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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

A digital camera can be a good tool to use to document family history.

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A digital camera can be one of the most important tools you have to document your genealogy research. The following are some examples of how I use the camera in my research and tips for getting the most out of your photography.

Use your camera in library, archive or museum research

Consider using your digital camera as a tool for documenting and capturing information you find in your research. If you have never used your camera in your library research, practice in your local library under all types of conditions, including very low light. The time to learn isn't at a cemetery 2,000 miles from home.

Digital photography is all about lighting and location

The big photography problem you will always face is lighting. Flash isn't usually a good solution; I use it less than 10 percent of the time. Instead, use natural lighting (near a window), stands with diffusion screens and lights, or a self-contained photo studio (includes tripod, diffusion lights and screen and copy stand — I like Photo Studio In-a-Box from American Recorder Technologies; you can find more information at the company's website, americanrecorder.com).

Shooting documents with flash indoors usually creates a 'hot spot' caused by using a flash too close. When you have no choice but (to use) a flash, use it sparingly, like in a group setting or for a gravestone in a shaded area. Many libraries and research facilities prohibit flash photography, so come prepared to shoot without a flash.

Here are some ideas by Dennis Ridenour, a contributor to Rootsweb.ancestry.com, to keep in mind when shooting digital photography.

Note 1: Sunlight is known as "white" light and gives what we recognize as true or natural colors. Any other type of light source has light of a different color temperature and gives off different color tones.

Note 2: Digital cameras try to automatically adjust for different kinds of lighting but sometimes need additional help. The camera's "white balance" setting provides this help. This setting "reads" the light coming into the camera lens and, by assuming the brightest area in the image is white, attempts to balance the entire image so that the bright area looks white. All other colors should then appear natural.

When planning to take photographs in a library, the following tips may be helpful:

  • Know the policy about digital photography before you go. Eight percent of libraries have allowed me to use a digital camera with some guidelines.
  • Do not use flash. Using a flash is usually prohibited due to the photosensitivity of artifacts.
  • Set up a photo stand or tripod.
  • You may need to sign an intended-uses statement.
  • One of the staff may have to handle rare objects.
  • Only take photos of intended artifacts.
  • Photos are not usually allowed of the building's interior or of people (especially in government buildings).
  • Set up camera in a corner away from others, so as not to disturb.
  • If possible, set up near a window to gain the most from natural light.
Photographing museums and archives

When planning to take pictures in a museum or archive, the following tips may be helpful:

  • 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.

Look at the base, top, sides and back of headstones. In addition examining the inscription, look around the headstone for other important information that can be inscribed about the individual, family, maker of the headstone and writings of the deceased.

Take eye-level pictures of headstone inscriptions. When shooting headstone inscriptions, try to take the photo of the inscription at eye level. You will find information much easier to read.

Can't find a family member's gravesite? See if you can talk to the sexton and ask to see the cemetery plot map. The sexton may have records you can photograph. Some cemeteries bury several layers deep to conserve space. In these situations, the headstone on top may only be for one of the several persons buried in the plot. Sometimes headstones are not available because the family is too poor for a marker, but the sexton will have details of who is buried where.

Take time to clear grass and other foliage away from a gravestone's inscription before taking a photograph. Clear any cut, dried grass away. If a branch has grown over the marker, pull it back. Clear overgrown grass to the edge of the marker or headstone. Important information or epitaphs may be separated from the main inscription (for example, a bronze marker denoting group or religious affiliation or service in a branch of military or in a specific war).

Use a little chalk for the hard-to-read, old headstones. Letters on the old stones are often barely legible. Take a little piece of white (or black or any other dark color) chalk and fill letters. Or rub the white chalk on the flat surface next to the letters.

Older stones tend to lean or slant. Tilt the camera to the angle of the stone, and your image will straighten up nicely.

Shoot black and gray polished marble at an angle. Dark polished headstones are sometimes hard to read or can reflect a camera's flash, making the image illegible. Shoot polished stone at an angle and then view on LCD for clarity. Reshoot at a different angle if needed.

A flash might help with shaded headstones or on cloudy days. If it's difficult to read the inscription in a photo you've just taken, try the flash. It should provide just enough extra light to fill in the dark shadows so you can read the lettering. Approach from various angles, if necessary.

A soft brush or natural sponge with water can help remove surface soil. Gentle brushing should remove surface dirt and bird droppings. Never use hard objects or stiff brushes to clean the stone.

Try sponge and water on light-colored stone. The water will darken the inscription on the stone.

Keep a written record. Some items that can contribute to a written record include location, a map of the cemetery with the stones numbered, time elements (time of day, date and frame number) and transcription of the epitaph. Post your photos of headstones on family websites or public sites such as Virtual Cemetery or Dead Fred.

When you take the time to adequately prepare for your field research, you will find greater success and better insight into the next steps you need to take in your research on the Internet and in the field.

Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on Sept. 7, 2013 failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014 and attribution to original sources were added. A version of this column also appeared in the print edition of the Deseret News on Jan. 16, 2014. The Deseret News demands accuracy in attribution and sourcing and considers any lapses to be a serious breach of ethics. The Deseret News is no longer publishing Barry J. Ewell's writings.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

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