List A Cemetery
Have you ever considered listing a cemetery? We tend to regard monumental inscriptions as permanent and enduring but that is simply not so. Monuments and markers fall victim to many perils - subsidence, falling and breaking, vandalism, fire, flood, corrosion, flaking, erosion, rising salt and termites, to name just a few. How often I have managed to track down an ancestor's grave only to find nothing at all to mark the spot! Already, a significant number of the headstones pictured on this quite young website have disappeared.
Cemeteries contain important historical records and I believe that it is important that our history be preserved. With modern technology, it has become possible to store images and details of inscriptions for posterity that may remain long after the original has been lost.
The following notes have been put together based on my own experience over several years in the hope that they may be useful for anyone who may be thinking of recording a cemetery, using a digital camera.
The most important thing to consider when selecting a camera for cemetery work is the amount of optical zoom it has. As long as it has the capacity to produce a small picture of reasonable quality - say from 1 megapixels - it is more than adequate for cemetery images. Digital zoom does not enter the equation since it only degrades the quality of an image and I never use it. Optical zoom is what it is all about. Get the most optical zoom you can afford.
My first digital camera had 2 times optical zoom and I managed with it for a couple of years. But I was constantly stretching, reaching or kneeling for close-up pictures of inscriptions and a full day's work was exhausting. Finally, I bought a camera that had 8 times optical zoom and consider that it was the best investment I have ever made in a camera. I have since updated to a model with 11 times optical zoom. This allows me to work in comfort and has overcome the problem of taking pictures of myself, reflected in polished granite tablets. Even small plaques placed on the bottom of monuments can fill the picture if you have enough zoom. It is particularly useful when you cannot get close to a stone that is inside an enclosure or when photographing plaques on a columbarium wall. Remember, however, that the more zoom you use, the more you need to steady the camera to avoid shake and hence image blur. Modern cameras are equipped with image stabilisation capabilities.
There is an obvious need to balance picture quality with the storage capacity of your picture cards. I set my camera to a resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels - never less. The latter enables me to store a full day's work on a 1gb card.
Ideally, each image should be in landscape mode so that it will display best on a computer monitor, and be square-on and perpendicular to the face of the stone. This means that, where possible, the photographer should stand at the centre of the foot of the grave and at a distance necessary to get the face of the camera and the tablet as parallel as possible. The further you move from this line - up, down, left or right - the more elongated and unnatural looking will the image be.
Try to achieve an image that is horizontal; lining up the top or bottom of the viewfinder or monitor with the top or bottom of the tablet helps. Some cameras are capable of displaying a grid on the monitor and viewfinder which is a great assistance in getting images level and centred. What if the monument is leaning? If not too much, make the monument vertical in your image but if the lean is great, go for the horizon otherwise the whole world will look crazy. I should emphasise that all these things are ideals and compromise is the order of the day but the more you can get right the better the result will be.
If the stone is tall, take an image of the whole of it (in portrait mode, if you like) followed by further close-up images in landscape format of individual inscriptions on it. Pictures of monuments are interesting but the prime object is to obtain an image of the inscription on it that is readable. The most difficult stones to image are the speckled gray or red granite, especially when the paint has disappeared from the engraving. Sometimes, it is possible to take a very side-on view of the stone to get the benefit of reflected light; sometimes it is virtually impossible to obtain a readable image.
I used to use a notebook to write down inscriptions that I knew would not come up well on the digital image. But I found that a small handheld note-taker (cassette recorder) was much easier to manage. I simply suspend it from a wrist strap on my left arm so it's easy to flick it on and use whenever I need to note something. My darling wife transcribes these notes for me so when I sit at the computer to compile the list of inscriptions, I can refer to the notes whenever I find a hard-to-read image. The note-taker is also handy to make general observations about the cemetery or its location for future reference.
Best Time to Work
Traditionally, older cemeteries were laid out so that the headstones faced to the east. This is less common now with curved or back to back rows. But in most cases, the easterly aspect applies to the majority of graves. This means that up until shortly after noon, the sun falls directly on most inscriptions and provides the clearest picture. Old stones that have deep but weathered carvings are best taken in late morning when the sun is nearly at right angles and casts shadow into the engraving, bringing the text into sharp relief.
After noon, conditions for photography steadily deteriorate. The sun comes more and more from behind the inscription, which is then dark in comparison to its background. This results in high contrast and difficult-to-read inscriptions. It also causes polished tablets to reflect what the sun is falling on - notably the photographer and the flowers and other objects on the grave's surface. If your camera has a good optical zoom, and the tablet is set back from vertical, you can stand far enough back to avoid a lot of the problem. The quality of the light is another factor to consider - early morning and late afternoon light is very yellow and can produce unwelcome results.
Personally, I prefer to work on overcast days. As long as the sky is reasonably bright, you can achieve virtually perfect contrast and clear, easy-to read inscriptions. White marble tablets partly in shade and partly in brilliant sunshine or in mottled sunlight cease to be a problem. When these problems do crop up, a companion may be able to shade the inscription to reduce the extremes of contrast.
All my material is fed into a database so I find it easiest to use a spreadsheet to compile the list of inscriptions and to link the images to the inscriptions. But a Word table can be used or even a tab-delimited text file. Templates are available on request by email. I load the cemetery images and spreadsheet and tile them horizontally on screen with the digital images at the top. I also load and minimise the web pages for BDM indexes and military rolls for quick reference as I work. When the list has been completed, my wife views and calls back the details from each image while I check the data entered on the spreadsheet. I leave the data in sequential order to facilitate subsequent updates of the cemetery but, more especially, to preserve the relationship between graves as family members are often buried in the same area. Once the list is alphabetised, this valuable relationship is lost. If an alphabetical list is required, it's a good idea to make a copy of the original list and re-sort that.
- Avoid sunburn - slip, slop, slap!
- Take and drink plenty of fluids.
- Watch out for snakes, spiders, broken glass, ant nests and rabbit holes.
- Never stand on a grave. The surface may be fragile and conceal a cavity beneath it.
- Don't interfere with anything on a grave - take a picture of it "as-is" and then record any details that may be obscured.
- Do work with a friend if possible, park in the shade and pack a nice picnic basket.