If you like sculpture and architecture or solemn and somewhat decayed environments, then cemeteries can be a great source of photographic subjects for you.
Funeral monuments, chapels, crypts and even nature (plants and animals) provide original and often precious inspiration.
The first time that I took pictures in a cemetery was by chance; I had some time on my hands, a cemetery nearby and my iPhone in my pocket… but after that first visit, cemeteries became a frequent choice of location for my photo shoots. I often plan my shoots after doing a bit of research and, when I go past a rural cemetery, I nearly always stop to have a look around and see if I can find any photographer’s “treasure”.
The opening photo in this post is one of my first from the Turin Monumental Cemetery, taken along the length of the north wall of the fifth extension.
What are the treasures that I look for? My favourite subjects are funeral sculptures, in particular those that arouse strong emotional reactions, such as the one in this photo from the Rakowicki Cemetery in Kraków.
The slanted, sideways-on shot enhances the dramatical effect of the figure’s pose.
When taking pictures of a statue, I make a basic decision either to portray the subject objectively – thus using a shot that is true to the proportions and perspective – or to opt for an “empathetic” shot – capturing the expressed emotions as if it were a candid shot of a real person. I almost always choose this second approach.
The most photogenic cemeteries are usually very old; even better if they are not perfect and, instead, rather unkempt and neglected. Indeed, abandoned tombs (sometimes displaying a sign by the cemetery administration announcing its dismantlement due to an end of concession) often make fascinating subjects, such as this statue of a girl gradually suffocated by thorns in the Cemetery of Novara.
The photo above was taken on a day in which the sun was completely obscured behind a blanket of clouds. Although sunlight is usually considered an added value in photography, the uniform, diffused and white light of a covered sky is often ideal both for illuminating a statue and for expressing the underlying atmosphere.
At least for me, cemeteries have to have a bit of a Gothic atmosphere, and a beautiful, sunny day is not the most representative context to use.
And so, when I found myself taking pictures of the Marine Cemetery of Sète, in southern France, on a brightly sunlit day with an azure sky and a background of blue sea full of sailing boats, I had to make some drastic moves, underexposing the shot and using subsequent editing to achieve the “nuit américaine” that you see in the picture above.
In this photo, however, I contradict that said above and take advantage of the golden light of sunset for this play of shadows on a high-relief of the Turin Monumental Cemetery.
Many cemeteries have barely-lit crypts and underground areas that are no less interesting than things above ground. In order not to miss out on shots of these, make sure you have a tripod and an iPhone cover with tripod attachment, such as the Manfrotto Klyp+; a portable LED light can also be really useful, such as the Manfrotto Lumie
I believe it is bad taste to photograph people in a cemetery, both in terms of respecting the privacy of strangers , and for a question of good taste in the case of using models. However, there are other living creatures that fit in quite well, such as the crow in this photo and the cat in the one below.
The crow was shot with an iPhone 5s and edited using Snapseed and Decim8.
In cemeteries, you often find, piled up in great quantities, commonly or less commonly found objects that can become subjects of interest, such as these watering cans in the little cemetery of Robecco sul Naviglio.
It’s always useful to visit the “backstage” in any cemetery, in which you may find interesting discoveries, such as this burial recess ladder depository.
Shot with an iPhone 6 and Procamera, edited using Snapseed and Stackables.
In conclusion, here are a few bits of creative and practical advice for cemetery photography:
- Contrary to what people may think, cemeteries are not public places and the majority of tombs are private. Before starting to take pictures in a cemetery, go online or call the information number to find out about the rules on photography; it may be necessary to get authorization or there may be specific days of the week for photography.
- Black and white works really well and, otherwise, it’s best to use low-intensity colours.
- You will need a tripod and LED light for crypts.
- You often find patterns and object repetition in cemeteries – rows of crosses, steps, chapels – that you can use to great advantage in photographic composition.
- Some cemeteries are really big: remember the closing time or you risk getting locked in!
Davide Capponi is a manager-cum-mobile photographer and is passionate about post-editing. His work has been on display in Italy and abroad, and published in Italian newspapers and magazines. He is a founding member of New Era Museum http://neweramuseum.org/. You can contact David via his blog http://davidecapponi.com/, on Instagram http://instagram.com/rubicorno/, on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/davidecapponi.iphoneography and on Twitter https://twitter.com/Rubicorno.