Sunday, January 6, 2013

Photographing Cemetery Snow

I’m not one of those people who accepts the lemons life gives you and makes lemonade. I’d rather just smash them against a wall, then take a photograph. Still, I do manage to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself. Last Saturday they were forecasting snow, so I wanted to make a quick trip to a local cemetery and shoot some snow angels. Unfortunately, I had a “million things to do,” as my father used to say.

The roof leaked water the day before during a rainstorm, so I needed to get up there with a ladder to investigate. So the morning of the snow, I was up there searching for shingle damage when I noticed a ten-foot length of rain gutter missing. Wind must have blown it off. After it landed on the ground, the old Chinese woman who collects aluminum cans from our trash must have spirited it away. So off I went to Home Depot for a gutter and accessories.

It was on my way home from Home Despot that it began to snow. Decisions must be made − photography or more water damage to my house? Normally, I’d choose the former. But guilt is a prime motivator, and since several pair of my wife’s shoes were ruined by the water leak, I must resolve this first. The cemetery would have to wait.  I took solace in the words of  the (third century B.C.) philosopher Mencius: "I desire fish and I desire bear's paws. If I cannot have both of them, I will give up fish and take bears' paws."

Entrance Gate, Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia
After about a half hour of sliding around on the roof attaching the gutter, I packed up my photo gear and headed out to Woodlands Cemetery in West Philly. A gorgeous Victorian sculpture garden, with two hours of daylight left. Woodlands holds the distinct honor of being the first cemetery that I got myself accidentally locked into – see my blog posting “Trapped in a Cemetery.” That was a decade ago, I believe. Since then, I pay close attention to the “Closing Time” noted at front entrances of cemeteries. In fact, Woodlands has a lovely big old iron entrance gate with an hourglass design. This reminds me that my time is short, in more ways than one.

Drexel Mausoleum
I spent about an hour slowly driving slowly around Woodlands in the snow, thoroughly enjoying the experience. From the old eroded marble monuments to the Gothic mausoleums, snow just makes everything look better, cleaner, prettier (a notion that I, incidentally, did not hold when I lived in snowbound upstate New York). Woodlands even boasts the family mausoleum of one of America’s only three (American-born) saints. The Drexel family mausoleum, behind the Neoclassical estate house, contains relatives of Saint Katharine Drexel. Her body itself resides not here, but at the Saint Katharine Drexel Shrine in Bensalem, PA (northeast Philadelphia).

Woodlands in West Philadelphia is situated near 40th Street and Baltimore Avenue (click here for map), by the Veterans Hospital at the edge of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve seen more pedestrians stroll this old graveyard than any other in the city. I suppose this is because it is situated in a densely-populated area and is the closest “park,” of sorts, in that vicinity. It more than serves its original intended purpose –a bucolic getaway, a beautiful sculpture garden and park, where bodies just happened to be buried (Woodlands was established in 1840). In the fifteen years I’ve been coming here, I have yet to see anyone actually visiting a grave! So on this cold, late December afternoon, I shared the roadways with at least half a dozen people – joggers, strollers, and people walking their dogs – through snow squalls.

Fast shutter speed (1/125 sec.)
It was snowing rather lightly during the hour of my visit, and I made several photographs from inside my car (heat on, windows down). However, there was a ten-minute interlude in which the snow fell hard. These were exactly the conditions under which I wanted to make photographs.

Slow shutter speed (1/8 sec.)
I’ll admit I was caught up in the moment. I wasn’t in precisely the exact location where I wanted to be to shoot the statuary I wanted, but when the snow began falling harder, I figured it could stop any minute.  So I had better start shooting. I composed a few scenes and clicked them off. Shot at ISO 400 as I wanted good resolution. Lighting was rather dim so I was using an aperture around f8. This allowed a shutter speed of  1/125 second, which, as you can see from the photo above, fairly successfully froze the falling snow. I intentionally slowed the shutter speed down to 1/8 second to allow the falling snow to form streaks (see photo at right), just to see what this effect was like.

Pretty much everyone knows that auto-focus cameras can be tricked, and need to be tricked under certain circumstances.Why? Sommetimes they will focus on something other than your intended subject. These are the situations in which you want to make them focus on something other than what they prefer. For example, if you’re shooting out of a car window and the window is wet or dirty, the camera will likely close-focus on the rivulets of water or the dirt, not the deer out in the field you wanted it to. Or with the photo at left, you would really have to do some work to get your camera to focus on the foreground headstones instead of the background tree.

The fact is that auto-focus cameras tend to focus on contrasty things, rather than the position of a particular subject. To trick the camera (or perhaps, behave the way you want it to), you can either switch to manual focus and adjust accordingly, or choose one of your camera’s pre-focused “Scene” modes. In the example of shooting out the dirty window at a distant subject, you could choose the camera's "landscape" mode (usually indicated by a small icon of a mountain range). Your choice may not be perfect, but you need to make some compensation to override the camera’s auto-focus system. This is precisely what I did not do during the snow squall.

It was not until I was reviewing my images on the computer that I realized the focus was off in the falling snow shots. My intent was to focus on the angel statue (in the two images above). What I didn’t realize at the time was that the falling snow would throw off the camera’s auto-focus. Now this seemingly trivial bit of information can be crucial if you find yourself in a similar situation. Therefore I selflessly share with it with you, my fellow Cemetery Travelers. So take it and may it serve you well.

So why does the falling snow throw your auto-focus into a tizzy? The same way the dirty glass window does. When I pointed my camera lens at the angel statue and expected the focusing system to lock onto it (through the open window of my car), there was a wall of falling snow between it and my camera. I’ll estimate the statue was thirty yards away. That means there was a thirty-yard-thick wall of randomly falling snow between the statue and my camera. Let’s call it an infinite number of potential focusing points. The fact that I got anything worthwhile is simply astounding.

Amtrak train zipping by Woodlands Cemetery
How should I compensate for this in the future, and why did I not notice the unsharpness on my DSLR’s image display? Well first of all, even if you have a three-inch LCD display on your camera back, you’d be hard-pressed to tell if something was in focus or not – the display is too small and the resolution is too low. What I should have done was crank my ISO up higher (maybe to 1600) so that I could use a smaller aperture (f16, perhaps, instead of f8).  At the shutter speeds I was using, this would have allowed a greater depth of field, which would have made it more likely that more of the objects in the scene would be in focus (including the angel statue). Of course, with all this modern technology, I’m not sure why the camera cannot be programmed to just say, “There’s no way I can focus through this, Dave.”
The Woodlands' Neoclassical Estate House

An ISO of 1600 would decrease my resolution, of course, but with an image as busy as the snow falling around the angel statue, you’d be hard-pressed to notice even on a large print. Also, the larger your digital camera’s image sensor, the less of an issue this becomes (bigger sensor, better resolution). During the time I was at Woodlands, I photographed out the window of my car as it was very cold, windy, and snowing most of the time. The only exception was when I got out with an umbrella over my head to shoot down at this reclining female form. When I posted the image on the Facebook site, “Sensual Cemetery Art,”the famous cemetery photographer and writer Doug Keister commented, “Accomplished photographers go out when others go in.

So, to sum up the Woodlands as a destination site: any cemetery photographer would revel in the plethora of architectural details here – grave art abounds. From the hourglass with wings on the entrance gate to the restored estate house in the back, there is plenty of interesting subject matter here – add snow and it becomes a 54-acre-wonderland. And if you just want to jog around the place, you can do that too.

If you choose to visit:
Woodlands Cemetery website