Creating a Family Photo Book: The 5 Elements to Include

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

Family history photo books are an inexpensive, crowd-pleasing way to share your family history. They also don’t require a huge amount of effort. A weekend’s worth of gathering, organizing and formatting can produce a gorgeous, professional-looking book. In fact, within a matter of days, you could have several copies of a priceless family keepsake to give as holiday gifts—or the perfect conversation piece to keep on your coffee table.

Photo books that share your family history contain five basic elements: photos, genealogical data, stories, documents and maps.

But before describing each individual element, it’s worth briefly addressing copyright protection, which may apply to images, maps, book text and other materials you may hope to use in your photo book. Another article you’ll read for this class, “How to choose high-quality images for your book,” addresses copyright for images in more detail. I also recommend you read “Understanding Website Copyright Laws,” and the other articles to which it links. These will help give you an understanding of what you can appropriately download or copy for your own book.

1. Photos

Since you’re making a photo book, images are paramount, so it makes sense to talk about them first. Hopefully, you have images of the relatives you’re writing about, if they lived during or after the Civil War (during which time photographs of people became much more common). Other photo subjects to consider, if they’re available from relatives or online:

  • Family homes, outbuildings and acreage;
  • Family burial grounds or tombstones (be sure you have written permission to use any images you’ve found online);
  • Businesses, churches, schools, military sites or other significant institutions or places with which your family was connected;
  • Photos of family memorabilia or artifacts, such as clothing, quilts, handcrafted items, a family Bible, medals or trophies, or other items that have been passed down;
  • Photos you find online of vintage items the family owned, used, or loved: a vehicle, type of livestock, sewing machine or other household appliance, household goods, etc. (Ancestry.com has digitized the old Sears Catalogs from which our U.S. ancestors shopped; these catalogs are a great resource for product images.)

If you’re short on images—and many people are—Google is a wonderful resource for finding them. Start by entering search terms relating to the images you hope to find. You could try looking for images of a relative who may have been well-known or well-documented. More likely, you’ll have better luck looking for places or institutions. For example, Maureen Taylor wrote a short but inspiring article on finding an image of the ships on which her ancestor served during the Civil War. Or simply Google the name of an ancestral locale and add the word history. Here’s how to search and then refine your results:

family photo book elements
  1. Type the search terms and hit Enter.
  2. Choose Images to limit your results to thumbnails of images, as shown above.
  3. If you’d like to further refine your search, click Tools. Then:
  4. Under Usage rights, select Labeled for reuse if you only want to see items that have been earmarked as not copyright-protected (although you’ll want to confirm this yourself).
  5. Under Full color, select Black and white to limit your search results to black and white images, which are likely to be older.

(Learn much more using Google for genealogy with the Mastering Google Search Video download.)

family photo book elements

If you don’t already have good digital copies of images, scan them with a flatbed or portable scanner. For best results, scan them at 300 dpi or higher. Use a higher resolution for images that you may want to enlarge or crop on a photo book page, and if you are creating archival-quality photo files you’ll want to use in the future. Save these archival-quality files as TIFFs, if you can, since they better preserve your data over time and repeated use of the files. For creating photo books, though, your images will likely need to be the more commonly-used JPG file type, so you may need to save a copy of your archival TIFF file as a JPG. Do this by uploading a copy of the file to the free conversion tool at Online-Convert.com. Just be sure to ignore the many free ads on the page that look like the tool itself, like the part that’s crossed out in this screenshot. Then follow these instructions:

  1. Upload your image or PDF file here that needs to be converted to a JPG.
  2. Choose the best quality option.
  3. Click Start conversion.
  4. Another screen will appear when the conversion is done. Again, ignoring the ads, click Download.

If you don’t have a scanner, call your public library or a local Family History Center to see if they have a scanner you can use. If you’ve got images that are faded, spotted or torn, read this article on how to fix them. Find more tips for digitizing your photos here.

2. Genealogical data

Even the most photo-oriented heritage album benefits from the inclusion of text, and foundational to many books should be genealogical data. Names, places, dates, family names and relationships—all may find a home scattered throughout your book, in photo captions, narratives and other text you write.

How much genealogical information you include will depend on the size and scope of the book you’re doing—and also on your audience. I found it awkward to insert information on my dad’s birth (and his parents’ births) in a book created for him. He knows that information. But it’s true the project would have more permanent genealogical value if I would have inserted his parents’ birthdates and places (along with their parents’ names) on this page about them.

family photo book elements

The simplest way to include genealogical data is in image captions, as shown in the next image shown here. The facing page in this book actually has more of a story on it; I pulled Thomas’ genealogical details out and placed them in a caption below his photo. I didn’t want the narrative, written as song lyrics, to be bogged down with genealogical details.

family photo book elements

If you want to include pedigree charts or family group sheets in your photo book, your family history software may be able to generate them in PDF format (for example, the full version of RootsMagic software will do this, but not the free version). To convert PDFs to JPGs, making them photo book-ready, use the same free conversion tool at Online-Convert.com. Consider the fact that your image will need to fit on the album page: the smaller type found in your charts may best reproduce at a large album size, such as a 12” x 12.”

I just wanted a basic family tree display on my paternal line, which I could generate easily from my tree on Ancestry.com. I wanted the tree to begin with Loel McClellan, so I clicked on his profile and then chose View in Tree, then Print. The site generated a tree view that included both sides of the family. Instead of printing it, I used my computer’s screenshot tool to capture it, then saved it as a JPG. Here’s what it looks like:

family photo book elements

You can also create quick, custom pedigree chart images by finding fillable PDF pedigree forms online. One example is a collection of charts at the Midwest Genealogy Center website. Here’s their 4-generation chart, shown in the fillable format you’ll see once you click on it:

family photo book elements

Of course, you can take your favorite printed fill-in chart and print or type the information yourself, then digitize it, as I did on the album page shown here.

family photo book elements

Another way to visually show events in your ancestor’s life is with a timeline. Former Family Tree Magazine Editor Diane Haddad created a photo book about her grandfather’s life. “Timelines organize an ancestor’s or a family’s family tree data—dates, places of residence, jobs, historical events, children’s births—in an orderly fashion. I love them,” she wrote in an article on our website.

Her grandfather moved around a lot, so she created a map showing his many places of residence (read more on using maps below). Then she generated a timeline to go along with it. Here’s what it looked like in her photo book:

family photo book elements

You can create a basic timeline in your word-processing program. Don’t bother with too much formatting, as it likely won’t show up when you copy it into a text box in your photo book. Instead, plan to use simple text formatting tools you’ll find in your photo book creation platform, such as using bold text, a different font or a different font size to set off dates from the text.

Another option is to take a quick screenshot of the timelines automatically generated by your family history software or favorite online tree-builder. Below are two timeline screenshots taken from an ancestor’s personal profile on MyHeritage.com (left) and Ancestry.com (right). They’re formatted already but they may contain elements you don’t really want to see, depending on the site and what records or events you have attached to your ancestral profiles.

You can also use any number of applications to create a custom timeline. (Just remember to save your work as image files so they are usable for your photo book.) Here are some options:

  • Excel, the popular spreadsheet software. Included in this class is an Excel template created by Family Tree Magazine Online Community Editor and Family Tree University Dean Vanessa Wieland. The template has three different types of basic timelines. To adapt it for your own use, click on the SmartArt Tab, click open the Process selection, and choose one of the basic templates. (Get rid of the grid behind the template by clicking in Layout and unchecking Gridlines.)
  • Historical timeline template in Google Sheets, also provided with this class. The document has instructions at the top of the page for creating and editing your own custom version of this timeline.
  • Canva, an online freemium resource for customized timelines. The free version includes two folders to organize designs; 1GB storage for photos and assets; access to over 8,000 templates; the ability to upload your own images; and access to millions of photos with a minimal use fee for each.
  • Time.Graphics

3. Stories

It’s true that a picture can be worth a thousand words. But those who own old unidentified family photos—those without names or stories attached to them—lament that some pictures aren’t worth much at all without the words that should accompany them.

Consider your basic “stories” to be the identification of old photos. Include as much as you know about them: the names of those shown, relationships to each other, the date and place it was taken, the owner of the image, etc.

Not every page needs a story, but think about what you would say to explain a picture or a page if you were showing the book to someone in person. You’d probably point out the things you know (but that your audience doesn’t) about the subject and what’s happening. You might add additional details of interest, such as, “The man standing next to Ancestor Al was Jonathan Jones, his lifelong friend. He was a witness at Al’s wedding and they were neighbors in Pennsylvania and later in Iowa. Their grandchildren, Sarah Harvey and Jonah Jones, eventually married each other in Iowa.” It’s those details you should include as text in your photo book, since you won’t always be handy to narrate it yourself.

You can include full pages of text on some pages, if you have longer stories you want to share here. Think about doing a biographical sketch on an ancestor or a couple. Consider adding transcriptions of oral histories, old family letters or even more recent correspondence with relatives and DNA matches (get permission on the latter). Add your memories of visits to that grandparent’s house; your thoughts and feelings about loved ones you’ve lost; and other personal reflections or insights.

Consider writing up longer passages of text ahead of time—before you start actually creating your photo book. Otherwise, you may find yourself getting bogged down in editing or in looking up details when you are ready to design your book. Also, writing up your captions and other text ahead of time helps you realize how much (or little) you have to say. This will affect the layout of your photo book.

4. Documents

Document images add dimension and depth to the stories you’re telling—along with evidence your readers can see for themselves.

Review various types of document images that pertain to your family, including everything attached to your ancestors’ profiles in your family history software or online tree. Look for documents that:

  • Tell a story, such as a newspaper article or a letter
  • Reveal family facts and relationships (especially important, disputed or previously unknown relationships), such as a will and estate inventory, tax records, census entries, vital records, and family Bible entries.
  • Are beautiful, unusual, colorful or otherwise interesting to look at
family photo book elements

The page shown above has scanned images of a military record cover sheet as well as a letter to the editor, both of which were tucked into my great-grandmother’s original 1920s-era photo album. (This photo book was created by my aunt, Judie Felix Greenhalgh.)

Think “outside the box” with the documents you include, just as you do with photos. What you have will depend on the timeframe and what documents you can access. Perhaps you have a collection of old letters or recipes; use them selectively or make these the basis of an album. You might clip newspaper headlines of major events from a digitized newspaper at a site such as Chronicling America.

Perhaps you can find images of old movie ticket stubs, vintage postcards, advertising memorabilia from a family business, school report cards, buttons or fabric samples, war bonds or ration books, or various other kinds of ephemera (paper scraps) that enrich the story you’re sharing. Even if they don’t directly mention your family, they can provide a nice visual and historical backdrop. Purchase items like these on auction sites such as ebay or use Google Images to find images you have permission to use.

family photo book elements

Several years ago, before I started creating digital photo books, I made a scrapbook of my own childhood. Intermingled on the pages are my typed memories, photocopied pages from my mother’s diary and handwritten transcriptions of an oral history interview I did with my parents. You could reproduce the same document elements in a digital album quite easily.

family photo book elements

As with images, make sure you have good digital copies of documents. Remember to convert PDFs to JPG files in preparation for uploading them. (You can also open a PDF and use your computer’s screenshotting or snipping tool to capture part of a PDF, then save it as a JPG.)

5. Maps

Well-chosen maps can become powerful illustrations of your ancestors’ lives, especially if they moved around a lot, migrated a long distance, lived in a geographically interesting place or if you simply don’t have many images about their lives. As mentioned earlier, Diane Haddad decided to include a Google map showing her grandfather’s many residences, since he moved around so much. She tried creating her map first in Google Maps, but wasn’t happy with the result, so she copied a map from Google and doctored it in her own publishing software (read more about it in the article, referenced earlier).

family photo book elements

Historical maps of an ancestor’s locale, especially maps that show land ownership, ancestral landmarks and locations (such as schools, mills and roads) are also wonderful. Again, make sure you consult copyright considerations when finding maps online: your best bets are images found on government websites, Wikipedia Commons and on genealogy websites—but read the collection description for any limitations on publishing the images. Also of tremendous value is the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Below is a map showing my ancestor’s 1876 landownership in rural Pennsylvania, found in Ancestry.com’s excellent collection, “U.S., Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860-1918”. You can download the image; I screenshotted it with the Premium version of screen-capture software Snagit so I could add the arrow pointing to his name.

family photo book elements

Don’t forget topographical maps, when the geography is worth illustrating. Here’s a screenshot taken from MyHeritage’s new PedigreeMaps feature, which allows you to map out ancestral locations across one person’s life or many. I hadn’t realized that Linn Creek, Missouri, where my ancestor Thomas Selby bought homestead land, was located in such a hilly spot at the fingertip of one part of the Lake of the Ozarks. I also appreciated seeing the distance to Camdenton and Ha Ha Tonka, both of which figure in my family’s story.