Finding beauty and inspiration in unusual places

Becoming A Better Photographer – Part II

This is the second in a multi-part series for helping you improve your photography. 

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
― Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye



I belong to a variety of cemetery art Facebook and Instagram groups. As such, I have had the good fortune to see thousands of amazing pictures from some of the most beautiful cemeteries around the globe. I have also gotten a sense for the most common photography pitfalls (in addition to seeing my own mistakes).

As I stated in the previous post, not squaring the horizontal and vertical lines in scene is the most common photography fault I observe. Exposure issues are a close second, with most being the result of overexposure. While it can be relatively easy to straighten a crooked photo, overexposed images can be difficult to correct, depending on the type of image you are capturing (RAW vs. JPG) and the quality of your camera sensor. In many cases, overexposed portions cannot be fixed, because the camera’s sensor did not capture any data for them.

The Exposure Triangle

Improve your photography: The Exposure Triangle
Exposure Triangle, by WClarke and Samsara, WikiMedia Commons

If you have studied photography, the Exposure Triangle graphic should look familiar. It represents the three aspects of controlling the exposure of an image. In times past, photographers had to use separate light meters and calculate the best (or possible) values for an image.

All modern digital and smartphone cameras have built-in light meters. They do a fairly decent job of determining of adjusting ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to ensure a proper exposure, especially for people who don’t wish to tinker with their camera’s controls.

“Photography is all about secrets. The secrets we all have and will never tell.”
― Kim Edwards, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

Unfortunately, it is not difficult to fool the camera’s metering system. In the example below, I pointed my camera at white and black squares, sitting alongside one another, in my office. Notice the differences in the ISO values the camera believes it needs for both images — a factor of 20X!

How Your Camera's Metering System Can Be Fooled
How Your Camera’s Metering System Can Be Fooled

If you are taking photos of a dark statue against shadows in the background, your camera is going to want to add much more exposure than is called for, making it look washed-out.

Practical Examples

This is one of my favorite statues in Allegheny Cemetery. She is in front of the massive Ford Mausoleum. Other than the first two hours or so of daylight, she is always in the shadows of the mausoleum. If it has rained, she becomes nearly black. As such, my Nikon D810 and smartphone always want to add significantly more exposure than is called for. This is the proper exposure. 

Mourner - Correct Exposure
Mourner – Correct Exposure, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, © Robert J. Vishneski

This is how my camera wants to expose the image. As you can see, the camera’s metering system lightens the blacks and rich, brown and dark green tones, and blows out the highlights of the yellow flower.

Improve your photography: Mourner as an example of an overexposed photo
Mourner – Overexposed, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, © Robert J. Vishneski

The Rook Memorial also gives my camera’s metering system challenges due to her dark tones and background shadows. This is the correct exposure:

Improve your photography: Statue of a mourner an an example for correct exposure
Mourner – Correct Exposure, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, ©Robert J. Vishneski

How my camera’s metering system saw her:

Mourner - Overexposed
Mourner – Overexposed, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, ©Robert J. Vishneski

“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
― Robert Frank, Swiss American photographer

Your camera will want to overexpose stained glass windows in mausoleums. My camera wanted to overexpose this stained glass window by ~2 full stops (exposure values). 

Improve your photography: example of a stained glass Jesus
Stained Glass Jesus, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, ©Robert J. Vishneski

Had I relied on my camera’s metering system, I would have ended up with something like this:

Stained Glass Jesus - Overexposed
Stained Glass Jesus – Overexposed, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, ©Robert J. Vishneski

Solution — Put Your Camera In Manual Mode

The solution is to take your camera out of Auto Mode and manually adjust the ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture values. This may seem complicated, but I can assure you if you adjust these controls at the outset of any photography outing, it won’t take more than a few minutes to find a set of values enabling you to capture consistently well-exposed photos. Of course, you should check your LCD throughout the day to ensure you adjust the ISO as the light changes.

I follow these steps:

  • Select Aperture
  • Select a Shutter Speed high enough to freeze motion and consistent with requirements of the focal length of my lens (the longer the lens, the higher the shutter speed required)
  • Look through the viewfinder and adjust the ISO so that the meter indicates a balanced exposure
  • Take a few photos of different scenes and adjust the ISO as necessary

Just about every digital camera provides the ability to highlight overexposed elements in the LCD preview window. Many call these “blinkies” because the overexposed elements will flash or blink on the screen. If your camera has this feature, turn it on. It will provide immediate feedback on your exposure and enable you to adjust your exposure accordingly. 

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
— Ansel Adams, American landscape photographer 


Another common fault is always putting your subject directly in the center of the frame. There are certainly times when this may be appropriate, but most of us consider photos more interesting  when the subjects are positioned slightly off center and landscapes do not consist of 50% land and 50% sky.  

The Rule Of Thirds

Perhaps more has been written about this composition topic than any other. The Rule of Thirds is nothing more than a guideline for compositing photos according to the grid below. As stated in the previous post, many digital cameras and smartphones have gridlines that enable you to compose your photos according to the Rule of Thirds.

Rule Of Thirds
Rule Of Thirds

Studies have shown that people judge photos taken using the Rule of Thirds to be more aesthetically-pleasing than those that do not. Like any guideline, however, there are many debates and studies that contradict one another. I suggest following it whenever possible. The last thing you want is for your photo galleries to look like the cemetery equivalent of a high school yearbook. 

Rule of Thirds
Rule of Thirds, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, OH, ©Robert J. Vishneski

Even portrait-style photos are more interesting if the subject’s face is not directly in the center of the frame.

Rule of Thirds - Portrait
Rule of Thirds – Portrait, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, ©Robert J. Vishneski

You may not always be able to line up your subject directly along the gridlines, but your photos will look much more interesting if you attempt to follow the Rule of Thirds.

Rule of Thirds - Jean Louise
Rule of Thirds – Jean Louise, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, OH, ©Robert J. Vishneski
Improve your photography: an example of the Rule of Thirds, Spring Grove Cemetery
Rule of Thirds, Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, OH, USA. ©Robert J. Vishneski

“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”
― Oscar Wilde, Intentions

Leave Some Room

While many admonish you to “fill the frame,” be careful: You always want to leave a bit of room around your subject to correct for alignment errors or in case you wish to use different crop ratios.

This is one of the more unique cemetery gravestones I have encountered. Unfortunately, the maiden’s head and feet were cut off when I attempted to straighten it. Likewise, even if it was properly aligned, I couldn’t make a 5X7 or 8X10 of this image because there was no opportunity to crop the photo and retain her entire body. Cropping throws megapixels (and thus detail) away, so you wish to be judicious in your use of it. With many cameras now equipped with 24-50 megapixel sensors, however, you can usually afford some reasonable cropping of your photos without concern for losing detail. 

Leave Some Room For Cropping
Leave Some Room For Cropping, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, OH, © Robert J. Vishneski

Clouds, Clouds, And More Clouds…

Cloudless skies represent the worst of all photography conditions. I would rather take photos on a cloudy, rainy day than one in which there was not a cloud to be found. At least on a rainy day, you might get some interesting cloud formations.

A blue sky without clouds is… well… just a blue sky. Not much character in photos with such a  background. Perhaps my subject is wondering what happened to the clouds that had captured her attention?

Boring Sky
Boring Sky, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, ©Robert J. Vishneski

With some clouds, however, it becomes magic. 

Pleasant Sky
Pleasant Sky, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, ©Robert J. Vishneski

The dramatic clouds below add to our perception that the mourner is in deep thought, contemplating the loss of a loved one.

Improve your photography: Mourner Against Sky
Mourner Against Sky, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, ©Robert J. Vishneski


“When I look at my old pictures, all I can see is what I used to be but am no longer. I think: What I can see is what I am not.”
― Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project

What Has Changed?

Photography technology has changed more in the past 20 years (2001-present) than in the previous 174 years (1826-2000) since its invention. Some highlights:

The Good

With the advent of photo processing labs, photographers were freed from the time consuming process and dangerous chemicals required to develop photographs. The introduction of digital photography (and corresponding widespread adoption of the internet) provided a further benefit of not requiring photographers to send their pictures off to the lab and waiting a week or more for their return.

Now, photographers can process their photos at home to their liking, and share them around the globe in a matter of minutes. Our digital cameras continue to fall in price while their capabilities grow.

And most smartphones are capable of producing decent images. Many also offer the ability to shoot in RAW mode and enable users to manually control all the aspects of the Exposure Triangle mentioned above.

The Bad

Despite these advances, however, the digital photography revolution has introduced some new challenges. Some people likely spend more time processing their photos in Photoshop than in taking them. They’ve replaced the drudgery of the old chemical darkroom with the tedium of the digital darkroom. 

I have seen some posts in which people describe the amount of time it took to process a photograph (sometimes measured in hours) and the number of layers (adjustments to color, luminosity, and other refinements), as if mentioning such statistics was an indicator of quality. In short, neither have anything to do with the aesthetic quality of your photo. If anything, having to spend exorbitant amounts of time processing your photos is a guarantee you are doing something wrong. Terribly wrong…

“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”
— Robert Frank, Swiss American photographer

The Ugly

The biggest danger when using film was over/under exposing an image. In the digital world, however, the opportunities to make your photos look awful are literally limitless. Pre-canned filters — either in your digital camera or smartphone or available for such programs as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop — provide all manner of styles, looks, effects, etc. Likewise, many smartphone applications, such as Instagram, have popularized their use. I have nothing against these filters. Some can provide a special touch to a good photo, especially if lightly-applied (10-25% of their full effect). 

Unfortunately, they are often over-used, usually in an attempt to make a bad photo look good. If you photo doesn’t look good before you apply a filter — trust me — the filter is not going to magically transform it into a work of art. And just when I think I’ve seen the worst example of over-processing a photo, someone comes along to prove I was being naive.

Some Dos 

Everything in Moderation

Make sure you apply color saturation, contrast, and shadow recovery in moderation. A rich blue sky does not look better if you oversaturate it and make it look like neon sign. Neither will oversaturating the rest of the colors. If you don’t like the look of the photo on the left, making it look like the one on the right is not going to help.

Proper vs. Oversaturated
Proper vs. Oversaturated, Calvary Catholic Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA ©Robert J. Vishneski

Likewise, adding a bit of contrast can enrich a photo without making it look ghoulish. And while shadow recovery is a helpful tool, you shouldn’t kill the black tones in your photo. Your photos should exhibit a broad range of tones, not merely the lighter shades.

Adam Ansel - The Zone System
Adam Ansel – The Zone System, Wikimedia Commons
Improve your photography: Proper vs. Improper Tonal Range
Proper vs. Improper Tonal Range, Calvary Catholic Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA ©Robert J. Vishneski

Standardize On And Become Adept With Some Post-Processing Tools

The core toolset a good photographer needs includes:

Cataloguing & Metadata – A tool that allows you to store your photos by date, automatically import metadata from the camera (date, time, make/model of camera and lens, focal length, ISO, etc.) and add descriptive keywords (angels, Allegheny Cemetery, statues, flowers, winter, etc.). Being able to search by metadata is important, particularly as your photo library grows. 

Photo Processing – A tool that allows you to modify white balance, color, contrast, saturation, sharpness, noise reduction, minor photo edits (eliminating annoying tree branches, sensor dust spots, etc.), and perform other basic editing functions. 

Adobe Lightroom may be the only tool many photographers need. It provides an excellent catalogue capability, searching by camera and user-added metadata, and a growing suite of editing tools. If you are on a budget, Photoshop Elements is a good choice.

If you really want to get the most out of your photos, especially if you shoot RAW, I recommend the full version of Photoshop. It is unsurpassed in editing capabilities, but does take some time and effort to master. During its early days, Photoshop came on multiple CDs and cost $750 — far beyond the price range of amateur photographers. Since Adobe switched to the Creative Cloud pricing plan, however, a subscription of Lightroom and Photoshop is much more reasonably-priced, coming in at $9.99/month.

For sharpening and noise reduction capabilities, you would be hard-pressed to find better tools that those from Topaz Labs. While the broader software marketplace is famous for hyperbole, Topaz has developed some amazing products that live up to its lofty claims. Topaz’ Sharpen AI has saved more than a few of my blurry photos from the trashcan. 

“A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.”
— George Bernard Shaw, Irish-English writer and critic

Get It Right In The Camera

It can be fun to explore Photoshop’s many fascinating features and functions, but if you find yourself spending more time editing your photos than taking them, you might want to revisit the fundamentals of photography, including the Exposure Triangle mentioned earlier. The goal is always to get the shot right in the camera, and minimize the amount of time you have to spend editing it. 

Study The Works Of The Best

The Cemetery Art-related Facebook groups offer many good examples of how the best photographers process their photos. In particular, studying the photos of Martina Wächtler, Normann Thielen, Sergio Perissinotto, and our own Dea Aepler, in groups such as Cemetery Statues (Only), can give you a great education in composition and post-processing techniques. 

Bronze statue of a sleeping woman, lying on her back. Between her hands are some lilac blossoms.
“I’m sleeping, but my heart is awake.” Bronze statue at Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg, Germany

If you wish to read a good book about lighting, I suggest Light Science & Magic. Although much of its focus concerns studio lighting, it contains a solid technical foundation of light and its qualities. Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography is also a good primer for making the most out of any lighting conditions you encounter. Rowell’s other book, Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape, is also a great read.

Use Presets

Most post-processing software allows you to create some type of preset, action, or other repeatable formula. Once you find a particular mix of color, saturation, white balance, etc. you like, save it as a preset. While it may not be useful in every situation, it may offer a good starting point and save you a lot of work.

Armed with a stable of presets for visible and infrared light, different lighting conditions (cloudy vs. sunny, morning/evening vs. middle of the day, etc.), and different lenses, I rarely spend more than two minutes in processing any of my photos. 

Less Is More

Avoid the mistake of believing more time, more color, more layers, etc. will improve your photos. Once you start improving your composition and exposure, you will find that you need to spend far less time in Photoshop or other post-processing software. 

Some Don’ts

Avoiding the mistakes mentioned above will save you a lot of heartburn and improve your photography. Here are some maxims to keep in mind.


  • Trust your camera’s metering system to always provide the right exposure, especially if you are photographing dark subjects
  • Expect Photoshop or any other post-processing tool to save a bad photograph (with some exceptions, of course)
  • Judge the quality of your photo based on how much time it took you to edit it or how many layers/effects you added to it
  • Go overboard with filters or color saturation — or any other aspect of editing


“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Spiritual Laws

While photography technology has advanced at a meteoric rate, the fundamentals of what makes an interesting or attractive photo haven’t changed. Good composition, a subject with character, and an exposure with rich tonality will always catch our eye. Master the skills and take note of the recommendations above, and your photography skills will improve.

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