Making the most of your ancestors' photographs

Wednesday, 17 June, 2020
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Some of our most precious possessions are photos of our families. And as time passes, and the people in the photographs pass, these images take on the important role of heirlooms. Documenting, treasuring and preserving family photos usually falls to a single person within a family unit. Such a job can be highly time-consuming and fraught with the ever-present threat of 'losing' a photo. However, with exciting new technologies transforming how we preserve and even see old photographs, this task has taken on a whole new appeal.

Making the most of your ancestors' photographs

There are more than 10,000 ancestors now on the XO Chronicles. (Thank you IrelandXO community!) Undoubtedly, those that stand out, and really bring to life the stories of the people featured, are those that have a photograph.

Born just before the Great Irish Famine in County Galway, Timothy Ward emigrated to Chicago in 1870 and years later was photographed in his job as Tram Conductor, aboard one of the city's tramcars.

Timothy Ward Chicago Tram Conductor

Picture: Chicago circa 1890s, Timothy Ward second from right.

Some of the rarest photos that are on the Chronicles date back to the mid-1800s and give a truly extraordinary window into the distant past. Lily Roche was still a young woman when this picture was snapped. Born in 1832, we can assume that this photo dates between 1850 and 1865, as Lily was still a relatively young lady. (A second photograph in the Chronicle shows Lily in her later years.)

Lily Roche Original photo

Picture: Elizabeth Roche, originally from Mallow in County Cork

So what can we do to document these family heirlooms and how can we make it easier to preserve and share them?

Step One. Take care of the photos you have!

First things first! Take care of the original photographs and halt the aging process of the paper versions. 

Tips for taking care of old photographs

  • Store them flat. If photos have been folded or rolled up, use a book to flatten them out. 

  • Keep them out of direct sunlight, damp conditions, and extreme heat. 

  • Use clear plastic bags to store them.  Clear sandwich bags are ideal for this purpose as well as the larger freezer bags. 

  • A soft tip pencil is the best way to label photos.  Using a pen/biro may result in the ink bleeding onto the photograph

  • Acid-free paper or photo sleeves are useful for storing photos.  Archival boxes are also useful.

Step Two: Make a digital copy of your photos

The second step is to digitise your original photos. Remember that no matter how many lengths you go to preserving the original paper versions, they are still at risk of being lost or damaged. The cloud is your friend and you should waste no time in getting a digital copy stored on the internet somewhere. You can make a digital copy of a photograph by either of the following ways.

Take a photo of your photo. Make sure there is no glare on the glass if framed. Lie the photo flat and hover your phone or camera directly above it. Here's an example of a framed photo that has been simply photographed using a smartphone and sent by email:

Dionisio Framed Photo

Picture: A digital copy taken with a smartphone camera

You can also use a scanner machine, or a scanner APP to make a digital scan of your photograph. There are some excellent free scanner apps that you can install on your smartphone that allow you to scan a photograph and crop it to the exact size of the original photo in a single operation. A free add called Simple Scanner was used here to digitise the same photo. Similarly to before, the scan was then sent by email for storing: 

Dionisio scanned photograph

Picture: A digital copy made with a scanner app

Make sure you store your photographs not just on your device (phone, PC, hard disk), but also to a cloud-based storage space such as your Google Drive or Microsoft Onedrive. There are also some excellent sites especially for photography storage, such as Google Photos and Flickr.

Step Three: Improve the quality of your digital copies

Now comes the really exciting part! Once you have a digital copy of your original photo you can avail of some amazing technology that will completely transform the quality of the image. Here, at Ireland Reaching Out we have been completely blown away by the new photo enhancer software from MyHeritage, which is available completely for free on their website. An addition to their Colorize software, this "enhancement" technology will bring into focus pictures that have never been clear -  even when they were first taken!

See here the astounding results when we used it to enhance Lily Roche's image from the mid 1880s:

Lily Roche comparison

Picture: on the left is the original photo and on the right is the photo that has been enhanced using the new MyHeritage software.

Furthermore, this new technology can be combined with their software that allows you to colour a black and white, or sepia photograph. We used BOTH these new technologies to modernise the 1890s photo taken of Timothy Ward and his colleagues and this is the outcome:

Timothy Ward Tram Chicago 1890 Colorized and Enhanced

Picture above: Timothy Ward Chicago circa 1890, improved using MyHeritage Colorize and Enhancement software.

We think the results are pretty amazing! The best part is that this software is easy to use and can be accessed from the free membership part of MyHeritage, which is where we availed of it from. You can check out this feature for yourself by clicking on the picture below.

Link to MyHeritage free photo enhancer

Step four: Share your photos of your ancestors

So now you have your digitised image, and one that may have been improved way beyond the quality of the original photo that was taken, we'd love to see it! By creating a Chronicle for your ancestor you can connect with the Irish place of origin of that person and also with others descended from the same place, now living all over the world. Imagine the joy of seeing a picture of your ancestor for the first time, if you were to come across a Chronicle that was related to you? So many of our ancestors left Ireland and the XO Chronicles is a way that they can be remembered by their Irish community of origin and all their descendants.  

Ancestor Chronicles

If you are unsure about how to create an Ancestor Chronicle, please watch this short video.