News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 10, 2010

GENEALOGY: Lighting is key when photographing gravestones

Tamie Dehler
Special to the Tribune-Star

. — Photographing gravestones is something that nearly all genealogists end up doing at some point. Sometimes you are taking pictures of your own relatives’ stones for your family history. Other times you might be sending a photo to a distant friend or relative. More recently, there are photo volunteers who take a picture for a complete stranger to post on Find a Grave. Regardless of the reason, the goal of each photograph you take is to have the most readable reproduction possible.

There are all kinds of headstones from different time periods and some are more challenging than others to photograph. The “modern” deeply cut granite stones are very photogenic and you can nearly always get a good shot. The older stones with raised lettering are much more challenging.

Also the old engraved marble stones can be very difficult because marble is softer and doesn’t last as long as granite. Some of the lettering on these stones has noticeably eroded away just in my lifetime.

In my experience, the light source — whether the sun is out that day and what angle it is coming from — is the single most significant factor in getting a good shot of almost any stone. For older stones with raised lettering, it is good to have the sun at an angle so that the raised letters cast a bit of a shadow and then they really pop out. If the sun is not out or is shining straight onto the stone, the raised letters look flat or may not appear readable at all. In this case, it would a good idea to return to the cemetery at a different time of day or in a different season to get a better shot. But that’s not always feasible, especially if this is your only chance to take this photo. So try creating your own angle by moving off to the side of the stone, and maybe lower, to get those raised letters to show up. This method also sometimes helps with old eroded marble stones with engraved lettering that is almost too faint to read. Sometimes moving your camera to a slight angle instead of straight-on helps. Since many of these marble stones are often still very white, a shot taken in direct sunlight can be too bright and make the faint lettering less readable. In these cases, try to get a shot of the stone in the shade.

If the sun is going in and out of clouds you can just wait a few minutes. Or, create your own shade by standing between the sun and the stone. If you have a jacket or blanket in your car you can drape it across your shoulders and hold it out with one arm to create more shade to cover the entire stone.

Backlighting is a horrible problem for any photo you take and it can negatively affect your shot of an upright grave stone. Backlighting is when the light source is coming from behind the stone (more often in early mornings and late afternoons). Your camera gets fooled by all of that light coming in from behind the stone and makes the front of the stone — the part you want to read — appear to be darker. In cases like this, you should experiment with some different shots. To minimize the effect of the sun coming from behind, zero in on the face of the stone and include as little of the background as possible. You could try using the flash. You can also try angle shots or just wait a while until the sun comes up higher or goes down lower.

Finally, when framing that shot, be aware of what the scene really looks like in the viewfinder. Are you reflected in the surface of a high gloss grave? Are you casting your own shadow across the stone? Avoid these situations by taking a shot from just off to the side of center, or, for a flat stone, shooting it from the other side (upside down) to remove your shadow from the shot. And remember, always have a whisk broom and trowel with you to clean away grass, dirt, and debris.

With digital photography you can instantly see if the photograph you took is what you want and you can also take several versions in your attempt to get the best one. Good luck. The season is here.