Photo Projects

Self Portrait in Rust

It’s easy to settle into a rut. Even when we know, on some level, that it hasn’t really “all been done,” we feel as though we’ve done… well, if not everything, then enough of the same thing to feel like we’ve settled into a rut. It can be helpful at times like that to set a project for yourself. Having a set of guidelines — as loose or specific as you feel you want or need — can be a great motivator, and a good way to beat the block. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

1. 365 Days project: This one’s a perennial favorite, probably because it can be either as simple or as complicated as you’d like. The most basic requirement is to take a photo of something every day. Beyond that, you can add additional “rules.” Daily self-portraits are common (and more challenging than they might seem; see below). You can also, as one of my friends has done, choose a specific time at which each photo must be taken, or blog the results, as another friend likes to do.

2. 52 Weeks project: Maybe you’re pressed for time, or just plain absent-minded. In that case, set aside one day a week and photograph something at the same time each week.

3. Choose a limit: Take a day, or several, to shoot with only a prime lens. If you don’t own a prime, choose a single focal length on your zoom lens and stick to it. Or, if you usually only shoot in color, set your camera to black-and-white. Only shoot during the day, or during the Golden Hours? Try night photography, or challenge yourself to shoot in lighting conditions that you’d normally consider crappy. In each instance, the idea is to break your old habits and patterns and find new ways to shoot.

4. Shoot one thing: This is a variation on the 365 Days/52 Weeks idea above. Find something — be it a building, an object (like your car) an animal (like your cat) or even yourself, and take at least one shot of it daily. Not only will the resulting photos let you track the changes in your subject over time, it’s also much more challenging than it might seem in the first few days. After all, you’ll soon find yourself looking for new angles and new ways to shoot the same subject, which can present its own set of challenges while it also pushes you to expand your imagination and creativity.

5. Find a Theme: This can be something concrete (shooting shop windows, or in cemeteries, for instance) or something relatively abstract (like trying to capture a photo of a concept, like love or death). The challenge here is to avoid cliches, whether in your choice of subject matter, or in your composition/representation if you’ve chosen a subject that’s often photographed.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to experiment. Put your own spin on these ideas, or come up with something daring of your own. If you’ve come up with an interesting project, let us know!

Copy Shamelessly


I save lots of things. I have piles of ticket stubs, recipes, magazine articles, greeting cards, scraps of paper that I jot things down on… and writing. Lots of it. I’ve discarded quite a bit of what I’ve written over the years, but I’ve also hung onto enough of it to have a pretty good idea of how my writing has evolved over the years. 

With the older writing especially, I can usually tell what I was reading at the time by how I was writing: A bit of Benchley here, a pinch of Barthelme there, the occasional pinch of Rushdie. It’s not just writers who do it, either. Anyone who creates pretty much anything relies on the work of those who’ve gone before for equal parts inspiration and road map. So it’s hardly surprising when we find our work echoes, or even outright mimics, those whose efforts inspired us to do what we do.

When we first catch on to the fact that we’re doing this, we might be a little ashamed. If we were any good, we think, our work would be more authentic, and would speak with something more of our own voices. It’s okay, though; what’s important, at least early on, is the simple fact that you’re doing something, creating something. It’s in that process that we find our voices, and the confidence to speak with them. It’s only later on, if we’re using someone else’s voice or style as a crutch (or actively plagiarizing them) that it becomes problematic.

There’s something useful buried in that imitation, though, and it’s something that only became clear to me by hindsight. When we consciously set out to imitate someone, we’re picking apart their style and disassembling (or deconstructing, if you want to get all fancy about it) what they’ve done to figure out what makes it tick. Putting someone else’s work under that kind of microscope gives us insight into their technique, but actually trying to do what they’ve done can help us to make sense of our own work if we approach it the right way.

So, try this some time: choose a photographer, and do your level best to create something that looks exactly like that person would’ve done it. If, for instance, you feel ambitious enough to take on a David LaChapelle shot, try to re-create the lighting, the makeup, the post-processing… everything. You may not be able to afford all that goes into a LaChapelle shoot (props, lighting setup, assistants, Amanda Lepore), but it can also be fun figuring out ways to get the same results on a shoestring. In the course of doing all of this, you’ll be adding to your own skill set, and also gaining an appreciation for all the work that goes into making a great photo, while also finding new ways to express your own voice in your own work.

Cold-Weather Photography Tips

If your camera had teeth, they’d be chattering right now. When the days grow shorter and colder and you’ve got Jack Frost nipping at your extremeties, you might be tempted to stay in, make some hot cocoa, and save the photography for warmer weather. Don’t; you’re missing a lot of photo opportunities!

  • Keep your batteries toasty: You might keep your AA’s in the fridge so they don’t drain as quickly. Your camera battery, similarly, won’t perform at its best when it’s cold. Keep your camera warm the best you can; failing that, keep a spare battery in an inside pocket. If your battery’s showing a faster-than-usual rate of drain, switch it for your warmer backup.
  • Use a polarizing filter if you have one. The bright light caused by the angle of the sun, and by the glare reflected off the snow. Since you may find yourself stopping the lens down to f/22 or thereabouts (which isn’t where your lens is at its sharpest), the polarizer lets you lose a couple of stops of light. In dim light, this can be a drawback, but when it’s very bright, it can be a godsend.
  • As with other times, fill flash can be helpful when the light is hinky.
  • Pay attention to your white balance; snow and bright light can wreak havoc on metering and white balance.
  • Be aware that plastic — whether in camera bodies or in lenses — behaves much differently in the cold than it would at “normal” temperatures. It loses flexibility and can become brittle. A bump or ding that might leave a small mark under normal circumstances can lead to cracks and chips in cold weather.
  • Watch out for moisture. Bring a large Ziploc bag (large enough for your camera and lens) and bag the camera before you’re inside. Similar to leaving a glass of iced tea on a table during a summer day, bringing a camera indoors from cold weather can lead to condensation in and around your gear. Bagging it first means bagging colder, drier air with your camera; the bag will fog, but hopefully your camera won’t.
  • Purchased any electronics lately? Hang onto those silica gel packets; they’re useful for removing airborne moisture.

It should go without saying that your first priority should be keeping yourself warm and safe. Bundle up, keep gloves handy, and have fun!



There’s no shortage of debates in photography circles. Choose a subject – whether it’s one camera over another, color versus black and white, available light versus speedlights, or any number of other contentious subjects* — and there’s likely to be a wide difference of opinion. One such subject of debate is whether to shoot in RAW or in JPEG.

To figure out your options, let’s start by laying out some basic definitions. A RAW file is just that. It’s raw; it’s how your camera’s sensor “saw” what was in front of it, with very little intervention on the camera’s part. These are generally large files, since the camera takes in quite a bit of information once you’ve pressed down the shutter. It’s also undeveloped; it’s up to you to render a final image, sometimes via the camera’s built-in processor and sometimes via an external program like Aperture, Lightroom, GIMP, or Photoshop. A JPEG, on the other hand, isn’t raw; it’s been “cooked” by your camera’s processor, so the development takes place in-camera. The files are much smaller, usually because of compression applied during development, and you have a much smaller degree of control over the final result, absent postprocessing.

The difference between RAW and JPEG isn’t just one of size; it’s about the amount of information the file contains. Since I like analogies, let me give you another one. Let’s imagine that RAW is Macbeth. JPEG, being a compressed version of the RAW file, has much less information. So we’ll call that the Cliff’s Notes of Macbeth. Now let’s say you want to make changes, or crop, that file. Well, if I’m cropping Macbeth, it turns out that I can get rid of quite a bit of it and still have it make some kind of sense. With the Cliff’s Notes, however, I don’t have quite the same degree of freedom; those cuts –those edits and crops – take information away from something that’s already had quite a bit stripped away.

Processing a RAW file, then, “summarizes” based on much more information. The end result can be very close to the original, or can be very small; the point, however, is that you have control over the end result at each step in the process. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s not unlike the difference between developing a roll of film in your own darkroom versus sending it to CVS or Walgreen’s. Sometimes you get lucky sending your film out, but sometimes the results aren’t what you would have chosen, and if you’re particular about how your photos look, that’s not generally something you want to leave to chance.

Yes, RAW takes up quite a bit of memory, and yes, it can be a time-consuming process learning how to get your development workflow where you want it. With that said, it also gives you the kind of control and freedom that JPEG doesn’t always give you. If you want that control, try RAW. If you’re not sure, or if you want backups while you’re getting the hang of your RAW workflow, delve into your camera’s settings; nearly every camera that I’ve seen with the ability to shoot in RAW has an option to shoot JPEGs in tandem with RAW images. Use that, and you’ll always have “backups” of your originals.

Short Tips: Finding Keepers

Outdoor Plumbing

In recent weeks, I’ve mentioned the importance of deleting photos, and also of viewing your work objectively. In both cases, one of the resons for doing these things is to narrow what you’re saving down to your “keepers,” the photos you want others to see, or may want to do something with at a later date. One of the challenges you can expect to face as you try to cull your work — separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were — is figuring out what, exactly, is your best work. There are a few quick ways to do this that can help to cut down on the time you’re spending on your sorting process.

Often as not, when I’ve just come back from a day of shooting, the first thing I want to do is load my work onto the computer, view it, and critique it. After all, seeing your work at full size on a large screen is often a great way to realize what works and what doesn’t. I’ll generally sort by three categories: the stuff that’s obvious crap (out of focus, hopelessly under- or over-exposed, badly composed, or a photo that just isn’t “about” anything); the stuff that could be useable given some reasonable editing (a slight crop, maybe some work on color and contrast); and the stuff that works more or less as it is. The issue is when something doesn’t fall neatly into one of those categories. Maybe it doesn’t work as it is, but could later; maybe there’s just the nagging sense that something’s “off.” When that happens, it’s time to take other measures.

1. The Thumbnail Test: Let’s say you’ve viewed all of your work at full size, and there’s a handful of shots that you’re still not sure about. View these shots as thumbnails, rather than poring over them repeatedly at full size.* When you’re looking at something at 1,024 x 768 resolution, you may find yourself getting caught up in a series of details within the overall picture, versus seeing it whole. This can be useful if you can pull a decent-sized chunk out of the whole to function as an image all its own (let’s say that you’d end up cropping about a third of the image), but if the only thing that works is a solitary squirrel in the corner munching on a bagel, you haven’t exactly got a keeper. Viewing a thumbnail allows you to see the entire image at once, and to evaluate it in its entirety. You may not want to use this for your initial cull (something that looks sharp in thumbnail form might in fact be badly out of focus; similarly, you might miss some small detail or splash of color that could redeem an image that needed a little something on the first pass), but it’s useful if you want to narrow things down after you’ve gone through the batch the first time.

2. The Calendar Test: Let’s say you have a handful of images that might be keepers, but you’re not sure if they’re as good as you thought they were the first time out. Start by asking yourself a question: If this was on a calendar, would I really want to look at it every day for the next month? Of course, you’re not going to start printing calendars like they’re going out of style just to evaluate your images. But try putting a folder together and revisiting it on a day-to-day basis, or setting an image as your desktop background. If it’s already revealed all it can tell you by the second or third day, you might want to reconsider it.

3. The Audience Test: It’s hard to be objective about your own work. On one hand, we can become so attached to our own work that it’s hard to give it an honest critique. On the other, we can at times be so critical of our own work that we’re set to throw out something that might, in fact, have been done very well. If you have someone whose eye, judgement, and honesty you trust, ask their opinion. The perspective that a fresh set of eyes brings to your work can be invaluable in evaluating the quality of what you’re doing, and also in measuring what you’re trying to communicate with your images versus how an audience — even just an audience of one — receives them.

But those are just my tips. What are some things you’ve found useful in critiquing and sorting your own work?

*If your workspace has sufficient room, you can get a similar effect by backing away from your monitor. 

Short Tips

Untitled, Unknown

A few bits of randomness for your reading and photographing enjoyment:

Take Notes: This is especially true if you’re learning by shooting manually with a film camera rather than a digital, or if you’re learning film after having shot in digital for some time. Digital cameras will, in most cases, give you detailed EXIF data. Shooting with film? You’re on your own in that regard. If the exposure is perfect, congratulations – and good luck remembering what you did to get that perfect exposure. If, on the other hand, you’ve made a proverbial dog’s breakfast of the shot, you won’t know how to avoid making the same mistake later. As a friend used to say, “The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory.” Write it down, bearing in mind that having a pad and pen with you is useful for a number of other reasons as well, like jotting down other photographers’ contact information, giving them yours, taking down emails so you can send photos to people whose pictures you’ve made, jotting down ideas for future shoots… the list is practically endless.

Another Use for Paper: A sheet of paper can be used as an impromptu white balance card* if you’re trying to set custom white balance in a situation with screwy (or mixed) lighting. If it’s small enough, it can be used as a bounce card for your camera’s on-board flash, or even for a speedlight. As if that weren’t enough, it can also be used as an improvised reflector if your subject is strongly back- or side-lit. It won’t work quite as nicely as a purpose-built reflector, but it’s better than nothing in a pinch.

Use Your Hands: Lighting, especially outdoors, can be tricky to meter. This is especially true if you’re dealing with a scene that has numerous changes in light values (much darker or brighter in some areas than others) or when you’re trying to meter for an odd situation. For example, let’s say you’re outdoors on a bright day. You might be standing under an awning, and trying to meter for something under another, similar awning across the street. You and your subject are in shade, and there’s an awful lot of light between you. If you don’t want to use spot or center-weighted metering (or you’d like to but you don’t have the time to go back to the menus), meter on your hand.

Find Some Gaffer’s Tape: Gaffer’s tape is to photographers what duct tape is to handymen and rednecks. Many a photographer will tell you the stuff is great, if expensive. You can use it as it was intended (taping down wiring so nobody trips and breaks their neck), but why stop there? You can use it to cover the logo on your camera, to secure reflectors and other paraphernalia, to make sure your subjects know where to stand, or to make minor repairs. I’ve even seen it used as an impromptu band-aid (though I’m not endorsing that here, so as not to have a lawsuit on my hands). It’s every bit as strong as duct tape, but with a less messy adhesive and a surface that doesn’t shine, making it less obtrusive and also giving you a decent grip if you need it.

Any short tips, odd techniques, or random finds you’d like to share with our readers? Drop me a line!

The Habit of Seeing: Inside the Frame

Figure 1

So after last week, you’re paying much closer attention to what’s outside the viewfinder and outside the frame, right? All well and good, but since we’re dealing with photography here, at some point you’re going to have to, or want to, raise the finder to your eye and actually make a photo. You didn’t think all this seeing business was done just ‘cause you’d figured out what you wanted to photograph, didja?

Okay, so you’re looking through your viewfinder, and there’s your subject, large as life. You’d think you’d be all set at this point. Not quite yet. The same “rules” apply once you’re looking through the finder that applied before you decided on your subject; you still have to apply the same critical process to what’s going on in your finder that you did to what was going on in the larger world outside it.

Figure 2

Consider Figure 1. When I took this shot, I was paying closer attention to the performance artist, capturing her movements and facial expression. It wasn’t ‘til after the shot was made that I took notice of the rest of what was in the frame. Luckily, the apparatus on which she was performing – picture a carbon fiber monopod-cum-stilts thingy, which had her, and the other two women performing with her, tracing long, graceful arcs through the air – was going to bring her back to the area in another swing or two, so I changed my perspective a little, recomposed my shot, waited for it… and ended up with what you see in Figure 2.

There are other things to look for, some of which can be codified into rules (like the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Mean, both of which we’ll stop to consider another time) and others of which have more to do with simple esthetics and personal taste. Sometimes, as with the acrobats shown in the first shots, there’s no getting around the visual distractions, like power lines, traffic lights, and buildings. Among the considerations here weren’t just the crowds, but also the fact that a sizeable area around the performers was cordoned off, for both their and the audience’s safety, so certain shots and angles were off limits. Other circumstances (like shooting on a boat or in a moving car) present similar challenges, since moving in one direction or another can mean the difference between being safe or not.

Figure 3

When that’s the case, you can either look for a different angle, or even for a different subject. Bear in mind that while those background elements can be maddening sometimes – nobody wants a telephone pole sticking out of their head, no matter how good you’ve made the rest of them look – they can also be useful, if used right. You can give a sense of context, or even add touches to your photo that can be a bit disorienting (and therefore compelling in their own right).

Developing a habit of seeing as a part of cultivating your vision means broadening your vision. As we saw last week, we can’t afford to neglect what’s going on outside the frame or the finder; similarly, we can’t ignore what’s going on inside the frame when the decisive moment comes… otherwise, we’re left with a decisively bad photo.

The Habit of Seeing: Outside the Frame


Only those who stand outside the frame are capable of seeing the whole picture. – Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Quick question for you: when does composition begin? If you’re only starting to look, or truly see, once you’ve got the viewfinder to your eye, you’re a bit too late. Getting your best photos relies on learning to see all of what’s in front of you, in order to find a worthy shot in what can sometimes be a great big mess of clutter (or, alternately, sheer boredom).

There are, of course, a few reasons to pay close attention. For one thing, what we think of as our subject – the first thing that catches our eye – might be obscuring, or drawing our attention away from another, more compelling subject. I’ve had this happen more than once in my own photos; I’ll get the shot, and when I get home and view it on my monitor, I realize that there was something else going on there that I’d totally missed the first time I looked. Sometimes that “something else” made, or would have made, for a more interesting photo if I’d been paying closer attention.

Similarly, sometimes it’s not just a single subject that makes the photo work. Sometimes it’s a pair, or group, of related things that reinforce each other. Other times, the juxtaposition of unlike or seemingly disparate things give you a different meaning than either of them would on their own. If we’re not paying attention, we’re missing those relationships, and the little things that can turn a competent shot into a great one.

Then there are times that you see something, or someone, that just makes you say, “Huh?” Things that at a glance, blend into a scene, but which, if you take the extra second to take notice of them and really think about them, end up being the visual equivalent of a pebble in your sneakers – they jab at you a bit because there’s something just a little bit “off” about them. Neglect the area outside the frame, and what’s inside it just might suffer for it.

The photo accompanying this post is an example of one of the times I got it right. I’ve shot that gargoyle (and the other three that accompany him) many times, often at different times of day. This time, I noticed birds flying around the gargoyles, and waited to see what they’d do (using my zoom as a spotting scope). One little guy flew right into the gargoyle’s mouth, but had that look about him that birds get when they’re not going to stay in one spot for very long. I waited, and this is what I got. I could’ve simply gotten the gargoyle and gone home – which is exactly what I’ve done in times past, and which makes me wonder how much else I’ve missed because I wasn’t paying attention.

When we think about our ways of seeing, it’s helpful to remind ourselves every now and again that the fraction of a second that comprises a photo is only a small part of the picture, after all. If you want what’s in the frame to be an accurate representation of, or even a means of condensing, a bigger picture, or to be able to tell a larger story, you need to be attuned to what’s going on beyond the viewfinder, and also beyond yourself. Often as not, something that drew your eye did so for a reason; there was something about its color, shape, relationship to its surroundings, or some mental association it triggered in you, that made you take notice (and take photos). If it captures your imagination, capture it in turn. Just don’t stop at that obvious photo; be willing to look around, and beyond, it to other things that might be less obvious.

The Habit of Seeing


   Diego had never seen the sea. His father, Santiago Kovadloff, took him to discover it.
   They went south.
   The ocean lay beyond high sand dunes, waiting.
   When the child and his father finally reached the dunes after much walking, the ocean exploded before their eyes.
   And so immense was the sea and its sparkle that the child was struck dumb by the beauty of it.
   And when he finally managed to speak, trembling, stuttering, he asked his father:
   “Help me to see!”

There’s a lot of talk about talent that surrounds photography, as with any other art. While talent has its place, it isn’t enough by itself. Nobody, no matter how talented or capable they may be, emerges fully formed like Athena from Zeus’s head. Even those with a surplus of talent – those once-in-a-lifetime freaks of nature – need a sense of direction to make the most of what they’re born with. The good news is that the rest of us can take a cue or two from them as well, since with the will to learn, to practice, to fail, and never mind, try again, fail better, can make even a little talent go a long way.

There’s a lot of technique that goes into photography. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring different technical aspects of photography related to different functions and settings on this site, and will continue to do so. However, all those settings, all the skill we seek to develop in mastering not only the fundamentals of exposure, all the ways we try to approach and master realizing what we saw in our mind’s eye in the split second before we pressed the shutter, really don’t amount to much if what we’ve got is a frame of perfectly exposed emptiness.

Mind you, there could well be something going on in the frame. A lot of somethings, even, a cacophony of visual input clamoring to be seen and frozen in time. But something can have form and still be devoid of content if it’s not about anything, and there’s no “there” there. Sometimes we have to look a bit harder to see it, or may even have tried our best only to decide there’s nothing there, and that’s okay… as long as that process takes place before the photo is made.

When you’re working in a visual medium, seeking to be understood by being seen, it’s worth asking whether that vision can be learned, or if it’s something you’ve either inherently got or don’t. In the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about ways of seeing, stepping away from the technical into something that might seem a bit obscure, but is really quite practical. You can learn to see, and communicate what you’ve seen in a way that makes it make sense to someone else. And if you already know, you can find ways to do it better still.

Seeing isn’t something that’s handed down, or transmitted as if by some kind of lineage. Neither I, nor anyone else, can confer upon you a way of seeing. As I’ve written elsewhere, there’s a vision only you can have, since nobody else can see the world as you do. A codicil to that, though, is that you have to cultivate a habit of seeing. Be willing to engage what’s in your line of sight. Allow it to be present, without preconception or judgment, and – more importantly – be present to it. Dorothea Lange said once that a camera “is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” If part of the challenge is being mindful throughout the photographic process, then another, no less significant, challenge is bringing that mindfulness back to our everyday lives.

By way of a disclaimer: I don’t put myself forth as some kind of visionary. I struggle with this stuff every time I pick up a camera, and even many times when I don’t have one. One reason that Lange’s words resonate with me is because I suppose we’ve all been there… we’ve all had those lapses in vision, when our eyes weren’t altogether open or our heart wasn’t 100% in it. It takes practice and discipline, but if the photo’s worth making, so’s the effort.

A thought in closing (or in transition, if you’d rather): What do you think? What have you learned from a lifetime of seeing, and what advice would you give to someone who’d like to see more deeply?

The epigraph is taken from The Book of Embraces, by Eduardo Galeano.

Cemetery Photography


Go ask the youngest angel, She will say with bated breath, By the door of Mary's garden, Are the spirits Love and Death.

I love a good cemetery. That probably sounds morbid, but it’s not. They’re peaceful places, for one thing; hardly anyone ever bothers you. Besides, I figure that since one of these days I’ll be going into one and not leaving, it’d probably help to start getting used to them now.

On a more serious note, cemeteries have a unique sense of history about them that not many other places do. You learn a lot about an area – the way its demographics changed over time, mortality rates, the people who settled and built an area – by who’s buried there. You also realize that for all the expense associated with the death industry (and it is that), we just don’t do mourning like we used to. Don’t believe me? Compare headstones from the 1800’s or even the early part of the last century with what you get now; we used to send our dead out in style, versus sending them out in the equivalent of a Happy Meal container.

Angels are not economists; magnificently, they squander their light.

But I digress. Because of their variety and rich history, cemeteries are also a wonderful place to photograph. Today, I’ll be sharing some tips from my time in the graveyard.

• Bring bags with you. Most cemeteries are well-kept. Some, however, aren’t, or they’re located in areas where people tend to use them as shortcuts (or, worse still, dumping grounds). If you see trash, pick it up, and don’t ever leave trash of your own behind.
• I say the following as someone who smokes a pack a day: Don’t smoke in the cemetery. It’s just tacky.
• Likewise, if you’ve got an MP3 player, mobile phone, or anything else on you that makes noise, shut it off.
• Bear in mind that many cemeteries are private property. You may be asked to leave; if you are, do so, since you’re trespassing if you don’t.
• You may also be asked what you’re doing in the cemetery. If that’s the case, be honest and respectful.
• Speaking of respect, a little goes a long way. If you see a family nearby visiting a loved one, or if there’s a service going on, put the camera away. The photo’s not so important that you have to be an asshole to get it.
• Some cemeteries actually have photo policies. Some may explicitly state that you’re not allowed to take photos (rare, but it happens), while still others will allow picture taking as long as you don’t sell the photos, or may require a special arrangement if you want to sell what you’ve taken. It can also be helpful to call ahead to find out.
• Watch your step. For one thing, you don’t want to walk over someone’s floral arrangements, flags, and the like. For another, you may come across uneven ground, or even sunken graves, from time to time.
• Disturb as little as possible on or around a gravesite. It’s one thing if a stone or plaque has a layer of leaves and dirt on it; there’s nothing wrong with cleaning someone’s resting place.* If, on the other hand, the marker is partially obscured by flowers, toys, or anything else left there by loved ones, leave it as it is.**
• One last rule of thumb: if you’re not sure whether you feel right taking pictures in a graveyard, ask yourself one simple question: how would you feel if someone were taking a picture of your or your loved one’s tombstone? I’ve thought about this from time to time, and I think that as long as someone’s being respectful, I wouldn’t get bent out of shape about it. You may feel differently, and therein, I suppose, lies your answer.

A Heap of Dust Alone Remains...

If you want to learn more about cemeteries themselves, there are two great resources. The first would be a local church or historical society, who can tell you a lot about the town and its families (especially useful if you’re not familiar with an area). The other is a book that you can easily find online, called Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography which explains burial customs, iconography, and the significance of certain types of grave markers. It’s not a photography how-to, but it’s invaluable if you’re as interested in the history of a place and its dead as you are in the photos themselves.

Sites of Interest: (Find a Grave) (The Graveyard Rabbit)
A listing of cemetery and funeral home reviews:

*One exception would be stones, since it’s common custom to leave stones on or near the grave marker when you’ve visited. This is most common in Jewish cemeteries, but I’ve seen it done elsewhere as well.

**One site goes so far as to suggest moving anything that’s in the way of your photos and replacing it afterward, which strikes me as a step too far.

The quotation on the first photo is from William Butler Yeats’ “Love and Death”; the quotation on the second is from Jean Arp.

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