How To Make Your Online Family Tree Photos Private Or Protected

Are you looking for ways to make your family tree photos private or protected from misuse? There are many advantages to having a public family tree enriched with photos, but there are two major downsides:

  • Your uploaded images may be copied without due credit
  • Your photos may get assigned by mistake to the wrong people in other family trees

To be completely sure of preventing misuse, you must either make your tree private or remove your photos.

However, photographs and personal documents are one of the best ways of encouraging your unknown relatives to reach out and collaborate. Many people would like a public tree with additional protection for their photos.

This article first reviews several ways to make your family tree photos private. It then details free methods to caption or watermark your photos to reduce mistaken misuse by other tree owners.

Problems With Copying Photos From Family Trees

I see a growing number of family tree owners complain in genealogy forums about misuse of their photos. So, what is the actual problem?

Let’s say that Bill has a public family tree on a major genealogy website. He has uploaded and attached a treasured photo to the profile of his 2nd great-grandfather.

Bob is delighted to spot a common ancestor in Bill’s tree. The names, dates, and locations are about right. The genealogy site may even be hinting strongly that this is a match! Bob understandably wants a copy of that photograph for his own tree.

There’s a right way and a wrong way in front of Bob. The right way is to ensure a chain of attribution. This article section discusses how to do so on Ancestry. Personally, I would also send a thank you message to the tree owner with an offer of any reciprocal help I can provide.

But Bob goes down a different road. He right-clicks the image in his browser and saves the file to his local machine. This loses any link to its origin. Bob then uploads the photo to his family tree.

Defcon 1 – Absence or Incorrect Credit

A year goes by. Bill is browsing the genealogy site for more details about his second great-grandfather. The site sends him to Bob’s tree where Bill finds a copy of his own photograph. According to the genealogy site, Bob is the source of the photo.

At this point, you may be shrugging your shoulders. Sure, credit should have been given. Other than that, what’s the harm?

There are plenty of people who are aggrieved by copying without credit. I’m not going to get into that debate. Let’s just say that we’re at DEFCON ONE level of annoyance. There are bigger problems on the horizon.

Defcon 2 – Wrong Photo Attached To The Wrong Person

Bill’s ancestor was born in Chester, England. Bob’s ancestor was born in Chester, Virginia. Bill spots immediately that there should be no connection between these two family trees. Bob has taken the photo and attached it to the wrong man.

This can really irritate people. Ill-feeling is heightened when the photo belongs to a relative of a more recent generation, such as a sadly-missed uncle. The wrong attribution can be a kick in the guts.

Let’s say that Bill sends a message to Bob, who sheepishly corrects his mistake by removing the photo. And this is a good outcome – many people don’t respond to messages.

So, we’re all good? Unfortunately not. There’s a whole ‘nother level of wrongness.

Defcon 3 – Wrong Photo Copied Into Multiple Trees

In the intervening period, ten other people copied Bob’s uploaded photo into their own trees. But they’ve matched with Bob’s ancestor, so the misattribution has gone forth and multiplied. And it’s hardly feasible for Bill to track down and try to rectify each mistake.

Bill is so annoyed by repeated viewings that he takes the nuclear option. He removes his photos from public viewing. How he does this depends on which family tree website he is using.

How To Make Your Photos Private On Ancestry

To make your photos private on Ancestry.com, you must privatize your entire family tree. Alternatively, you must remove these photos.

If you have a public tree on Ancestry.com, there is no way to privatize individual photographs or other documents that you have uploaded to the media gallery.

One compromise is to have two versions of your family tree. You maintain a private tree with all your photos and other uploaded media. And you also have a public tree without photos that you don’t want to be copied.

Does that sound like a lot of work? There are several methods that shouldn’t be too onerous.

Use GEDCOM To Generate Trees Without Photos

This method takes advantage of the fact that trees exported to GEDCOM files do not include photos or other uploaded media.

Follow these steps – I’ve got other articles and videos that provide walkthroughs of the different tasks.

  1. Make your photo-rich tree private (follow this video walkthrough)
  2. Export this tree to a GEDCOM file (read this tutorial article).
  3. Import the GEDCOM file to a new public tree (follow this tutorial article).

Now you have two copies of your tree, and the public version does not have photos.

Unfortunately, you can’t make changes to one and have those changes automatically reflected in the other. But you could periodically delete the public tree, and repeat the process of exporting and importing your private tree.

An alternative solution is provided by family tree software, specifically Family Tree Maker.

Use Family Tree Maker To Maintain Synchronized Trees With Private Photos

Family Tree Maker is commercial (paid) software that can synchronize a local copy of your family tree with a copy of Ancestry.com.

The current version lets you mark specific photos and other media as private. So these photos stay in the family tree on your local machine, and they do not get synced up to the version on the Ancestry.com website.  

Two Alternative Ways To Protect Your Photos On Genealogy Sites

I’m going to give you some other options that don’t go as far as privatizing your photos. These methods are more likely to ensure that credit and attribution are maintained, regardless of how people copy your photos.

Successful prevention is not guaranteed, but it’s more likely.

Each method involves editing the image to include extra information. You may choose to mark the photo with the names, dates, and locations of the person. You can also annotate with your own name or family tree as the source.

So, how do you protect the attribution of your photos? You have two main options:

  • Captions
  • Watermarks

This is something you do before you upload your photo to a genealogy website. You will need software, and there are free and paid alternatives.

And don’t be put off if you’re not familiar with photo-editing. I’ll show you some really simple methods.

A Simple (Free) Way To Caption Your Genealogy Photos

Here is an example of a captioned photo.

I usually use a software program called Snagit to edit photos. It costs about 50 bucks. If you have Photoshop, this is also a piece of cake.

For this article, I opened up Microsoft Paint. I don’t think I’ve used Paint in ten years! But it comes free with every Windows machine. I’m sure there is an equivalent on a Mac.

The actions are the same on Snagit, Paint, and I’m sure every other image-editing software.

You drag down the lower edge of the photo in the editor. This should lengthen the image with a white area ready for you to write on.

Now you need to figure out how to type text onto the area. In MS Paint, I found the “text” tool marked with an alphabetic icon.

Snagit uses the exact same icon. My guess is that most photo-editing packages will have similar.

The text tool lets you place an editing box in the area of your choosing. Then you can type what you want into the box.

Won’t People Remove Captions From Genealogy Photos?

When it’s that easy to add a caption to a photo, it follows that it’s equally easy to remove the caption. Anyone can open the file with free software and crop the bottom.

But who’s going to go to the trouble? I wager that many, if not most, wouldn’t bother.

There is one caveat. Some tree owners, without any ill intent, may prefer a cropped head as a profile photo. And therefore, may be in the habit of cropping photos they copy. So they’ll produce something like this picture.

And of course, your carefully crafted caption will be left behind.

So, what’s the alternative? One option is a watermark.

A Simple Obtrusive Way To Watermark Your Genealogy Photos

Watermarks can be as obtrusive or as unobtrusive as you wish. Actually, the obtrusive watermark is probably the simplest to achieve.

Back we go to Microsoft Paint. Take a look at this quick pic.

I’ve made the text deliberately overlap the person’s face. I’ve also switched the font color from black to white so that it shows up on the dark background.

A skilled photo editor can remove the watermark with the careful replacement of pixels. That’s hardly likely to happen. I don’t do this with my public photos. But if I did, I’d put a comment somewhere to invite people to contact me for a clean copy of the photo.

It has to be said, it’s not the nicest look for your family tree. You might find you’re annoying yourself with “defaced” photographs! But there are more unobtrusive ways to achieve a watermark.

A Simple Unobtrusive Way To Watermark Your Genealogy Photos

Our simple caption method changed the dimensions of the photograph by making it longer.

Alternatively, you can find an inconspicuous edge on the photo and overlay your text. This is a watermark that doesn’t obscure the important features of the photo.

Yes, this has the same problem as our caption. It’s so easy to crop it out. So I’d consider this method to be less protective of your photos.

If what you really want is an unobtrusive watermark that overlays important features – then you need a more complex piece of software than Microsoft Paint.

A More Protective Unobtrusive Way To Watermark Your Genealogy Photos

What you’re looking for is software that allows you to change the opacity or transparency of your overlaid text. So your amended photo could look like this:

There are free applications out there, but some may place their own watermarked logo on your photo as well as whatever change you make yourself.

Canva is a free option that won’t plaster extra elements onto your photos. When you upload an image for editing, their “Text Effects” feature allows you to increase the transparency of the text you enter.

The “Hollow” effect gives you letters that are tend to be more see-through. You can experiment with reducing the “thickness” (or opacity) of the letters to the point where you consider it is still legible.

Can You Add Captions And Watermarks In Bulk?

So far, my examples have opened individual photos and typed in the information. This is what I’ve done from the start of my genealogy journey. The task takes seconds. It takes longer to upload the photo and attach it to the person in my family tree.

But what if you have a personal collection of hundreds of images that you would like to annotate? This would be a laborious and tedious task.

There are applications that allow you to add the same watermark to a batch of photographs. So, you could annotate a folder of images with “Collection Of [your name]” or whatever text you choose. Some people include their family tree name or their username on the online site.

Of course, you’re losing the benefit of specific details e.g. “Mary Smith 1853-1924 Chester, England”.

So, this approach meets the requirement of credit but loses some protection of the photo being assigned to the wrong person in someone else’s tree.

I had a look at various reviews of current free options for batch watermarking. Some older reviews mention Picasa, which was owned by Google. You might Google is a safe bet, but they’ve nixed the application.

The best round-up review I found was at this site. I deem it the best because I recognized the name of their top pick (uMark), which has been around forever! (Or since 2005, which is forever in internet terms). So the reviewer isn’t pushing their own spammy software.

The short reviews call out which software offers batch watermarking. These are:

  • uMark
  • Star Watermark
  • PhotoMarks
  • FormatFactory
  • Mass Watermark

The reviewer also notes which are available for Windows and Macs.

Bear in mind that most of these applications are for image-editing, with watermarking being a small part of their features. You won’t want to struggle through a complex interface of bells and whistles. Each review has a screen-shot – and uMark looked pretty simple. So I decided to give it a whirl.

Batch Watermarking with uMark

uMark offers free versions for Windows, Mac, Android, iPhone, and iPad. I installed the Windows version and tested it using a folder with twenty photographs. I found it to be a simple three-step process. The website provides a single page of instructions, which I won’t repeat here.

But I’ve got a walkthrough in an upcoming video, where I’m using the software for the first time. No real hiccups, it does what it says on the tin!

Video Walkthrough Of Using Software To Caption And Watermark Your Photos

Using Your Scanner to Watermark While Digitizing Your Photos

The previous sections have discussed ways to caption and watermark media that is already digitized.

But if you have a scanner – did you know that it probably will watermark your digital copies while it scans them?

This is a very common requirement for business documents. So if you’re looking for instructions for your particular scanner,  try an online search for “add watermark” or “add logo” with your make of scanner.

The preparation is usually as simple as scanning a single small page to be your watermark. I say “small” because this is what will be plastered onto your documents. You can adjust the transparency of the watermark template – play around with the settings to get what suits you.

Copyright And Your Family Tree Photos

You may be wondering why I didn’t mention copyright in the watermarks or captions. Wouldn’t it be better to scare people into “good behavior” by including the copyright symbol?

Personally, I’m happy for people to grab my photos – as long as they don’t stick them onto completely unrelated people.

And I’ll also defer to a lawyer to discuss the complexities. That lawyer would naturally be the Legal Genealogist, who has a number of online articles on copyright pertaining to photos. A search through her blog makes for an evening of interesting reading.

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Margaret O'Brien

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