Genealogy: Use your camera to document your research

Use your camera to document your researchBy Barry J. Ewell

Use your camera in your library, archive, or museum research.

Consider using your digital camera as a tool for documenting and capturing information you find in your research. If you have never used your camera in your library research, practice in your local library under all types of conditions, including very low light. Again, the time to learn isn’t at a cemetery 2,000 miles from home.

Digital photography is all about lighting and location
The first problem you will always face when it comes to photography is lighting. I use flash less than 10 percent of the time. Instead of flash use natural lighting (near a window), light stands with diffusion screen and lights, or a self-contained photo studio (includes tripod, diffusion lights and screen, and copy stand—I like Photo Studio In-A-Box from American Recorder Technologies; you can find more information at their website, Shooting documents with flash indoors usually creates a “hot spot” caused by using a flash too close. When you have no choice but to use a flash, use it sparingly, such as in a group setting or for a gravestone that is in a shaded area. Be aware: many libraries and research facilities prohibit flash photography, so come prepared to shoot without a flash.

  • Note 1: Sunlight is known as “white” light and gives what we recognize as true or natural colors. Any other type of light source has light of a different color temperature and gives off different color tones.
  • Note 2: Digital cameras try to automatically adjust for different kinds of lighting but sometimes need additional help. The camera’s “white balance” setting provides this help. This setting “reads” the light coming into the camera lens and, by assuming the brightest area in the image is white, attempts to balance the entire image so that the bright area looks white. All other colors should then appear natural.

Photographing in libraries.

When planning to take photographs in a library, the following tips may be helpful:

  • Know their policy about digital photography before you go. Eight percent of libraries have allowed me to use a digital camera with some criteria.
  • Do not use flash. Using a flash is usually prohibited due to the photosensitivity of artifacts.
  • Set up a photo stand or tripod.
  • You may need to sign an intended uses statement.
  • You may need to have one of their staff handle rare objects.
  • Only take photos of intended artifacts.
  • No photos are usually allowed of the building’s interior or of people (especially in government buildings).
  • Set up camera in a corner away from others, so as not to disturb.
  • If possible, set up near a window to gain the most from natural light.

Photographing museums and archives.
When planning to take photographs in a museum or archive, the following tips may be helpful:

  • Check first to see if photography is allowed. Most museums and archives will allow photography without a flash.
  • Objects covered with glass or plastic are best shot at an angle. Glass and plastic will reflect a flash or act like a mirror and reflect your image under natural light, so consider photo¬graphing the object at an angle.
  • Snap a separate picture of a caption or a label of the exhibit.
  • Use the tripod along with your camera’s self-timer and the “night” or “low light” setting. Lack of good lighting is usu¬ally the norm in museums. Use the tripod to steady your image. When you encounter very low-light situations, try putting your camera on the “night” setting and enabling your self-timer. With the steadiness of the tripod and camera settings you should be able to get some good quality photos.
  • No tripod? Then brace yourself. If it is too dark and there is no tripod, leaning against a wall or a pillar or supporting your camera against a bench, a chair, or a staircase rail will be a good remedy in that situation. If a subject is important enough, by all means take an extra shot.

Photographing Microfilm.
Note: These are the backlit or rear projection readers that shine a light through the film and use a series of mirrors or lenses to dis¬play an image of the film on a vertical or flat surface. The image displayed on either style can be easily photographed.

  • Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not need to mount your camera on a tripod. I have been able to raise my camera up near the projection lens, click the shutter button, and get a clear photo with no distortion. If you choose to use a tripod, place your camera on a tripod in front of the reader screen.
  • Place a white paper on the reader surface as the target area for shooting. Note: Try other blank sheets of colored paper (pink, blue, or yellow) to see if these colors help you with readability of the image.
  • Adjust the camera or tripod position so the information you want to copy fills the LCD frame.
  • Use the “macro” mode if necessary. This will depend on your camera model and how far away it is from the microfilm reader.
  • Make sure the flash is turned off.
  • Set the camera’s self-timer, if needed.
  • Gently press the shutter button halfway to lock the exposure and focus.
  • Press the button completely down. If using the self-timer, move away from the camera and wait for the self-timer to trip the shutter.
  • Take several shots. Consider using the “best shot selector” or auto-bracketing your shots if your camera has these features, or use manual bracketing if it doesn’t.

Photographing at the cemetery or graveyard
Over the centuries, several different types of stones have been used to create grave¬stones. Some of the stones are quite porous and fragile, while others are resistant to damage. Be careful when attempting to improve the readability of the inscription. The following is a brief list of types of stone used in various time periods:

  • Prior to the nineteenth century: sandstone or slate.
  • Nineteenth century: marble and gray granite.
  • Late nineteenth century to the present: polished granite or marble.

Take photos of the cemetery entrance, sign, book of records, and church. Before you start taking photos of headstones, make sure you capture the details of the cemetery, including the name, street signs, proximity, and church adjacent to the cemetery. All these details will help you and others that follow know where you have been.

North, south, east, west—Best time of day for photographing headstones. Sunlight emphasizes imperfections in the stone and can make the carving look flat. Headstones facing west are best photographed at midday. Headstones facing north should be photographed in the late afternoon. Headstones facing south are well-lit all day. Headstones facing east are best photographed in the morning hours.

Large headstones require close-ups of inscriptions. Taking photos of large headstones alone sometimes makes the inscription too small to read. Take a photo of the large headstone and then move in close to take a photo of the inscription.

Family grave plots require group and individual photos of each headstone. A family plot constitutes two or more graves. Take a group photograph of the graves that shows the number and prox¬imity. Take photos of each headstone separately. If you are pho¬tographing a cemetery, photograph and label all family plots the same—for example: group plot, headstones left to right, top to bottom.

Consider taking photos of all headstones in a small community cemetery. If your family came from a small town and your roots go back many generations or many decades, chances are you are related to most, if not all persons buried in the cemetery. If you have traveled a great distance to capture family graves on film, take an extra hour or two and capture the other headstones on film, you can sort out details later. You will often find direct family members buried among other families.

Look at the base, top, sides, and back of headstones. In addition to the inscription, look around the headstone for other impor¬tant information that can be inscribed about the individual, family, maker of the headstone, and writings of the deceased.

Take eye-level photos of headstone inscriptions. When taking photos of headstone inscriptions, try to take the photo of the inscription at eye-level. You will find information much easier to read in the photo.

Talk to the sexton. Can’t find a family member’s gravesite? See if you can talk to the sexton and ask to see the cemetery plot map. The sexton may have records you can simply photograph. Some cemeteries bury several layers deep to conserve space. In these sit¬uations, the headstone on top may only be for one of the several persons buried in the plot. Sometimes headstones are not available because the family is too poor for a headstone, but the sexton will have details of who is buried where.

Take time to clear grass and other foliage away from inscription. Take time to clear any cut, dried grass away from and on top of the headstone before taking a photograph. If a branch is grown over the headstone, pull it back and take a photo. Clear overgrown grass to the edge of the marker or headstone. Important information or epitaphs may be separated from the main inscription (for exam-ple, a bronze marker denoting group or religious affiliation, service in branch of military, or that the individual fought in specific war).

Use a little chalk for the hard-to-read, old headstones. Letters on the old stones are often hardly legible. Take a little piece of white (or black or any other dark color) chalk and fill letters. Or rub the white chalk on the flat surface next to the letters.

Tilt your camera to the angle of the headstone. Older stones tend to lean or slant. Tilt the camera to the angle of the stone and your image will straighten up nicely.

Shoot black and gray polished marble at an angle. Gray or black polished headstones are sometimes hard to read or can reflect a camera’s flash, making the image illegible. Shoot polished head¬stone at an angle and then view on LCD for clarity. Re-shoot at a different angle if needed.

Try using a flash on headstones covered with shade or on cloudy days. If the inscription you just took a picture of is hard to read, try using your flash. The light should provide you just enough extra light to fill in the dark shadows so you can read the lettering. Try using a flash from angles, if needed.

Try a soft brush or natural sponge and water to remove surface soil. Gentle brushing should remove surface dirt and bird droppings. Never use hard objects or stiff brushes to clean the stone.

Try sponge and water on light-colored stone. The stone will darken from the water and darken the inscription on the stone.

Keep a written record. Some of the items to consider as part of the written record include location, a map of the cemetery with the stones numbered, when photographed (time, date, and frame number), and transcription of the epitaph. Post your photos of head¬stones on family websites or sites such as Virtual Cemetery or Dead Fred.

When you take the time to adequately prepare for your field research, you will find greater success and better insight into the next steps you need to take in your research on the Internet and in the field. I have prepared additional resources that you can down¬load from the companion website that include a suggested geneal¬ogy packing list, personal packing list, and related resources.