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Tips for Taking Great Cemetery Pictures

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Gravestones, St Mary's Church, Whitby, North Yorkshire, England
Diana Jarvis/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images
Pictures are a wonderful way to document graveyards, from scenic views of the cemetery, to inscriptions of individual tombstones. It isn't always as easy as it seems, however, to achieve sharp, clear photographs of stones that may be centuries old. That old stone may be easy enough to read when you're standing just a few feet away, but capturing its three dimensional carving and inscriptions on a flat picture sometimes takes a bit of work.

What to Photograph
It's not every day that you get to visit an ancestor's cemetery, so take the time, if you can, to create a photographic record of the entire cemetery, rather than just a single tombstone:

  • Take at least two shots of each headstone, one close up so that you can read the inscription, and one from a distance which identifies the marker's location in the cemetery. If the gravestone is one of several in a family grouping, then you may also want to take a wide angle shot of the entire family plot (a tombstone's position in relation to other family members may provide a clue to relationships).

  • Take several pictures (from different angles) showing the entire cemetery, or at least as large a portion of it as you can fit in a single picture.

  • Unless it is a small family plot hidden in the middle of a cornfield, the front gates or entrance of the cemetery makes another good view to record on film.

What Time of Day is Best?
Proper lighting is the most critical factor in achieving a good, high-definition tombstone photo. According to tradition, many older cemeteries have individuals buried facing East, which generally means that the inscriptions on the headstones also face East. For this reason, morning light is often the best option in which to obtain the best lighting for photographing tombstones. There are, obviously, many exceptions to this very general rule, however. Tombstones may be situated so that they face the road, a beautiful view, etc. Overhead trees and cloudy days can also make photographing tombstones a difficult task. For this reason, it is best to scout out the cemetery in advance in order to determine the best time of day for taking pictures.

Lighting the Tombstone
When optimal lighting is not possible, several tools can be used to reflect light onto shadowy tombstones. Directing sunlight or other light diagonally across the face of a gravestone casts shadows in indentations which makes inscriptions more visible and easy to read:

  • Mirror - A mirror is a common tool for reflecting sunlight onto shadowy tombstones. Mylar (plastic) mirrors are available at most home stores (no reason to risk travelling around with a glass mirror in your car) and can be easily equipped with a set of legs (like an easel) to aid in propping the mirror to effectively reflect sunlight where you need it. Larger mirrors can even be used to reflect sunlight from a distance to light up tombstones resting under shady trees.

  • Collapsible Reflector - A common accessory used by many photographers, a collapsible light reflector can be purchased for about $30-$50. They typically fold up into a small 4-6" package, handy for traveling.

  • Aluminum Foil - A low budget alternative, and handy for travel, aluminum foil makes a decent light reflector in a pinch. You'll either need a piece of cardboard to support the foil, or a partner to hold it for you.

Enhancing the Inscription
When good lighting isn't enough to bring out a badly eroded inscription, there are a few other methods employed by many genealogists:

  • Water - Wetting down a tombstone with a spray bottle of fresh water can sometimes make carvings stand out much more than when dry. After wetting the stone, allow the surface to dry for a few minutes, leaving the indented lettering damp, which makes it darker and easier to read.

    Shaving Cream - A method used by many genealogists, shaving cream can do wonders at bringing out hard-to-read inscriptions. This practice is discouraged by most professional conservators, however, as shaving cream contains acidic chemicals and greasy emollients which make it hard to remove from the stone and damaging if left there over time.

    Black Light - Suggested by some, a black light bulb (75 watt or higher) can be used to make a worn inscription pop out. While an extension cord may be a problem in many cemeteries, you can find portable, battery-operated black light units in many party or novelty stores (they are especially popular around Halloween). Cast the light directly on the tombstone and the words just seem to pop right out at you. Black light works especially well when it is dark, but since cemeteries are not always the safest place to visit at night, try draping a large, dark blanket over both you and the tombstone while using the black light. This should create enough darkness for a very "illuminating inscription."

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