Embedding origin captions into your images

Click to enlarge.

If you post your genealogy to online trees, you’ve undoubtedly had that jolting moment when you see a precious photo of your parent displayed on a  stranger’s page. You know they got it from your tree, but no one else does. Most are borrowing and forward-sharing without awareness of proper genealogical etiquette and protocols. The world is then losing its path back to the original image. Here’s a way to improve your chances that the desired information will travel with the image.

The Elephant in the Room: Copyright

Before we begin this path of discussion, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Most do not own the copyright to the images they’re posting on Ancestry and other sites. A photographer long ago took the photo and may still legally own it. Or the image may now be in the public domain. It is your responsibility to determine if you have the right to post the photo. For our purposes here, though, we want to acknowledge who contributed the image to the online site originally. The prints are heirlooms, and often have information on the back or in the scrapbook that is important to understanding the image, including the name of the photographer, in many cases. It is important that anyone using a photo can find their way back to the original contributor. We are losing that with current practices.

Why we need the captions

I first became aware of how this practice of uncredited photo grabbing feels when I saw that someone had snagged my most precious photo of my Dad — his Air Force photo — from my Ancestry site. It was in their tree with no acknowledgement of me or my family. I had heard others complain about this, but now I got it. I felt somehow that his memory was cheapened. Don’t ask us to be sensible. This is emotional. It’s about staying connected to them.

It’s why I keep hearing people using the words “steal” and “thieves” when describing these occurrences. In truth the people who are displaying my Dad’s photo are not breaking the law. It’s a public domain image. But it is an image my mother and my sisters consider precious and “ours.” If we choose to keep it in our heirloom box, the rest of the world will not have it. We contribute it, wanting others to respect that.

Beyond the emotional issue, there’s the fact that genealogists cite sources. We get back to the original source, if at all possible.  We need a more solid way to lead people back to the originator of the photo contribution — the one person in the world who might have the actual photo in hand. A person who might be able to confirm that the image is truly the person represented.

I acknowledge that Ancestry and other online trees will often offer a link to the tree from which you borrow something. But far too often, a person downloads an image to their own computer, without capturing the information that was on the original tree. Eventually they upload the photo back to their tree, and it now appears to be a contribution from their own photo collection. And another picks it up and another, and the path back to the origin becomes more difficult with each share.

While I encourage all of you to attach metadata to images you upload, metadata is invisible to most and can easily be lost, depending upon how people grab your image. I’m told that some of our online tree sites actually strip the metadata, to prevent problems.

This caption-embedding technique brings a person face to face with ethics. If you’ve been following the GEG for a while, you’ve probably noticed that most of my images have text at the bottom. If you borrow the photo, the text comes too. If you want to remove the ownership/permission information, you have to consciously crop it away.

If you begin to embed captions with each image you post to your online trees, anyone who seeks to re-post your image to their own site will be forced to do one of two things:

  1. Post it as is, so the origin and permissions information goes with it and is seen by everyone who might want to grab the photo from other people’s trees.
  2. Strip away the caption information, knowingly “stealing” the image and posting it as their own contribution. In other words, becoming a low-down dirty ancestry thief in the eyes of many.

Embedding the caption is an extra step, admittedly, but it’s easy to do, and worth the effort. You’ll also be posting a relatively low-resolution image — fine for online display but not great for publication. Therefore, if a person plans to publish the image in their own family history, they will have to come to you for a better-quality image and permission to publish it.  (You, of course, will send them to the photographer, if that person retains copyright.)

Embedding origin and permissions captions

I prepare my images in Microsoft Word. It should work in any document tool robust enough to let you move images and text around on a page–resizing them as needed.

Step one: insert photo

Insert your photo into the document. You can copy it from another location and paste it in the document. Or you can choose Insert-Pictures through the menu and browse for your image on your computer.

In Word, I then right-click on the image and choose “Wrap Text — Behind Text.” This allows you to move the image around easily and will prevent it from hiding the text you want to add.

Step two: add text

From the menu bar, choose to Insert–Text Box, then choose “Draw text box” from the bottom of the window. Drag a box beneath your image, and type the words you want the rest of the world to see whenever they see this photo. This is a great opportunity to transcribe what was written on the back or in the scrapbook beside it, to acknowledge the photographer, and to state whether the image is in the public domain. And you can ask those who share it to keep the caption intact.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge.

Step three: reformat the caption as desired

Right-click on the text-box and change the format as you choose. I prefer to have no border. You can also change the font. I tend to make mine quite small and italicized, so the caption does not overwhelm the image.

Step four: capture the image and caption as a new image

My screen-capture tool of choice is the free Windows Snipping Tool, which I introduced you to last year. Hopefully our Mac users have similar alternatives, and can let us know about them in the comments.

Position your image and the text box as large as they can be while still viewable on the screen. Then use the Rectangular Snip option in the Windows Snipping Tool. Drag a box from the top left corner of your image to the bottom right corner of the text.

Then save the image to your drive, perhaps adding the term “_Captioned” to the end of the file name, so can easily tell your high-resolution image from this online version.

The “perq”

As a side benefit, in doing this, we force ourselves to think before we upload a photo. We teach the newbies proper etiquette.  And we can, in future, clearly distinguish our dirty low-down ancestry thieves from the innocents.


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10 thoughts on “Embedding origin captions into your images”

  1. It is my understanding that Ancestry, Facebook and other sites strip metadata out of images that are posted on them because viruses and other bad things can be embedded there. I agree that others stealing without attribution is very wrong, but if metadata is removed, then that isn’t a solution.

    1. I agree, Linda. While it is a good idea to attach metadata to any images we are putting out into the e-world, it’s not a solution for online trees. Even the technique I offer here to embed text into the image itself is not a failsafe, if someone is determined to pass an image off as their own. But at least it will keep honest people from accidentally taking material without proper citation. Thanks for letting me know that the online trees strip metadata. It makes this all the more important.

  2. Thanks. I emailed this to myself so I can try to do it. I always assumed that if you didn’t mark your page as private then it was okay to share pictures and information. I was not aware that it was a problem. I have always been so excited to find pictures of my relatives since I don’t have many.

    1. I did the same think Jeanie. It didn’t cross my mind to credit the contributor in my early days in Ancestry. Images were just another thing to grab. And I know I downloaded some to my computer and later uploaded them back up to Ancestry. This new way a person can always credit the contributor without having to remember who to credit. By the way, I revised the caption statement yesterday, probably after you emailed it to yourself. I had accidentally left a few words about copyright in the caption — something I had intended to take out. It created a firestorm on some Facebook sites last night — putting all the attention on something the page wasn’t about at all. Please use the new version. Thanks so much!

  3. Thanks for the “how to” do this! I haven’t attached personal special photos to my family tree for just that reason, but now I may find some I don’t mind sharing and add the caption.
    I also have a photography blog, and a crafty, sewing creating blog that I fill with photos and I know some of them have been saved to pinterest. This will keep my information attached to the photo so future pinners can find the original source, in this case, me.
    I also want to add a watermark to my photos, especially the ones I own since the caption could be cropped out of a photo if someone wanted to do that.

    1. Thanks, Jan. I hope you find it helpful. And for photographers protecting copyrights, a watermark is a very good idea. Let me know if you have any trouble getting it to work!

  4. If someone cares enough about your ancestor–who is also their family member otherwise they wouldn’t be in their tree– to take the time to repost an image for them, then it honors that ancestor.

    In the case of Ancestry, it’s very easy to see who originally posted an image. Under an entry in which images are posted, click gallery, then click on the image you’re interested in. In the top upper right corner, there will be a link to the Ancestry user who first posted the image and the date they posted it.

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback, Allye. I think that’s true most of the time, too. Most people are well-meaning distant kin; strangers, but kin. I believe respectful distant kin should also honor the contributor enough to say where they got it. It’s not about selfishness or wanting credit, though it might seem so. It’s about keeping your loved one connected to the person he gave the photo to. It’s emotional, as I said. It’s also about proper documentation — being able to get back to the original holder of the photograph — perhaps the only person who can say for sure the photo hasn’t been mislabeled or attached to the wrong person online (and I’m hearing stories about that). Fortunately, Ancestry does acknowledge the tree, if a person uses Ancestry’s method of borrowing. If a photo is downloaded and uploaded back, that is lost. I’ve had people use the word “thief” so much in talking about this, that I feel we all need to start recognizing that it matters to the givers. We can say it shouldn’t, but it truly does. I’ve also had MANY who have told me their trees are now private because of this. If we do want people to keep sharing, we need a way to share respectfully. I think this method takes the trouble out of it for all who borrow. Just post as is, and we’re all happy. Thanks again.

      1. Thanks for the thanks! 🙂 Certainly agree with the need for accurate attribution; it’s the emotional component of the argument that goes so far as to label folks as thieves that’s concerning …especially “dirty low-down ancestry thieves” which has humor in hyperbole, but can read as feeding the increasingly angry society in which we live. Think genealogy and its tradition of esprit de corps is better served by focusing on the positives and diffusing the emotion whether on a blog or in conversation with the people you mention in the comment above.

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