In my last post, I wrote about how light is probably the most important aspect of a successful photograph. Despite anyone’s preferences for a certain kind of light, the fact is any and all kinds of light have their disadvantages. The key is knowing how that light will work both for and against you, and figuring out how to deal with it. However, this time I’d like to focus on a few other aspects of creating successful cemetery photographs.
Tip 2: Focus on your subject (i.e. “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”)
Too many times I see photographs that have too much going on in them. Sometimes, it’s pretty basic – you’ve taken a photograph of a monument and basically present it as is. In many cases it would be better to crop out all of the extraneous details. It may include other gravestones or other monuments, trees, etc. Of course, if you are photographing the cemetery for documentary purposes, it’s important to include these details, but if you are interested in photographing just a statue or a headstone, then that should be your subject. Fill your frame with as much of it as you can, and try find ways to eliminate background distractions. This can mean shooting it from a higher or lower angle than you are accustomed to. However, sometimes this is impossible due to the way the cemetery is laid out. If that’s the case, make it work to your advantage. You might not get the shot you had in mind, but you may get something even better.
If you have a camera that has some manual controls, use them! A lot of people tend to shoot on automatic or program mode, but there are other ways of shooting as well. Generally speaking, when shooting on automatic, your camera will have most everything in focus. That’s okay if you are going for the larger picture, but if you want to separate your subject from the background, then using a larger aperture (f/1.8-5.6) will help you achieve this. In fact, if you have a portrait mode on your camera, it’s basically doing the same thing. I find this particularly useful when the light is more flat, and/or if there are busy backgrounds that I can’t do anything about, or if I want to focus on one particular element. For example, I’m quite fond of photographing hands and feet, and will keep them in focus while throwing the rest of the statue out of focus.
Tip 3: Have a focus/theme
This seems kind of obvious, but not everyone does it. When I first thought about photographing cemeteries, I knew exactly what I wanted to do – photograph grieving women, a la David Robinson (see his excellent book Saving Graces), as well as angels. I really wasn’t interested in anything else. However, it became clear to me in my first cemetery that I would have to be a bit more flexible in my subjects, since there were so many beautiful statues that went beyond my preferred focus. Also, as this blog developed, I also realised that I would need other kinds of photos as well (the main gate, interesting symbols or epitaphs, etc.) that would be useful for the blog, but necessarily my main project. Long-time readers (!) of this blog will notice that the earlier posts don’t have much to them, because I wasn’t really thinking of photos for the blog when I first started. As a result of me becoming more flexible in terms of what I photographed, I also became more flexible in terms of the kinds of places I photographed – in the beginning it was strictly cemeteries, but now I go to all types of burial spaces and memorial grounds. Despite that however, my main focus is still (non-religious) grieving women (or men). If I have limited time or light, that’s what I focus on. Through that, certain sub-themes have emerged, like photographing hands or feet (as mentioned above), photographing damaged statues or those that have been extremely worn down by time, and anything that’s made of wood or iron. And although I don’t really photograph these subjects myself, I’m quite interested in stained glass windows, various versions of the pieta or Christ on the cross, photographs on headstones, and interesting epitaphs.
What am trying to say here? Basically, have a particular theme that you want to focus on, but of course leave yourself room to photograph other things that interest you too. You may find that the more you do so, the more of an “expert” you’ll become on your topic. For instance, since I spend so much time photographing specific kinds of statues, it has become quite easy for me to find copies of original statues, or to see certain influences across different cemeteries. If you spend time on stained glass windows, for example, you’ll begin to notice real differences in terms of quality the more you photograph them.
All this of course, is directly connected to the next tip, which is:
Tip 4: Know what your end product is going to be
Okay, so you’ve gone out and photographed your cemeteries. Now what? What was the purpose of all of this? Is it just for your personal enjoyment? Is it for your blog? Are you going to have an exhibition, or are you planning on creating a book? Are you documenting the cemetery for a particular group? Or is it some combination of all or some of these? Regardless of what you are are planning to do with the photos, knowing what the final product will be will have some impact on not only what you photograph, but also what you use to take those photographs.
As you can see, up to now I haven’t mentioned equipment at all, since in the grand scheme of things, your vision and experience will count a lot more than what you use to take pictures. That said, you may be limiting yourself based on what you are shooting with. For this blog I’ve been using my trusty iPhone 5s, which has a decent camera, but it’s not great. Good enough for the blog and online viewing, but if I wanted to print the photos I’d end up with very small pictures, since the file sizes on the phone are quite small.
For my own personal photography project, I shoot black and white film, process and print myself. I have a very specific look I want for the final portfolio of work, and since I am still building up a library of images to use, I haven’t done much final printing yet, since my paper stocks are limited. But for my blog I also chose a very specific theme as well – it’s all black and white (with few exceptions), and virtually all images go through the same Instagram filter, which gives everything a very cohesive look. That sense of cohesion can your photos a very specific look, and will allow you (or anyone who knows your work) to recognise it immediately.
Are your pictures going to be in black and white, colour, or black and white with selective colouring, or colour with extreme HDR effects added to it, or are you going to do something more obscure, like print cyanotypes or platinum prints? Are you shooting infrared? Are you shooting small (35mm), medium, or large format? Film or digital? What kind of camera are you going to use? Your phone or tablet? A simple point and shoot? A big SLR/DSLR? An old camera with a simple lens (like a Brownie) or a plastic camera like a Holga? All of these decisions can impact what your photos will look like. When I go shooting I usually have at least three cameras on me – an old Rolleiflex TLR, a Holga, and my phone. I sometimes carry a fourth camera too, an old manual 35mm Nikon camera, usually for infrared, or for a film/speed I don’t have in my main camera. Now, I know that this is a moot point if you shoot digitally (and most of you do I imagine), but the Holga look, for example, is impossible to replicate digitally (at least I’ve never seen a successful attempt). I also like having a back up camera in case something happens to my main user. Now, I don’t always do this, especially when I’m out and about locally, in which case the only camera I’ll have on me is my phone. The point though is that each camera has a specific purpose (TLR-black and white, Holga – experiments, Nikon – infrared, phone – blog), each working on the main or sub-themes.
The two photos below are good examples of what I’ve written about so far. First, the light. The one on the left was shot on a grey November morning, the one on the right in the harsh light of early September. You can see the difference in how both the statue and the backgrounds are illuminated. The one on the left was shot with film in a Holga camera – the film rebate and vignetting you see is really there, it has not been digitally added – it’s one of the hallmarks of shooting with this camera. The one on the right was shot with my phone. It’s okay, but doesn’t have the same creamy quality of the first. Finally, the one on the left is what I hope most of my final images will look like – all done with lith printing, a specific darkroom technique (which kind of can be imitated digitally, but, like digital Holga, doesn’t look quite right). The one on the right has gone through the same Inkwell filter that most of the other images on this site have been through. Both images have their place – they each work within the different bodies of work I’m producing – one on paper, for display, the other digitally, for this blog.
If you are going to display the images in some way, are you going to show them individually, or as a diptych/triptych? If you are printing them, is it going to be on regular paper, aluminum, canvas, or some other substrate/method? Of course, those decisions can be made after the fact, but if you plan ahead you take those photos ahead of time and create a much more thought-out result. Knowing what you want the end result to look like can alter your decisions while you are photographing. This is especially important, if, like me, you photograph cemeteries when you travel, and you don’t have the opportunity to revisit the place more than once (if ever).
Tip 5: Don’t be afraid to experiment
A lot of people often do the following: they see something they like, they stop, they take a picture of it, and then they move on. This is fine if you are in a hurry, but if you’re not, why not slow down and experiment a little? In the age of digital photography, it costs nothing to take multiple photos of the same subject (and I don’t just mean holding the shutter down for a burst of ten photos in the space of second). When you come across an interesting monument, check the back and the sides. Sometimes you can get a much more interesting photo that way. If shoot colour, why not try black and white (or vice versa)? If you shoot digitally, why not try film? Try double or multiple exposures. Experiment with different focal lengths and f-stops.
Even for me, although I shoot film, and often have a limited amount when I’m travelling, I always try to take multiple photos of statues that I am particularly interested in – in some cases, an entire roll of film (this sounds like a lot, but I shoot medium format film, which only gives me 12 shots a roll). Other times I’ll come back at different times of day (if possible) to photograph the statues I like in different kinds of light.
Tip 6: Don’t forget the details
Sometimes we focus too much on the bigger, showier monuments, and forget that the smaller details can be just as interesting. In some cases this can mean the lettering on a gravestone, interesting epitaphs, photographs, flowers, different reliefs or small carvings that may appear randomly, or with regularity. It can also be spider webs, rocks, grasses, trees, and other natural elements that exist in and around the cemetery. In fact, you may even discover that you’ve developed an eye for certain details and soon enough may have an entire portfolio of work dedicated to it. Military crests, spider webs, and dead flowers are all things that attract me and that I have more than my fair share of images of. What I will do with them is another question altogether.
Tip 7: Colour or Black and White?
I’ve touched on this in other sections of this and the previous post, but it’ll take much more than a paragraph or two to answer, so I’ve created another post about it which will appear on this blog shortly. In the meantime, here are some colour shots of flowers I shot while visiting German cemeteries in the spring:
I have a few more things to say about visiting and photographing cemeteries, but I will continue that in another post here.
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