A Flash of Light in the Cemetery

Genealogists and historians photograph tombstones. Tombstones are literally history carved in stone. A lot of people are out there photographing tombstones. As of this writing, the popular site FindAGrave.com lists about 90 million graves, and millions of those have photographs submitted by ordinary people. Around 50,000 grave photographs are submitted to FindAGrave every day.

Typical photo, no flash. ISO 400, f/5.6 at 1/160

Typical tombstone photo, no flash. ISO 400, f/5.6 at 1/160. It’s okay, but barely readable.

Unfortunately, many tombstone photographs are very disappointing. Many of the most interesting tombstones are old, worn and discolored. It is common for the inscription to be unreadable in the photograph. You cannot fix the typical, low-contrast tombstone photo in Photoshop or other image editing programs. You might make it slightly more readable, but mostly you’ll be enhancing the appearance of moss and lichens on the surface of the stone. Frequently, the inscription is also unreadable in person, on site. This article will show you how to take photographs of tombstones that are not just a little bit better, but a vast improvement over the naïve approach. You can even take photographs which allow you to read inscriptions that you could not read when you were there in person.

Lights! 

The key is proper lighting. In the movie industry, they say “Lights!, Camera!, Action!” in that order. Notice that the lights come first. We’re trying to photograph a nearly flat surface with a slight bit of carved relief. If you photograph a tombstone on a sunny day, you’ll have light from any which way, and often scattered light from various parts of the sky. This can give the stone a very flat, low-contrast appearance. To bring out the carved relief, you need the light to strike the face of the tombstone at a very shallow angle. You absolutely do not want to use a camera-mounted flash, or your camera’s built-in flash. These will remove all the shadows that you need to emphasize.

Artists and human-factors experts determined long ago that the human mind perceives relief most easily if the lighting comes from the upper left.

Hold the flash in about this position.

Hold the flash in about this position.

So, you need to control the lighting in such a way that the strongest light source is from the upper left as seen by the camera and strikes the stone at an angle nearly parallel to the face of the stone. The easiest way to do this is with an off-camera flash unit. It can be wired or wireless, but if you use a wired unit, you will need a flash cable that is long enough to keep it out of the photo. You could use tripods for the flash and/or the camera, but the easiest method is to recruit a photographer’s assistant to hold the flash unit over the tombstones.

Much Better: Diagonal Flash: ISO 400 f5.6 at 1/500

Much Better: Diagonal Flash: ISO 400 f5.6 at 1/500.  Notice the “Wife of” text which was almost invisible before. The dark spots from the first photo are still visible, but they are less opaque now — you can read through them. Notice that the foliage behind the stone is now very dark (underexposed) where the flash didn’t reach. This is a good sign that we have minimized the effect of ambient sunlight.

High-Speed Sync (or not)

(June 2013: Good News: I revised the text to not emphasize high-speed sync. It’s expensive, and you don’t really need it.) 

What we’re trying to do here is arrange things so that the flash can overpower daylight.  The shorter the exposure, the greater advantage the flash has over the sun. The flash puts out all of its light in about 1/1000 of a second, while the sun shines all the time. Shortening the shutter speed dims the contribution of the sun, but hardly affects the flash at all, up to a point.

My photos here were taken with a Konica-Minolta Maxxum 5D and Minolta Program 5600 flash. This camera is getting kind of old. In fact, it is out of production, with Sony having taken over the Konica-Minolta line. I used this camera instead of my newer Canon specifically because this one has wireless, high-speed flash, and I have the corresponding flash unit.

The high-speed sync feature seems like a good idea until you realize that it also usually diminishes the effectiveness of the flash. If your camera and flash have high-speed sync, great, but don’t overdo it.

The good news is that at the close range we’re going to be using, common flash units can have an advantage over sunlight in the range of 3-5 f-stops. That’s a nice margin to work with. So, here’s how to set up your camera when using a simple, non-high-speed flash setup:

  • Set the flash to maximum output
  • Set the flash to its 35mm or 50mm angle (these are the defaults for many flashes)
  • Set the camera’s ISO to a fixed, low value, say ISO 100.
  • Put the camera’s exposure on manual
  • Set the fastest shutter speed which doesn’t require high-speed sync, say 1/200
  • Adjust the aperture (f/ stop) such that the photo would be about  2 stops under-exposed without flash. A good starting point would be f/22.

You’ll have to make adjustments for the lighting in your particular situation, but underexposing mostly through fast shutter speed is our way of emphasizing the flash while de-emphasizing the sunlight.  It will take a few test shots to get the best settings and get the flash aimed right, but that’s the great thing about digital — it’s cheap to keep trying. If your shot is over-exposed, you should reduce the flash intensity, move the flash further away, or use a smaller aperture (larger f-stop number). In any case, keep the shutter speed the same.

Here’s an example of what this technique can do for you. Don’t try this in Photoshop! It’s not happening.

These two photos are of the same gravestone. The first was taken by veteran Find A Grave contributor Scott A. Steinbrink. He was apologetic for the photo, but noted he had an “awesome” camera, and that the photo matched what he saw in person. He’s absolutely right — there’s nothing wrong with his camera, and his photo is as good as many that I have taken — but there is a better way. The second photo was taken of the same stone in 2013 using the technique described in this article.

ISO 80 f/3.2 at 1/80

BEFORE:  ISO 80 f/3.2 at 1/80.  No Flash. Photo by Scott A. Steinbrink 2011.

Clearly readable with diagonal flash.

AFTER:  Clearly readable with diagonal flash.  ISO 400 f/5.6 at 1/500 in shady woods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Jamie Cox (ajmexico on Find A Grave)

June 1, 2013 update notes:

  • Some cameras require two flash units or a separate transmitter and a flash unit to do wireless flash. 🙁
  • If your camera and flash already do high-speed sync, aka FP flash, with the flash mounted on the camera, the simplest, risk-free approach may be to buy a long “off-camera” cable specific for your camera brand (Nikon or Canon). These are about $50. 
  • The Nikon D40 can use up to 1/500 as its regular sync speed, even though it doesn’t have HSS.
  • NOTE: October 2014: The D40X, however has the same 1/200 flash sync speed as most cameras.
  • The ~$30 NPT-04 Wireless trigger from Cowboy Studio will let you use just about any old flash as your remote wireless flash. It’s cheaper than a cable.
  • I have seen a lot of people saying to use a mirror or other reflector for tombstone photography. Phooey on that. The light from a reflector can never be as bright as the sun. Your flash can be several times brighter. If the sun is overhead, you can’t get any downward light from a reflector. The flash lets you control the light’s direction completely.
  • NOTE: October 2014: I have now seen some satisfactory before and after shots using a mirror. There are provisos: The sun has to be behind the stone, so the reflected light doesn’t have to compete with direct sunlight, and the mirror needs to be as large as the tombstone.  A diffuse reflector won’t work nearly as well as an actual mirror. But, it does work, and you can use any camera.
  • To learn all about flash photography in complete detail, see http://strobist.blogspot.com/ .
  • After writing this, I found this straight-forward presentation of the same idea: http://rootsandrambles.blogspot.com/2011/11/how-to-take-better-gravestone-
  • photos.html This is a nice article.
  • NEW: Feb 2014: I posted a YouTube Video with step-by-step instructions for photographing tombstones with off-camera flash.
  • NEW: March 2014: I wrote a newer article on using off-camera flash.

October 10, 2014 update notes:

 

 

13 thoughts on “A Flash of Light in the Cemetery

  1. Marlys Sauer

    Terrific! I so wish I could ask folks to go back and photograph some of the stones of my family.
    My number one rule: Sun to the back of you if your not really experienced. (early am or late afternoon depending on which way the stone faces unless flat.
    Take multiple shots!
    I usually (not always) send the photos via email to the family so they can choose which one they want up. Its important to them.
    Great Blog!

    Reply
    1. Jamie Cox Post author

      You can indeed (re)request grave photos on findagrave.com. Photo volunteers are standing by! You can leave special instructions, if needed. Volunteer response is usually quick near large cities, but it might be very slow at rural cemeteries.

      Reply
  2. kathy

    I ran across your link on Ancestry after I left a somewhat caustic message about some egregious errors in one tree for Sarah Coffee Bleckley and one of her kids. This woman had Lela Margaret Bleckley Earls getting married at age 5 in New Jersey. Well, there were lots of mistakes including listing maiden names as surnames and while I didn’t correct everything, I slipped in a few. Now, I feel guilty for being so mean, but people don’t use common sense and just add anything the computer suggests or others have. The good thing though it led me to your photography tricks. I am wondering if you have sent them to FAG to possibly include in their FAQ’s? It is amazing the difference in pictures done your way. BTW, Lela and I are 2nd cousins 4x’s removed through Jesse Cleveland Coffee. Since we both have the Bleckley connection we must also be distant cousins, so hi cuz! Thanks for your tips.

    Kathy

    Reply
  3. kathy

    Sorry, one more comment. Don’t know if you had this. Didn’t see it as I was scanning your Earls page…well done btw. Carrie (Emily Caroline Bleckley) is buried in Bleckley Cemetery as well. Her memorial is FAG 79247708. Next time you are in Clayton, you need to put your voodoo to work on the Earls headstones!!! Some have an S at the end and some don’t. I have always had an S though the marriage license for Lela doesn’t have one for JF.

    Kathy

    Reply
    1. Jamie Cox Post author

      Thank you for your comments, Kathy. I haven’t been in Clayton since coming up with the off-camera flash technique, so I am looking forward to visiting some cemeteries there.

      Reply
  4. Bryan

    This has been a great technique. I learned just a month or so ago about how to really control my dSLR Nikon. After reading this I picked up a cheaper flash and slave drives. I’ve gotten some really nice photos and was really surprised at how well I could read some of the stones when I thought nothing was there.

    Unfortunately, I have found some problems using the flash, if the sun is from behind at a low angle it doesn’t always work that great. I’ve taken to using a golf umbrella and holding it behind me. It’s kind of a pain to do, but does get the job done.

    Reply
  5. Jamie Cox Post author

    Bryan, I really appreciate your comment. If you, or anybody, has success with this, I’d love to see the photos. I encourage everyone to take before and after photos (without flash, and with off-camera flash), so you’ll be able to show people how well this works. And, yes, I too, have sometimes been able to read stones in the photo when I could not read them in person.

    The umbrella is a good idea. I’ve done it also, but only found it necessary with bright direct sun on the face of the stone. See my Flickr Album of Before and After shots, equipment, etc. here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajmexico/sets/72157638809538224/

    The other defense against bright sun is a fast shutter speed. If your Nikon is a D40, you should be able to use 1/500. I’d be interested in hearing from any D40 owners who have tried this.

    Reply
    1. Bryan

      Jamie,
      I have been posting my photos to Find a Grave, where I originally saw how to do this. I normally take out my Nikon D40X, and it will do a shutter speed of 1/500, but for the flash I bought it comes out too dark at that speed. I wanted to test out with a $50 flash instead of sinking more in to one. Depending on the lighting I’ve stayed with the 1/200 and f-stops ranging from 5.6-22, normally I think I have good results being around f-10 or 11.

      I haven’t taken too many photos with and without the flash, though I might start.

      Here is a full that I took using the flash. And this is one I took the other day in the daylight.

      I do end up taking a lot of photos, but since it’s digital they’re free so what does it matter? I play around with the f-stop a lot just to see what it can do.

      Reply
  6. Bryan Main

    I wrote a new post to show you what the Nikon D40X does. You can see at 1/250 near the bottom it’s too fast for this flash.

    Reply
  7. Jamie Cox Post author

    Bryan, Your photos look great and they are of some historic old tombstones. I completely agree about experimenting with lots of photos. In your photos, the background is dark, which means you have reduced the influence of the sun/daylight sufficiently, at least for those particular photos.

    I have been thinking about the relative brightness of flash units and the sun.
    With a flash located 1 meter from the subject, at ISO 100, and 1/200, you need a flash guide number of about 22 m (72 ft) or higher in order to be two stops brighter than the sun. Anything much less than that, and you won’t be able to overpower the sun.

    Reply
  8. Jamie Cox Post author

    Apparently, the Nikon D40X has a regular mechanical shutter, unlike the older D40, which has an electronic shutter. So, the D40X doesn’t have the 1/500 flash sync speed of the D40, but has a flash sync speed of 1/200, like most other cameras.

    Reply

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