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Photographing Cemeteries

Some Personal Suggestions

by Joel GAzis-SAx
Copyright 2000 by Joel GAzis-SAx


  • Camera. After your own eye and brain, your camera is the most important piece of equipment for taking quality cemetery photos. They range from simple pinhole cameras that you construct yourself for single use to large format view cameras. Nearly any camera is suitable for cemetery photography. Single-lense-reflex (SLR) cameras combine portability and speed to produce high quality 35 mm negatives. A prism arrangement allows you to see through the lense so that you know exactly what you are photographing. Most makes have interchangeable lenses and a wide variety of accessories. Large-format or view cameras give you the best quality pictures: common U.S. negative sizes are 4x5 and 8x10 inches. Kits are available for making your own from inexpensive materials. Digital cameras let you send images direct to your computer. Even inexpensive cameras like the Polaroid I-Zone or a disposable camera can yield interesting images. The important thing is that you become familiar with your camera's possibilities and limitations. (See Exercises.) A visit to a photography store catering to professionals can help you become aware of the many possibilities available to you. Some let you rent equipment to try it out. You can also investigate cameras online through the drectory links at the bottom of this page.
  • Tripod. Tripods are helpful when you use an SLR, essential when you use a view camera. Most cameras have a screw mount for a tripod on the bottom.
  • Flash. Most point and shoot cameras and some SLRs have built-in light meters. Many SLRs and view cameras have the flash sold as a separate accessory. Some electronic SLRs limit you to the manufacturer's specific make of flashes. (Using other flashes can fry your electronics!) A good accessory is a sync cord which allows you to position your flash in places other than dead atop your camera. This allows you to experiment with different lighting effects. (See Tips.)
  • Filters. Every SLR or view camera owner should buy a skylight for each lense. The faintly tinted, beige glass not only protects the lense, but also reduces the blue tint in color images taken at 5000 feet or more, where the atmosphere filters out less of the sun's ultraviolent radiation. The polarizer is another good filter that the cemetery photographer should keep on hand. This adjustable filter controls the amount of reflection or glare coming off an object, such as the sun shining brightly off a white sepulchre or your own reflection in a columbarium window. The neutral density filter lets you slow down the speed at which you take a picture. This can be helpful when you are trying to get a picture of a building teaming with people: when you expose a picture for two minutes or more, all moving objects fail to register on your film, giving your viewers the impression that you managed to find a day when there was absolutely no one visiting the place you have photographed. Colored filters are useful in controlling the intensities of light and shadow areas in black and white photography; in color shots, they let you give a scene a mood by tinting it. Trick filters create kaleidoscopic images, streaks, stars, mirror images, etc. Some photographers like the Cokin system of interchangeable filters. These allow you to use a single set of filters for all your lenses, instead of buying a threaded filter for each lense. The quality, however, may not be as good as that of the threaded filters.
  • Film. Film for SLRs and view cameras is rated by ASA or DIN numbers: the smaller the number, the slower the film. Slower films require more exposure to light, which means larger apertures, more exposure time, and a tripod. Detail is enhanced. Fast films are useful when recording action or low light subjects, but at some sacrifice of picture sharpness. (New film products are starting to erase this difference.) Instant and microformat cameras have the slimmest selection of film, usually not more than one or two options. 35 mm and view cameras let you use a wider range of film types, including: Transparency films like Kodachrome or Fujichrome; black and white; color print film; and infra-red. The last of these requires special handling. Visit a camera store to get an idea of what is available. (Digital cameras, of course, negate the need for film.) Manufacturers like Kodak and Fuji offer free literature about their products. Check their websites for more information.
  • Notebook. This is helpful for recording f-stops, filters, speed, etc. You can use this information to recreate effects that you discover.


Here are a few exercises that will help you get a feel for your camera and make you more creative in using it:

  • Film Test. You should perform this every time you buy a new camera or use an unfamiliar type of film for the first time. For simple cameras, simply take a roll of film taking pains to experiment with different lighting conditions. SLR and view camera owners can follow this more scientific test: Choose a subject in normal lighting conditions. There should be both light and shadow in the picture. Set your camera on a tripod for the most control of the subject. Take a meter reading and take the picture. Then shut down your aperture two full stops (see your camera manual for more information) and take another picture. From this point, open up your aperture to the next click (some cameras have one or two midway points between f-stops -- be sure to cover all of these) and take another picture. Keep taking pictures of the subject until you have reached the point two full stops over the meter reading. Take this picture and then finish the roll by taking pictures of whatever you want. Have the film developed and study the photos. This will tell you where to set your camera in relation to the meter reading for the pictures that please you the most using this camera, lense, and film combination.
  • Time of Day. Select a subject that you can revisit several times on a given day. You will want to visit the place shortly after sunrise, between 9 and 10 am, at noon, between 3 and 4, and at sunset. Be sure to take the picture from the same spot every time. Have the film developed. It may amaze you to see how different the lighting looks in each shot.
  • Obsession. You will need three rolls of 36 exposures each for this exercise. Go to your favorite cemetery and pick a single tombstone. Now, come up with 108 (36x3) different pictures of this monument. The point of this exercise is to make you think and experiment with different angles, lighting conditions, lenses, ranges, depth of field, etc. It will become harder and harder to come up with new treatments, but you will be surprised with what you will come up with. Have fun!

Tips and Tricks

  • Shaving Cream is a NO! Many of the tips and tricks here are viable alternatives to the destructive practice of applying shaving cream to a tombstone. Shaving cream contains stearic acid. Acids, any competent chemist will tell you, eat stone. If you want to experiment with it anyways, put some on your new car's finish first. Wipe it off after five minutes or so. Don't grumble when you have to take the car back in for a paint job. Alternatively, you can put some on a concrete surface like your driveway or sidewalk. Make sure that the design is one that you will want to see for a long time. Don't use it on tombstones.
  • Fill Flash. (Breathe easy now. This and everything that follows is something that you can use.) Use fill-flash for illuminating dark subjects against bright backgrounds. Your camera manual will tell you more about how to do this. (Simply, you are using flash in daylight.) If you have a sync cord, you can position the flash to get the proper shadows so that the inscription may be readable.
  • Bracket. To be sure that you get the lighting on the shot right, bracket. This means that you take at least three pictures, one at your preferred meter setting, one above it, and one below it. This is not possible with point-and-shoot cameras.
  • Black and White for the Convenience-Addicted. If you like black and white, but cannot afford a darkroom, Ilford makes a dye-based black and white film that your local one hour photo store can process. Ask for Ilford 400 at your photo dealer.
  • Wait for the Light. Avoid the "Grand Canyon Syndrome" where you get out of your car, take the shot, and leave again. Great cemetery pictures depend on patience and study of the stone. For color pictures, the worst time of day is approximately between 10 am and 3 pm when colors and shadows appear more intense. Within this time frame, there are thousands of subtle changes taking place, even on clear days. If you watch your subject for awhile, you will discover its many moods. (See Exercises.) You will know that you are a real photographer the day when you look outside and say to yourself "My, that light is beautiful today!
  • Experiment. Try different camera angles, different films, different lenses. You can rent many unusual accessories such as fish-eye lenses or Widelux panoramic cameras at local camera shops. If the bug bites you hard and you have the money, you can invest in dark room equipment, opening up a whole new world of photographic art and science. Have fun!
  • Slow Film and A Tripod. Pixels in film are called "grain" and, just as in digital pictures, the more grains per inch, the greater the detail possible. For the highest quality pictures, use a low ASA film (25) and a tripod. The tripod is necessary because you will probably not be able to hand hold the camera, except under conditions of the very brightest light.
  • Revisiting. There is no harm in or law against revisiting cemeteries to try to get a better picture than you did the last time.
  • Space Blanket. The inexpensive space blankets that you can pick up at camping supply stores are handy tools. You can use one as a reflecting surface to point more light at a monument.
  • Ghosts. For an amusing self-portrait or a fraud that still takes in the gullible, you can fake cemetery ghosts. ("It's real! Examine the negative!") You will need a camera capable of taking multiple exposures and a tripod. First, set your camera to take two exposures on one frame of film. (See your camera manual.) Take the light meter reading and set the camera to one stop smaller than what the reading advises. This allows in half the light that is necessary for a complete exposure. Have your subject step into the picture and take the shot. Now have the subject step out of the picture and take the second picture. When the film is developed, your subject will appear transparent. Similar techniques were used to create the images of ghosts that haunted many pictures in the late nineteenth century. Some people believe these images to be real evidence of ghosts. Now you know better.
  • Halo Effect. Experienced photographers call this "rim-lighting". Locate the sun in the sky. Position your subject so that the head just blocks the solar disk. Then take the picture using fill flash. You may have to wait for the light.
  • Silhouettes. Follow the same procedure as before, but don't use fill flash.
  • Darkness at Noon. Most cemeteries do not let you hang around after darkness. This need not frustrate the photographer seeking a moonlight graveyard picture. You will need a flash, an SLR or view camera, and probably a tripod. Take a meter reading. Then set your exposure to four or more stops lower than the reading. Take the picture using fill flash. This should yield a picture in which the white tombstones stand out as if in darkness.
  • Courtesy. Please keep a low profile. Avoid mourners. Pick up litter. Avoid loud noises and shouting. Obey cemetery rules so that other taphophiles may enjoy the same places.

Virtual Lawn

Associated with this site is Virtual Lawn, a gallery of cemetery photography by many taphophiles. If you have images which you would like to see displayed in the collection (you retain copyright), please review the contributor's guidelines.

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Pictures: 1. El Sauzal, Baja California, Mexico; 2. Otter Creek Cemetery, Acadia National Park, Maine; 3. Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California
Photos Copyright 2000 by Joel GAzis-SAx. All Rights Reserved.