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Do’s and don’ts of photographing cemeteries and other sacred places

Recently I came across a thread on social media proclaiming all cemetery shoots were disrespectful and should be prohibited.

Being a.) an artist and b.) someone who likes to debate everything, I was surprised by this stance. I’m endlessly fascinated by the stories in these places, the history, and the artistry of the headstones and statues. So, personally, it had never occurred to me that photography in a cemetery would be a bad thing. But, I understand how others might object, and I do have a personal set of guidelines to follow to make sure I am respecting the memory, families, and friends of those who are interred there.  

I know when Halloween approaches, the temptation to head to the nearest cemetery for a holiday-themed photo shoot is very tempting. This can be a very sensitive subject, and I certainly do not encourage people to seek out the nearest mausoleum for their photo shoot just because it’s October. But, done with respect, photography in these places can be powerful, compelling, and artistic. Here are my “do’s and don’ts” of photographing cemeteries and other sacred places.


General Rules of Respect

  • Get permission and follow any rules laid down by the property owners. Cemeteries, temples, ruins, etc., are most likely owned and managed by some entity, whether it is a church, local government, historical society, etc.  Be sure they are okay with you visiting and doing photography there.
  • Get a permit if required.
  • Do not walk on graves.
  • Do not touch headstones or other artifacts.
  • Do not move anything; flowers, mementos, etc.
  • Unless it is part of a specific assignment or for journalistic use, avoid photographing any graves less than a century old. I base this on my pastime of genealogical research, most research websites use this guideline for rthe elease of information for public use.
  • Obscure the names on headstones when possible, especially if more recent. Ideally, this is done in camera, but can also be done in post-processing.
  • Do not photograph other visitors.
  • Do not photograph during a funeral or when someone is paying their respects, etc.  
  • If visiting a site that is specific to a particular faith, check the calendar for any holidays or prohibitions before you visit.
  • Some sites are very sensitive to visitors, due to age and condition. Bring as little gear as possible, and avoid anything that may disturb the site (heavy and/or hot lighting, dragging large light stands across the ground, using tomb markers or other artifacts to support your gear, etc.).

Photo Shoots with Models

All the same guidelines as above apply, but you need to consider the feelings and beliefs of your models as well.  

  • Just because you are okay with being there, doesn’t mean the models are.  
  • Talk to them beforehand and during the shoot to make sure they are comfortable with the idea, what your expectations are for the shoot, and what you will be asking them to do during the shoot.
  • If at any point they start to feel uncomfortable, it’s time to end the session or make some changes.
  • Most importantly, decide why you want to have this shoot there. Is this purely for shock value, or is there genuine artistic, historic, or editorial merit? Is this something that could be done elsewhere to get the same mood and effect?
  • Balance your ideas against the viewpoint of the family of the person buried there. Would they be upset with the way you are portraying the site of their loved one?  
  • Just because it is Halloween doesn’t mean you should have models sitting on tombstones.

Capturing this in photos is challenging, there is a huge amount of creativity required to portray these places with respect, while still realizing your artistic vision. Needless to say, I have no issues with photographing in a cemetery or other sacred place, often seeking them out in my travels because of this interest.

Day vs Night

Depending on your concepts, for maximum spookiness, you may think you have to shoot only at night. But most cemeteries have strict daytime hours, do not be tempted to trespass for those nighttime shots.  

Realistically, you will get a better nighttime effect if you shoot in the early morning or late afternoon, and in shaded locations. Using off-camera flashes and post-processing, you can easily achieve some impressive effects that look like they were shot at night.

cemeteries photoshoot

In the field, plan your shot for what you want the result to be. In this case, positioned the model so there were only a few bright spots in the background so I could darken the background to look like nighttime. I made sure to position my off-camera flash so that it would accurately match the light I added to the lantern in post-processing. In Photoshop, adding lighting effects and adjusting colors finished off what I had imagined in the field.

Respect, Always!

Like any other group of people, photographer’s like to argue and debate. When it comes to a subject like this, it is bound to be contentious, balancing one’s personal beliefs against another’s artistic ideas. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to choose if we are comfortable with photographing in these places.  

The key to any shoot, regardless of location, is to respect the place and the other people visiting it!


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Rafael Jones

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