Taking a great photograph of a cemetery stone for FindAGrave is a snap with a few simple tips.
By Jackie Saulmon Ramirez | September 13, 2012, Updated June 29, 2013
BEFORE YOU GO
- Plan the time of day for photos. In direct sun you may not be able to read a stone. Watch for glare.
- Know where you are going; take a map or directions.
- Charge your cell phone before you go and take a charger with you. Keep cell phone on your person, not in your vehicle.
- Take extra camera batteries.
- Make sure your camera’s SD card is inside the camera or carry an extra.
- Take paper and pen or voice recorder for taking notes of stones.
- Reduce resolution setting on your camera, but not too low. Try to match the resolution to the highest number compatible with FindAGrave’s limits. The higher the resolution, the better the photo will be. Too small and it will ‘pixelate’ the photo. Current limit: 8.0MB
- Make sure there is no time or date stamp on your photos; if there are you will need to crop or use a ‘clone’ tool to remove it. FindAGrave does not want time and date stamps on memorial photos.
- Wear a wide brimmed hat to ‘shade’ your digital camera to better view the LCD screen.
- If you will be out for a few hours you will want to bring water and possibly a snack. Drink only as much water as your body uses so you may not require a restroom.
- Bring insect and bug repellent spray or towelettes if desired.
- Bring a small first aid kit: adhesive bandages, wound cleaner, sunblock, whatever your needs are, etc.
- Bring a watch or timer to keep track of time and know the cemetery’s closing time. Time passes faster than you might think.
- Take a long sleeved shirt or jacket for sundown or mosquitoes.
- Bring a few non-lotion tissues; you will need them for a variety of reasons.
- Review the “Check-Off List” one last time before leaving home. (Reviewing the list when leaving the cemetery can help you to remember to put everything back in your vehicle to return home.)
PHOTOGRAPHING THE MEMORIAL
- Get down to eye level; stoop on one knee or sit on the ground. The difference is astounding. If you stand to take the photo and have to look downward toward the stone, when you get the photo on your computer screen it will look as if it is falling forward. Looking at the stone, imagine yourself in front of your computer screen and take the shot from that angle.
Use a gardener’s knee pad for preparing the stone for the photo or getting to eye level.
- Use a small plastic stool or foldable camping seat to help get an eye-level photo.
- Get close enough to read the headstone and take close-ups of the inscription.
- Take a second shot to show the stone and surrounding area. It can help to show the stone in relation to nearby stones.
- Move flowers only to get all the words and dates. Replace when finished; leave it exactly as it was.
- Brush the loose grass clippings or dirt off the stone so the letters show.
- Do not trim or harm in-the-ground plants or bushes!
- Use grass clippers or scissors to trim only the grass that may be covering any writing on the stone.
- Get the dates! Family members and genealogists both need and want dates!
- If more than one name appears on the headstone, show both names in the photo and list the information on both memorials. Extra photos can show close-ups of individual names and dates.
- Center the headstone in the photo. For a two-person memorial take three photos: the entire stone, the person on the left, the person on the right.
- Get a photo of the entire stone or monument no matter how tall, no matter how wide.
- For three- or four-sided memorials, try to get clear photos of all sides.
- Use a camera tripod for a clearer photo; the slightest tremor can blur letters or numbers.
- Use a reflector to improve headstone readability. Light helps when held to one side to create shadows in the lettering. Substitute reflectors are: a mirror, tin foil, bright light, flashlight, windshield sun reflector, photography umbrella or collapsible disc reflector.
- Feel the letters with your fingers to ‘read’ letters for hard to read headstones.
- Use a clean, water-filled spray bottle to help letters and numbers show up for reading. Spray bottles with stream and mist options are best. After spraying the stone, the engraving will stay wet longer making it appear darker and the water dries completely in a few minutes.
- Aluminum foil can be used to safely read stones that are not fragile or flaking. Use a medium to stiff plastic bristle paintbrush or a round foam-type ball to gently smooth the foil over the face of the stone. The inscription may show enough to transcribe the stone. Be sure to remove all foil and leave the grave as you found it. Recycle worn aluminum foil. Check out these stones: Mary J. Vandevanter – Sarah E Ellis Wright – Jane Goold
- Black lights have reportedly been used with a measure of success to read stones as well but I cannot vouch for this technique. Shining a black light on any stone poses no risk.
- Write down notes for hard-to-read headstones.
- Use a voice recorder to make ‘notes’ until you can enter it on FindAGrave.
- A flags’ folds can be moved so they don’t cover the writing.
Avoid taking shots with snow on the ground; it adds too much light, glare and can add to shadow problems.
- Be aware of clothing, camera straps, hair, fingers, etc. getting in front of the lens.
- Keep friends that came with you out of the shot. Be aware where other volunteers are working so you do not capture their image and ruin photos. If you do, try cloning or cropping; if that doesn’t work, retake the photo.
- Don’t get your shadow in the photo; it’s very distracting from the stone. Snowfall increases shadow problems.
- Use a large umbrella to shade stones if it will help read the stone. Do not photograph an umbrella shadow unless you cannot see that it is a shadow. Example: Take a shot of the stone in full sun and then take the close-up of the shaded name, dates and inscription.
- Don’t get your reflection on a shiny stone. Stand to one side and take an off-center shot. Zooming in with your camera from a distance can also be an option.
- Wear a black shirt (black towel, black cloth) to avoiding reflections in a shiny stone.
- Don’t a take photo from an angle unless it helps with readability or reflections.
- Don’t go at night unless requested and take a second photo during day. Nighttime increases personal safety risks.
- Don’t get your vehicle or foot in the photo. If you accidentally get your vehicle or foot in the photo, crop or remove with ‘clone’ or ‘sponge’ tool or retake the photo.
- Never try to clean the stone. Do not use chemicals of any kind on a stone. Use only a soft cloth or soft brush. Water can be used to soften bird droppings but never scrape or use force to remove it.
- Never put any substances on a stone: chalk, shaving cream, bleach, ammonia, flour, corn starch, cocoa, WD-40, powdered cleansers, baking powder or soda. Water in a spray bottle is the only accepted substance.
- Do not touch lichens! Lichens are fungal organisms that may damage stones but to try and remove it could do much more harm.
- If you are going to travel more than one cemetery or if you will not be processing the photos right away use sign language (or other signal) to photograph the name of the cemetery by spelling it out in photos. When you do process the photos, the letters will show up in order and the name will appear spelled out in photos.
- If you bring a dog or other pet, make sure cemeteries allow them on the grounds. Be sure you pick up any litter (poops, BMs). Doggie bags are an important part of graving equipment if you bring a dog.
TIP: Using a long screwdriver or dowel to carefully prod below the surface can help locate hidden gravestones.
Do any editing, including cropping, to the photo before you reduce it to the final size. Any editing increases the file size of the photo.
- Before experimenting to enhance lettering, make a temporary copy of the digital photo of the stone. In Photoshop or other photo editing software, select the invert colors option to create a pseudo negative to help read the inscription by bringing out the lettering. Also, brightness and contrast may be used to enhance the readability.
- Edit as little as possible but do enhance if it will make the stone clearer or easier to read. Remove scratches or Sharpen may aid the ability to read older or worn stones.
- Crop but do show some space around the stone; it enhances the viewers’ experience.
- JPEG or JPG is the preferred format for photos.
- Don’t discard extra photos; look them over for usable photos in the background of your target stone.
- Remember: no time or dates printed on photos, borders, frames or white space around photos.
- Caption areas can be used to add the time, date, copyright notices and photographer’s name or information for the memorial.
- Any glaring mark added to the photo of the stone detracts from memorial and the solemnity of the photo. Copyrights, watermarks or printing on the photos are not forbidden though, and are left up to each volunteer’s discretion and preference. See example below that is similar to ones I have seen over the years.
There are 10 copyright © imprints on this photo, can you find them all? The fonts used were: Monotype Corsiva, Times New Roman and Impact; the colors are black, white, grays, greens and bright yellow. Consider your goal and the effect you want to achieve in deciding on font, color and wording. Impact is very bold, Times New Roman is very business-like and Monotype Corsiva is artistic with a simple flair. I do not mark my photos but if I were forced to choose, I would go with Monotype Corsiva and I would try to match the background color so as not to detract from the memorial. FindAGrave frowns on marking photos but acknowledge the photos belong to the person snapping the photo; the choice is yours.
IMPORTANT: You can download Picasa free of charge to edit your photos.
ON THE MEMORIAL
- Do not create memorials using only death certificates! Burial information is often grossly inaccurate; the informant may not have burial plans or family members disagree on location. When a memorial is created with inaccurate information, FindAGrave volunteers may waste time and gas looking for a gravestone that is simply not there. Be aware that genealogists often mistakenly create memorials from documentation alone and then request photos in hopes of viewing their ancestor’s memorial stone and adding another piece to their puzzle.
- Make sure you have the correct cemetery name and location for the memorial. There are side-by-side cemeteries due to a church’s splitting into different religious factions.
- Do not create duplicate memorials; check first for the last name. If a name is very similar, check the dates If a name is very similar, check the dates for fathers and sons or mothers and daughters with the same name. Check the stone shapes to see if they are the same.
- When adding photos another volunteer’s memorial, consider whether your photo is significantly superior to the current photo.
- Do not write as if you were sending an e-mail. Use capitalization, commas, quotations, periods, etc.
- The bio body should not be all caps; just as in e-mails, caps are viewed as harsh.
- Do not say “buried with” unless they are in the same casket. Say “buried beside” or “buried among.” Use clearer word choices to describe burials: near, beside, alongside, together, among, with, co-burial (in the same casket), double-depth burial, etc. To remove any ambiguity, make a simple notation on the memorial.
- When the last name has two parts, leave a space between the first part and the second part. “Van Hise,” not “VanHise.” If the stone shows no space— then do not leave a space. Replicate what you see on the stone.
- Unless your stone is that of Harry S Truman, the initial needs a period “.” after it.
- Try to add the inscription; put periods or dashes where the lettering is worn away.
- To read a difficult stone, it may help to increase contrast in your photo editing program while transcribing. Return photo to ‘natural’ or ‘original’ before uploading to FindAGrave.
- People before papers! Arrange photos of faces and family first, then the stone, then any documents that would include death certificates or articles.
Use the “Change Photo Order” button located beneath the “Add Photo” and the “Request Photo” buttons to place photos and documents in a more desirable order.
- Do not add obituaries or articles not written by you; to do so is plagiarism. Obituaries list surviving relatives’ names and adding those names could put family members at risk for identity theft or other crimes.
- When adding information and photos, it is not required to cite sources but it can help when there is a discrepancy.
- Using another person’s writing or photographs without their express permission and not citing them is plagiarism and/or copyright infringement. The trouble it could cause you is not worth the obit, newspaper article, poem, etc.
- Link memorials only if it is clear they are related; age differences can be misleading.
- Take one final look over the memorial for spelling or other errors in the bio, dates or title. Use a calculator to figure the approximate age if you wish.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
- Have I followed FindAGrave’s guidelines?
- Ask yourself, “If this was my family member, would I like this memorial?”
- Don’t go for numbers; go for quality.
- Think of a family member viewing the memorial sitting in front of a computer screen and you will do a better job.
- Respect: every headstone has the same value no matter who they are or what they paid for it.
- Do it once, do it right.
- Any photo is better than no photo at all; it proves the grave exists.
- Consider setting up a family member or friend as a volunteer to take on stewardship of your memorials in the in unfortunate event that you die. Send your selection’s name and ID number to firstname.lastname@example.org.
PERSONAL SAFETY TIPS
- Let someone know where you will be going and check in with them when you return, especially if you will be in an isolated location. Give your location, GPS, Geotag and nearest landmarks.
- Put the number for the local law enforcement entity into your cell phone. Name the number “AaaTownOrCounty” in order to make the number easy to dial in an emergency.
- Go with another member or bring a friend for added safety.
- Do not trespass on private property without permission. FindAGrave would agree— no memorial is worth getting hurt over.
- Do not threaten or harass anyone near a cemetery or online.
- If you are threatened or harassed near a cemetery, leave quickly.
- Recognize online nitpicking, unjustified criticism or faultfinding for what it is: harassment and bullying. Report it to FindAGrave. There is no reason anyone should hound or harass you.
- If you are threatened or harassed online take screen shots or snips to document incidents. Tell them to stop immediately or you will be forced to take further steps. If the person contacts you again, report them to FindAGrave or the authorities without haste.
- Do not bring a weapon unless it is legal and you are experienced in its use.
- If there is any question of your safety— do not go. Wait for a safer opportunity; the stone is not going anywhere.
- Snakes, spiders and skunks are among the natural dangers you may encounter in cemeteries. Animal bites can carry rabies so avoid any animal, especially any that may display aggressive behaviors. Insect bites: spiders, mosquitoes, etc. have the potential to cause problems as well. Gloves and repellents may help prevent bites or complications.
- Be aware of uneven ground; it may look pretty and smooth but holes, stones or dirt clods can make walking hazardous.
- Be aware of open graves, animal burrows, nests and holes.
- Know your weather forecast and be alert to sudden weather changes. Lightning can strike if you can hear it in the distance and rain can turn a serene cemetery into a muddy mess.
- If you get tired or out of breath, take a few minutes to recoup.
If you go graving often it can be helpful to carry needed supplies in a box, basket or graving tool box that you can easily put in your vehicle to save time.
- Aluminum foil
- Black light
- Brush, soft for removing grass clippings
- Bug repellent spray or towelettes
- Camera batteries
- Camera tripod
- Cloth, (soft)
- Directions or map
- Dog bowls, food
- First-aid kit: adhesive bandages, wound cleaner
- Foam ball for pressing foil
- Grass clippers or scissors
- Hair tie for long hair
- Hat, wide-brimmed
- Insect repellent
- Leash with collar or harness
- Paint brush, medium to stiff bristles for pressing foil
- Paper, tablet
- Pen or pencil
- Plastic bags, closable
- Plastic forks and spoons to clean crevices
- Recorder (voice)
- Reflector, mirror, tin foil, flashlight, windshield’s sun reflector, flashlight, photography umbrella, collapsible disc
- Screwdriver or wooden dowel to search below the surface
- SD cards for camera
- Shirt, (black for shiny stones) or dark material
- Shirt or jacket for sundown
- Stool, small plastic or foldable camping seat
- Umbrella, large
- Watch, timer
- Water for drinking
- Water in spray bottle
- Whisk broom
If you go graving often it can be helpful to carry needed supplies in a box, basket or graving tool box that you can easily put in your vehicle to save time.
CELL PHONE CAMERAS
With the new cell phone cameras that actually take acceptable photos, you may want to create a spur-of-the-moment box or carry-all with a few must-haves to put in your vehicle trunk or glove compartment. You just never know when a cemetery will present itself in your travels. Check back often for updates or send a message to request an e-mail with updated information. If you have tips or suggestions to add please feel free to send a message below.
Jackie Saulmon Ramirez The above suggestions and tips were created by Jackie from about 25 years as a graver with her daughter Francisca. The Food For Worms domain (www.FoodForWorms.org) is not connected to FindAGrave.com. She and her daughter have been FindAGrave.com members and volunteers for over seven years. She became interested in ‘graving’ when her daughter Francisca asked to visit cemeteries as a small child. Jackie and Francisca currently enjoy volunteering for FindAGrave when time permits. Sign up with ChangeDetection.com for updates and changes.