Photographing cemeteries may sound morbid in theory, but they are often wonderful places for photography and yield opportunities for stunning and informative shots. Cemeteries are not always easy places to photograph. In this article, we will explore how to photograph cemeteries so you end up with great shots.
The influence of the sun
Lighting can completely change your image’s look and feel in any given scene. This is especially true when photographing cemeteries.
The morning is arguably the best time to take photos of cemeteries, and this reasoning has its roots in historical tradition. Cemeteries have the deceased buried facing an eastern direction, making the headstones eastern as well. Because of the famous saying dictating how the sun sets and rises, the morning time reigns supreme in producing the best photographs. But as with any photography shoot, each location will vary and you need to work out the best time for the shot that you want to take.
It is also equally as essential to consider any potential intervening factors such as weather conditions or buildings that might cast unwanted shadows in your scene. For example, there might be a tall tree that blocks the first few hours of sunlight in your scene so you get a really strong contrast between bright areas and dark areas. You can of course look to photograph the scene at another time in the day or even another time of year. But that may not always be possible.
So sometimes you may need some form of artificial lighting to just brighten up some areas of a composition. The extent that you go to will come down to your equipment and the type of photo that you are looking to capture. But often something like a few small LED lights can really help brighten up those shadowy areas.
Focusing on the details
One of the intriguing things about cemeteries is incredible carvings and sculptures. So make sure you keep your eyes open for interesting details that you can photograph. Some cemeteries such as Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb are works of art in themselves with incredible details and architecture. Remember that the details don’t have to be grand scenes. Even an interesting door handle can look great in photos.
There is no doubt that photographing cemeteries raises some ethical questions as well. Sometimes you will need permits to photograph these places. But if photography is allowed always keep in mind where you are. Simple things such as not walking on graves should be upheld. Needless to say that you shouldn’t move anything placed on the graves such as flowers, pictures or symbolisms used to refer to the deceased.
Avoid photographing people if they are paying their respects to their loved ones unless you get permission. If you want to photograph people, it might be better to arrange a more private photography session if they decide to agree to your photography.
It’s also good to respect the importance of blurring out names on tombstones or removing them in editing. Despite this having the potential to limit your photography’s beauty, it is better to be respectful than an inconsiderate photographer.
Know the story
Some cemeteries may also have stories behind them. Whether it’s scary or interesting myths, these can be added into your photoshoot. For example in the Cristobal Colon Cemetery in Havana, there is a grave (pictured below) of a woman who legend has it has special powers to grant wishes. Her grave is filled with messages and thanks from visitors from across the globe who had their wishes granted. Visitors have to circle the grave and make their wish in a certain way using arm movements. I had heard this story whilst in Havana and when I visited the cemetery, I waited until someone arrived to make a wish.
Cemeteries are associated with ghosts and ghouls and sometimes if the conditions are right you can play to this look and feel. For example in old overgrown cemeteries where there is moss on the buildings and tombstones, a cloudy day or just after rainfall can really enhance the green colour against the muted stone colours. Or for example, if there is mist or fog, it can add a whole new dimension to your cemetery photos. Of course, there is also nighttime photography in cemeteries when depending on the location and conditions you can capture some truly stunning images.
Most cemeteries are tight spaces where you can walk right up to the tombstones and buildings. So you would rarely need anything other than a wide-angle lens. If allowed, a tripod can be invaluable especially if you are photographing in low light conditions. Without a tripod, you can try to rest your camera on a branch, bench or even on your camera bag. But again out of respect, I wouldn’t place a camera on a tombstone. A drone can also be useful in places where you are allowed to fly them to give a wider view of the cemetery.
Cemeteries are great places for photography. As long as you are respectful and apply some common courtesy, it should make everyone, including yourself feel comfortable. Some cemeteries are visited by lots of visitors and tourists all the time and are more accommodating to photographers. Other which are local might require prior permission. If and when you do photograph a cemetery, take your time and be on the lookout for those amazing details and stories to capture.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission. Dreamstime.