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Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Sep 9, 2013

How to Photograph Tombstones

by Megan Churchwell

Headstones are monuments to our ancestors, linking you directly with your past. When researching your ancestry, a good-quality photograph of the headstone can be invaluable. However, achieving a clear photo of an old, weathered stone can be difficult. This is even true in cases when the stone is easy to read while you're standing in front of it. With some careful planning and patience, however, it is possible to achieve clear images of even the most worn tombstones.

- Plan Ahead -
Before heading to the cemetery, pack a bag with the necessary supplies.

First, of course, is your camera. Most cameras on the market today can handle the task of a headstone photograph. However, the camera on most cell phones simply won't cut it if you're hoping to be able to read the inscription later. Features such as auto-focus, flash, and zoom will be indispensable. Ideally, use a camera with a fairly large LCD screen. This allows you to check whether your images are clear and in focus before you go home. Don't forget the batteries and memory card for your camera. If your hands are unsteady, consider packing a tripod to help you take a clear image.

Next, make sure your camera settings are correct. Set the image quality as high as you can; usually this setting is known as 'fine.' Set the image size as large as it goes. These settings will ensure the best-quality photo your camera is capable of capturing, which is essential to recording all of the fine details of the tombstone.

There are a few other items that may come in handy when photographing tombstones. Always bring paper and a pencil with you to take notes. A small shovel, hedge trimmers or pruning shears, a spray bottle filled with distilled water only, paper towels, and a soft-bristle brush may also come in handy. Wear sturdy shoes and be prepared to climb or stoop in order to get the right angles for your photographs.

Finally, don't forget to bring information about the graveyard such as maps or directions. Gather as much information as you can about where the tombstone may be located so that you can find it quickly. Take care when entering cemeteries, particularly those with historic stones. Look out for bees, poison ivy, uneven soil, and other hazards when moving in for the shot.

- Weather Considerations -

Photographing gravestones takes planning. You may have to wait several days for the right combination of light and weather in order to take the best possible images. Don't rush the process. Choose a day with favorable weather to visit the cemetery. You won't want to go the extra mile when it's pouring down rain. Full sunshine can be tricky, too, as it results in heavy shadows. A bright yet overcast day is often the best choice. Arrive early in the day and be prepared to wait for the right weather conditions and sun angles. Depending on the orientation of the stone, it may be better to photograph it in early morning or late in the afternoon.

- Cleaning the Stone -

Now that you've found the tombstone, the first step is preparing it for photography. First, move flower pots, weeds, and other obstacles out of the shot. If soil or grass obscures part of the detail, use a hand or foot to hold it back while photographing the temporarily-exposed details of the inscription. In overgrown cemeteries, there could be bushes or roses growing in front of the stone. If necessary, use clippers to trim them. If you move any flowers or other items to take your photograph, remember to replace them before leaving.

- Making Worn Inscriptions Legible -

What if the stone is too worn to be read easily? There are a couple of strategies used to make the letters stand out, if only temporarily. Always use caution when touching or cleaning a tombstone, no matter how stable it appears to be. First and foremost, avoid damaging the stone. Many gravestones are porous and fragile; they may crumble with even the slightest touch.

Gently rub your hand over the surface of the stone. Often, light-colored lichen covers the surface of older headstones. With a slight brush of your hand, you can turn the lichen to dust, making the inscription easier to read. Next, try spraying the stone with a mist of distilled water, which can increase the contrast. Some people advocate using chalk or shaving cream to accomplish the same effect. However, such products can contain additives that could stain or damage the stone. Never use household cleaners on gravestones; the chemicals can cause damage. Tap water or bottled water can have salts, chlorine, or other chemicals in it which can cause damage to the stone.

- Positioning -

Now, position yourself to get a good image. Ideally, headstones should be shot head-on, rather than above. Otherwise, the stone will become distorted, making it more difficult to read the lettering. Hold the camera straight in front of the stone, rather than standing above it. Crouching or stoop, if needed, to get on the same level as the inscription. When you look through the viewfinder, try to position yourself so that the stone fills as much of the frame as possible. If necessary, zoom in.

- Lighting and Shadows -

When photographing headstones, some of the most frustrating obstacles aren't branches and grass, but shadows. Strong shadows result in contrast in all the wrong places. If you must photograph a tombstone on a sunny day, the goal is to create either a full shadow or full-sun shot. Use your body to create an even shadow over the tombstone's face, or move branches out of the way before taking the photo. An umbrella can be used to create a shadow over the face of the stone. Better yet, wait for an overcast day, when shadows won't be a concern.

When photographing a very old stone, shadows can actually help bring out worn-away inscriptions. Shadows in the depressions carved into the stone can make worn inscriptions more readable. If you are photographing very old headstones, plan to stay at the cemetery for several hours, if needed, to take advantage of the sun's angle as it casts a shadow on the stone.

If you need more light on the surface of the stone, you may instinctively turn on your camera flash. However, using a flash results in a washout effect that obscures details. Turn off your flash to achieve the most legible photos. There are other options for increasing the amount of light hitting the stone. Some photographers have portable reflectors for this purpose. But you can also use a piece of white posterboard, a mirror, or a large piece of aluminum foil to accomplish the same effect.

In the afternoon sun, backlighting frequently leaves the front of the headstone in a shadow. Many digital cameras have difficulty focusing in such situations; the photos often come out too dark. By framing your photos to minimize the amount of sky captured by the lens, you can reduce this effect. Moving in close to your headstone will result in a properly lit image.

Some tombstones have high-polish marble surfaces. These reflective areas can be difficult to photograph without capturing a reflection of yourself. You may need to use an odd, steep angle to photograph these stones. Remember, if you can't read the inscription through the camera lens, it probably will not be legible in the finished photograph. Sometimes, it can be a challenge to find an angle in which the entire inscription can be read; you may need to use several close-ups instead.

- Multiple Photographs -

Always err on the side of caution and take multiple photos of each headstone, even if you think you've captured everything in one image.

The initial photo should be a full-sized image, showing the stone from top to bottom. Then, take close-ups of the inscription. Frequently, you will come across headstones with information on multiple faces. Take straight-on images of each of these faces. Take pictures from different angles to benefit from different lighting effects.

Once you have completed photographing the headstone you're after, take several photos of the surroundings. Often, surrounding headstones belong to family members. Even if you do not realize the relationship now, these photographs can come in handy later when you come across a familiar name. A tombstone's position in relation to nearby headstones may provide a clue as to family relationships. Also take several "view photos" of the cemetery itself, making it easier to find the gravesite in the future. This is especially important when visiting deteriorating cemeteries that are becoming overgrown.

- Tombstone Rubbings -

Often, tombstone inscriptions are badly worn, particularly in older cemeteries. If you find yourself struggling to get a clear image of the tombstone, there are other options. First, you can simply write down the information found on the headstone. In fact, it is a good idea to transcribe the inscription regardless of how clear you think the photographs will be.

Secondly, you can take a tombstone rubbing. However, taking a rubbing of the stone is controversial because it has the potential to damage the stone. Before rubbing a stone, attempt to photograph it first, even if all of the details of the inscription cannot be captured on film. Then, check with the cemetery, or local historical societies near where the gravesite is located; creating a rubbing has been made illegal in some places due to its potential to cause damage. Avoid using this method on any headstone that appears fragile.

To do a rubbing, place a large sheet of thin paper on the face of the stone. Then, using the side of a piece of chalk, charcoal, or crayon, gently rub the paper. The result leaves an image of the inscription on the paper.

When done properly, a clear photograph or rubbing of the headstone can prove to be a valuable resource as you continue with your genealogical research. With proper planning, the details of even a well-worn headstone can be captured to create a clear record of the stone's inscription without causing damage.

Copyright ©: 2013 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No printed reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the copyright holder. Links to this article are encouraged.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Sep 9, 2013

How to Photograph Tombstones

by Megan Churchwell

Headstones are monuments to our ancestors, linking you directly with your past. When researching your ancestry, a good-quality photograph of the headstone can be invaluable. However, achieving a clear photo of an old, weathered stone can be difficult. This is even true in cases when the stone is easy to read while you're standing in front of it. With some careful planning and patience, however, it is possible to achieve clear images of even the most worn tombstones.

- Plan Ahead -
Before heading to the cemetery, pack a bag with the necessary supplies.

First, of course, is your camera. Most cameras on the market today can handle the task of a headstone photograph. However, the camera on most cell phones simply won't cut it if you're hoping to be able to read the inscription later. Features such as auto-focus, flash, and zoom will be indispensable. Ideally, use a camera with a fairly large LCD screen. This allows you to check whether your images are clear and in focus before you go home. Don't forget the batteries and memory card for your camera. If your hands are unsteady, consider packing a tripod to help you take a clear image.

Next, make sure your camera settings are correct. Set the image quality as high as you can; usually this setting is known as 'fine.' Set the image size as large as it goes. These settings will ensure the best-quality photo your camera is capable of capturing, which is essential to recording all of the fine details of the tombstone.

There are a few other items that may come in handy when photographing tombstones. Always bring paper and a pencil with you to take notes. A small shovel, hedge trimmers or pruning shears, a spray bottle filled with distilled water only, paper towels, and a soft-bristle brush may also come in handy. Wear sturdy shoes and be prepared to climb or stoop in order to get the right angles for your photographs.

Finally, don't forget to bring information about the graveyard such as maps or directions. Gather as much information as you can about where the tombstone may be located so that you can find it quickly. Take care when entering cemeteries, particularly those with historic stones. Look out for bees, poison ivy, uneven soil, and other hazards when moving in for the shot.

- Weather Considerations -

Photographing gravestones takes planning. You may have to wait several days for the right combination of light and weather in order to take the best possible images. Don't rush the process. Choose a day with favorable weather to visit the cemetery. You won't want to go the extra mile when it's pouring down rain. Full sunshine can be tricky, too, as it results in heavy shadows. A bright yet overcast day is often the best choice. Arrive early in the day and be prepared to wait for the right weather conditions and sun angles. Depending on the orientation of the stone, it may be better to photograph it in early morning or late in the afternoon.

- Cleaning the Stone -

Now that you've found the tombstone, the first step is preparing it for photography. First, move flower pots, weeds, and other obstacles out of the shot. If soil or grass obscures part of the detail, use a hand or foot to hold it back while photographing the temporarily-exposed details of the inscription. In overgrown cemeteries, there could be bushes or roses growing in front of the stone. If necessary, use clippers to trim them. If you move any flowers or other items to take your photograph, remember to replace them before leaving.

- Making Worn Inscriptions Legible -

What if the stone is too worn to be read easily? There are a couple of strategies used to make the letters stand out, if only temporarily. Always use caution when touching or cleaning a tombstone, no matter how stable it appears to be. First and foremost, avoid damaging the stone. Many gravestones are porous and fragile; they may crumble with even the slightest touch.

Gently rub your hand over the surface of the stone. Often, light-colored lichen covers the surface of older headstones. With a slight brush of your hand, you can turn the lichen to dust, making the inscription easier to read. Next, try spraying the stone with a mist of distilled water, which can increase the contrast. Some people advocate using chalk or shaving cream to accomplish the same effect. However, such products can contain additives that could stain or damage the stone. Never use household cleaners on gravestones; the chemicals can cause damage. Tap water or bottled water can have salts, chlorine, or other chemicals in it which can cause damage to the stone.

- Positioning -

Now, position yourself to get a good image. Ideally, headstones should be shot head-on, rather than above. Otherwise, the stone will become distorted, making it more difficult to read the lettering. Hold the camera straight in front of the stone, rather than standing above it. Crouching or stoop, if needed, to get on the same level as the inscription. When you look through the viewfinder, try to position yourself so that the stone fills as much of the frame as possible. If necessary, zoom in.

- Lighting and Shadows -

When photographing headstones, some of the most frustrating obstacles aren't branches and grass, but shadows. Strong shadows result in contrast in all the wrong places. If you must photograph a tombstone on a sunny day, the goal is to create either a full shadow or full-sun shot. Use your body to create an even shadow over the tombstone's face, or move branches out of the way before taking the photo. An umbrella can be used to create a shadow over the face of the stone. Better yet, wait for an overcast day, when shadows won't be a concern.

When photographing a very old stone, shadows can actually help bring out worn-away inscriptions. Shadows in the depressions carved into the stone can make worn inscriptions more readable. If you are photographing very old headstones, plan to stay at the cemetery for several hours, if needed, to take advantage of the sun's angle as it casts a shadow on the stone.

If you need more light on the surface of the stone, you may instinctively turn on your camera flash. However, using a flash results in a washout effect that obscures details. Turn off your flash to achieve the most legible photos. There are other options for increasing the amount of light hitting the stone. Some photographers have portable reflectors for this purpose. But you can also use a piece of white posterboard, a mirror, or a large piece of aluminum foil to accomplish the same effect.

In the afternoon sun, backlighting frequently leaves the front of the headstone in a shadow. Many digital cameras have difficulty focusing in such situations; the photos often come out too dark. By framing your photos to minimize the amount of sky captured by the lens, you can reduce this effect. Moving in close to your headstone will result in a properly lit image.

Some tombstones have high-polish marble surfaces. These reflective areas can be difficult to photograph without capturing a reflection of yourself. You may need to use an odd, steep angle to photograph these stones. Remember, if you can't read the inscription through the camera lens, it probably will not be legible in the finished photograph. Sometimes, it can be a challenge to find an angle in which the entire inscription can be read; you may need to use several close-ups instead.

- Multiple Photographs -

Always err on the side of caution and take multiple photos of each headstone, even if you think you've captured everything in one image.

The initial photo should be a full-sized image, showing the stone from top to bottom. Then, take close-ups of the inscription. Frequently, you will come across headstones with information on multiple faces. Take straight-on images of each of these faces. Take pictures from different angles to benefit from different lighting effects.

Once you have completed photographing the headstone you're after, take several photos of the surroundings. Often, surrounding headstones belong to family members. Even if you do not realize the relationship now, these photographs can come in handy later when you come across a familiar name. A tombstone's position in relation to nearby headstones may provide a clue as to family relationships. Also take several "view photos" of the cemetery itself, making it easier to find the gravesite in the future. This is especially important when visiting deteriorating cemeteries that are becoming overgrown.

- Tombstone Rubbings -

Often, tombstone inscriptions are badly worn, particularly in older cemeteries. If you find yourself struggling to get a clear image of the tombstone, there are other options. First, you can simply write down the information found on the headstone. In fact, it is a good idea to transcribe the inscription regardless of how clear you think the photographs will be.

Secondly, you can take a tombstone rubbing. However, taking a rubbing of the stone is controversial because it has the potential to damage the stone. Before rubbing a stone, attempt to photograph it first, even if all of the details of the inscription cannot be captured on film. Then, check with the cemetery, or local historical societies near where the gravesite is located; creating a rubbing has been made illegal in some places due to its potential to cause damage. Avoid using this method on any headstone that appears fragile.

To do a rubbing, place a large sheet of thin paper on the face of the stone. Then, using the side of a piece of chalk, charcoal, or crayon, gently rub the paper. The result leaves an image of the inscription on the paper.

When done properly, a clear photograph or rubbing of the headstone can prove to be a valuable resource as you continue with your genealogical research. With proper planning, the details of even a well-worn headstone can be captured to create a clear record of the stone's inscription without causing damage.

Copyright ©: 2013 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No printed reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the copyright holder. Links to this article are encouraged.

Newsletters

Select Newsletter by Issue or Topic:

Genealogy HowTo
Issue: Sep 9, 2013

How to Photograph Tombstones

by Megan Churchwell

Headstones are monuments to our ancestors, linking you directly with your past. When researching your ancestry, a good-quality photograph of the headstone can be invaluable. However, achieving a clear photo of an old, weathered stone can be difficult. This is even true in cases when the stone is easy to read while you're standing in front of it. With some careful planning and patience, however, it is possible to achieve clear images of even the most worn tombstones.

- Plan Ahead -
Before heading to the cemetery, pack a bag with the necessary supplies.

First, of course, is your camera. Most cameras on the market today can handle the task of a headstone photograph. However, the camera on most cell phones simply won't cut it if you're hoping to be able to read the inscription later. Features such as auto-focus, flash, and zoom will be indispensable. Ideally, use a camera with a fairly large LCD screen. This allows you to check whether your images are clear and in focus before you go home. Don't forget the batteries and memory card for your camera. If your hands are unsteady, consider packing a tripod to help you take a clear image.

Next, make sure your camera settings are correct. Set the image quality as high as you can; usually this setting is known as 'fine.' Set the image size as large as it goes. These settings will ensure the best-quality photo your camera is capable of capturing, which is essential to recording all of the fine details of the tombstone.

There are a few other items that may come in handy when photographing tombstones. Always bring paper and a pencil with you to take notes. A small shovel, hedge trimmers or pruning shears, a spray bottle filled with distilled water only, paper towels, and a soft-bristle brush may also come in handy. Wear sturdy shoes and be prepared to climb or stoop in order to get the right angles for your photographs.

Finally, don't forget to bring information about the graveyard such as maps or directions. Gather as much information as you can about where the tombstone may be located so that you can find it quickly. Take care when entering cemeteries, particularly those with historic stones. Look out for bees, poison ivy, uneven soil, and other hazards when moving in for the shot.

- Weather Considerations -

Photographing gravestones takes planning. You may have to wait several days for the right combination of light and weather in order to take the best possible images. Don't rush the process. Choose a day with favorable weather to visit the cemetery. You won't want to go the extra mile when it's pouring down rain. Full sunshine can be tricky, too, as it results in heavy shadows. A bright yet overcast day is often the best choice. Arrive early in the day and be prepared to wait for the right weather conditions and sun angles. Depending on the orientation of the stone, it may be better to photograph it in early morning or late in the afternoon.

- Cleaning the Stone -

Now that you've found the tombstone, the first step is preparing it for photography. First, move flower pots, weeds, and other obstacles out of the shot. If soil or grass obscures part of the detail, use a hand or foot to hold it back while photographing the temporarily-exposed details of the inscription. In overgrown cemeteries, there could be bushes or roses growing in front of the stone. If necessary, use clippers to trim them. If you move any flowers or other items to take your photograph, remember to replace them before leaving.

- Making Worn Inscriptions Legible -

What if the stone is too worn to be read easily? There are a couple of strategies used to make the letters stand out, if only temporarily. Always use caution when touching or cleaning a tombstone, no matter how stable it appears to be. First and foremost, avoid damaging the stone. Many gravestones are porous and fragile; they may crumble with even the slightest touch.

Gently rub your hand over the surface of the stone. Often, light-colored lichen covers the surface of older headstones. With a slight brush of your hand, you can turn the lichen to dust, making the inscription easier to read. Next, try spraying the stone with a mist of distilled water, which can increase the contrast. Some people advocate using chalk or shaving cream to accomplish the same effect. However, such products can contain additives that could stain or damage the stone. Never use household cleaners on gravestones; the chemicals can cause damage. Tap water or bottled water can have salts, chlorine, or other chemicals in it which can cause damage to the stone.

- Positioning -

Now, position yourself to get a good image. Ideally, headstones should be shot head-on, rather than above. Otherwise, the stone will become distorted, making it more difficult to read the lettering. Hold the camera straight in front of the stone, rather than standing above it. Crouching or stoop, if needed, to get on the same level as the inscription. When you look through the viewfinder, try to position yourself so that the stone fills as much of the frame as possible. If necessary, zoom in.

- Lighting and Shadows -

When photographing headstones, some of the most frustrating obstacles aren't branches and grass, but shadows. Strong shadows result in contrast in all the wrong places. If you must photograph a tombstone on a sunny day, the goal is to create either a full shadow or full-sun shot. Use your body to create an even shadow over the tombstone's face, or move branches out of the way before taking the photo. An umbrella can be used to create a shadow over the face of the stone. Better yet, wait for an overcast day, when shadows won't be a concern.

When photographing a very old stone, shadows can actually help bring out worn-away inscriptions. Shadows in the depressions carved into the stone can make worn inscriptions more readable. If you are photographing very old headstones, plan to stay at the cemetery for several hours, if needed, to take advantage of the sun's angle as it casts a shadow on the stone.

If you need more light on the surface of the stone, you may instinctively turn on your camera flash. However, using a flash results in a washout effect that obscures details. Turn off your flash to achieve the most legible photos. There are other options for increasing the amount of light hitting the stone. Some photographers have portable reflectors for this purpose. But you can also use a piece of white posterboard, a mirror, or a large piece of aluminum foil to accomplish the same effect.

In the afternoon sun, backlighting frequently leaves the front of the headstone in a shadow. Many digital cameras have difficulty focusing in such situations; the photos often come out too dark. By framing your photos to minimize the amount of sky captured by the lens, you can reduce this effect. Moving in close to your headstone will result in a properly lit image.

Some tombstones have high-polish marble surfaces. These reflective areas can be difficult to photograph without capturing a reflection of yourself. You may need to use an odd, steep angle to photograph these stones. Remember, if you can't read the inscription through the camera lens, it probably will not be legible in the finished photograph. Sometimes, it can be a challenge to find an angle in which the entire inscription can be read; you may need to use several close-ups instead.

- Multiple Photographs -

Always err on the side of caution and take multiple photos of each headstone, even if you think you've captured everything in one image.

The initial photo should be a full-sized image, showing the stone from top to bottom. Then, take close-ups of the inscription. Frequently, you will come across headstones with information on multiple faces. Take straight-on images of each of these faces. Take pictures from different angles to benefit from different lighting effects.

Once you have completed photographing the headstone you're after, take several photos of the surroundings. Often, surrounding headstones belong to family members. Even if you do not realize the relationship now, these photographs can come in handy later when you come across a familiar name. A tombstone's position in relation to nearby headstones may provide a clue as to family relationships. Also take several "view photos" of the cemetery itself, making it easier to find the gravesite in the future. This is especially important when visiting deteriorating cemeteries that are becoming overgrown.

- Tombstone Rubbings -

Often, tombstone inscriptions are badly worn, particularly in older cemeteries. If you find yourself struggling to get a clear image of the tombstone, there are other options. First, you can simply write down the information found on the headstone. In fact, it is a good idea to transcribe the inscription regardless of how clear you think the photographs will be.

Secondly, you can take a tombstone rubbing. However, taking a rubbing of the stone is controversial because it has the potential to damage the stone. Before rubbing a stone, attempt to photograph it first, even if all of the details of the inscription cannot be captured on film. Then, check with the cemetery, or local historical societies near where the gravesite is located; creating a rubbing has been made illegal in some places due to its potential to cause damage. Avoid using this method on any headstone that appears fragile.

To do a rubbing, place a large sheet of thin paper on the face of the stone. Then, using the side of a piece of chalk, charcoal, or crayon, gently rub the paper. The result leaves an image of the inscription on the paper.

When done properly, a clear photograph or rubbing of the headstone can prove to be a valuable resource as you continue with your genealogical research. With proper planning, the details of even a well-worn headstone can be captured to create a clear record of the stone's inscription without causing damage.

Copyright ©: 2013 Fficiency Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
No printed reproduction of this article may be used without the express written permission of the copyright holder. Links to this article are encouraged.

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