How to do Photography of a Funeral Tastefully and with Respect

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For most of us, most of the time, photography is a fun and joyful activity, where we get to do something we enjoy and share it with others. Indeed, all the time and all over the world, professional photographers are asked to immortalize the happiest times of people’s lives: beginnings of families and lives, important rituals, celebrated accomplishments. Having someone ask you to photograph a funeral is obviously very different – on many levels.

 How to do Photography of a Funeral Tastefully and with Respect

Note: All the images in this article have been approved for use here by the families. No images have been used without written permission for this sensitive subject matter.

Photography of a funeral

Although a funeral may not seem like the kind of event people would seek to remember, it often is. After all, it’s an important ritual, a celebration of a life, and a gathering of people who may not know each other well but who are united in their mourning. In my experience, many people find it important to have their loved one’s funeral documented, even though it’s a photography service that isn’t advertised or discussed as much or in the same way as most others.

To some extent, preparing to photograph a funeral differs little from any other photography job. There are obviously some unique considerations, though, and in this article, I’ll go through both the similarities and the important differences.

How to do Photography of a Funeral Tastefully and with Respect

Remember, don’t photograph a funeral as your first photography job – or even your second. It’s something that calls for a professional and calm attitude, a lot of experience, and high-quality work.

Before the funeral

The funeral is a very important event to the person asking you to photograph it. However, funeral photography isn’t discussed as much as other kinds, there are no magazines or fairs about it, and there’s little sharing in social media. So good communication with the customer is even more important than usual. Remember that the person you’re dealing with may not be able to express exactly what they want and that they will naturally be stressed and upset.

Note: If you can, taking some photos before the mourners enter the venue is a good idea. Always ask before entering, though.

The most important things you need to find out before the ceremony are:

  • When and where will the ceremony take place? If possible, visit the place beforehand to familiarize yourself with the venue and the lighting situation.
  • What kind of ceremony is it? If it’s one that’s unfamiliar to you, make sure you learn all you can about it.
  • Which photographs are particularly important to the customer? For instance, someone might want you to focus on the sermon, the eulogy, the mourners, or the religious details.
  • What kind of relation does the customer have to the deceased?

On the day of the funeral, wear something dark and shoes that will let you move around without causing a disturbance. Naturally, be sure to be at the venue on time, greet your customer and offer your condolences.

The ceremony

The biggest challenge when photographing a funeral is finding the right balance between getting beautiful photos and not disturbing the ceremony. Make sure to be quiet and to avoid blocking the mourners’ view, but remember that you have been paid to capture the event. They’ve asked you to help family and friends remember a momentous day and the life of a loved one.

How to do Photography of a Funeral Tastefully and with Respect

The photos you need to make sure to capture depend on the kind of ceremony in question, so these are very general points:

  • Mourners paying their respects.
  • The essential parts of the religious (if it is religious) ceremony.
  • The burial and final goodbyes.

You’ve been asked to photograph a very intimate event, so remember that photographing the guests needs to be done discreetly and with respect. To many, these are some of the most important photographs: they signify different parts of the deceased person’s rich life and represent the people in whose memories the deceased will continue to live on. Some might want a group photo of all the guests.

Another important part is the details and specific parts of the ceremony, such as the flower arrangements, the lowering of the coffin, and the priest or leader of the ceremony.

After the funeral

When the ceremony (or the part of it you have been asked to photograph) is over, let your customer know you’re leaving, offer your condolences again, and compliment them on how beautiful the event was.

How to do Photography of a Funeral Tastefully and with Respect

Immediately afterward, go home, and back up your photos. Then, give yourself a breather and take care of yourself. Being a part of this kind of event might affect you more than you realize.

The processing happens the way it always does. Just remember to be very respectful and create the most tasteful pictures you can.

How to do Photography of a Funeral Tastefully and with Respect

Conclusion

Funerals are events of sorrow, of remembering, and of togetherness – it’s important to capture all of that, not only the darkness. What do you think?

Do you have any other tips or warnings for someone who has been asked to photograph a funeral? Please share your advice and opinions in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Hannele Luhtasela-el Showk

photographs weddings professionally and nature passionately. Based in Finland and Morocco, they love going on adventures, learning, teaching, reading, science, and finding new perspectives. Hannele’s photos can be found on their wedding website, blog and Facebook page.

  • elmoalso

    This article is spot on. I recently photographed a celebration of life and frankly did not have any idea what I would do to capture it. It was just blind luck that I unknowingly followed most of the points presented here. In this case there was a spreading of ashes. Each attendee was given an opportunity to hold the urn and make a personal statement to the deceased. Photos of those moments were undoubtedly the most powerful.
    Thank you for presenting this article on a topic that is becoming much more common.

  • Thank you for sharing, and I’m glad you found the article useful (even if it wasn’t useful for you in that situation)! It sounds like you were successful in your endeavour, and I’m glad to hear that.

  • Stu

    I have been honored to photograph several funerals at Arlington Cemetery and they have been beautiful. I am a Veteran and love the pomp and circumstance, the color, and beauty of the grounds. I have a Canon 5D MkII and now Mark III with a 100-400mm lens and have found that the best way is to stand off at a moderate distance behind a tree (mostly to absorb the sound of the shutter) and click away. Obviously, flashes are out no matter what or where. If needed, I walk quickly and quietly behind the attendees to another pre-planned vantage point for photos. One elderly widow said after the burial that she thought I was going to photograph the ceremony and asked why I hadn’t. I told her I had gotten the whole thing. She was surprised because she never saw or heard me. PERFECT I thought to myself, just perfect.

  • Good point about flashes! The light can be very tricky during a funeral, but using a flash is basically always out of the question. Another point I failed to mention in my article is that using silent shutter mode, which is something many DSLRs have, is a good way of being less distracting.

    Thanks a lot for your comment and for sharing your experience! In a small space it’s unfortunately quite tricky to go completely unnoticed, but aiming to disturb as little as possible is a good goal, I think.

  • Catchlight35

    The hardest thing about a funeral is the reaction you may get from some of the mourners to the fact that you are taking photos at all. I’m in the UK and the brits generally will frown upon it. We had a memorial service in a cathedral for my father and 800 people came – I asked my co-shooter if she would mind taking some photos since it was quite something to see,which she did, but some of the frowns and looks she received were tricky to deal with. You need to be very careful and unobtrusive. I do not regret asking her to do this for me as it was a very unusual occasion and something I want to remember, but it was one of the most difficult jobs.

  • Marjorie Bull

    Excellent article. While some people will no doubt think it just a little creepy, others will find it quite reassuring to have a photo record of an important though stressful time. I was rather surprised when an old friend who couldn’t attend the funeral of his aunt asked me to photograph her body as she lay in the coffin at the wake. He explained that his family was from a part of Europe where they customarily display such pictures next to a picture of the person in their last days, showing the contrast between the struggle with age and illness, and the peace of a final rest.

  • Very interesting, thanks for sharing! Keeping an open mind is an important part of being a funeral photographer, I think; individuals, families, cultures have very different ways of dealing with death and with burials. As they are things that aren’t spoken about very openly or very often, it’s really important to listen to the customer and hear what they want.

    Thank you for commenting!

  • Yes, it’s very tricky, as, at least for me, it’s the kind of situation where you really don’t want to annoy anyone. On the other hand, if you’ve been asked to photograph the funeral, it’s usually by someone very close to the deceased, and to them getting the photos is very important. It’s a delicate balance, where getting great shots and being unobtrusive are both essential.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your experience!

  • Beverly Smith

    What about the visitor (family member, friend etc…) that did not want to have their photo taken but finds out later it was.

  • That’s a problem with photographing any event, of course. If you notice a photographer at an event and you don’t want your photo taken, you can always walk up to the photographer and ask them to avoid photographing you. Afterwards, it’s impossible to un-take a photograph, but you can always ask the person who hired the photographer to delete the photo.

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