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How to Do a Cemetery Photoshoot

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley. megelison.com

Winter is the best time to shoot photos in cemeteries. Depending on your luck and your location, you might be treated to dark, skeletal branches in the trees, snow falling and piling up on monuments, or spectacular hibernal sunset light somewhat early in the day. With these riches at your disposal, there are some pointers you may want to review before you set out with your cloak and strike a pose where folks decompose.

First: keep in mind that people come to the cemetery to grieve their dead. The newer parts of the cemetery aren’t picturesque anyhow, but you really don’t to be discovered draped over the tombstone the beloved when the lover comes to call. Choose among the oldest graves you can to avoid disrupting someone’s coming to mourn.

Second: with those older graves and monuments, you may be very tempted to climb them, lie on them, crouch on them like a gargoyle. Don’t do any of that. Old tombstones are brittle, fragile, and unsafe. You could hurt yourself or the stone, and both are precious and expensive.

Next: choose your props wisely. You can get gorgeous pictures of yourself with a lantern, flowers are a perfect choice and belong in that setting, and capes and cloaks are suited to the season. Walking around with an obvious sword or dagger, even if your behavior is circumspect, can turn into discomfort or even trouble. Get creative! Eat cake among the stones, or bring a prop hand to set up as though it’s popping from a grave.

Speaking of your behavior: many cemeteries have security, groundskeepers, gravediggers, and other staff keeping watch over the premises. Some have posted hours specifically for mourners, and many have rules about food and drink, playing music, pets, and weapons. Familiarize yourself with all these rules before you go and follow them. Observe any posted notices, and be polite to staff you meet on the grounds. Many cemeteries are private property, belonging to churches, mortuary services, or other groups. They largely tolerate people who come for the quiet and the view, but take a dim view of shenanigans. Be on your best behavior and get your best shots.

Your shots are the goal here, and they can be stunning. Use the surroundings to your best advantage. Graves can make a spooky or pensive background. Praying figures and angels can loom over you at a low angle, or seem to be worshipping you if shot from the higher ground. If you’re lucky enough to have a mausoleum, you can lurk beneath its eaves or pose as though you’re about to enter through the door.

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    If your cemetery is open to the public at night, you can shoot shadowy, moonlit wonders. You can position yourself in the dark corners, your profile peeking into the light for eerie effect. If you’d rather be there in the light of day, look for surfaces that shine like polished marble, reflecting pools, and glass windows to accentuate your outlines in light rather than darkness.

    Most cemeteries have trees, and winter trees are a moody backdrop for photos. Just as lying against, leaning on, climbing, or touching extensively is an absolute no-go for headstones, trees are available for all that. Be careful if you’re going to climb, don’t get your head or yourself busted. But gently interacting with trees is perfectly acceptable and the results are often compelling. The bare branches of the season look like haunted hands. The bark is dark and textured. If the tree is holding snow, it can look like a shroud or a layer of bone.

    Think about color against all that. Does your cemetery still have greenery, or is it bare? Are all the stones grey, or do you have some unusual pink or white marble? Are there flowers growing, or a colorful wall or building? Choose your outfit accordingly, to match or to contrast. The easier way to solve this is also a classic: process your photos after the fact into black and white. There are different filters for this, including some that can make you look like a movie star from another century, rendered on silver nitrate film. Use the gifts of the cemetery, but use the tools of digital editing, too! Even if you can’t shoot at night, you might be able to make it look as though you did.

    A cemetery in winter doesn’t have to be a bleak or empty place, any more than a funeral needs to be a dreary affair. Remember to bring your sense of mystery and whimsy, to approach it as respectful play. Even your spookiest, most moody images are best brought to life when you’re engaged with it and bring your sense of fun along with your black crown that holds the moon.

    You could come back with some shots that are simply to die for.