Friday, July 08, 2005

Tips for Photographing Cemetery Markers

I think most genealogists agree that cemeteries are attractive places to spend time. We make any number of visits to cemeteries each year. This includes cemeteries in which the remains of our ancestors and families are located, and often cemeteries of particular interest. The bumper sticker, “I Brake for Cemeteries,” may seem strange to non-genealogists but it certainly is a serious statement to genealogists following a car with such a bumper sticker down a highway or back road!

It is natural to want to take photographs of family tombstones. The clarity of the image may be very important for the purpose of recording the engraved information or for documentary evidence. The disappointment of getting a poor image and unreadable text can be overwhelming.

In "Along Those Lines . . ." this week, I want to discuss several methods of obtaining better photographic images from your cemetery visits.

Absolute Don'ts!
There are any number of methods that have been used by people to get photographs and other images of graves, tombs, mausoleums, columbaria, and other markers over the years. Let's first define some of the “no-no's” before we go to the positive approaches.

First, be sure that you are allowed to enter a cemetery. Some cemeteries are private, and you should therefore look for signs that say so.

Next, look for signs that may state that photographing, applying anything to a marker, attempting to clean a marker, or making rubbings may be prohibited. When in doubt, seek out the cemetery administrator, if there is one available, or use extreme common sense. I heard from a woman in Ohio a few years ago who ignored the “no rubbings” warning and, as she was working, a policeman walked up and arrested her. She was taken to the courthouse where she ended up paying a $400.00 fine for ignoring posted warnings and for the desecration of a gravesite!

Second, remember that some markers, especially older ones that have been exposed to the elements and perhaps to acid rain, may have become fragile. Run your hand over the surface of a marker and, if it is gritty or if sandy-type granules easily are dislodged and rub off, the stone has deteriorated and may not take any pressure whatsoever. Treat them with care. Don't apply any pressure to the marker, and explain to any children visiting the cemetery with you are warned to be exceeding careful!

Don't try to “clean” a tombstone. The discoloration is natural, and moss or lichen will attach themselves to the stone's surface. Applying bleach, scraping with a brush, or using any type of abrasive tool may permanently damage the marker.

Finally, don't ever apply anything to a marker that contains any chemicals. Bleach is certainly one of these chemicals, as are muriatic acid and similar chemicals. This also includes shaving cream! Shaving creams contain chemical ingredients such as stearic acid and palmitic acid, both of which can damage stone markers. The residue of anything chemical will permeate into the porous surface of the marker and continue to further its disintegration long after you have driven away.

Safe Things to Do
Cemetery marker companies are usually experts in cleaning tombstones made of different types of stones. The cost of such cleaning is quite reasonable; you just need to get on the company's schedule. This may not help you, especially if you are making an impromptu visit to a family plot and live some distance away.

Marble stones (not others) have a particular consistency caused by their metamorphic origin. HydroClean Restoration Cleaning Systems, a division of Hydrochemical Techniques, Inc. of Hartford, Connecticut, makes a product called HT-777 Marble Poultice. It is a biodegradable product that, when mixed with water, forms a creamy, non- acidic paste that will remove both organic and inorganic stains from polished marble. Data sheets for this and other products manufactured by this company can be found on their website ( These are professional, architectural cleaning products and should be used with extreme care in accordance to the manufacturer's instructions.

A much easier and safer approach to improving the contrast between a marker's surface and the engraving or stone carving on it is to use cornstarch. I've used this many, many times and have achieved great success with it. I take a small handful of the dry cornstarch and toss it into the engraving, one small area at a time.

When I've completed this step, I use a very soft 1” or 2” paintbrush to whisk away the excess cornstarch on the surface of the stone. A paintbrush works well because you can use the broadness to cover large areas and the narrow side to get in between carved letters and numbers. For really fine work, I also take a cosmetic blush-applicator brush.

Once the cornstarch is applied, you will find it creates an excellent contrast for photography or videography. When you are finished, use water to wash as much of the cornstarch off of the stone as possible. The beauty of cornstarch is does not become a doughy blob when you apply the water, and it also is 100% biodegradable. There are no harmful chemicals and so your work is ecologically safe and also chemical-free.

Sunlight or other artificial light sources are necessary for some of the best photographs. Some of the markers we want to photograph, though, are in a shadowy area, perhaps by a wall or under a tree. Achieving good contrast between the marker's surface and the engraving can be difficult. Flash photography can help in some cases, but in others you have to be very careful to take the picture at a slight angle. A polished stone will act as a mirror, and the engraving will be partially or totally illegible.

Another way to approach shaded areas or markers which are unlit by direct sunlight is to introduce indirect lighting. There are two simple ways that I do this.

First, if the sun is behind a stone or at another angle and the stone is not being lit, I use a light reflector. Mine is a large, polished aluminum cookie sheet. I can set it up at an angle to reflect light onto the marker's face, always setting it to the side in order to reduce any glare. To hold it in place, I can use sticks or twigs in the area, another adjacent marker, or can use a couple of screwdrivers from my automobile emergency kit. A tire iron will also work. Arrange the reflector, aim it at the marker, and take your picture.

In the event that the marker is in complete shade, I can use the same reflector method but use a high powered flashlight as my light source.

Digital Photographs
Not everyone has invested in a digital camera yet. However, if you already own one, you still may have the challenge of getting clear and legible cemetery marker images. The tiny LCD preview display makes it difficult to really see the details of what you will or did get on the photograph. I always take two or more pictures of the marker from different angles. There is no cost for wasted film or prints, and I can choose the best image when I get home and download the images to my computer.

In addition, there are many graphics software programs on the market that can be used to edit the photographs you take. They are powerful editors, but by far the simplest commands to achieve better images are “contrast” and “brightness.” However, with some study of the features and a little trial-and-error experimentation on copies of the image you want to preserve, you can hone your skills to make your digital photographs sharper.

'Tis the Season
Summertime is the ideal season to visit cemeteries, especially when traveling or attending a family reunion. Be sure to take your cellular phone, insect repellent, a hat or sun visor, and lots of sunscreen. Wear comfortable, flat shoes, and loose-fitting long sleeve shirts, long pants, and socks to protect you from briars and nettles. A good pair of cotton or lightweight leather work gloves is also advisable. And don't forget to take lots of bottled water to keep hydrated.

Happy Photographing!

George is president and a proud member of the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors. Visit the ISFHWE website
for more information about that organization. Visit George's website
for information about speaking engagements.

Copyright 2005, All rights reserved.


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