Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Creating a Composite Photo, Part 1

I recently wrote a post that included composite photos created using pictures from my grandparent's neighborhood in days of old and the same places photographed recently. Following that I received some comments and email from people wanting to know how I did that. I thought that might make a good "how to" series for the upcoming edition of the Carnival of Genealogy. And so I will endeavor to explain how I created those composite pictures.

To create the composite you have to have 2 photos, one from "then" and one from "now". That sounds simple enough but if you don't have those photos you first have to obtain them. You may have a "now" but not a "then" or vice versa. Or maybe you don't have either. Let's take a look at how I went about obtaining the photos I used and see if maybe you can make that work for you.

In the case of my grandparent's house, I'd gotten the "then" photo from my mom. It was in her collection of old family photos. As I scanned photo albums from other family members in later years I discovered that they had that same photo too. So if you're not fortunate enough to have the "then" photo you want, ask around. See if other family members have a photo you can scan from their family albums. If that doesn't work, you can also check the photo collections at your local library or online resources like the 
Library of Congress web site. You never know what you might find!

If you go back to my blog post with the composite pictures, you'll notice that there was one composite I couldn't create because I didn't have the "then" picture. It was for Sill Elementary School, a Detroit Public School that was closed and the building was razed many years ago. I first looked on the Detroit Public Schools web site for any photos and information on Sill but came up with nothing. They don't have a "history" section on their web site, more's the pity. Next I tried a Google search. I found a history/list of "Defunct" Detroit Public Schools on
Wikipedia but that list didn't include Sill School (nor does it include Condon Middle School) either. No photos to be had. I checked Google Books, no pictures there either. There's lots of information about the man the school was named for but virtually nothing about the school itself. My plan was to research Sill School the next time I had reason to make a trip to the Detroit Public Library.

In the mean time, I made one last attempt to locate a picture of Sill School online by doing a search on eBay. No luck there either but I did "save" the search and indicated that I wanted to know if any items with that description became available. BINGO! Less than a week later I got an email with the description of a photograph of Sill School from 1932! What are the odds of that? I don't know but I thought it must have been a million to one. Anyway, I made a bid and won it for a modest $5.50 + $5 for shipping and handling. So for $10.50 (less than it would have cost me to drive downtown and pay for fuel, parking, and copy costs at the Detroit Public Library) I got myself an 8"x10" black and while photo of the old Sill School, just the way I remember it! :-) I know, I know, you're thinking this was just a case of getting lucky. But believe it or not, I got the photo of Assumption Church used in my post (also closed and building razed many years ago) the same way! So don't ignore the
eBay way!!!

I know what you're thinking... how could I get so lucky as to have gotten a "then" photo of Sill School taken from the exact location as my "now" photo? And that brings me to the next point I'd like to make. When you're out there taking your "now" photo, don't just take ONE! Take pictures of the location from multiple points of view. Lucky for me I did that so I'm going to be able to create a composite without having to make another trip down to my grandparent's old neighborhood to take another photograph. If you don't live near the location you want to create a composite for, you may want to ask a family member who lives in the area to take some photos for you. Be sure to specify that you want pics from multiple points of view. With the ease and economy of today's digital cameras there is just no reason not to. If you don't know anyone who can take the photos for you, check out 
RAGOK. Maybe you can find a volunteer online who lives in the area and can take the pictures for you. If you already have a "then" picture, you could share it with them and ask that they take a photo from that specific point of view. Don't worry if the "now" photo you come up with isn't from the exact same point of view. As long as it's close you can work with it. I'll show you how I did it...

Creating a Composite Photo, Part 2
Creating a Composite Photo, Part 3 


  1. This post is full of useful material. I really enjoyed your memory lane post when you did that one, and now I have some ideas how to do when I get to that point. Thanks!

  2. Very useful information in this post and hopefully the next two. The composite pictures from your previous posts were intriguing and I would love to be able to do something like that also. I'll be checking back.

  3. I know my mind shouldn't be boggled--stuff I want comes to me all the time--but I would have thought the million-to-one odds was a conservative estimate! But it just goes to show, doesn't it? Think about what you want, and make it possible for it to come to you, and it will. I'm glad I'm amazed every time--it keeps me in a state of gratitude. That's a very pleasant state to be in!

  4. Thank you for your very kind remarks! If I can inspire, instruct, or entertain with my posts I am indeed happy. :-)

    T.K. You are so very right! It was almost as if I'd wished for those photos and they appeared. Fortune, kismet, karma, luck, fate, whatever... I am grateful!

  5. Oh Jasia, this is so cool. I've created "composites" in my mind's eye any number of times. I've tried to imagine how something looked at one time or another but never really thought of doing it with photos. Thanks for providing such a clear, step-by-step how-to.

  6. Hi Jasia,
    I got a picture of the school my grandmother went to by doing a google search for one of her teachers. Evidently her teacher's files were housed in the University's special collections.

    I also had my grandfather go look at 3 churches I had taken snap shots of from google maps. They had changed names and he drove by and identified which one it was he had gotten married in, even though it did not have the same name he had given me.

    Going to the Library of Congress Website and ebay are great suggestions! Thanks! I'm really enjoying this series. Keep them up :-)

  7. I'm so pleased that you liked this series Ginger. I sometimes forget about my photo editing skills. I should probably do more articles on creative things you can do with family photos.

  8. Cynthia, I hope you give the composite photo thing a try. You can get some great results with old and new photos. It's sort of like sharing your imagination with others...