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Monday, August 6, 2012

Photography and the Funeral Part 2 – The Photographer's Perspective

Photography and the Funeral 
Part 2 - The Photographer's perspective 

(This is is a follow on to Part 1 which was written for the family of the deceased. Part 2 is written for the photographer photographing the funeral. As before, this is written following the death of my father-in-law. My wife asked me to photograph his funeral as I had done for her mother and her older brother. This is written from the perspective of a traditional Visitation and Graveside service. As funerals take on many different forms, please feel free to read between the lines and adapt to your belief system and style of funeral.)

Part A

The Photographer who is part of the family. (Part B below will discuss the difference for the photographer who is not a member of the family.)


OK, you have just been asked to photograph a funeral of a family member. Somebody thought it would nice to have photos of the people and all and they remembered you do photography. What should you do or say? It depends.

If you haven't read Part 1, there are several considerations.

1) First and foremost, will you be able emotionally to do it? If it is somebody particularly close, say no. You may not be able to handle the funeral and the photography at the same time. Being an old military officer, I got misty eyed at my brother-in-law’s funeral when they folded the flag and handed it to his family. It is hard to focus and compose when you start to get real misty eyed. Luckily I was a long ways away using my zoom. (More on that below). While I have been able to photograph my father-in-law’s funeral, I certainly would not have tried to photograph my mother or father's funeral. Know your limits.
Also, are you will to “miss the funeral”? If you are locked in behind the viewfinder, you will not really be there for the funeral. Emotionally you may not want to “miss the funeral”.
Saying no should not be a problem. Most people should understand.

2) Can you be objective? Many times, either consciously or unconsciously, family members will tend to focus on people they like and away from people they don't. Families are full of those situations. If you can’t be fully objective, don't do it.

3) Do you have the needed equipment? 

- Visitation almost always occurs in very low light, similar to a wedding if not worse. You really need low light shooting experience. If you don't, now is not the time to practice and find out. 

- Can you shoot with no flash (except perhaps discreetly off to the side out in hallways). (This means you need a fast lens. If you don't know what this means or don't have one, don't do it.)

- You MUST to shoot Raw format due to the lighting. JPEG just won't cut it.  Unless you are Joe McNalley, David Hobby, or the like, forget jpeg (which eliminates most Point & Shoots). (There were red light globes at each end of the casket that affected the images with a red tint. Shooting Raw allowed it to be fixed easily. Shooting JPEG (like a a Point & Shoot does) makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to fix.)

- Do you know how to adjust white balance in post production? Here is an example of an unedited shot other than cropping. Notice that the lighting is horrible. White Balance adjustment fixed it but overall the lighting is as bad or worse than a wedding. 

** Note all images below have been edited to not show the deceased. **  

Here in the first shot, you can see the scene is really red. In the second photo you will see why but the point is, you can NOT use flash unless nobody is there, which is why you want to get there early. (And that is difficult if you are part of the family. The closer the harder it gets.) I was able to fix this easily as I always carry my white balance card with my gear and I simply laid in on the casket and got a quick shot to balance other shots against. 

Here is why the shot above initially came out so red. Look at the two lamps at both ends of the casket. See the red tint of the bowls at the bottom of each?  Funeral homes call this atmosphere, photographers call it a nightmare. The second image has been white balanced a seen by the white on the casket. Another issue you see here is the apparent levelness of the image. If you are not exactly centered on the middle of the casket, the image will have a perspective issues as this one does. note that I can level the edge of the casket or I can level the mirror on the wall but not both as I slightly to the left of the center of the casket. Time was ticking and the family was there so I didn't have a lot of time for these shots. 

Here is the third image showing the smallness of the room and the lighting.  Here I am more centered on the casket so the mirror level also. 

- You need to be able to shoot at high ISOs without a lot of noise in the image. If your camera is an entry level DLSR or an older model that can't shoot at least ISO 800 without a lot of noise, don't do it.

- You need to have a long lens for photographing the graveside service from a discreet distance. I shoot a Nikon D300 which is a APS sensor size body which has a 1.5 crop factor. (If the camera isn't a Full Sensor body, it has a crop factor, usually about 1.6 for Nikon and 1.6 for Canon IIRC). This means my 200 mm zoom acts like a 300 mm lens. You will need it. You need to be real discreet. Wedding photographers have the advantage of being dressed in black in a low lit church. At the graveside, you will be out in the open in daylight usually. Long lenses work. BTW, don't even think of a tripod – Don't.

If you don't understand the discussion of equipment above and have what it takes, don't agree to do it. If you have shot a couple of weddings and similar events (nighttime baseball etc), think about it. 

Tips for Shooting: (We have to come up with a better word than “shooting” to describe photography.) 

- Leave your ego and master photographer self at the car. This is the funeral and unlike a wedding where you have some input and control at a few (precious few) points, now you have absolutely none. You will work around everybody and everything else. 

- Be prepared to explain very succinctly that the family has asked you to photograph the funeral. Believe me, there will be the looks. 

- Get photographs of the deceased and casket as early as possible. Before anybody gets there. 

- Take a grey card for some initial shots. It helps later in post-processing. 

- Shoot Raw. See above. 

- Take a lot of shots of the casket and deceased. The angles will be impossible as you won't be able to stand and see well if at all (the camera will be too high). Like weddings, there are no redos. You can crop and process later but get some good shots and do it early, its not too cool to have people watching you photograph the deceased and casket.

- Forget the light meter. You can't use it, trust me, this isn't the place.

- Don't bring lightstands, fong lightspheres, etc. For the times you absolutely must shoot flash. Bounce it off the ceiling or the wall behind you. You may not get great lighting but the circumstances will not allow it. Do the best you can but be as unobtrusive as possible. 

- Minimize flash. If you have to use it for key family members (“Please get a shot of us together”) go out in a hallway or a separate room. The further away the better. Don't go outside as there will be too many people out there. 

- Shoot high ISOs but don't go to the point you have a lot of noise. 

- Talk to people (beforehand if possible) and find out if there are special people to get a shot of. (“Oh, there's my Aunt Bertha or Sally my old high school friend I haven't seen in 25 years.) 

- Respect the family and their funeral. 

- Don't pose people or ask them to move. (other than in that infamous hallway.) After my father-in-law's funeral, I had to run go get my equipment after the graveside service so I didn't get a shot of the Navy bugler at the military part of the service. I did go ask them as they left (they leave quickly) to pose for a couple of quick shots. 

- DO NOT bring or pass out business cards. This is not a business opportunity, I don't care what. Period. End of discussion.
- Don't think about food or photographing any family reception afterwards. You are be through at the graveside.

What should you be paid? As a family member, you should be doing it out of love for the family. Consider it a time to sharpen your skills or whatever you want but money should not be a factor at all.

Giving them the photos – Assuming you are giving them a CD/DVD, be sure to put the photos of the deceased and the casket in a separate folder from the other images so the family can see the people without seeing the loved one until they are ready. Let them know you have done that. Try to label the folders so it will be obvious which is which. I know some friends that could not go in and view the body of their loved one. Perhaps years later they will want to look. 

Showing the photos on your website – You WON'T Period. My images are posted on my website in a section for funerals and each folder is locked up permanently with a password I provide the immediate next of kin. If they want to change the password, its changed. If they give it out accidentally, I will change it. But nobody will see those photos except the family and those they release the password to. That is why I allow the images to be downloaded, only the family will be there. 

Part B

The Photographer who is NOT part of the family.

- Everything above applies here with a few difference. Since you are not part of the family, it is important you find out who key people are the immediate next of kin would like a shot of. Usually this isn't a problem if you listen up for clues like “my old friend...”. Also there may be family members who can assist you in this. But be aware you don't know anybody.

- You don't have to worry about the emotion like a family member. 

- Be extra careful as people will be more forgiving if the photographer is a family member. As an outsider, you are living dangerously at best. Mind your manners etc. 

One last question that I hate to bring up but it has to be addressed. What should you be paid? Certainly not what a wedding photographer is paid. If they were family or friends, you should do it as a favor . If not, I don't know what to say but the expense of a funeral are so great that most people can't afford a lot. (This is one reason you don't see funeral photographers like you do wedding photographers.)

Keep out of sight. Minimize the equipment you carry, and be careful. Wedding are full of happy emotions (for the most part). Funerals are full of sad emotions at best and all too often, anger and deep routed resentments from years ago. It may not be your fault but don't be the one who provides the spark that unleashes an eruption. The one good thing is the problems usually don't start until after the funeral, then the fun really begins. 

1 comment:

  1. A great series - very good info. We will all be there - and can recall situations in the past where we would have handled this component differently.

    thanks for taking the time to write this.


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