 36-exposure roll and often I managed to get 39 frames. In any event, it helps if you know how often the photographer took photos since if the same roll of film has shots of two Christmas trees, two summer vacations, or two of any other event, it’s likely to be difficult to date any intermediate shots accurately. If the photographer went through several rolls on a single vacation, it’s much easier to date a group of related shots if one can be dated. There might be a helpful clue such as a legible calendar visible in the shot to establish at least the year and month, unless it’s obviously an old calendar saved just for the picture on it. This should be evident from other details in the photo, at least if you’re lucky.


Patty D.
Patty D.

Wow! Didn’t expect such a detailed answer. Thanks to both of you for your suggestions. Part of the problem was the photos we’re presently going through are the ones my mom got from her aunts after they passed away so the photos are quite old. Although the photos were in albums (but not the original albums) some of the photos are not necessarily in order. However, we did come across a photo the other night that I said looked like a previous one and we believe they go together so that’s helping a bit.

One thing I did was browse through the remaining albums and put in somewhat of an order. Hopefully, that will allow us to match things up better.

I have also found a couple of other things that may be helpful in dating some of the photos. My mom also has a copy of a genealogy book my uncle (from my dad’s side) had started. This allows me to look up some birthdates, etc., so when a photo is labeled “John at age 12”, etc., we have a pretty good idea of the year. We even found copies in the book of some of the photos we have. However, in one instance, a photo stated an age and year it was taken, but the genealogy book had the person born a different year. I defaulted to what was on the photo.

Another source we found is some documentation my mom had regarding citizenship of one her aunts which listed some birthdates, marriages, etc. If we found a photo stating someone was a certain age or it was a wedding photo, we were able to determine the date.

Of course, not everyone will have a genealogy book available or have old records they can reference, but if they do, these may come in handy.

Once we get to the photos of my immediate family (we’ve already come across a few), I’m sure this will be easier as I’ll remember events/dates too. Thanks again for all the suggestions.

Art Taylor
Coins: 45
Art Taylor

More tips to help with dating photos

One way that MIGHT be able to help with dating photos is a set of negatives (and possibly prints) or slides that have a date and time printed in the image area by the camera. Some point-and-shoot cameras, and definitely some SLRs dating back to the early 1980s had the ability to print the date, the time, or both date and time, onto the film with each exposure. Sometimes the information appeared in the actual image but sometimes, as with the Minolta X700 with the optional Multi-function Data Back, the printing was intended to be exposed in the black area between frames. When slide film was processed, cut, and mounted in the slide mounts, sometimes part or all of the data was visible along one edge of the mounted slide. Other times, it was covered by the slide mount, although it was still there. If a contact sheet of negatives from such a camera is printed, any such data will be visible in the contact print.

HOWEVER, even if some photos do show this information, it MAY NOT be accurate! The clock and calendar electronics required battery power, often separate from the camera’s exposure meter and shutter battery so a dead or absent battery meant no date or time information was printed. Whenever the battery was changed, the clock and calendar needed to be re-set to the correct time and date. If they were not re-set, any data printed on the film would show only the default time and date programmed into the camera by the manufacturer. This potential problem exists also with today’s digital cameras. I have an entire set of shots on one memory card from a 2005 vintage digital camera where every shot was exposed on 01-01-2001, while in reality, some were shot in March 2008, some in high summer, and some with colored leaves in September or October. This particular camera uses two ‘AA’ batteries for its power and when they were replaced, the date and time did not always get re-set.

If negatives are available, it might be possible to establish at least the date the film first came onto the market so a ‘not before’ date could be determined. Most, if not all, 35 mm films have the film type name printed in the black area next to the sprocket holes so if you have 35 mm negatives or unmounted slides, you should be able to see what kind of film was used. Many roll films for medium format cameras (120/220/620, 127) also have this information visible along the edge of the film. Sheet films, (4″x5″, 5″x7″, 8″x10″) have code notches near one corner so the person developing the exposed film in the chemical or wet darkroom, could tell in total darkness, just by feeling the notches, what kind of film was to be developed.

Several references are available to interpret what the sheet film notches mean and provide dates of first available and withdrawn from the market for Kodak and other brands of film. If you have negatives available, you may be able to use this information to help in determining the approximate dates of the particular photos.

The actual size of the image of slides or negatives also offers a clue to the type of film and hence, the time span most likely to apply for a given photo. Again, there are several reference sources available on the web and probably in print as well.

Art Taylor