Photographs of Monumental Inscriptions

Inscriptions on headstones and other monuments is by a photographic record. However, this can never replace a full transcription record.

Some stones are quite easy to photograph, particularly if there is some contrast between the stone colour and the lettering, but all too often there is not, and then we have to play some tricks in order to make the inscription show. There are two main ways of doing this:

Fill in the inscription : with a non-destructive material, such as chalk, so that it stands out well.

Alter the lighting : so that the light shines across the surface of the stone, casting shadows into the inscription

Indoor Photography

Taking photographs inside a church requires special attention.

The use of simple sticks of chalk (school chalk) can be extremely effective in highlighting an inscription, especially on a naturally dark stone such as slate or dark coloured granite, labradorite etc.

Some stones, such as ornately engraved slate stones, look as if they were engraved yesterday, even if they are 200 or 300 years old.

Slate holds an inscription really well! However, photographs of slate headstones simply come out as a block of plain dark grey with no detail whatsoever!

This partly “chalked” slate stone illustrates this perfectly.

On the left side of the headstone is the husband’s details, and on the right side those of his wife Elizabeth. I first took photographs of this stone in a sunny day in May, and was completely surprised by the total lack of detail. Even an attempt at painstakingly enhancing the digitised image of the photograph didn’t work. So, armed with some sticks of chalk, I went back there in August the next time I visited the area, and carefully highlighted the lettering and the decoration before taking the photograph. It worked!

The photograph taken after the chalking was completed.
The photograph taken after the chalking was completed.

This picture is without any digital enhancing, although I am sure that with some more work, it could be made to look absolutely perfect. Nevertheless, it does make an excellent record of the inscription, with all the detail visible.

Note that on the very small lettering at the bottom of the stone, I simply rubbed the side of the chalk over the area, leaving the dark lettering on a white background.

This headstone is actually one which I never expected to find. Having seen the weathered and barely discernable inscription of John’s son Francis at the graveyard of Tilney All Saints, Norfolk, imagine my surprise when I saw this gem.

John Neep, whose headstone is shown here, died June 12th 1830 at Epperstone in Nottinghamshire. The wife shown here is actually his second wife.

Indoor Monuments

Monuments inside churches present a different set of problems. The main problem is one of sufficient light to take the photograph at all. Many vicars require that you obtain permission to take photographs inside a church, especially in some of the larger churches and cathedrals. Some churches do not allow flash photography.

However, without the benefit of artificial lighting, it is still possible to take good photographs. In an ideal world you need two things:

A fast film of 200 or even 400ASA speed;

Something to rest the camera on, as the shutter speed will be around half or even a whole second! The camera needs to be rested on a church pew… or anything solid such as a pillar, or, if you must hold the camera by hand, wedge yourself hard against something solid, hold you breath and squeeze the button very carefully so that the camera doesn’t move at all!

This photograph of a wall mounted monumental inscription was taken with available light (there wasn’t much in there!) with 200ASA film.

I held the camera very steadily, braced myself against a nearby pew, held my breath and squeezed off the shutter. The exposure was 1 second.

The shield is gold with a red central stripe, and a small red star at the top left.