Tips for Photographing Funerals

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By Steve Russell

For birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, holidays and other special occasions, cameras and photographs are an integral part of the festivities but what about funerals? Funerals are solemn, sad occasions and cameras seem to be intrusive; an invasion of privacy. Still most people who have lost a close family member or loved one would probably appreciate some photographic record of the event. Whether you’re photographing a funeral as a family member, someone who has been asked by the family to photograph the funeral or it’s a public ceremony of a well-known figure and you’re photographing for your own “memory book” a few tips might be helpful.

Don’t Act Like a Photojournalist – You’re not out there trying to capture a photo that’ll be on the front page of the newspaper or the cover of a magazine. Maintain a level of dignity and respect that the event requires. Yes, you might miss a really good shot, but what you really want to be is as invisible with the camera as possible. This probably means using a long lens but a long lens is much better than sticking a camera in the face of someone who is overcome by grief.

No Flash – It’s difficult to be unobtrusive when your flash is firing every few seconds. Leave the flash in the bag. This will probably require that you use a high ISO. It also means that you will be better served by using a custom white balance instead of having your camera set on AWB (automatic white balance). You’ll be happy you did this especially when you’re shooting inside unless you really enjoy sitting in front of the computer and adjusting the color temperature of every image.

Be Respectful of the Family – Most people don’t want to be photographed while they’re overcome with grief and sobbing uncontrollably. Yes, it’s important to get photos of the family and it’s possible to capture some poignant moments, but be respectful at the same time.

Know What To Expect – There are many cultures and religions in the world and the differences can be very pronounced at funerals. Take time to talk to the family and the person conducting the ceremonies. Learn what is going to happen and when it’s appropriate and inappropriate to take photos. Remember that cameras are not allowed in some churches, synagogues and mosques. Do yourself and the family a favor by knowing and following any rules regarding the prohibition of cameras.

Military, Police and Fire Fighter Funerals Present Different Challenges and Opportunities – Frankly, there’s a lot more to photograph at military, police and fire fighter funerals and to a great extent these are the photos the family wants to have. This is another situation where it can be extremely helpful if you know what to expect and the order of events. That way you’ll know where to be and where to be looking.

There Are Other Differences – Religion and culture are not the only reasons a particular funeral can be quite different from the so-called norm. Sometimes location and the background of the deceased can have a tremendous influence on the manner in which the ceremony is conducted. The two images above were taken at the funeral of a very well-known jazz musician in New Orleans.

Photographing a funeral might be one of the most difficult photography tasks you ever attempt. However, by using a good dose of common sense and thinking before shooting you can provide the family with a tasteful set of photos that they will appreciate for years.

Photo Credits:

Nacho & Little Grandma by Jacob & Kiki Hantla on Flickr Creative Commons
Presenting Flag to Widow by piratey joe on Flickr Creative Commons
RCMP Funeral by twostoutmonks on Flickr Creative Commons
Funeral at Arlington National Cemetery by mudflapDC on Flickr Creative Commons
Man in Top Hat by dsb nola on Flickr Creative Commons
Man Playing Trumpet by dsb nola on Flickr Creative Commons

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  • Hidden4good

    I can see where a few small sets would be appreciated, years after the event.
    But with most families NOT looking to have it photographed, mainly out of ‘tradition’, how does one acquire the job?
    It wouldn’t be good to be “ambulance chasers” or in this case hearse.
    Being a very touchy subject, should one just fall back upon past clients, show up take them respectfully?  Then at later date give the pics.. OR  maybe work through the local funeral homes?

    Having two sisters and a father who had passed on years ago, I know some images from the services would have been nice to see, and for ‘mom’ to remember.

    At the ‘wake’ after the event, there is a lot of socializing of LONG lost friends and family,  The mood isn’t as somber and a lot of picture chances are there too.

  • Steve Russell

    I wasn’t suggesting that this would be a good way to expand your photography business even though it seems to be relatively untapped.  It was intended as more of a “What should I do if asked?” or “How should I behave as a photographer if I want to photograph a funeral?”

    However, we photograph births, weddings, graduations, anniversaries, etc., why not funerals as well?  There are some iconic images that were taken at funerals, mostly of famous people.  John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting at his father’s funeral comes to mind.

    I think it would be a slow process to build this as a business line because of the sensitivity required.  However, if you let it be known that you photograph funerals, eventually an opportunity will come along.

    You are spot on about the “wake” or family gathering after the event.  Not only is there an opportunity to take photographs of long lost friends and family but it may be an easier place to start and then expand.

    I really don’t think it’s appropriate to read the obits and then call the family.  The beginnings of this as a business has to come from family, friends and clients, I believe.

    Keep in mind that 30 years ago lawyers, doctors and pharmaceutical companies didn’t advertise because it was considered to be unethical and in poor taste.  Today you see people in bathtubs on TV.