I have several times now encountered limestone tombstones that are well weathered, as well as sometimes just dirty or have broken and have been face down or face up for years.

There are numerous tutorials on how to and NOT TO clean a limestone headstone without damaging it;

Some of the better guides on cleaning include:

Though when cleaning may or may not do any good, I may not have permission to do so (some older cemeteries have rules not allowing it), or I may not have the time an intensive multi-hour cleaning for when passing through the area. What are some options for obtaining information from it, preferably without cleaning it extensively and potentially creating further wear?

I am aware of the wax paper and crayon method but have only had mixed success with it actually coming out any more readable.

I would like to have a couple different methods in my kit if I am going to make a trip to visit some areas and cemeteries to attempt to gather more information. I also do not live in a region of the country where these style of tombstones are as aged or as commonly used to experiment.

Is there any other relatively successful way to get information or images from these style of weathered grave stones?

For example, where the bottom is completely unreadable. enter image description here Photo Credit:Joseph DuVall from Find a Grave.

And I have several cases where the bottom is readable but the top which is broken off no longer is readable. enter image description here PhotoCredit: CRSouser

  • 1
    The answers at genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/4141/… may provide a different direction of attack?
    – user104
    May 18, 2015 at 16:45
  • The article on cleaning stones from The International Southern Cemetery Association has a broken link to an article "Lichens on Man-Made Surfaces" on the website of the British Lichen Society. A snapshot of the BLS article from 2013 is available via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.
    – Jan Murphy
    May 18, 2015 at 18:16
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    There are smartphone apps for stereophotogrammetry such as 123D Catch (at no cost!) from Autodesk. To employ these tools you would take dozens of photos from varying angles. I offer this merely as a hint. To get text you'd still need to work with the resulting 3d model in ways that I have not specifically researched.
    – minopret
    May 20, 2015 at 15:01
  • @ColeValleyGirl and Minopret. Thanks for the tip.. I actually been developing a technique too I haven't been able to find anything about others doing. I just lack 'local samples' to test. I have a trip coming up I hope to get to test it as well as your suggestions. I'll self answer with findings if successful in a couple weeks.
    – CRSouser
    May 20, 2015 at 22:09
  • The first photo in the post looks like a prime candidate for off-camera flash. I imagine this would be 100% readable in such a photo.
    – Jamie Cox
    Jul 20, 2016 at 17:01

3 Answers 3


The technique you are looking for is off-camera flash. This means a separate flash unit that you can trigger remotely (usually wirelessly, nowadays).

By directing the light across the stone at an angle, even shallow inscriptions are highlighted.

The results are amazing. I see and read details that I couldn't see standing there in person. The improvement is 10 times better than any post-processing methods or filters.


  • It doesn't damage the stone or alarm people who think other methods may do so.
  • You can use it in any weather or lighting conditions. No waiting.

You can get the theory and camera settings in this video (YouTube).

Recommended Equipment for Off-Camera Flash of Tombstones

  • DSLR camera of your choice. (If you don't have one, consider an older, cheaper model, they are fine for this purpose.)
  • Speedlite/Speedlight flash of your choice.
  • Wireless trigger of your choice.
  • An assistant (very helpful), or a tripod.
  • Umbrella (optional)

Easy method

  • Camera on P (Program mode)
  • Flash on 1/4 power
  • Exposure Compensation -1 stop (adjust as required)

More difficult method (for bright sun)

  • Flash on Manual full power
  • Camera on M (Manual Mode)
  • Shutter at 1/200
  • F-stop (aperture) at f/20
  • ISO at Manual ISO 100 (not automatic)

If exposure needs adjustment, adjust using the f-stop. Shade stone with umbrella for worst-case full direct sun. This is usually not needed.

In all cases, you want the flash to be fairly close, about 1 meter from the stone. If flash has an angle adjustment, use a wider angle for larger stones.

I'm adding a setup photo showing a good flash angle and shading with the umbrella.

Each of these before & after photo pairs was taken on the same day with the same camera. On the left a "normal" shot. On the right, using off-camera flash. In the second photo, notice the damage at the bottom of the stone caused by someone doing a "rubbing".

Some more examples and technique ideas are on this Find-A-Grave Blog Post. More before and after photos here.

Before and After Off-Camera Flash (Same day, same camera)

Before and After Off-Camera Flash (note damage at bottom from "rubbing") Off-Camera Flashing a tombstone

  • 3
    Each of the before & after photo pairs was taken on the same day with the same camera. On the left a "normal" shot. On the right, using off-camera flash. In the second photo, notice the damage at the bottom of the stone caused by someone doing a "rubbing".
    – Jamie Cox
    Jul 14, 2016 at 12:35
  • 1
    You can use the edit button vs. the include the additional details / comment you included in a comment. Additionally, and most importantly can you include the off camera flash positioning and using a approximate drawing or something like Sylight vs. just referring to a link? Preferably also including how you would light in a brightly lit environment such as bright open field which many cemeteries are in.
    – CRSouser
    Jul 14, 2016 at 12:55
  • With some special software you can also take the same pictures with the flash at different angles and let the software recompose the text.
    – J.J.D.
    Aug 2, 2017 at 19:56

I shared the question during the Twitter Chat #AncestryHour and received some suggestions, although some may not be useful on a white or pale stone:

During the TweetChat #genchat I received the following suggestions:

  • Scott Niblick suggested using LED "flashlight or reflector to create shadows on the surface. Photo edit software to add contrast between light/dark."
  • blogger Sir Leprechaunrabbit of Rock of Ages: Grave Concerns said "The lower part I would call lost, Dearie. It is usually Bible verse or epitaph area; HistorySoc may have transcript"

One technique which has worked well for me is using the 'negative' setting in photo programs like Irfanview, or playing with the gamma correction, to bring out subtleties in the photograph.

Following up on the comment by @minopret:

Dr. Jane Lyons, whose website is From-Ireland.net, posted on Google+ on 30 May 2015 about using 3D imagery and photogrammetry on hard-to-read stones. This is a work-in-progress so there aren't any results on display on her site yet, but she said that after processing 34 images she was able to get a legible stone.

Searching for photogrammetry on Photography.SE turns up a few results, but they don't seem to have a tag for it yet.


There used to be a confederate headstone near by us years ago and they ripped it out to build a 7-11 parking lot. The stone was in the same condition. I remember my mother using artists charcoal and made a rubbing. This seemed to work pretty well. You have to be gentle so you get a good impression.

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    Making rubbings is not recommended and is banned in many areas because it is harmful to the stones.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jul 10, 2016 at 7:29

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