While I’ve been interested in cemeteries for as long as I can remember, I’ve only started photographing them with serious intent just over ten years ago. At the time, I never questioned my decision about photographing them in black and white. David Robinson’s excellent cemetery photo book, Saving Graces, was shot entirely in black and white, and looking back now, it’s very clear to me how much influence those photographs had in my own photographic pursuits. However, cemetery images on various social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and others, are more often than not in colour, so I thought I’d explore the pros and cons of photographing cemeteries in colour or black and white.
Caveat: Personally, I am a film shooter, although most of the images on this site were taken with my iPhone, as it is much faster and easier to upload photos in a timely manner, something almost impossible to do with film, especially when I am travelling. I am aware, however, that most photographers out there are shooting digitally, and that it is a very easy thing to change a colour image to black and white in post-processing. That said, as someone who shoots both colour and black and white, I think it’s better to have a clear idea of what you want the end result to be, since what (and how) you photograph may be different depending on whether you shoot/print black and white or colour.
Black and White
A lot of cemetery images, especially be serious photographers, are often in black and white, and I don’t think that’s an accident.
It’s a monochrome world
I think when shooting in colour, in any situation, that colour should be the subject of the photograph. The most successful colour photographs are ones a) that feature a riot of colour (which is why we are often dawn to sunrises, sunsets, and over saturated digital images), b) focus on a limited palette of colours (Steve McCurry is a good example), or c) highlight a single colour in an otherwise pretty monochromatic scene (I do not mean selective colouring in a desaturated image).
Cemeteries are pretty monochromatic in nature to begin with. Especially in older cemeteries, where most of the monuments are made from sandstone, granite, or marble, with a few bronze or wooden ones to break the monotony. While some cemeteries have beautiful grounds and trees, many more may have none at all (like those in Europe which are all stone and cement), or not much more than a park, with grass and maybe a tree here or there. In addition, if you are shooting in the late fall or winter, you won’t have much colour at all, with leaves fallen and the grass turned brown. As such, I think it’s hard to have successful colour images from cemeteries, since you are mostly just photographing the same shades of grey, white, green, and brown.
Colour can be a distraction
We are drawn to colour. Which is why, when I see images of cemeteries shot in colour, I’m almost always distracted by the background, rather than the primary focus of the photograph, which is usually a statue or monument. Most of these statues are white or grey, the least attractive colour in a colour scene, so it’s no wonder that one can get distracted by everything else around it. In black and white, however, all the distracting colour has been removed, so it much easier to focus on the main subject and not be distracted by other elements in the photograph.
Black and white images have a timeless feel
Up until 50-70 years ago, most photographs were shot and printed in black and white. Then colour came along, and that’s what most people have been shooting with ever since. As such, I think shooting in colour has become a habit for most people, but not a conscious choice. They shoot colour because that’s all they’ve ever done. Those that shoot (or create a final image) in black and white are making a conscious choice to do so. As someone who shoots in black and white, I know that I shoot differently in black and white than I do in colour. When shooting film I almost always shoot with a yellow (or sometimes red) filter, and I’m so used to seeing the world that way that I feel a bit lost when I shoot in colour only. Funnily enough, I don’t have that sensation when using my phone, but that may be because I’m not looking through a lens, and/or I know what the Instagram filter will do to my image when I’m finished. But as cemeteries are pretty monochrome to begin with, that probably helps too.
Although I am personally drawn to black and white images, I think there are plenty of arguments as to why you would choose to photograph cemeteries in colour.
Colour is the subject of the photograph
To repeat what I said above, often the most successful colour photographs are ones a) that feature a riot of colour, b) focus on a limited palette of colours, or c) highlight a single colour in an otherwise pretty monochromatic scene. Photographers who focus on one or more of these options will have a nice cohesive portfolio of images to choose from. Let’s look at each of these points in more detail:
- Its nothing but colour
I think the most obvious example here would be photographing stained glass, whether it be in chapels, mausoleums, or tombs. Mosaics would be another option, as would fresh cut flowers, or the natural flora that appears seasonally, especially in spring and summer. Some cemeteries feature flower gardens over each grave (something I noticed was quite common in Germany, so much so that florists/gardeners can make a living planting new flowers for each season change, as nearly every grave was cared for in this way. Similarly if one is inclined to shoot more modern monuments (which can be problematic), there are often more colour choices in the monuments, as well as materials used (like coloured glass).
Outside of the smaller monuments, it’s possible that the grounds, the buildings, and/or the view can only really be appreciated in colour. For example, when I visited Bologna’s Certosa cemetery, I was blown away by the beautiful colours of the stonework. The buildings, from cool cream to coral to faded browns. That, combined with the beautiful light illuminating everything, made me curse not having any colour film on me at the time. The monuments there were as beautiful as any that I had seen in Europe, but is the colour of the buildings that I really remember.
Another good example is Waverley cemetery in Sydney, Australia, one that I have never been to but always shows up in top ten lists. From what I can tell of the photos I have seen of the cemetery, it’s not that the cemetery itself is that memorable, but the view is. After all, how many cemeteries are right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean? Again, this is where colour really shines, as what you want would be the deep blues of the sea and sky.
- There is a limited colour palette
As mentioned above, cemeteries are pretty monochromatic in nature, but there are times when focusing on those limited colour palettes can really work for you. Here in Japan, some cemeteries are a riot of green – green moss, green leaves, green ivy, etc. And in certain conditions or light, those greens can be really luminescent. On the opposite end of the spectrum can be subjects that have practically lost their colour, like dead flowers. I’m particularly drawn to them with their limited, mostly pastel-like colours.
- Highlight a colour
- Uneven horizons/lines: There’s just no excuse for this, especially when images are shared online. With Photoshop, Lightroom, Instagram, and numerous other photo apps out there, you always have a quick fix to straighten a horizon or other straight horizontal line. I’ve had to do this many times, since I cannot always get an even photo due to various factors.
- Extreme lens distortion: Most phones have wide-angle lenses (helps with selfies and is why we get duck faces). Wide-to-tele zooms (a one-size-fits-all lens, for example, 18-300mm) are popular but usually have terrible distortion at both ends of the range. Buildings should not tilt 45* inward. Look around you – I bet every vertical line around you is 90*. It really bothers me to see this kind of lens distortion. I understand that people want to get everything in, but is it worth it? Why not take a few steps backward and use a more reasonable lens? Or, if that’s not possible, fix that distortion with some photo editing app. In many cases you may not be able to fix it entirely, but it will still look better than if you leave it as is.
- Overly-saturated and/or bad HDR images: Look, just because you can do something, does it mean you should? When it comes to photography, often less is more. Unfortunately there are many cringe-worthy images out there, images that would be much more interesting to look at if the photographer had resisted the urge to the saturation slider as far to the right as possible. Funky blue skies, neon green grass, purple or blown out whites are all unreal and distracting to the extreme. Similarly, there are a lot of HDR images out there that are too unrealistic in their depictions. If you are shooting into the sun, it is impossible that everything in your field of view will be well-lit. I mean, how could it? If the sun is behind your subject, it’s not illuminating it. Yet I’ve seen plenty of images where this is presented, and it doesn’t t look real. Even in real life, our eyes do not see everything lit equally. They can quickly adjust for shadows or bright light, but we still can’t see both equally at the same time. Yet images are often presented this way. No. Don’t get me wrong: HDR, if done right, can make an image sing. But if I notice the HDR-ness about it, then it’s failed. It’s like watching a movie with special effects. You’re not supposed to notice the effects. If you do, it’s often considered a failing.
- Unreal images: This is a tricky one. But let’s start with saying I think there’s a difference between presenting something as a photograph, and other images that are more art than photographs. Both have their place. I’m not arguing against photographic art, but I want to know that that’s what it is. So there are a few examples of this:
- Adding elements that are not there: A common subject that I’ve seen added to cemetery photographs are ravens or crows. I don’t often see either when I go to cemeteries, but I can say that when I do, the second I move a camera to my face, the birds always fly away. Always. Yet it’s not unusual to see multiple birds sitting on graves, circling round them, etc. I’m not discounting that this might happen in some cemeteries in the world, somewhere, but I’m pretty sceptical of seeing so many of these images. Other “add-ins” I’m not overly fond of are dramatic skies, ‘ghosts’, completely black backgrounds, etc.
- Removing elements from a scene: Look, I understand it. You photograph a beautiful statue and then you notice some bird droppings on it. And some power lines in the background. Or you just don’t like the background at all, so you make it all black. I’m not against creating an ‘idealized’ image, just let me know that you’ve done so. Even in the age of Photoshop, I still expect to see the reality of an image. If it’s been overly doctored, then I would appreciate knowing that too (it’s no coincidence that in recent years magazines now have to indicate the manipulation on their covers, as the idealized images of models leads to u realistic expectations).
- Colour infrared: Converting your digital camera to shoot infrared is popular, and while I understand the appeal of the unworldly images it can create, especially in cemeteries, but I’m not a huge fan of it personally. This is something that has surprised me, since I shoot black and white infrared a lot, yet it is much closer to a regular black and white image than a colour (digital) image is to regular colour. *