Photographing Gravestones: A Few Basic Pointers
by Trina Purcell
The best way to photograph a gravestone is by using natural light. Ideally, the sun should rake across the front of the stone at a 30-degree angle. This brings the details of both the epitaph and icon into strong relief, making them much easier to read and resulting in a beautiful image. Cloudy days are not conducive to high quality photographs.
The trick is knowing when the sun will fall at the proper angle. In most New England burying grounds the stones have an East/West orientation. This means that ideal conditions for photography are between 11:30 and 1:30. It follows that noontime, when the sun is directly overhead, is not an ideal time. At this point I usually take a break and have some lunch.
The rules for stones that do not have an East/West orientation are slightly different. According to gravestone photography guru Dan Farber “Stones that face North are lighted by the sun in late afternoon in midsummer, and are in shade at all other times of the year. Stones that face South are in a favorable position all day in mid summer, but are lighted from the front at all other seasons.”
For stones placed in shady areas another option is to try working with a mirror to light the stone. Use a tall, unbeveled, framed, door mirror. Twenty inches by sixty inches is ideal. The mirror can be placed as much as seventy-five feet away from the stone. Again, place the mirror so the light rakes across the face of the stone at an angle. I use an old broomstick handle with a pointed end (which goes in the ground) to brace the mirror in the right position. Experiment!
I also use a small hand held mirror to help me decipher worn epitaphs that are difficult to read. You’d be surprised at the difference it makes!
I use a thirty-five mm camera and have found that 200 speed film works well for me. Position the camera so that the sides of the stone are parallel with the viewer. In other words, don’t point the camera down toward the stone from a standing position. This results in a distorted picture and an inaccurate record. Sometimes, especially with smaller stones, this means keeling or lying down on the ground to get the camera on the same level as the stone. Bring an old sheet to lie on.
Sometimes you have to clean the stone of bird dropping, grass cuttings or mud before taking the photograph. I usually carry a few soft rags and a spray bottle of water. I never use a brush, because even the softest brush results in some abrasion to the surface of the stone.
Becoming proficient at gravestone photography is mostly a matter of experimentation and practice. However, these basic rules really helped me improve my own photography. Good luck and happy hunting!