Lesson: Photographs

Lesson: Photographs


  • Students will examine different types of photographs (daguerreotype & other cased images, tintype, carte-de-visite, cabinet card, stereos and snapshot), and practice dating photographs by examining clothing, hairstyles, clues of photo itself, including borders, color of cardstock, stamps, etc., and practice “reading” a photo by noticing details




If you do not have these items already on hand, and have no interest (or funding!) in purchasing them, here are some ideas of where you could get them:

  • Contact your local historical society and see if you could borrow
  • Contact a local antique dealer and ask if they could donate or loan
  • Ask around to find out who in your town loves old photos/cameras and has a selection you could borrow
  • Old photo albums that hold carte-de-visites and/or cabinet cards
  • Samples of cased images
  • About 50 (or more) old photos that include tintypes, carte-de-visites, cabinet cards, photo postcards, and snapshots
  • At least two old photos that would be interesting to the students (perhaps featuring children their age, and perhaps taken in your town) and 5 photocopies each of those original photos
  • Old “calling cards”(carte-de-visites were used like calling cards and, for many, replaced calling cards)
  • Examples of early cameras, either photos of them or the real things
  • Samples of old photos with the clamps to help them stay still visible (these can be found online)
  • Resource sheets for students to refer to when dating photos. One resource sheet for photo types/size/borders/dimensions; one for men’s clothing; one for women’s clothing, one for hairstyles. (These dating charts from the books listed in the resources, and similar charts are readily available online.)
  • Samples of silhouettes and miniature portraits found by goggling; printing examples





Cabinet card

Photo postcard


Cased image









  • Pictures are so common to us today: did you already have your picture taken today? Yesterday? Last week? Our descendants will easily know what we looked like…
  • But before photography, how would you remember someone, or let someone far away know what you looked like? (painted portraits, silhouettes) (Fancy That book)
  • First photos had a very long exposure: had to be still for up to 20 minutes. Clamps helped people stay still. (Show examples of these early photos and see if students can see the clamps.) This explains why people in early photos look so severe, never smiling.

As photography processes advanced, gradually time needed to take a picture decreased.

  • Explore examples of cased images with teacher: cased images are more rare and fragile; students won’t have them in the packets of photos they are going to be doing activities with later. Use a sample cased image to show the frame, glass, case and image.  Demonstrate how a magnet can be used to test if the image is a tintype.
  • Share examples of the old family photo albums. In the days before radio/television, when visitors came, the family album was often shared. Today you can usually see how much these albums were viewed by the poor condition they are in: velvet rubbed off, spines broken, etc.


Activities:  Students explore photographs

  1. Photo dominoes (whole class activity):  students get an intro to different types of photos. Review how dominoes are played: like numbers on the dominoes are placed on the table touching each other. Explain that we are going to play dominoes using old photos as the dominoes. Instead of matching numbers of dots, they will be matching anything they notice about the photos.


Students and teacher stand in a circle. Teacher hands a photo to each student randomly. Teacher begins by placing the photo s/he has down on the floor inside the circle.

Without talking, any student who sees a connection (a matching “domino”) to the photo just placed then places his or her photo next to it. Continue until all photos placed. The resulting assemblage will resemble a gallery display of photos.


Now each person in turn (as the photos were placed) will explain why they placed their photo where they did.


  1. Categories (small groups, each with its own set of photos)

Students break into small groups with 2-5 students in each group. Each is given a folder of old photos with a variety of photos (snapshots, tintypes, cabinet cards, photos on postcards and carte-de-visite)


Ask students to sort their photos into categories. Tell them they will have 5 minutes to sort their photos into categories. The categories can be whatever they decide.


After 5 minutes, all students travel to each group’s station and listen as the group explains how they made their category groupings.


  1. Timeline (small groups, each using their own set of photos; same as in #2). Explain that now each group is going to put their photos in a timeline, starting with what they think is the oldest photo and continuing on through time to the most recent photo.


Each group then self-checks and rearranges their timeline photos as teacher gives a quick explanation of each type of photograph: cased images (which the students may not have in their folder if no examples are available; then tintypes, then carte-de-visite, then cabinet cards, then snapshots. (Descriptions of each of these types of photos are in the Taylor book, or can be found online.)


  1. Photo detectives: each group is given a copy of the same photo. Their mission is to assign a date to the photo after studying clues (clothing; hairstyles; photo type; dimensions/colored borders/color of card itself). Each group will be examining a different clue, and each will have a resource guide to help them. (The group that has the dimension/border/color of card itself clue will have the actual photo itself, not a copy.)


Give students 5-10 minutes to examine the clues in the photo and come up with an estimate of the date the photo was taken after consulting the resource guide for the particular aspect of the photo they are studying.  Using info reference cards, each group assigns a date to the card based on: clothing, hairstyles, photo itself, and other clues. Then compare and discuss students’ results. Each group then shares their estimate of the date and explains why they chose that date; teacher can then share the actual date of the photo was taken and class can discuss.





Fancy That by Esther Hershenhorn (Holiday House, 2003)

Forensic Genealogy and The Dead Horse Investigation: Forensic Photo Analysis for Everyone by Colleen Fitzpatrick (Fountain Valley, CA, Rice Book Press, 2008)


Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs by Maureen A. Taylor (Cincinnati, Family Tree Books, 2005)