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Know what the most popular place on earth is?

A cemetery…people are dying to get in!

Bad humor aside, I realize cemeteries are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve always loved hanging out in cemeteries, and they’re one of my favorite places to shoot.

I love exploring cemeteries when I travel.  I think it’s a neat way to learn about a culture, and one that many people don’t investigate.

In the late 90’s, I traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico in order to document El Dia de los Muertos festivities.  If you’re not familiar with it, The Day of the Dead is an important holy day better know as All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day in Europe and the USA.  Mexican families build altars to the deceased, and they visit their departed loved ones en masse to bring them offerings and even have picnics at the grave sites.

It’s a festive occasion and a stark contrast to the somber way many other cultures behave in cemeteries.  It really livens the place up!

All of the images in this post were taken at Waverly cemetery in Sydney, Australia.  This cemetery has an amazingly picturesque location right on the ocean.  I would venture a guess that most of these folks’ views from their gravesites are better than the views they enjoyed from their homes while they were still alive.  I know I don’t see anything near as scenic from my own home!

Some of my favorite things to shoot at cemeteries are the different grave decorations.  I especially like unique crosses (as in the image at the top of this post), as well as all the different angels and cherubs on the headstones.  I’m constantly amazed by the variety.

I think the above angel is just sublime!

This angel is holding an anchor in her left hand.  But I’m not sure what she’s supposed to be doing with her right hand….

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A few tips for shooting at cemeteries that I’ve gleaned over the years:

  • To avoid unflattering shadows on the angel and cherub statues, shoot either very early in the morning or very late in the evening when there’s no direct sun on the statue, or when the sky is overcast.  Remember, you’re basically taking portraits (of very cooperative subjects!).  As with human portraiture, longer lenses are more flattering than wide angle lenses.
  • Some very cool patterns can be obtained at large cemeteries when shooting a number of graves from an interesting vantage point, especially if the cemetery is hilly.
  • You can get some very abstract patterns when shooting a lot of graves at once with identical headstones or markers, such as those found in many military cemeteries.
  • When shooting many graves at once that all have identical headstones, some cool effects can be gotten with long shadows.  Early morning and late evening light won’t hurt your image either.
  • Experiment with very high and very low vantage points.  Is there a hill or a tall building nearby that will allow you to shoot down on the cemetery?  And what if you lay on the grass and shoot up at the headstones or statues?
  • Play with backlighting the subject.   Placing the sun behind your angel’s head can give you a halo-type effect.  Remember to open up a couple of stops.  Even new cameras often need to have the exposure overridden in these situations.
  • Conversely, when backlighting, stop the aperture DOWN 2-3 stops for a silhouette.  Angel statues with outstretched wings work especially well for this.
  • If you have a camera that shoots infrared, you can really get creative.  Put water, sky and/or folliage into your images as well for a really surreal look.
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