Creating A Headstone Image: When Things Don’t Go as Planned

David H. Smith, Headstone, Lamoni Iowa. June 17, 2019.
David H. Smith, Headstone, Lamoni Iowa. June 17, 2019.

It sounded like a simple request yesterday morning. At least at first. Could I go to Rose Hill Cemetery and photograph the headstone of David Hyrum Smith? Of course! The request came from a very good friend who lives half way across the country, and Rose Hill is only a few miles from where I live.

To see what the headstone looked like to know what to look for (I didn’t want to wander the whole cemetery looking at every headstone) I went to “Find A Grave” and entered “David Hyrum Smith”, the year of his birth (1844), and the year of his death (1904). Up popped a tiny photo of his headstone so I knew what shape to look for.

Find A Grave is about finding a grave you are looking for, not classic, beautifully crafted photographs. Headstones are photographed in whatever conditions exist at the time, no matter how good or bad the light. They are simple record shots, often done by people who are not photographers.

The tiny little photo of Smith’s headstone at Find A Grave is under exposed and backlit. As experienced photographers know, back light is great for flowers and spiny cactus, and dramatic landscapes, and lots of other things. But it is not so good for a portrait of a solid granite headstone. An artsy photo in a cemetery with lots of backlit headstones where legibility is not an issue could be very effective, but not in the case of what my friend wanted.

I wanted nice light with good legibility so I waited for later afternoon light so the headstone would look good.

Finding the headstone was not as easy as I had hoped. There were a lot of headstones on Rose Hill that have the same basic shape as the headstone I was looking for. I had wandered for a long time without finding it when my wife called said it was time for supper. So I went home and we went out to eat and then we went to Rose Hill to look together. Four eyes are better than two. I finally spotted it up the hill from the closest cemetery road.

I walked up to the headstone, only to see it was covered with bird poop. It so happens the top of the headstone is perfect for bird’s feet and more than once some bird has perched there and done it’s thing. Not good for a photo. I walked back down to the car, grabbed a cup of water and a paper towel. (As a photographer I consider paper towels and water as essentials to have in the car at all times.)

I walked back up the hill and cleaned the headstone. Now half the headstone was wet and dark, and the light granite turned dark enough when wet to make the letters almost unreadable in a photo. Besides, a half wet headstone would not look good for a documentary photo. So I had to wait for the headstone to dry. Then the sun dropped behind a cloud, significantly slowing the drying process, not to mention stealing my light.

Watching a headstone dry is like watching grass grow. Pour water on your sidewalk on a cloudy day and see how long it takes to dry. While I waited I looked at several angles to try and varying amounts of background behind the headstone.

The sun eventually came out and I was ready. The gap between the clouds was narrow and I knew I had very limited time. The first click of the shutter, just as the sun showed up, was at 7:23:02 pm. I tried different angles and compositions. The fifth click of the shutter was at 7:24:04. It was the keeper. The eighth click was at 7:26:44 but the sun was already behind a much bigger cloud and the light was gone for good. With more time I would have experimented some more.

But I had a good image to send to my friend.