Use your camera to document family history research

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Sept. 7 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

  • 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 as well as reflect your image under natural light, so consider shooting 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 usually 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 steadiness from the tripod and appropriate camera settings you should be able to get some good-quality photos.
  • No tripod? Then brace yourself. If it is too dark and you have no tripod, leaning against a wall or a pillar or supporting your camera against a bench, a chair or a staircase rail can be a good remedy. 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 and lenses to display an image of the film on a vertical" or flat surface, Ridenour says. "The image displayed on either style can be easily photographed." Here are other ideas on photgraphing microfilm according to Ridenour:

  • Depending on your circumstances, you may or may not need to mount your camera on a tripod. I have been able to raise my camera 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 it in front of the reader screen.
  • Place white paper on the reader surface as the target area for shooting. You can also try other blank sheets of colored paper (pink, blue or yellow) to see if these colors help with readability.
  • Adjust the camera or tripod position so the information you want to capture 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.
Photographing at a cemetery or graveyard

Maureen Taylor, owner and principal of Ancestral Connections, gave instructions on best photographing at a cemetery in her article, Tips for Photographing Gravestones. "Over the centuries, several different types of stones have been used to create gravestones. 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," Taylor says.

Taylor then listed the types of stone in the article:

  • Prior to the 19th century: sandstone or slate.
  • Nineteenth century: marble and gray granite.
  • Late 19th century to the present: polished granite or marble.
Take photos of the cemetery entrance, sign, book of records and church. Before you start taking pictures of headstones, make sure you capture the details of the cemetery, including the name, street signs, proximity and church next to the cemetery. All these details will help you and others who follow know where you have been.

North, south, east, west — best time of day for photographing headstones

Sunlight emphasizes imperfections in stone and can make 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 picture of the large headstone and then move in close to capture the inscription.

Family grave plots require group pictures as well as individual photos of each headstone. A family plot constitutes two or more graves. Take a group shot of the graves that shows the number and proximity. Then take photos of each headstone separately. If you are recording a cemetery, shoot 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.

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