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Where to Get Old Prints From

For comparative or Then and Now Photography,  most of us will need to be able to find older photographs for the "Then" shots. Some of us have some that are a few years old now or have relatives or know people who have some older prints, but generally even with these sources available we will find that we want to seek out more older images.

There are, luckily, a large number of older images available from a variety of sources and here we are going to explore many of these. There may be restrictions, such as print quality, overprinting or fees those holding the images want, that you may need to consider, especially if you want to publish or reproduce the old image in any way.

Wells High Street Then & Now, Wells, Somerset

One misconception is that copy prints are always cheaper than originals, and this is not always the case, and especially where print producers want fees for reproduction or use, it can be far cheaper to source old originals than buy the later reproductions.

You might like to think of the prints falling into five groups:-

  • Originals out of copyright - No restriction or further costs.

  • Originals still within copyright - further investigation needed as to if they are Public Domain or can generally be used or if they might require permissions or have fees for their use.

  • Reproductions that are available copyright free, Public Domain and the like.

  • Reproductions that claim to have copyright, or reproduction fees.

  • Images that carry marks, so small or for some other reason have limited real use.


In Britain copyright is for the life of the photographer plus 75 years, and authors have the same protection. Claimed copyright can arise from people who produce reproductions of out of copyright material, in that they claim their print is a separate creative work and has its own copyright. If they do something specific such as put on a special border or something then the border may have copyright although the print image probably does not.

In other countries the rules are a little different, for example in the USA books have a copyright of 75 years from publication rather then the death of the author.

In many cases you won't know who the photographer is and have no way of identifying them or knowing when they died. In these cases all you are expected to do is to make reasonable attempts to discover it, and be prepared to stop using them if challenged by someone with a genuine claim.

One UK University has a number of collections of photos that were donated to them by a collector. The person who donated these images did not own the copyright, but the University has photographs of these images and now offers these as prints for sale and claims the rights to reproduction fees for these images. You get the same sort of thing from owners of paintings, in that the owner of a painting does not own the copyright that was the copyright of the artist, and if he has long been dead it will no longer exist. The copyright in this case is on the photo of the images, not the image, so there might be said to be copyright on one version but another version is available elsewhere with no copyright. The same situation arises with photographic prints or reproductions out of old books.

Copyright like patents while a benefit, can also be restrictive, stifle developments and cause a great deal of work to be lost to future generations. Generally copyrights are now too long, and pressure  groups of very small numbers of interested parties have had a disproportionate effect.

With many old photographs its virtually impossible to identify the photographer and then trace every person who would own a part of the estate rights of that individual and get permission from each of them, so often permission for a single descendant is used where known, and otherwise, where not, its used anyway. There are large numbers of collections of old photos that have appeared in books and in most cases the publisher just asked to see old photos that people had, photographed these and added credits to the person holding the print they photographed. They have permission from people who don't have the copyright, similarly collections have been made from images held by museums and others who likewise don't have copyright and the acknowledgements is just for allowing access to it.  Some online collections have put arbitrary dates, for example one I saw ended its collection of prints at the 1960s.

Its wise to make some reasonable efforts to discover if the image has a valid copyright holder, and where not its fair use to use it anyway, unless someone who has a total and exclusive copyright claim objects. In most cases when you ask anyone objecting to explain their claim to rights you find they don't have one anyway, often its because people get confused between owning a print or painting and the copyright of the image.

Most people are perfectly happy for you to use a copy for your own use or for non commercial use but when you get an income there are always people and organisations that would like to share it, even when they don't have a valid reason.

We have two further articles on copyright, Copyright and Photographers looks at copyright in relation to photographs, and and gives you a good background in the subject, without getting too complicated. While Should I Mark my Images with Copyright Information is a quick response to a query we had and looks at why you might want to consider it or not. For more on rights and other legal issues see our Legal  page.

What Photographs are Available

Photography was at first, for the wealthy and required a lot of chemicals to be carried about, later with the dry plate process it was easier but still expensive. It was after 1900 before most people could be involved in photography. The Photography Timeline   shows many of the developments, and gives the earliest date that certain types of images are available. Photography was not a 'big bang' invention but a large number of small steps by people often overlooked. Before photography we have drawings, engravings and paintings.

1905 Photochrome of London Bridge

In our article An Introduction to Photochromes - just like travelling back in time, we explain how these colour photographs from around 1900 came about around 50 years ahead of colour photography generally being available and where to find images.

Buying Originals

Toady one of the easiest sources to find original prints is on eBay, they have a variety of classifications spread throughout art, collecting, books and others and a very large number of images, these include several for original photographs, some for prints and some for postcards. Old books can also be found under several classifications. As prints are very lightweight, you will also find you can buy them from other eBay sites around the world, for example I found a book of Photochrome prints of Old London being sold by someone in Australia, that was a good buy. Other prints I have obtained on eBay came from the USA, Canada, and Ireland, plus a few from other countries.

Amazon may be worth exploring for old illustrated books, but can be difficult to navigate if you don't know the title.

There are a small number of specialist sellers of maps and illustrated works, including books, and these are worth exploring although the prices in these can be high.

Collectors fairs, antique centres and even car boot sales can turn up gems, but I have not found they produce enough to justify the time used, unless you just enjoy looking around them anyway.

At Family History Fairs and the like, you will come across specialist firms that deal in and stock thousands of postcards of places.

Secondhand bookshops often have a lot of old books with illustrative plates in, and these can be well worth exploring.

Free Images

Using the internet you can locate many FREE images, and images that are Public Domain or available under a Creative Commons Licence. Nearly all the photos on this and our archive website are creative commons images that you can use.

Start by taking a look at our Photo Archive website, you can use right click and save the images at no cost. The article An introduction to Photochromes  contains information on where to find Photochromes, which are my favourite collection of old photographs.

1905 Photochrome of Hunstanton Lighthouse in Lincolnshire

Most local museums and local history centres will let you photograph prints they have, and large archives will also often allow it and not expect payments for its use, unless its for commercial use, and then it may just be a case including an acknowledgment. Often you will find some restrictions, for example tripods are not allowed, but as long as you are aware of them and have practised your image capture you can work around these.

If you are particularly interested in a specific area or industry then advertising or getting publicity is likely to result in more people offering you the chance to see their images and photograph them. Local History Societies may have collections and also be keen to work with you on image capture programmes. 

Having a reason to collect images will encourage more people to allow you to see and photograph prints they hold, and if this project makes them available to others so much the better. We would like to expand our archive of images we can make available free to everyone, and involvement with us in this may make more images available to both you and ultimately others through our archive. If you encounter objections from museums or others then suggest images are restricted in size that are available free and that commercial users would normally want a higher resolution image and can therefore come back to them for these.

eBay as we have mentioned has images for sale, but in order to do this many people have produced good quality photos that you can see online, many of these can be saved to disk. As the people have only taken the images to sell prints and not for commercial sale of the images, most would not mind you using them in your own research.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has 500,000 photographic images from 1852 available online, at least most without charge. You can download 30 images per session, or as many as you want at screen resolution using  right click on your mouse. This is a really good resource and you need to experiment a little with its searches to work out what you get.

Wikipedia has a very wide collection of photos available, watch out for extra buttons, usually labelled 'Wikimedia Commons' near the bottom of pages, that link to image collections.

English Heritage have some available for free online, many for sale and more available at their centre that you can search and photograph yourself - see below.

Old UK Photos is an archive project to collect old images, and these are organised by county. There are no charges. Currently the number of images is relatively small, and you have to navigate around far too many adverts.

Another site with a selection of places by county is a website called Grumpystump.com, this is mainly images of postcards. Unfortunately the images have 'grumpystump.com' on them in large print.

Web searches may identify smaller local collections. There may also be local groups or individuals who have made local collections. In addition there are Local History Societies and Record Offices.

Buying Prints

There are a number of websites that sell old prints, some dating back to before 1900, but most later. These are mostly people or organisations that have been given or bought collections and now market prints of these. In addition to this many local newspapers sell prints from back editions some going back a long time.

The best known commercial print site is the Francis Frith Collection. Francis was born on the 31st October 1822 and died on 25th February 1898, he was a photographer from 1853, if not before, mostly travelling abroad. In 1859 he established Francis Frith and Co, the worlds first photographic publisher and with his new wife in 1860 sets about the task of photographing every village and town in Britain. Within a few years he had others working for him and they were supplying postcards to over 2,000 shops in Britain. The company continued as a family firm until 1968 and was then sold, closing in 1970, by which time they had 360,000 images. The image collection was sold, and sold again later, to a business that was to become the Francis Frith Collection selling copies of these images. Some of Francis' work is available from Wikipedia (free), and quite a lot of originals and earlier print copies are available to be bought from the sources above. In addition the whole collection of 120,000 images is available as prints for sale online, as well as books of selected images for many counties. One of their index sets allows you to select a print by county and then place within the county, as well as the general search for place name, as many areas we think of as suburbs or a part of a place was, at the time, a self contained place.

Some of the Francis Frith images can also be downloaded for free from various Public Domain and other sources, this includes the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum - see above.

National Media Museum, in Bradford, has 40,000 images for sale, to select from, including the collection that was owned by the Royal Photographic Society, the Science Museum and National Railway Museum.

English Heritage with over half a million images online have a wide coverage,  they have a number of websites that sell prints. The main one is  English Heritage Prints also called English Heritage Images, and includes as well as heritage subjects, such items as all current premiership football grounds from the air. English Heritage - Viewfinder allows a search to be made of images with no print overlay, that you can download with right click on your mouse and save for free. A lot of these images are recent. Heritage Explorers also brings up many images. There are over 230,000 images on Images of England They have over 10 million items in their public archive, open to visitors, this, including many prints, and you can photograph yourself on a visit, see visiting the NMR, it says you can have a laptop and handheld cameras, but not a tripod.

National Trust Prints, mostly modern images of its properties, landscapes, paintings and items. They also have a small collection of 32 historic photographs, and 1203 images online from their collection by Liverpool Photographer E. Chambre Hardman.

Footstep Photos are mostly restored images between 1900-1930 organised by county prints are for sale and only small images online. You can also find many of these images elsewhere. They also have original postcards at Footstep Postcards.

There are also a number of specialist sites for those with specific interests, we came across Rail Photoprints who have large number of railway related images going back some time. At the time I was searching for 'Railprint' an archive that existed in 1984 and had 250,000 images relating to rail tourism, including places that one could travel to by train, many of the images were originally taken to put in rail carriages on the western region/Great Western and images dated from 1970 back to the 1940's. I am sure this collection still exists somewhere although so far I have not located it.

As a part of our archive project, I would like to be able to identify all digital collections and print holdings, so if you know of any please let us know.


By: Keith Park  Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: old_prints_sources Topic: Comparative Photography  Last Updated: 08/2010

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