Got the Picture? Using Your Digital Camera for Genealogy

Got the Picture? Using Your Digital Camera for Genealogy

The March 2011 Family Tree Magazine (now on newsstands) has a guide to using your digital camera for genealogical purposes—such as capturing images of gravestones, ancestral homes, family heirlooms and your ancestors’ records. It’s not as simple as taking a quick snapshot, though. Before you start a genealogical photography session...

The March 2011 Family Tree Magazine (now on newsstands) has a guide to using your digital camera for genealogical purposes—such as capturing images of gravestones, ancestral homes, family heirlooms and your ancestors’ records.

It’s not as simple as taking a quick snapshot, though. Before you start a genealogical photography session, create a shot list of the pictures you want. Here’s what we recommend:

Gravestones Shot List

  • cemetery entrance
  • whole cemetery
  • stones of interest, with nearby stones
  • the whole gravestone, showing the inscription and carving
  • close-ups of the inscription and carvings
  • any creative shots you want of the beautiful artwork and scenes in graveyards

Ancestral Homes Shot List

  • the entrance to the street (a view your ancestor may have seen every day)
  • the house with neighboring buildings
  • the whole house (we suggest first knocking on the door to let the current resident know why you’re taking a picture of his house)
  • as many sides of the house as you can capture without trespassing
  • interesting architectural details
  • the yard
  • any features mentioned in family stories (such as the tree Grandpa fell out of as a boy)

Heirlooms Shot List

  • full view of heirloom
  • heirloom with a ruler to show size
  • all sides of heirloom item
  • close-ups of interesting details, such as carving or painting
  • close-ups of manufacturer’s marks
  • close-ups of damage or other features affecting value

Records And Documents Shot List

  • title page of film roll or book
  • full record (be sure to get each page)
  • close-ups of hard-to-read areas

What pictures would you add to our lists? Any tips for others photographing these ancestral items? Click Comments to share!

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  1. I like pictures of the schools a family went to and places where they worked and vacationed. you may be able to find old postcards of schools and some businesses. These are nice if they have been torn down since your ancestor went to school or worked there. I was lucky my grandmother saved postcards of the school she went to from kdg to high school. She was a teacher so I have pictures of her with her classes and with the teachers in her school. And everyone sure dressed up to go on vacation to the beach or on a picnic.

  2. Great list – thanks. When I’m photographing gravestones I always take photos of landmarks (trees, buildings, fences, other noticeable stones) near the site/plot I’m photographing with the idea that the visual cues will help me find the spots again on return visits.

  3. I like to photogaph not just the ancestral house, but the church where marriages and baptisms happened, the town hall, and whatever other historic landmarks are in town (The general store they shopped at? is there a well or watering trough on the common? a war memorial that may have names listed? A fraternal organization building like a grange hall or Masonic hall? etc.)
    If I visit a local historical society or town clerk I ask permission to snap a photo of the person who helped me. Some town clerks or church secretaries have been there (or will be there) a long time, and I might need to go back someday and recognize the face and name.

  4. Thanks for the great tips and reminders. Not only do we(my husband goes with me)take the photo of the entrance or Cemetery sign, we have a small hand held GPS that we use and take the reading of the cemetery, if it is a very large cemetery we also take a reading of the grave site. This way if we somehow loose the paper map that the Cemetery office gave us, and I need to go back we have a way of finding the grave again. I write this information on my notebook page for that Cemetery, as well as the full inscription of the headstone. My husband takes the photos, if it is a double stone he takes a full view, then a close up of each side with the dates, as well as any other info. that might be on the stone, such as a wedding date. We have even found encased photos of the person on some of the very old and not so old stones, we also take photos of that. I keep my notes in a large binder in alphabetical order for each county and State we visit. I then put all of this info. into the scrapbook area with the photo, and into my notes on this person.I also slide the map if one was given into a page protector and place with the notes for that cemetery.

  5. Ten years ago,I drove from Seattle to Chicago to visit family in my hometown. Before I left, I sent a letter to the &quot;current resident&quot; of my great-grandparents’ home. My great grandfather was a successful contractor/mason in the Chicago area and had built the family home around 1903. I wanted to take a picture or two of the exterior of the house, but didn’t want to alarm the resident. I included the make, model, color and license number and state of my car. I didn’t include my phone number, but the owner somehow tracked it down and contacted me. She invited me to see the interior of the house if she was home the day I came to take pictures! She was home, and it was an incredible treat to go inside and see where so many family stories had taken place. I wish I could have lingered, but I didn’t want to &quot;abuse&quot; her generosity, so I made my &quot;tour&quot; brief, took my pictures and left. They are some of my favorite photographs. Fortunately, I had remembered to bring a small Seattle souvenir as a &quot;Thank You.&quot;

  6. focusoninfinity (aka) Jim Miller

    I neither own, nor have used a digital camera for anything, more-less genealogy since film-only days. In those &quot;olden&quot; days, in archives, I sometimes espied genealogists 35mm B&amp;W &quot;filming&quot; documents, often with weak &quot;available light&quot;, often with small florescent light tubes, and never with flash (usually &quot;not permitted&quot; because it disturbed other patrons, or allegedly harmed the documents). The camera of choice then was the 35mm size film, Olympus Pen-E &quot;half-frame&quot; camera because one got double the exposures, thus double the documents; that the standard full-frame 35mm cameras did. I do not know if the Pen-E used flat-field &quot;copy&quot; lenses? Today, what is the digital genealogist’s equivalent &quot;Pen-E&quot; document copy camera of choice? Preferred lens choice, and why? And the lighting issue; how is that now addressed?

  7. Shooting near-by grave stones, or at least noting who’s they are; is good advice. Decades ago in Goldsboro, North Carolina, I was researching the the Universalist minister Rev. Hope Bain, who after the Civil War, there ran the ex-slaves, Freeman’s Bureau; for which he was often threatened with death. He’d been a Private in the Baltimore militia against the invading British, in the War of 1812.

    I located Rev. Bain’s four or five generations later, prominent Goldsboro descendants who said they had never heard of him? I said he’s buried but two plots away from your contemporary Bain plot? Rev. Bain’s old stone bears a hand, it’s finger pointing Heavenwards. Bet he made it!

    My paternal Miller &amp; Woollen kin are buried in a downtown Charlotte, N.C., cemetery. For over a decade, I’d wondered where great grandmother, Mrs. Susan Caroline Malcolm Woollen* died, and was buried? One day I just took a curiosity and pleasure walk-about the cemetery. There across the small cemetery road, maybe 40-feet down hill; there she was, GREAT GRANDMOTHER!!!

    This caused me to wonder, is anyone of us buried there without a tombstone? At the cemetery office, in the old records book, I found my cousin’s kinswoman. Doc’ was from &quot;Away&quot; as we say in North Carolina, I was then local; he was moneyed, I was not. I said I’d get his old-maid kinswoman’s a tombstone if he’d pay for it; and by-the-way, her Charlotte obit, calls her &quot;the mother of North Carolina professional nursing&quot;.

    Doc’ said be sure that got on her stone too. She’d been over 50 years there, stoneless; but now is, &quot;well-stoned&quot; (it’s OK, she’s been off-duty a long while now).

    *Note: Susan and her husband, Sgt. James Anderson Woollen, CSA musician, buried Old Salem, are in the 1890’s book, &quot;Lee Family of Virginia&quot; by Edmund Jennings Lee. Her daughter Mrs. Lillian Elizabeth &quot;Muttie&quot; Woollen Lee, wed the son of Charles Carter Lee, Gen. Robert Edward Lee, Sr’s older brother. Her son was LtCol. Robert Henry &quot;Marse&quot; Lee, USCA, West Point class of 1912.

  8. Great article with the great tips. And the tips in the comment section are just as valuable. I like the idea of the handheld GPS in the cemetery. So helpful in finding that headstone again. And the tip about contacting the owner of the home you want to photograph is smart too. Once, my husband and I were trying to get a photo of a old family home and the new family was outside. We didn’t want to make them nervous so we just did a quick drive by photograph. Not very gratifying!

  9. I recently took my Mother and Father on ‘road trips’ to find all of the homes, schools, and churches that they lived in or attended. Both enjoyed it very much, and the photo albums I put together for them are cherished items. I’ve also started doing the same for some of the houses where I’ve lived, so my children will have a record.