"If you cannot get rid
of the family skeleton,
you may as well make
George Bernard Shaw
We had a discussion on the best way to clean a headstone so that you could read the inscription and photograph
them and the following were the tips offered:
The general ‘safe’ solution is to do nothing, but to check out the various lights at different times of day to
get the best results, but sometimes you only get one chance to take the photograph you want, only a small window
of opportunity when you visit a particular cemetery so you have to make the best of what time you have.
Below are some relatively ‘safe’ methods to assist your successful photography.
For very old headstones which are some of the most difficult to photograph, often with black or green lichens/moss
obscuring the definition of the edges of the inscribed lettering, one method is to have a couple of big pieces
of old flannelette sheet and a bottle of water with a spray top (and lots of water also to top up). You spray
the area you can't read with the water, and attempt to rub flatly across the stone and lettering with the damp
rag. Do not try to enter the inscribed lettering. As you rub, your cloth will become impregnated with the mosses/lichens
which is good. You don't need a clean cloth for success. As you rub, there will be created a contrast between the
flat of the stone and the incised lettering which is created by the smearing of the dry lichen with the emulsified
lichen. Waste no time in getting a photograph whilst the lichen is damp. And write down the inscription. Rinse
the emulsified lichen off the stone when finished for aesthetic reasons.
Now, if it is not lichens and moss that cause the problem, but shallow worn lettering, then the creation of
shadows into the grooves is what you seek. Depending on the way the stone is aligned (e.g. in an east/west line
or a north/ south line) governs what would be the best time of day to take the photo. If east/west, then early
morning or late afternoon gives the best shadows, midday the poorest. If north/south, depending on whether the
stone faces the sun at some time in the day.
The only time to used chalk is to create a tiny "verandah" above unreadable letters. With a very thick
block or stick of soft chalk held in the fist with the thumb on top of the extended stick, you go "ponce,
ponce, ponce" above the letter, your thumb acting as an anvil on the chalk. This tiny verandah creates a shadow
into the lettering to make it readable. Depending on the weather, the chalk disappears in days or weeks. I know
there are many who object to chalk, but it's pretty benign. Most schoolteachers I know still have their digits
intact into old age.
For headstones which are not covered with moss etc but are still hard to read, other suggestions are:
- Spray with water to darken wording.
- Rub over words with sand (not any dirt from the area of the grave, but proper sand)
- Spray shaving cream over headstone, wipe with a clean rag, take photo then wash off.
- Use either talcum powder or plain flour which you put in a puffer bottle and squeeze gently onto the stone,
then pour water over the inscription - and with camera ready, it may well look a bit clearer for the purposes of
getting your pic. Make sure you do not use WARM/HOT water, as it might cook onto the stone !!!!
Regardless of what method is necessary to use for your photographic success, take plenty of WATER and rags with
you to wash down headstones afterwards to remove all traces of whatever you have used.