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Genealogy: A Guide to Creating Your

By James A. McKane - © 2008-2009 ==================================================================================

Beginning How Tombstone Photography ==================================================================================

Tombstone & Cemetery Photography

Click on Images for Larger Version

Taking good pictures of tombstones and their inscriptions is not a simple task. I have taken a good many duds of my own! Achieving sharp, clear photos of very old, weathered stones can be particularly difficult even though the stone may be easy to read when you are standing in front of it. However, with a little practice and forethought, getting good photographs is not as difficult as it may seem.

What to Photograph

Since you may never return to your ancestor’s cemetery again, you should carefully examine exactly what you should shoot:

  • Take several shots of each headstone; one so that the whole stone fills the picture; one close-up of onlyGlen William Cemetery, Ontario the inscription; and one from a short distance to locate the stone in the cemetery.

  • Take several pictures from different angles so that you get the benefit of different lighting effects, particularly on the inscription.

  • Take a general shot of the cemetery, maybe of the entrance or the sign identifying the cemetery.

When to Photograph – time of day?

Blain Gravestone, Bolton, OntarioLighting is the most crucial factor in obtaining good, hi-definition tombstone photographs. If you attempt photos of a stone in the direct sunlight, your success will be limited. However, if you take your shots when the light is striking the stone at an angle, the gravestone will cast shadows in the engraved inscription.

You may also be able to determine the orientation of the stone in advance of your visit by consulting a transcription of the cemetery tombstones. Many cemetery transcriptions also locate the stone within the cemetery. If so, you may be able to locate the cemetery on one of the mapping services available on the Internet such as Google's Maps. If you can find it, then you should be able to determine the north/south orientation of the stone. Then, co-relating that information to the location of the sun will let you arrive when the lighting may be at its best.

Most often, photographs take on a brightly overcast day will be much preferred to those taken on a very sunny day.

When taking the shots of the actual inscription, move as close as possible to the stone. This serves two purposes – to make the wording large in the picture, thus, making it easier to read. And, at a close range, your camera will obtain its light meter reading from the reflected light of the stone, not of the area around it.

Lighting the Gravestone Artificially

Since it is not always possible to be in the cemetery under the best lighting conditions, it is wise to create a toolkit of portable and improvised lighting methods:

  • Foil – a great, low-cost method of reflecting light for photography is your good, old, everyday kitchen aluminum foil. Simply wrap a fairly large piece of cardboard with the foil; then holding or propping it at the correct angle will light the tombstone effectively.

  • Collapsible Reflector – if budget is not a problem, you can purchase a collapsible light reflector for about $50, which usually folds up quite small for traveling.

  • Mirror – I would not suggest a glass mirror. They tend to get broken! Most hardware/home stores carry plastic or mylar mirrors which can be easily fitted with legs like an easel. A large mirror can effectively reflect sunlight quite a distance to light stones under trees or in the shade of buildings. I have even recruited fellow visitors in a cemetery to hold reflectors for me!

Inscription Enhancement Suggestions

You will find very often that good lighting and all of your tricks to enhance the inscription just don’t do the job. Here are a few do’s and don’ts:

  • Shaving Cream – Many genealogists have used shaving cream to help read difficult tombstones. Most professional conservators discourage this practice! Shaving cream contains acidic chemicals and greasy emollients, which remain on the stone attracting dust and pollutants. This, then, damages the stone over time.

  • Chalk / Charcoal – Chalk and charcoal are also no-nos!! You should never use any foreign substance directly on a tombstone. It is Graffiti! However, you may wish to try an old-fashioned, grade-school or kindergarten school rubbing. Simply place a piece of paper over the inscription, and then rub the chalk or charcoal over the paper. With care, you will obtain an accurate and readable copy of the face of the tombstone. Have fun, kids!

  • Water – Just spray the surface of the stone with water! After wetting the stone well, let it dry for a few minutes. The indented lettering should be the last to dry making it appear darker and therefore, easier to read.

  • Black Lights – If you really want to get fancy, a black light bulb of at least 75 watts can make a worn inscription just jump out at you! Now, most cemeteries don’t have electrical outlets very handy! <Grins> However, many novelty stores sell battery-operated black lights, especially near Halloween. Black lights work their best in the dark. Although I have never tried it, I am told you can drape a large, dark blanket around yourself and the tombstone to create sufficient darkness so that the black light will make a very illuminating inscription!

  • James McKane StoneJames McKane Inscription

Happy & Successful Shooting!

P.S. - If you have photos of headstones in
Canada, consider sharing them at -
CanadianHeadstones.com


 
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