Thursday, September 21, 2006

Photographing for the Digital Cemetery Project

The Camera

In order to successfully digitize a cemetery you will need a decent digital camera. The camera should be capable of taking print-quality photos at color 2048 X 1024 at 300dpi. The last number (300 dpi) is the most important part. At 300 dpi, the camera sees more than the human eye and often unreadable stones become more legible. These settings produce clear, easy to read photos that can be zoomed to a high magnification level as well as enable researchers’ access to printable photos. Each photo will be approximately ½ MB in size, so be sure to have a couple of large memory cards for your camera.

Before You Begin

The first step, before beginning to photograph, is to scope out the cemetery and get a feel for the physical layout, and determine a plan to proceed. It is important to begin each physical section from a known location (such as the NE corner) and to photograph row by row so that the path can be retraced later to check the stones, and to assist researchers in physically locating the stone at the cemetery.

Although it is not necessary to begin this way, I find it helpful to walk the row first to pull weeds away and sweep or dig out stones, and see what obstacles lay ahead. For me, if I can get everything ready, then the photographing itself goes very fast, but when I have to stop and clean a stone, my camera shuts off and I lose momentum and it seems to take a lot longer.


In the cemeteries with older stones, there are usually family groupings or stones that are related. In these cases I like to take a group photo to be attached to each individual, to preserve that relationship.

In the more recent burials there are usually some couples headstones with a military plaque either attached to the back of the monument, or used as a footstone. It is best to get those with the headstone, and that is always my goal, but unfortunately is the thing I miss the most often. When I miss it, I get it in the next row, and I also retake the front of the stone to help me locate the previous entry when transcribing.

I often take photos of old stones from all sides, or at least all sides that appear to be inscribed, followed by close-ups of the inscriptions. This helps to provide clarity both when transcribing and to the researcher.

I try to take angle shots of stones that are difficult to read due to their condition or their coloration. Sometimes by getting almost a side shot the inscription will pop out. Sometimes it takes multiple angles to uncover the entire inscription. Another trick to help pop out the inscription is to use a mirror to reflect sunlight at the inscription and cast shadows in a different way than is natural.


In order to help the transcription process, and to help track where I am in the cemetery, at the end of each row I take a photo of my index finger. That way, when transcribing I know when to increment the row number, and if I have to go back to the cemetery and look at one of the stones, I know where to find it.

Similarly, at the end of each physical section, I take a photograph of my hand splayed, often followed by some photos of the section from the location where I ended.

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