Photographing Cemeteries: Telling the Story of Your Ancestors
Cemeteries tell stories of your ancestors you may be missing. Learn how photograph a cemetery to capture and preserve your family’s history.
Welcome Diane Evans of PhotoFluent as our Guest Poster today! Diane is a photographer extraordinaire sharing the best way to to capture photographs in the cemetery where you ancestors are buried.
I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries. If you’re reading this then you probably understand that fascination, and might even have it yourself. There’s something so…eerie, beautiful, sad, and somehow comforting. There’s this connection to those who have gone before us that literally lies beneath us, as we wander around observing the markers of our ancestors.
I’m also fascinated with photographing cemeteries. Not just taking photos of tombstones. But rather telling the story of that resting place. Of the history of the place. Telling the story of how it feels to be there, now and throughout time.
Photographing Cemeteries – Let’s Get Started
Let’s talk about photographing cemeteries. The first component of the story that your photos are going to tell is the environment, an introduction to where exactly the story takes place. That might very well start at the entrance – some are grand, some not-so-much. But they are all part of the initial interaction you have with the place. So start by capturing the entrance.
This introduction should also include signs. Even if it’s not the prettiest of signs or therefore photos, a sign can give so much context and detail for later as you’re piecing together all of your photos. And if it’s a really large graveyard, then capture as many signs as you encounter. Or if there’s a particularly interesting burial plot that has descriptive markers, make sure to photograph those too.
Next you want to capture the feel of the entirety of where you are. A wide-angle photo of as much as you can fit in, which might include the grounds, trees, grave markers, etc. And this will very likely take more than one photo to capture. The key in the “overall photo” is to make sure that you still give the viewer’s eye something to look at.
The typical mistake when trying to capture an overall scene is to try and squeeze as much in as possible, but without any sort of direction. You know those photos where your eye doesn’t quite know where to look first, and kind of wanders around trying to figure out what exactly to look at? That’s what you want to avoid here.
To do that, maybe pick one object that will still be the focal point of your photo. Even though you’re capturing the whole scene, you’ll still make the focus maybe a tree in the front, or a particularly interesting burial plot or vault. Or if you’re photographing a particular burial area or grave, then that might be in the front, with the rest of the scene around it.
One of the things that can help bring focus to just part of your image is light. Now you can’t always control light when you’re outdoors…okay you really never can. But you can shift your body in different directions to change how you are standing in relation to the light. So if you’re looking out at the entire cemetery thinking “I want to capture as much of this as I can”…think about where the light is hitting, and where there are shadows. And then move around to try and capture the most even light that you can on your subject.
Something else that can help bring focus to one area of a busy photo is placement within the image. So if your focus is that gravestone, but you want to show the whole cemetery around it, place the gravestone in the front either right or left of your scene. Maybe even squat down a little for a different perspective to really emphasize what you want the viewer to look at first. If you think about this ahead of time, it will be intentional and therefore more likely for the photo to make sense afterward.
After you capture the overall scene or the “big picture”, then you want to narrow your focus a little more to a particular something. That might be a grave marker or plot that you’ve specifically come to see, or just one that you find especially interesting.
At this point in your storytelling, you’ll want to capture the specific ‘thing’, but with some context around it. So rather than the entire scene, like you did with your first photos, you want to get closer, zoom in…but still leave enough context around it to fill in some details. You’re painting a picture of this grave through photos. And this part of the painting is about the flowers, or wrought-iron gate, or unkept lawn around this particular grave. What does it look like, but also what does it feel like? Is it loved, lonely, sunny, cold, bright, gray?
It might sound kind of funny to think about making photos that can portray feelings. But that’s exactly what I love about photography. Because photos DO portray feelings. All you have to do is pay attention to yours as you’re creating your photos. And trust me, the feelings will come though.
One of the best ways to capture a subject with context around it, but still bringing the eye right to the subject, is to use depth of field. It’s one of my absolutely favorite ways to add to the depth and interest of the image, and of the story. Depth of field means how much of your image is in focus. You change this by changing your aperture setting.
My recommendation here, if you’re new at this, is to set your camera on aperture priority mode. And then start with aperture of f/4…your camera will choose the rest of your settings. F/4 is a good shallow depth of field, where your subject, such as a grave stone or even name on the stone, will be in focus but the surrounding graves, trees, etc, will be nicely blurred. This is a great way to bring the viewer’s eye right to the main subject, but still provide some context around it.
If you’d like a little more information on depth of field, my Camera Settings Cheat Sheet is a good place to start.
All right, now you’ve made photos of the big picture, and the grave with some context. Now for my favorite part…the details. This is where you get as close as your camera will let you. One headstone might be 4 different photos – THAT’S how close you’re getting here. The name, dates, decorations, flowers laid carefully by a loved one, cracks in the granite, weathering around the edges…all of these tiny details add to the story.
When I say “as close as your camera will let you”, here’s what I mean by that. Your camera/lens can focus only so close to an object. How close depends on your camera and lens setup. If you get too close, your camera just can’t do it. So it will zoom in and out, in and out…but not lock focus like you’re used to. That means you have to move back a smidge. Try to focus again. If it still can’t lock in on that focus, move back a little more…try again. And so on. Eventually you’ll hit that sweet spot and focus right in on that detail that you’re aiming for.
One reason I love the tiny details is because they are often the things that you miss – if you’re not really paying attention. And let’s face it, our memories can only hold so much stuff in there. So lots and lots of photos of those lovely little details help fill in the cracks of our memories in the most glorious of ways.
Now you’ve captured the big picture, signs of where you are, a particular subject with context around it, and lots and lots (and lots) of those little details that fill in the gaps of this story. You have a good sense of what the area feels like, looks like, and you’re pleased that you’ve captured enough.
Photographing Cemeteries – Giving Your Photos A Little Makeover
Now what? Well no matter how hard you try to make “perfect” photos, they never turn out just the way you want them to. Am I right? Giving them a little makeover with a few edits, is the only way you’ll really get the images that you pictured in your mind when you made them.
This doesn’t have to be complicated, just a few edits will make a world of difference with your photos. I do all of my editing in Lightroom, as I think it’s the most efficient and easy to learn application available. But all of the applications have the ability to do these basic edits.
First you’ll want to bring the details out of the shadows. Those dark shadows actually still have a lot of lovely detail in them, so bring them out for full view. If it’s a sunny day, you’ll probably also want to bring your highlights down. By bringing the highlights down, and shadows up, you’ll give a bit more evenness to those contrasty photos.
Once you get to this point though, you’ll want a little ‘clarity’. Not mental clarity, but photographic clarity. That is where the mid-tones lie. By giving the mid-tones a boost with some clarity, you’ll bring more depth back to your photos that might have gotten flattened out with the other adjustments.
Now depending on how you like your photos to look, you might also want to add a little contrast to them. I’m personally a fan of high-contrast photos, so I usually give them a little help there.
Some of the other options include adjusting the warmth of the photo, adding some vibrance or saturation to it, cropping to improve the layout or removing unwanted items. There are so many options, but don’t get overwhelmed here. Even just the first 3 edits I talked about can make a big difference.
If editing is something that intrigues but also intimidates you a little, I have an online training called Introduction to Editing in Lightroom. That’s a good place to start for beginners, or if you need a little refresher. And I’m offering Are You My Cousin? readers a 20% discount. Just use the code CEMETERYPHOTOS.
Now you’re ready to tour cemeteries and capture the story – of your discovery, and of those who have gone before and are resting there. This post included a lot of suggestions. Don’t get overwhelmed by all of them (I say that, because it’s certainly my tendency). The main advice I have is to be present, and be intentional about what you’re creating with your camera. And enjoy the process!
Other Posts of Interest:
- Genealogy Tips for Cemetery Research – 6 Photos To Take Before You Leave the Cemetery
- Creating Your Own Cemetery Tours: Find Your Loved One’s Grave
- Your Guide To Cemetery Research – Are You Missing Important Genealogical Clues?
Diane Evans is the creator of PhotoFluent where she helps travelers to figure out how to make photos that they will cherish forever. Learn more about Diane and PhotoFluent at:
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