Sunday, August 4, 2013

Night Cemetery Photography - a Lunar Stroll at Laurel Hill Cemetery

Image courtesy of Emma Stern
I just spent an interesting evening as a tour guide at Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Philadelphia. Not a REAL tour guide, mind you, just an unofficial, auxiliary backup tour guide. Laurel Hill had an evening “Lunar Stroll” fĂȘte that drew twenty people out on a hot July evening. The premise of these regular outings is photography, though couples sometimes show up without cameras (hmmm…).

Emma Stern orienting photographers to the evening's events
When I said it was a hot evening, I’m talking the tail-end of a week-long 100-degree heat wave. It was around 90 degrees after dark. Diehard photographer types (half men, half women) showed up anyway, paying fifteen bucks a head to stroll the nighttime graveyard after the gates had been locked. The allure of such an opportunity may explain why some show up without cameras!

So the idea of photographing a graveyard at night is a broad-thinking approach to making your local cemetery all that it can be for all sorts of people. Here’s what it said on Laurel Hill’s website:

Photo enthusiasts: grab your cameras, tripods and flashlights, and capture the ethereal wonders of Laurel Hill Cemetery after the sun goes down. During this guided stroll through the site’s picturesque landscape, participants will visit some of its most photogenic spots and evocative statuary, while learning to paint with light using only a flashlight and ambient iridescence. You will have experiences to share from this rare and intimate exploration of the cemetery long after its gates close for the night. Photography experience is recommended. Lunar Strolls will occur on the third Friday of every month from May through August.

Image by Ed Snyder
In the passage above, three things grabbed my attention like a zombie from behind a gravestone:

  1. learning to paint with light
  2. photography experience is recommended
  3. Lunar Strolls will occur on the third Friday of every month from May through August

So, let me explain:

1. “Painting with light” is not for the novice. It refers to the act of illuminating your subject with a light source while your camera’s shutter is open. Imagine this: darkened scene (cemetery monuments in the dark), camera on tripod, exposure on auto, shutter tripped – shutter stays open looking for light. No light, shutter stays open for a while. At this point, you illuminate the subject with a flashlight from behind the camera – you sweep the light across the subject, back and forth, up and down, until the camera completes the exposure. It will end the exposure when it has sensed that enough light has hit the image sensor to create a properly exposed image.

Statuary atop mausoleum "painted" with light, by Ed Snyder

Painting with light is much easier with a digital camera than it is with film, because you can instantly see your mistakes on the display and then adjust for them. Of course you’ll be infinitely more successful if you have a tutor on the spot. And that’s what I and a few other people were there to help with.

2Being familiar with your camera is key to successful night photography. Maybe I should say “low  light” photography. You don’t want to be futzing with your camera in the dark, trying to get it to work. If you don’t know how to use it properly in the daylight, night photography will just make everything more difficult.

3.  And if you don’t get it right the first time, Laurel Hill has these night time photography ‘workshops’ on the third Friday of every month from May through August! So, try and try again. After my first outing a couple years ago, I realized I needed three items without which my efforts were virtually useless (so, learn from my mistake): a small flashlight to see the controls on your camera, a large flashlight with which to illuminate subjects, and a tripod.

So, other than providing helpful hints, what would be my other responsibilities in this endeavor? I assumed one of them would involve keeping my charges from wandering off into the dark where they might break a leg in a gopher hole. Herding people did turn out to be a major task (at which I failed, since I never again saw that camera-less couple again after the made off toward the mausoleums). I actually spent more time illuminating monuments and gravestones with my LED panel video light for other people, than I did making my own photographs. (I did take the people photos in this blog, however, with my Canon DSLR.)

The Lunar Stroll
One of the reasons that Laurel Hill’s Lunar Strolls are so successful (SIXTY people showed up for the last one!) is because the coordinator, Emma Stern (Laurel Hill Cemetery’s Volunteer & Administrative Coordinator), is an accomplished photographer herself. In fact, that is her wonderful image at the very beginning of this article. She is co-owner of a photographic gallery called GRAVY in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. ( refers to GRAVY as the “best kept secret in Fishtown.”) Emma is responsible for turning this photo outing into an actual photographic workshop. Not only did she coordinate experienced photographers to help those less experienced, but she provided other practical things like flashlights and colored gel filters to transform the flashlights’ color! Oh, and bug spray, snacks, and cold bottled water too.

In the gloaming (hey, Laurel Hill is an old Victorian cemetery – I can use words like that), it is easy enough to make photographs. There’s still enough ambient light to work with. (Want to make your images appear darker? Stop down your -Ev setting (see link). But then night begins to fall, as it usually does, and with it, a conundrum. How to make photos in the dark? Why does your camera have trouble auto-focusing? As I explained to one gentleman, cameras use light to create an image. No light, no image (unless you’re using one of those infrared Russian spy cameras). Challenging, yes, but at least we didn’t have grave robbers or zombies to contend with (reality often violates preconceptions of what you’ll find in a cemetery after dark).

Shooting in the Dark
Click to purchase from
With today’s super light-sensitive digital cameras with their 3200 (and up) ISO image sensors, when does it becomes truly too dark to make a photograph? The basic principle behind photography (which I quite knowledgeably point out in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient) is that you need light to make the process work. The less light, the more difficult it will be for your camera to record an image. I usually tell people to start by setting their cameras on auto and letting it make the exposure. See how it reacts to low light. Most current model DSLRs will keep the shutter open as long as necessary for the lens to gather enough light to create an image. What you usually end up with, then, is a PROPERLY EXPOSED image, something like this:

Evening, Laurel Hill Cemetery, by Bob Bruhin

Focusing in the Dark
Millionaire's Row, photographed by Ed Snyder
Now, the phrase “properly exposed” has nothing to do with focus. If you look at my image above, you’ll note that it is not very crisply focused. Problem is, in the dark, many digital cameras have optical auto focus mechanisms, which require the subject to be bright (contrasty) enough for the system to lock on to. No such luck in the dark! If your camera uses Sonar (like the old Polaroids used to, see link), i.e. sound waves to focus, you’d be golden. However, that (better for this purpose) technology is antiquated. Some modern digital cameras will throw out a short (“assist”) flash burst to illuminate the subject for focusing purposes before it will allow you to trip the shutter. Some cameras use infrared to focus – which is good in the dark, but only for objects within twenty feet of the lens.

Millionaire's Row, as photographed by Bob Bruhin
Above is a much sharper image of the same mausoleum scene taken by another photographer. One reason for this is that Bob Bruhin used a DSLR while I was using my G11 DPS (as I refer to ‘Digital Point-and-Shoot' cameras in my book). In addition to the better light painting and focus, notice how his camera's image sensor interpreted the night sky as orange, whereas mine recorded the same sky as magenta!

A couple techniques I use for focusing in the dark:
  • Manually focus as best I can, then use a deep depth of field (say, f16 or f22) so that any minor mis-focusing is compensated for by the small aperture. This, of course, requires a very long exposure in the dark – minutes, perhaps.
  • Illuminate your subject with a bright light and allow your camera to lock into focus, then turn the camera’s (or lens’) focus to “manual.” Make your exposure while you are “painting” your subject with some artificial light source.

(Here’s a link to a good explanation of how different autofocus systems work on modern digital cameras.)

“Proper” Exposure
When you make night photographs, you don’t necessarily want a properly exposed image. You may not want all the detail in the shadow areas because those will not be well-lit and will therefore appear mottled and grainy in your image. Best to let those areas fade to black and accentuate the high-contrast highlights of your subject, as in the fabulous image below.

Warner Memorial by night; image by Karen Schlechter
Even the less expensive Nikon DSLRs have image sensors that are wonderfully responsive to low light. (I own a Canon myself, and it gives me nowhere as good an image.) So the trick is to NOT use a super high ISO but rather 200 or 400. If you can make an auto exposure this way and light up your subject with artificial light, the camera will terminate the exposure when it has gotten enough light to create an image. You can also shoot in manual mode, but either way, you’re making exposures in excess of thirty seconds (tripod a necessity).

Photographers in Laurel Hill Cemetery with cameras on tripods

Before I start to jump all over the place with night photography pointers, let me just categorize of few of them as “Helpful Hints:”

Helpful Hint #1
If you’ve never done night photography, start with your camera on its auto setting. Digital is preferable to film for beginners. That way, you can instantly see how badly you messed up, so you can make some adjustments and try it again. 

Ed Snyder, self-portrait lit with LED light panel
Helpful Hint #2
Use a DSLR. Point and shoot digitals have a much smaller image sensor (generally) which causes excessive noise in the image. I used my Canon G11 DPS for this self-portrait and you can see that as far as image quality goes, it is no masterpiece! I also avoided color, as a noisy image looks worse in color.

Helpful Hint #3
The photo shoot went from 8 to 10:30 pm, but with nearby city lights and the moon, there is some ambient light – you’re not in pitch darkness. Different color temperatures (tungsten from a flashlight, mercury-vapor from a streetlight, etc.) will flavor your color composition. One person even brought a couple glo-sticks on a string so an assistant could spin it overhead and create circular light trails in the image! (Unfortunately, I have not seen the photographic masterpiece that was subsequently created.)

Helpful Hint #4
Everything looks good on the display. This is actually something a woman at the event said to me when I commented on one of her images. And it is SO true! You may indeed, mirabile visu, have a three-inch masterpiece there on your camera’s display, but when you get it onto your computer monitor or make a print, you might be somewhat dismayed. Best idea here is to shoot at a low ISO (200-400) and paint the scene with light. If you shoot at a higher ISO your camera’s image sensor is going to be out of its normal operating range. True, you may get some interesting colors, but you may find that your image noise (see link) if too great to make a satisfactory print or high-res image.

Helpful Hint #5 
  •  Patience
  • Tripod and a remote shutter release
  • Tiny flashlight to see the controls on your camera 
  • A big, bright flashlight to illuminate the ground as you walk and your subjects (statues, headstones, people)
  • An LED panel video light (not heavy, uses very little battery power)

The Wrap-Up
Sepia image of Millionaires' Row painted with light (Ed Snyder)
Our photo shoot began at dusk at the gatehouse, then progressed to three of the most photogenic spots in the cemetery – the Warner Memorial, the granite lion overlooking Kelly Drive, then the “Millionaires’ Row” of mausoleums near Hunting Park Avenue. By the time the tour wrapped up at the latter, it was 10:30 pm. 

When I’m making a photograph, I am fully concentrated on this event, no matter how long it takes. As a tour guide trying to hustle photographers from one area of interest to the next, it seemed to me that these people were slower than Darwinian selection. It was difficult to pull them away from each area, they were having so much fun and engaged in interesting conversation with each other. These were photographers with specific interests in cemeteries, and there appear to be more of them on the planet than I suspected. One fellow told me how he became interested in photographing cemeteries: at his best friend’s funeral, he brought a camera to take a picture of the grave. Afterward, he began to look around and thought, "hey, nice statues ….."

Twilight at Laurel Hill Cemetery, by Bob Bruhin
I’ll leave you with this final Homeric Moment: As I was discussing cemetery travel (and to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, I have traveled extensively in Philadelphia) with one of the photographers, he told me how he tries to drag his wife along on his photographic escapades. That ended with the last trip they made – to see the tombstones from Monument Cemetery dumped under the Betsy Ross Bridge. He went on to say how he read about it on this “cemetery travel blog" and therefore had to go see the site himself. I interjected that it was my blog, “The Cemetery Traveler” which he had read. The fellow brightened up and wide-eyed looked at me and said, “You’re Ed Snyder?! Wait ‘til I tell my wife!

Further Reading and Viewing:
Some of the photographers who made photographs during Laurel Hill Cemetery’s July 17, 2013 Lunar Stroll posted their images on this Flickr site.
Laurel Hill Cemetery website
Emma Stern’s Flickr page
Bob Bruhin's Flickr page
Karen Schlechter's Flickr page