Searching the National Archives Catalog for Still Photographs

The following guide describes various methods that can be used when searching the National Archives Catalog for still photographs. While photographs can be found in regional facilities and presidential libraries, for the purpose of this post, the methods focus on searching the Catalog for photographs specifically held by the Still Picture Branch.

Keyword Searching

Generally, most people using the National Archives Catalog for the first time are going to start by completing a keyword search. Keyword searches are the simplest type of search but often return too many results, making it difficult to sort through. To narrow down results, it is recommended that researchers use the “refine by” feature.

To begin a search, go to Enter your enter keywords and click on the magnifying glass.


Keyword searches will pull every description that matches your terms. So, when specifically seeking photographs, it is important to use the left-side panel to narrow the results. It is best to refine your search by the type of materials and/or the location. 

keyword search 1keyword search 2

After narrowing the results, researchers are left with a manageable set of photos to browse through. In this example, the search originally returned 823 results but when narrowed down, there are only 15 digitized images that are relevant to the search.

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To view additional information about a photo, click on the title of the record. When available, the original caption will be included in the scope and content field below the image and the date will be included under the details heading.

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To download an image, click on the arrow pointing down into a tray. Pop-up blockers may stop a download.


Searching Within a Series

At the National Archives the most common unit of records is called a “series.” A series is a body of records that were accumulated and used together for a specific purpose, during a distinct period of time, and are usually arranged in a particular order. When we take on digitization projects in the Still Picture Branch, most often we are digitizing an entire series of records. The following is an example of how users would specifically search series that have been digitized.

In this example (330-CFD), we can see that the series has been fully digitized and there are 269,667 individual items (photos) that have been added to the Catalog. To search for images specifically filed within 330-CFD, users first click on the “search within this series” button.

series 1

Users are then directed to a page that looks like this:


From there researchers should delete the characters that populate in the search bar.

series 2

Next, users enter their search term(s) and then click on the magnifying glass. In this example, out of 269667 photographs in 330-CFD, 1696 of those images include the word “Lebanon” in the description.

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Researchers can narrow those results even further using the left-side panel.

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After refining the search, there are only 31 images filed within 330-CFD that were taken between 1990 and 1999, and mention the word Lebanon in the caption.

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File Units

Many series within the Still Picture Branch are arranged by file unit. A file unit is a group of documents related by use or topic, typically housed in a folder. The National Archives Catalog mirrors this same type of organization. That means that researchers may notice some series that have file units, rather than items, listed. 

In this example (127-GVB), there are 391 file units. Researchers can click the “search within this series” button and follow the steps described above. Alternatively,  researchers can click on the number of file units included within the series.

file unit 02 (2)

To view images within a specific file unit (aka folder), click on the title.

file unit 02 (1)

After clicking on the title, users will be taken to a description page. From there they can search within the file, or they can browse through the images. To view all 44 photographs within this folder, users need to click on the number of items listed next to “includes.”

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Publishing Still Photographs from the National Archives

Researchers should refer to our “use restrictions” when determining whether or not they can use an image freely.

  • Restricted – Fully: The archival materials have either a copyright, donor, or other use restriction.
  • Restricted – Possibly: The archival materials may have a use restriction.
  • Undetermined: It is unknown if the archival materials have a use restriction.
  • Unrestricted: There are no copyright, donor, or other use restrictions on the archival materials.

Photographs that are unrestricted do not have any known copyright restrictions.Use restrictions are listed under the “details” heading, found below each digitized item.

use restrictions


Additional Resources

Using the National Archives Catalog:

National Archives Catalog Search Tips:

National Archives Catalog Guide for Genealogists and Family Historians:

If you have questions about still photographs, you may contact the Still Picture Branch at