I spend a lot of time on various cemetery blogs, SNS groups, and reading articles about cemeteries in general. There is usually a really large range of photographs, and while some are truly beautiful or moving, many more are not. Generally I find the photos that accompany these sites tend to fall into one of the following categories:
- Strictly documentary: the images are mostly done to document the cemetery, or statues, or gravestones. There is little to no thought about composition, lighting, or general aesthetic. This ranges from people who take selfies (!) in cemeteries to those who are documenting their local cemetery to those who are doing research, to those who have some interest in cemeteries and maybe photography, but are not particularly skilled in the latter. It also includes images for blogs.
- As a photographic endeavour: here the focus is primarily on using the cemetery as a particular subject matter for a photographic project or exercise. Some like the otherworldly effect of infrared, and cemeteries are particularly suited to that aesthetic. Some have a particular focus – statues, stained glass, flowers, iron fences/crosses, etc and are building a body of work to that end. In these instances, there is usually more thought and consideration taken for focus and framing, lighting, time of day/seasons, and the overall purpose of the image.
- As an artistic endeavour: this is quite close to the previous one, but slightly different in that the final result is not a true representation of what the cemetery is. I would put infrared (colour) photography here, as well as those who use extreme HDR or other post-processing techniques to their images. Blurring or blacking out backgrounds, adding elements that were never there to begin with (unnatural red skies, multiple ravens just hanging out, etc) are all examples of this.
As for me, I’ve fallen within the first two categories at different, and sometimes concurrent points in my life – the photos I do for the blog are taken with my phone and, in the case of symbols, signs, and other similar elements, are meant more to be a document than anything else. But the film photos I take for myself are part of a much larger photo project and I would like to think are more interesting than simple documentary photos. So what follows is not meant to be a critique of any particular aesthetic, but perhaps as a guideline for those who are interested in improving their cemetery photos, or are thinking about doing something different with them.
I’m assuming that if you are reading this, then you have some interest in improving the quality of your photos. The title of this article is, after all, the art of photographing cemeteries. Some of the suggestions below may be specific to cemeteries, but most would be applicable to photography in general. And of course, the caveat: while most of the suggestions will be based on my experiences, as well as my own preferences, there is no right or wrong way to do any of this. If what you are doing makes you happy, keep doing it – you have no one to please but yourself.
Tip 1: It’s all about the light
This is photography 101. Now, we all know that photo+graphy means “writing with light”, but it’s important to consider the quality of the light. Is it a bright sunny day with no clouds? Sunny with clouds? Mostly cloudy with sun shining through on occasion? Bright overcast or gloomy overcast? Is it (or has has it been recently) raining? Are you shooting at midday, or early in the morning/late in the afternoon? What about night photography?
Now, I know that many people hope for bright sunny blue sky days when they travel (or just in general), but really, this type of lighting is rarely good for photographs. The sun is too bright, and it’s hard for anything to compete with it. Shadows are harsh, the light is very contrasty, and details (colours) get washed out pretty quickly. I often travel during the summer months but I hate it from a photographer’s perspective – and even more so when photographing in cemeteries. However, we don’t always have a choice about when we can photograph certain things, so sometimes you just have to make do.
That said, there are instances when harsh light can work to your advantage.
Specifically, hard shadows can be useful in framing your subject, or in providing a dark background to make your foreground subject pop, or to highlight a particular aspect of what you are photographing, or to provide interesting reflections.
My favourite type of light is bright overcast: the sun is out, but hidden behind a light layer of clouds – this still allows some pop to the subjects, without the harsh shadows or the blown details. A second favourite is just regular overcast days, something I seem to get a lot of in my travels. I used to be so disappointed with these kind of days, until I realized that a good number of my favourite photographs have been taken on days just like this. In essence, the sky becomes a huge softbox that illuminates everything evenly. If it has been raining, that’s an even bigger boon for the cemetery photographer, since you’ll get more details out of the stone than when it’s dry. Another benefit of rain or drizzle is that a wet ground provides more reflections and bounces back more light than dry ground does. Hollywood knows this – virtually every scene shot at night, no matter what the location, will have wet streets, because of this. Now, if you’re shooting in a more park-like cemetery this will have limited value, and, in fact may be a detriment due to the slick grass and possibly mud, but for older cemeteries like many European ones, that have very little vegetation but a lot of stone and cement, photographing on drizzly days, or just after the rain is great.
Another important consideration about light is the time of day you visit a cemetery. Some statues or monuments may only be fully illuminated at certain times of the day, the rest of the time they may be in full or partial shadow. Of course, as the sun passes overhead, the shadows will change too, which can create some different effects on what you are photographing.
Connected to this is the time of year you visit a cemetery. Shooting on a sunny day in July will be different than the same in December, if for no other reason than the fact that as the position of the sun changes with the seasons, so too will the direction of the light and shadows. Of course, this depends where you are in the world – if you have true seasonal variations (like most do in the Northern Hemisphere) then there will be significant differences between photographing in summer compared to winter. The closer you live to the equator, this will not really be a factor.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of photographing in summer – the light is harsh, there are rarely cloudy days, and the vegetation is at its peak which often means dappled light in places with a lot of trees, or the obscurement of various monuments due to ivy or high grasses/weeds, depending on the upkeep of the cemetery. Now, as mentioned above, these are not necessarily bad things. I like to photograph cemeteries with infrared film on occasion, so a lot of vegetation really works in those situations. But if I could choose, I would pick any season other than summer – there’s likely to be more variation in the weather (and thus light), the foliage is mostly gone or not so full, allowing for more light, and just generally speaking, has more of the aesthetic we associate with cemeteries – empty trees, dead foliage on the ground, etc. Of course, this is just a personal preference, others may feel differently.
Finally, there is the issue of photographing cemeteries at night or other low light situations, like crypts, vaults, and other interior spaces where low light is not condusive to handholding a camera. Now, it should go without saying that you should only be photographing these places if it’s allowed, and in the case of using a tripod, that you have permission to do so. I know that some cemeteries offer night walks or tours, but in those cases where you probably won’t have time or permission to use a tripod, your only hope will be having a camera that performs well in low-light situations. In certain situations, it may be possible to use a tripod, and if you can, I would highly encourage you to do so. It will give you the opportunity to get photos that are a bit different than everyone else’s.
Now, I’m kind of lucky in that I live in Japan and most cemeteries are connected to temples, and while the temple grounds may be closed at night, often the cemetery isn’t. That said, I wouldn’t recommend visiting just any temple cemetery, since most are pretty uninteresting, and more importantly, are not lit at night. But the biggest, most beautiful cemetery in the country, Okunoin cemetery in Koyasan, is open 24 hours, and the main paths are lit at night with traditional lanterns. Although there are some tours that go through there at night, there is plenty of room to set up a tripod to take long exposures of interesting monuments. Similarly, some temples have “light-ups” during O-bon, the Japanese version of the day of the dead, which happens mid-August every year. I was able to photograph the impressive Daishoin cemetery in Hagi, where they light 500+ lanterns once a year. I’ve also received official permission to photograph with a tripod at Staglieno cemetery in Italy, since many of the statues are inside the colonnades that often have low light. However, as you can see, in the 120+ cemeteries I’ve visited, I’ve only used a tripod a few times, so it’s not something most of us can consider. However, if you have the chance to do so, make sure of course that you a) either have permission, or b) know that it’s not forbidden, and conduct yourself in a respectful and unobtrusive manner. Don’t be the person whose actions cause a ban for other photographers in the future.
Well, that’s the end of the first part of this series. Please check out part two and part three for further discussions about photographing cemeteries.
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