“Help us find the ending to every family story.” This is the sentiment behind Find A Grave Community Days, an event in which genealogists and taphophiles everywhere are encouraged to “Help preserve your local cemetery.”
I hope you’ll join the cause! It’s an amazing way to pay it forward for any help you’ve received researching your family history.
Here are 10 steps to take better headstone pictures for Find A Grave Community Days:
1.) Choose a cemetery that calls to you in some way and one in which you feel safe. There are garden cemeteries, military cemeteries, family cemeteries, rural or urban cemeteries, and cemeteries desperately in need of tender loving care. My favorites tend to be historic with rolling hills, old architecture and mature trees like Rosehill and Oak Woods in Chicago, Bluff City in Elgin, and Fort Snelling, St Mary’s and Lakewood in Minneapolis.
2.) Check the Find A Grave stats. What percentage of the memorials are already photographed? You’ll also want to match the number of memorials (called interments on Find A Grave) to the number of interments (actual burials in the cemetery).
You can find the number of interments on the cemetery’s web site or by calling the cemetery office. Remember the % photographed is of the memorials added to Find A Grave, not the number of actual interments (burials) at the cemetery.
3.) Prepare for your visit before you head out the door. Consider putting a cemetery kit together. Do you have extra batteries? Is your phone fully charged? Be sure to pack water so you stay hydrated. And don’t forget to print a list of photo requests at Find A Grave. Hint – requests that include burial location information will be the easiest to fill.
4.) Arrive early or go late – when the sun isn’t directly overhead. To avoid casting shadows, photograph west facing headstones in the morning and east facing headstones in the afternoon. Head for shaded areas in the middle of the day.
5.) Park nearby but out of the way. You’ll want to be close to your vehicle to retrieve forgotten items or re-hydrate, but you don’t want your car to sneak into your pictures.
6.) Take pictures of the cemetery entrance signs and any signs marking the sections you visit.
7.) Plot your route around the section so you don’t retrace your steps and duplicate your efforts. I like to start at a corner and walk back and forth along the rows.
8.) Step back before shooting to see the bigger picture. Are there large family markers nears the individual stones? Family photos are particularly helpful to genealogists searching Find A Grave for missing ancestors.
9.) Look through your viewfinder or at your digital screen. Have you captured the entire headstone? It’s easy to lop off a corner or miss a spire on the top.
Is your angle the best for capturing all the information provided on each headstone? Sometimes straight-on shots are best, other times slightly-off to the side is better.
Rinse and repeat that last step. Do you see yourself reflected in the headstone? Are your feet showing at the bottom of the picture? Some things are easy to photo-shop out, others are impossible to correct.
10.) Use Windows 10, Photoshop, or the free editing program Pixlr (I like Pixlr Express) to straighten, crop or enhance your images. I love the “retouch” feature on Windows 10; it can be an effective tool for removing goose droppings.
Now that you’ve got some great shots – it’s time to upload your headstone pictures to Find A Grave.
PS. It’s super easy to add pictures to Find A Grave, just follow the instructions on the link above. But if you find you need a hand, please let me know. I’m always happy to help!
8 thoughts on “How to Take Better Headstone Pictures for Find A Grave”
Great question! Each photo editing tool has options worth trying and I’m always up for a challenge. Sometimes different colored filters yield readable results. Black and white sometimes make the letters easier to make out.
I’ve had better luck with hard-to-read headstones “live” rather than on photos I’d taken previously. In those instances, using a mirror to reflect the headstone face can be helpful, rubbings are popular, reading the headstone as if it were Braille has worked on several occasions.
But some old stones are so weathered or damaged, they are unreadable despite our most diligent efforts. I’ve searched for obituaries to match to burials in a few cases. Knowing the name helped me read the letters on some old headstones. One just has to be careful not to get too confident and ‘see’ letters that don’t exist!
I hope you’ll let me know the methods you try that yield the best results.
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Laura, I totally reblogged this on my page. Great post! I know I have quite a few I need to go back and redo because of lighting issues.
Aww, thanks PJ! I could have used my own advice for my first thousand or so photos. 🙂
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An interesting and useful piece.
I suggest four things:
1. Try to visit on a bright day at a time when the sun lights the memorial(s) from a narrow angle, which throws engraving into sharper relief. This generally works best on clear days in winter where, even at midday, the sun is low in the sky. There is also the benefit that deciduous trees cast less shade.
2. Digital cameras, including those on smart phones, can hold a lot of pictures and the only cost for repeats is your time. I take pictures from a range of angles and distances, maybe as many as 10 for one memorial, especially if the detail is difficult to make out. Where the inscription is feint it can be worth taking close-ups of some detail. Using flash can sometimes help in low light, for example in the shade of mature trees or large buildings (e.g. churches!), but can also “flatten” the image so it is hard to read.
3. Practise somewhere local so that you can revisit and develop successful techniques before travelling to places you may not be able to return to.
4. You could take a laptop or tablet, so that you can view enlarged pictures before you leave (or during a rain shower).
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Great suggestions Andrew – thanks so much for sharing!