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7 Ways to Become the Photographer Every Genealogist Loves!

42 February 24, 2013 in Tutorials by

In transcribing images for BillionGraves as well as other genealogical records, I have been extremely frustrated in trying to decipher blurry, obscured, or faded records. I feel personally responsible when I can’t correctly transcribe an image because I know that means it won’t be accessible for anyone to search for later on. And that’s the whole goal of our project, right?

So I’ve compiled 7 ways you—as  as a photographer of these valuable, fading records—can improve every image you take and therefore make both transcribers and genealogists love you forever (and I mean forever)!

1. Frame your photo well.

The headstone you are photographing should fill up as much of the frame as possible without cutting off any of the headstone.

The name on the right is cut off, framing is too small.

Too much grass. Get your camera closer to the headstone.

Too close

YES! This is perfect!

2. Take pictures at the right angle.

The more straight-on your picture is, the better. Taking pictures from any angle besides straight on can distort the words on the headstone and make it nearly impossible to transcribe. For upright monuments, bend down to get a better angle for the picture.

10 points for perfect form here!

Bending down to get a better framed shot or to avoid plants/decorations obstructing the headstone is the best way to get a good shot.

3. Link images correctly.

Some headstones are either too large or are actually made up of two connected headstones. If this is the case, take a picture of the WHOLE headstone first, then take close ups on the different sections of the stone.

MAKE SURE the little chain link in the bottom left corner of your screen is highlighted in blue before taking the close ups!


This blue box signifies that the image you are about to take will be linked to the previous one. Always double check that you are linking the correct headstones together!

Take a picture of the whole headstone first…

…then take the first close-up (in this case, the top part of the headstone)…

…and then the bottom part (and however many more you need to get close-eups of the whole stone).

4. Avoid taking blurry images.

Allow your camera to focus before clicking the green picture button. It’s very tempting to rush through the picture taking process in order to capture more images, but make sure you’re not forfeiting your images because you’re going too fast.

This would be an easy headstone to transcribe…if the picture wasn’t so blurry.

Let your camera focus before taking close-up pictures especially.

5. Clear off any debris before you take the picture.

Make sure you set aside any decorations and remove any of the debris/growth that is covering up any part of the headstone  (you might want to take some grass clippers with you).

And don’t forget to move your feet out of the picture!

Grass and leaves make this picture nearly illegible (not to mention the fact that most of this picture is grass, not headstone!).

Make this picture better by a) brushing off old grass, b) trimming back the grass growing over it and c) moving your feet out of the shot.

6. Make sure the lighting is right.

The best time to take pictures is when the sky is slightly overcast. Different times of the day are better for taking pictures of certain kinds of headstones. In any case, pay attention to how light or dark your picture is. Schedule your trips to the cemetery when the lighting is right and beware of shadows—including your own!

Helpful hint: Consider taking an umbrella, flashlight, mirror, or grab the sunshade from your car to either block out the harsh sunlight or to reflect some light on the back side of headstones that are in the shadows.

#179757 East Cemetery, Indiana

The sunlight behind the stone makes the front of this one incredibly difficult to read.

#1904248 Saint John's Cemetery larger

The lighting this time of day is great for the front side of this stone although you might encounter too much shadow when trying to photograph the back.

#1375065 Oakwood Cemetery, Texas--Lighting

The harsh noon-day lighting in this photo actually made the photo greenish and decreased the quality of the image. Avoid taking pictures when it’s this bright outside.

7. View your images before you leave the cemetery.

Don’t forget to make sure they turned out okay! This is the equivalent of checking your answers before you turn in your test: go back and review your photos so every record on BillionGraves will get an A for Accuracy!

What things have you found make the best pictures? Anything I missed? I’d love to hear from both photographers AND transcribers!

headstone pictureshintsnew photostaking photostips

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Comments (42)

  1. Reply by powerwagon on February 25, 2013

    Thank you Lisa, for this timely reminder.

    It takes less time to carefully compose a shot than it will for a transcriber to manipulate the photo in Photoshop, then check against BMDs to confirm a theory of who was buried or what dates should be recorded. Some people will be very disappointed with the shot of their relative’s headstone.

    Thank you to the individual who photo’d my 3XG Grandmother’s headstone, 5000 miles away. I didn’t even know a headstone existed to think about requesting a photo from someone.

    The photographer did not scrape any moss away or apply other aids; the shot is perfectly focused, accurately transcribed and the result for me was an excellent 1st impression of 1BGs. I signed up the next week, and have been an active transcriber ever since.

    • Reply by Trish Kovach on February 26, 2013

      Thanks Lisa for reminding everyone on the photo taking hints.
      I especially like the one about linked photos and cutting portions of the headstone. Many of the headstones are clear but it is only a portion of the stone and the last name is not in the photo nor is it linked to a photo. Also many backs of headstone with childrens names, etc. not being linked to another headstone to get the last name.

  2. Reply by Cindy on February 25, 2013

    Thanks, those are all great suggestions for photographers. I am always amazed at how much a twig or leaf can block part of a name or date on an otherwise easily transcribed headstone. I love this website and plan on photographing lots more when the snow melts from our cemeteries!

    • Reply by Lisa on March 13, 2013

      Thanks, Cindy! It is frustrating when some sort of debris doesn’t allow you to transcribe an otherwise easily transcribed headstone. It only took me transcribing a couple images before I realized how much better I needed to do when taking pictures! Hopefully every picture taker has transcribed at least a few images, so they know how important these 7 tips are.

    • Reply by Lorinda on May 2, 2014

      I agree, have the photographer transcribe some of his own photos. I go over the ones I shot and see if they were transcribed correctly- or at all. I also carry a lightweight tool bucket with nippers, brush, small garden shovel, and extra batteries. I find it best to shoot on an overcast day to prevent strong shadows and I can see my images better. My smartphone was taking soft/blurry images until I replaced the lens that was scratched. (Watch a Youtube vid on disassembly and buy a replacement lens on Ebay for a few bucks.)

  3. Reply by Kathy on February 27, 2013

    Thank you for the information. I tend to be in a hurry when I’m out of town taking photos and need to convince myself that a good shot is better than having to go back. I suffer from tremors and sometimes it’s very difficult to get a good picture. With the mixture of materials the stones are made from, some suffer more damage than others and I’m cautious about touching a stone that isn’t part of the family but have learned some tricks so when I do go to family markers, I’ve started cleaning them up a little and hopefully this will keep them in tact. Part of the reason I started taking pictures is so there will be a memorial to each and every person who has a marker out there. I was just introduced to Billion Graves and will be sharing the pictures I’ve taken on this site as well. But only the good ones!

    Thanks again!

  4. Reply by James on March 1, 2013

    I recommend buying a monopod. These are sold at photo supply stores – check Amazon or B&H Photo for examples. They can be very short and also expand to the height you need. Not as steady as a tripod, but much easier to carry around.

    As for arthritic knees – garden shops sell nice portable pads for kneeling on.

  5. Reply by DK on March 1, 2013

    Re: Shadows of yourself on the headstone, stand behind the headstone & take the photo upside down. NOT YOU UPSIDE DOWN, the headstone.

    • Reply by Lisa on March 4, 2013

      Thank you DK! This is exactly what you should do!

  6. Reply by Shirley on March 2, 2013

    Thanks for this information. I sure hope everyone who is taking pictures of the stones will read it. I have been on for the last 2 hours trying to read the information that comes up. Last one I looked at had 6, yes six pictures and NOT one of the could be read. Very discouraging for me. After all this time, I have only logged 6 toward my 500 this A.M.

  7. Reply by Shirley on March 2, 2013

    Just another comment. Just had another headstone come up and it is rediculous (sic). Not one item of importance on it. i.e. Flip, picture of guitar and a skier. No Dates, No Names etc,, Just a waste of my time.

  8. Reply by Shirley on March 2, 2013

    The above comment, taken from
    Wellington City Cemetery(Utah, United States)

    • Reply by Lisa on March 4, 2013

      Shirley, Thank you so much for your patience with transcribing! We so appreciate your hard work! I hope everyone who reads this blog and your comments will realize the importance of taking quality images. It is so frustrating to not be able to transcribe images.

      When you do come across images that don’t have any important items on them, go ahead and report the image to get it out of the transcribing queue.

      Hopefully this post–and your comments–will inspire our photographers to be more cautious in taking pictures.

  9. Reply by Anne on March 12, 2013

    Your article on how to take pictures was wonderful, however, it appears that many photographers pay no attention to such things & are only interested in getting a picture – any picture. What a waste!

    • Reply by Lisa on March 13, 2013

      Thanks, Anne. I agree with you. I think we need to get this information out to more photographers taking pictures for BillionGraves. Do you have any ideas on how we get this information to more people?

      • Reply by Anne on March 14, 2013

        I have thought for a long time that if Billion Graves would have a folder on each of our Dashboards to put our pictures when they can’t be transcribed; instead of deleting them as it appears you do now. That way each photographer would have the opportunity to go back to the cemetery & get the correct data & transcribe these photos themselves. Perhaps then they would understand how important it is to take a minute or 2 longer & take good pictures.

        • Reply by Lisa on March 15, 2013

          Anne, this is a great idea. We’ve discussed possible ways to do this in the past, so I appreciate your input. I will pass the idea on to our developers and see if we could implement something like this. Thanks!

  10. Reply by Joseph on July 19, 2013

    I love the concept of what Billiongraves is doing. I have one big issue though. I was wondering why the quality of the images taken from the Billiongraves app is so much lower than the camera on the smart phone or tablet can display. Over the last year I have tried a Thunderbolt and Droid Maxx HD smartphone, and a Samsung Note II 8.0 and Samsung Tab2 tablet. All four devices take much poorer quality pictures through the Billiongraves app. Is this because of space requirements and compression on the app and web site?
    I had taken dozens of pictures at several cemeteries, and the picture quality was very poor through the app but great on the image taken through the regular camera feature. I did not post a lot of the pictures up to the web site because of this.

    • Reply by Lisa on August 5, 2013

      Hi Joseph, thanks for contributing pictures! I’m not sure why it would take a poorer quality picture even though the app uses the device’s own camera.

      Will you email Our support team would love to look into this.

  11. Reply by Headstones on July 30, 2013

    This is a great article and a great idea. Thank you for putting this together. Look forward to your other posts.

  12. Reply by Steve N on March 2, 2014

    I read these tips with interest as I am both a photographer and transcriber for BG so I no the issues with doing both quite well. Some of the remarks regarding just going for any photo I find a bit insulting and I will tell you why. I recently travelled 50 miles to research some of my family history at a number of churches near the Kent coast here in the UK. While there I also took a number of photos for BG. The weather was an issue since the sun was high and when taking the pictures I could not actually see the images on the screen. I knew this meant the pictures may not be the best they could be, but the alternative for BG was no pictures at all. It may be some time before I can get to the area again so I just had to do the best I could. I have checked the photos and on the whole I think I did quite a good job. I tend to transcribe my own when I can but am grateful of the help I receive from my fellow transcribers. My point is there could be a perfectly valid reason why the picture you are attempting to transcribe is perhaps not the best it could be. I have also noticed that I sometimes forget to link images which is another advantage of doing my own transcribing. The best idea I have read on the Blog is from Anne – I think reporting the image back to the photographer is an excellent idea and would welcome this.

  13. Reply by Cathy on March 27, 2014

    Great article! I have gone down the path of transcribing my own images when I take them on site so I don’t actually have to go back and re-do them, but this does mean more trips and fewer photos per trip as my time is in small slots. I however feel that this is going to be more beneficial to the BG project overall, as it means even if the photo isn’t great, the content of the transcription is correct regardless. And for those headstones which don’t seem to photograph well no matter what you try, the info is still there and not deleted when a photo can’t be read.

    I too like the idea of photos we have taken that can’t be transcribed being put somewhere, or some how we are notified that they had difficulties, because I can only imagine how many photos are being deleted, and the photographer doesn’t know, therefore cemeteries aren’t fully completed and have holes in their photo collection on BG (especially those where nature wasn’t moved out of the way, but would normally be totally transcribable!)

    • Reply by Hudson Gunn on March 27, 2014

      Thank you for your comment! The photos that are being taken that can’t be transcribed are not being deleted. They are still connected to the cemetery. This is the importance of the new Supporting Records feature where you can upload burial records and cemetery listings that might help identify this headstone! We will continue to create enhancements to the Supporting Records feature, but this is EXACTLY the reason we added the functionality, so these headstones are not lost!

  14. Reply by Mary Kirgan on May 1, 2014

    Good article. I would like advice on how to be sure surname stones are attached to the stones surrounding them that do not have the surname on them. I make notes when taking the pictures but if someone does the transcribing and I am unable to link them in time to prevent the information from being lost. Is it possible for us to reserve the pictures we take to transcribe ourselves or could a feature be added to allow us to link after the transcribing has been done? I have seen several cemetery transcriptions that much of the work is wasted because this was not considered.

  15. Reply by Pam Bourke-Shaw on May 1, 2014

    Thanks for the great information re how to take really good photos. I, also, think it would be really helpful if we were notified of any photos not reaching a sufficiently good quality to be transcribed well. One question – when we are out taking photos, is there any way of knowing whether photos have already been taken of the area / cemetary we are photographing – perhaps by someone else? There is no point in doubling up. Also, in talking with a cemetary guardian recently, he showed me how to rub a large chalk stick over a headstone that has writing that is old and has become really difficult to read. The chalk picks up the writing nicely, and of course, will wash off in the next rain. This seems to make transcribing easier on some hard-to-read headstones.

  16. Reply by Lyle Clugg on May 1, 2014

    I was pleased to see Pam’s suggestion about rubbing a stone with chalk to bring out hard to read letting. I’ve been trying to think of some non-destructive way to do this. Many older stones that are a single color are almost impossible to read when I’m there, and I’m sure the picture will have to be marked as unreadable. I’ll try taking a few sticks of colored chalk with me the next time I take photos.

    I’ve also requested some way to get an alphabetic listing of every photo that has been taken in a cemetery. There is a nearby cemetery that has about 90 pictures, but they seem to be scattered throughout the cemetery. It would be nice to get a list before I go so I don’t have to duplicate them.

  17. Reply by Kathy Foscherari on May 2, 2014

    I would suggest that you bring along a spray bottle of water to spray on the old grave stones,especially those that are very weather worn or have moss, algae or mold growing on them. The water will give you depth and shadows to show up worn away lettering.

    • Reply by BillionGraves on May 2, 2014

      That’s a GREAT idea! That works extremely well especially on hard to read headstones! I find that it works even better on light colored headstones. Great tip!

  18. Reply by Eric Raymond on May 1, 2015

    Most photos I see are taken straight on – this often results in old grave stones being unreadable. If they can’t be readily read by eye it may help to take a low angle photo too. The shadows can help decipher the text.

  19. Reply by Grave_Digger on June 2, 2015

    These are good tips, and I would another tip about framing (expanding on #1 above).

    Please do your best to make sure neighbouring unrelated grave markers don’t creep into the shot – or if they do, try to ensure the neighbours’ headstones are so incomplete that they can’t be transcribed.

    I’m not talking about deliberate long-shots of the grave that are intended to show the viewer the surroundings and give them a sense of what it would feel like to stand in the cemetery and look at the grave.

    I’m talking about the usual close-up shots of the headstone. In some lawn cemeteries, the plaques are flat to the ground. That means each one lies head-to-head with the plaque in the row behind it. So when you’re standing in front of Person A’s grave looking at the plaque, you can see unrelated Person B’s plaque upside down immediately behind theirs, with the top of the plaques almost touching. This is an example of what I mean: You’re looking at the Tomlinson grave, and you can see the top edge of the Johnston grave upside down in the next row.

    This photographer has done a good job framing the Tomlinson grave. But some photographers are accidentally getting the WHOLE of the unrelated upside-down grave in the shot as well, or almost all of it.

    And there’s at least one transcriber out there who is transcribing them both together. She transcribes Person A, then flips the photo 180 degrees and transcribes Person B. That means they end up in the same BG “grave”.

    If I were a relative of Person A or Person B, I’d be furious. It’s like having a stranger share your loved one’s grave. It’s a violation.

    I realise there’s a limit to what you can do to prevent fools from transcribing every distant visible headstone along with the headstone that you clearly intended to be front and centre of the picture. But with graves that are head-to-head such as the Tomlinson/Johnston pair above, or side-by-side, careful framing should be able to get the neighbours out of the picture – just as the photographer has done with the grave above.

    If not – would it be possible for photographers to take a cloth as well (along with clippers, water bottles, monopod/tripod, brush, flashlight – the toolkit is getting rather heavy by now!) to drape over the neighbouring headstones?

  20. Reply by gailww on June 3, 2015

    Thanks for the 7 tips, I will be using them in the future.

  21. Reply by Hollyberry64 on June 11, 2015

    Do you transcribe headstones of NON-deceased? I just can’t seem to make myself to them. I think it’s creepy.. I’m a photographer, I transcribe my own and others, but I will not take photos or transcribe Non-deceased.

    I have heard also, you should NEVER rub a stone, with chalk, or any other medium as it could damage the stone. A tip I’ve read – aluminum foil. Wrap the foil around the stone and tape to itself, not the stone as the tape may leave residue or damage the stone. After it is wrapped, use a soft brush, or soft fluffy sponge, etc. to ‘pat’ the foil into the engravings. Might need more than 2 hands, especially on windy days *found out this the hard way… have to go back and take pictures.. Foil is reusable, and the cheaper the better, it’s thinner.

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