Determining the original date that a photo was taken can be useful for a variety of reasons. Maybe you found an old family photo but no one can remember when it was taken. Or perhaps you need to verify the date of a photo for legal purposes. With the prevalence of digital cameras that tag photos with metadata, getting the date is easy for newer images. But for older film photos, it takes some detective work.
Check any Date Stamps on the Photo
The first place to check for a date is right on the photo itself. Many photos have date stamps printed on the front or back by the developer. These date stamps indicate when the photo was developed, which provides a good approximation of when it was taken. The date format can vary, but you may see a full date like “10/31/2022”, just a year like “2022”, or sometimes a code. Photos from the 1960s and earlier are more likely to have date stamps than more recent photos.
If you don’t see an obvious date printed on the photo, look along the white border for small, faint numbers and letters imprinted into the paper. Hold the print at an angle to the light to make these more visible. This code is the “edge print” and can be used to identify the date. Edge prints started being used in the 1950s. The code will consist of a lab code that identifies the developer, a processing date, and sometimes a frame number. You’ll need to research the lab codes to decode the processing date. There are resources online that provide databases of lab codes and their locations.
Analyze Fashion and Styles
When there are people in the photo, analyze their clothing styles, accessories, and hairstyles for clues about the decade it was taken. Fashion has evolved and changed dramatically over the decades. Just looking at hairstyles alone can go a long way in narrowing down the era.
Consider these fashion trends through the decades:
- 1930s: Waistlines on women’s dresses rise to natural waist. Hair is typically curled or waved.
- 1940s: Pencil skirts, shoulder pads, victory rolls hairstyle. Red lipstick and nails popular during WWII.
- 1950s: Full circle or swing skirts, cat-eye glasses, saddle shoes, poodle skirts, cropped cardigan sweaters.
- 1960s: Mod style shifts, mini skirts, beehive and bob haircuts, go-go boots.
- 1970s: Bell bottom pants, platform shoes, afro hairstyles.
- 1980s: Jumpsuits, neon colors, perms, spiked and teased hairstyles.
- 1990s: Grunge flannel, Doc Martens, The Rachel haircut from Friends TV show.
Look at groups and trends together for clues. For example, several women wearing short miniskirts and beehive hair indicates the 1960s. Or a group of kids in oversized clothing with bowl cuts fits the 1990s style.
Identify the Photo Format
The photo format itself can provide clues about the date:
- Black and white – Most common for photos before the 1960s when color became more widespread.
- Prints with white borders – Usually from the 1930s to about the 1970s.
- Slides – Popular from the 1950s to the 1990s before digital cameras.
- Negatives with sprocket holes – Sprocket hole negatives were used in 35mm film cameras in the 1960s-1990s.
- Small prints – Tiny prints around 1 inch wide likely came from 1970s wallet-sized photo booths.
Of course there can be exceptions, like artistic black and white photos taken more recently. But in general the format provides good context clues about the date range.
Examine the Photo Quality and Condition
As photographic technology improved over time, photo quality also evolved. Here are some tips for examining quality:
- Lower image resolution and more graininess suggests an earlier era like the 1960s or earlier.
- Harsher contrast and lighting also points to early photos before improvements in camera lenses and film in the 1950s.
- Color saturation and vibrance increased starting in the 1970s.
- Sharpness and finer grain came in the 1980s and beyond.
- The condition of the photo itself can hint at its age. An undamaged print likely means a more modern photo, perhaps 1970s or beyond.
Identify People, Events, or Locations
If there are identifiable people, events, or locations in the photo, this can help narrow down the date based on your knowledge and records about them. Some examples:
- A family member whose age range you know: calculate their apparent age in the photo.
- A newsworthy event like a parade, election, moon landing, etc.
- Buildings, businesses, or landmarks that opened or closed at known dates.
- A location before or after it experienced a natural disaster like a fire or flood.
Specialized objects like cars, electronics and home furnishings can also provide clues but can be trickier to identify without an expert eye.
Find the Original Photo Negative
If you have the original negative that was used to produce the photo print, examine it for clues about the date. Here’s what to look for:
- Date stamps – negatives may have clearer date codes than prints.
- Slide mount – slides have processing dates on the cardboard mount.
- Film markings – some films had embossed markings along the edges indicating the manufacturer and film type.
Matching the negative directly to the print tells you the print cannot be older than the negative’s processing date.
Have the Paper Chemically Dated
As a last resort, it is possible to chemically date the age of the photo paper itself. This must be done by a specialized lab using forensic techniques. Signs of deterioration in the chemicals and compounds in the paper can provide a date range estimate when it was manufactured. This technique can cost $300 or more so it is mainly used for legal, insurance or similar formal purposes in dating valuable or controversial images.
Use Genealogical Resources to Trace Ancestors
If the photo is a family portrait, genealogical records and resources can sometimes determine a date range. Here are some options:
- Family records like diaries, letters, bibles, certificates, etc. may include dates of major events and references to photos taken.
- Genealogical databases like Ancestry.com have searchable family trees, documents, photos, and records that could match the people and dates of your photo.
- Facebook genealogy groups – find groups specific to your family name and locations for help from others researching the same family lines.
- Obituaries and family announcements in newspapers may mention surviving family members matching those in your photo.
Having even a 10-20 year date range estimate from genealogical research can help narrow down the specific photo session.
Consult Photo and Family History Experts
There are also experts who may be able to help analyze your photo:
- Photo archivists – experts often associated with museums, libraries, universities and historical societies. They specialize in the technical details and processes of dating photos.
- Photo collectors – experienced collectors knowledgeable in photographic formats, processes and history.
- Genealogists – specialists in tracing family ancestry and history who may recognize relatives in family photos or know historical details about them.
- Historians – can provide context on time periods, fashion, events and locations depicted in photos.
These experts can examine the photo details as well as leverage resources available to them like archives and records to determine a time frame. Hiring a professional photo dating service brings together many of these experts.
Search in Family Photo Collections and Albums
If your family has boxes, bags and albums full of old photos, dig deeper in them for potential clues. Here are some patterns to look for:
- Sequential years – photos in albums or envelopes may be grouped by year
- Occasions – groupings by holidays, weddings, graduations, etc. may include dates
- Locations – photos from specific vacations, homes, studios may offer location details to research
- Outfits – people wearing the same clothes in multiple photos provide hints that they were from the same photo session
Having original negatives, slides and prints grouped together can confirm if they were from the same roll and provide date ranges. Pay attention to captions, notes or stamps on any sleeves, envelopes or album pages too.
Use Online Photo Analysis Tools
Some websites have automated tools to analyze your photo and estimate the date it was taken. These use artificial intelligence to evaluate visual details in the photo. Here are a few options:
|Wolfram Image Identification Project||Upload a photo and select the “dating” feature to get an estimated date range|
|Historypin||Designed for historical photos – finds photos with similar visual matches|
|Photo Dater||Uploads photos to estimate dates based on content, materials, processes|
These tools provide an automated starting point but are not definitive. Verify suggested dates against other evidence you find.
Dating vintage photographs is part detective work and part research. First look for visual date evidence on the photo itself. Analyze the physical photo for format and material clues. Use fashion, people, events or locations depicted to get historical context. Search genealogy resources and family collections for supporting information. Consult experts as needed. Combining these methods can help narrow down the original date a vintage photo was captured.