Learn some tips and tricks for taking clearer, more readable images when photographing markers and memorials.
Cell phone cameras and other digital equipment have made taking clear photos of grave markers and other memorial markers much easier.
Many of the very old markers from the 16th and 17th centuries are completely unreadable due to weather erosion. Sandstone was readily available in our area and easy to engrave due to its soft makeup. Unfortunately, it does not withstand the test of time. While many of the markers still stand (albeit crooked as seen in this photo) some are still readable while others have become blank.
When taking photos, keep in mind the direction of the sun. If the sun is shining directly towards you, chances are your photo will come out darker because the marker will be in shadow. This photo is a good example of shadow versus sunshine. The time of day will definitely affect the quality of your photos so keep that in mind when planning your trip.
In this photo, you can tell the difference between reading the wording in shadow and light. With too much light, the reflection will almost cover the wording. If there were words on top of this marker, they would be unreadable.
On the example below, I could hardly read the inscription in person due to both weathering and light. The photo on the left makes the wording easier to read than by the naked eye, but still it is difficult. Using the “negative” setting on my Samsung Galaxy III phone, I got a better image that is almost readable. Still it’s not what I would call “easily read.
My next technique is a trick I learned from John Cunningham, librarian and researcher here at ACHS&M. He suggested using shaving cream! While it sounds kind of odd, it does work!
Here is the almost unreadable stone of Herbert W. Tippie. Once shaving cream was applied, the difference is amazing!
The technique for using this method is quite simple- take a credit card (one that you DO NOT need, for this technique will surely ruin it!), and apply shaving cream to the back. Swipe it like you would if you were spackling a nail hole. This way the excess cream comes away from the stone and leaves the impression clear.
While this works great there are a couple of things to remember:
First, shaving cream is messy, really messy. Take rubber gloves and a towel if you have them and choose a scent that you can live with for at least a couple of hours because you will smell like it before you are done! Not having brought gloves, I found myself wiping my hands on my clothes during the process which was fine until I had to go into the grocery store on the way back from the cemetery. I smelled like a commercial for Old English Original Scent!
Second, you will need a squirt bottle filled with water for removing the cream after you’ve gotten your impressions. It is very easy to remove the shaving cream off the marker. Just spray until it’s washed off. There will be some cream left on the ground but it will dissolve.
In the example above I have given you a regular photo, shaving cream and a negative image. You can see how each one helps to bring out some detail of the marker. The bird at the top is almost impossible to see with the naked eye but in the regular photo you start to see the image. With shaving cream, the image is very visible but in the negative image (not shown in the last photo) it is not clear at all.
These last two images show a marker that has a lot of erosion damage. I found that the shaving cream was filling into all the pits weathered away by rain and wind. While it makes the readability more difficult, it is useful for comparison.
I’ve found using color, black and white, the negative settings on your camera and shaving cream to be the most successful way to capture your images. Our Genealogy and research library here at ACHS&M are happy to help you learn more about finding grave markers and locating lost graves. We also carry all the main cemetery books in our gift shop. We’re here to help you succeed in your search for family history, lost loves and finding your roots!
There are many fascinating things to learn while researching your family history Lost relatives, local stories, meeting fascinating people and while looking for grave markers, getting out and enjoying the day!
Article by Bosha Green, Museum Coordinator