Sunday, May 25, 2014

Day of the Dead Photos, Cemetery Photos, Technical Tips

Day of the Dead Atzompa Cemetery, Oaxaca Mexico

Technical Considerations When Making Photos In A Darkened Cemetery

May  2014 Update
     The Day Of The Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico promises to be something special this year as a moderate recovery of the local economy and renewed tourism will make it a festive time.
To make photos in the cemetery under not much more than candlelight will still be difficult but perhaps this year there will be more candles and more carefully prepared tombs and altars. (offering tables)
     The people of the towns and villages visit the cemetery in the dark of night and set it ablaze with thousands of candles.  The families then sit by the gravestones in a night vigil.  Musicians gather and chant as the scent of Copal incense and the perfume of marigold flowers fills the air.  This can be disorienting to the first time visitor.  We offer a few tips here that  might  help you make some memorable cemetery photos

     The best bet is to arrive at the cemetery before dusk if possible.  In this way you can familiarize yourself with the layout of the gravesites. Choose a few groupings that might make a good composition. The afternoon is also a good time to make photos of the preparations that will be underway. (Link) People will be cleaning and decorating tombs. You might make a connection with a family and then return to the grave later after they light the candles. In most cases it is best to say hello and ask if you can take a photo. The people are proud of their decorations and for the most part they welcome visitors.

     Once darkness comes, about 7:00 pm on October 31 in the tropics, you will be forced to use slow shutter speeds or long exposures to make photos. The length or duration of the exposure will depend on the number of candles arrayed on the tomb or gravesite, but extended exposure time will be the working mode for cemetery photos. This is particularly true if you will sell your photos or present them as prints or in digital presentations. The ultra high ISO available with high-end cameras (6400) (with resulting faster shutter speed) might not reproduce well in prints or digital shows (slide shows) therefore steadying technique or a tripod will be needed. Tripods are acceptable and indispensable in cemetery photos if you want to make a variety of photos and photos that you can sell. (link)

Daylight photos of the altars in the
 shops and streets of Oxaca
Shutter Speed
     The shutter speeds will beat least a  I/4 second and as much as 4 seconds when the aperture is set at f-8.   Shutter speeds over 2 seconds might show the candles as too bright; the flame will loose its shape.  With a slow shutter speed you will need a tripod or you will need to support the camera on a stable object.
     The shutter speed will depend on the amount of light generated by the candles.  An aperture of f-8 is a good compromise in this situation except where you want to show maximum depth of field.  As in the photo of the sand painting (Link) shown on this web page.
     The aperture in this photo was set at f-16 with a 6 second exposure.  The candles were encased in glass containers which therefore did not show effects from the wind.  Two figures in the background show motion but it is hardly discernible.
     In this photo the camera rested on a camera bag to achieve the sharpness and absence of camera shake.  The camera's ten second timer released the shutter.


     With a digital SLR you can set apertures and shutter speed in manual mode.  You will need to work in manual mode including manual focus to achieve predictable results. 

Auto Focus Problems

Two problems come into play with auto focus.
Camera lenses don't always focus well in dark situations; they tend to hunt and this will prevent you from taking photos.  The other problem is that people will be walking in front of you while you are focusing.  The lens will sense the movement  and tend to hunt as the people move.  For these reasons it is best to manually focus the lens.

It is best to find a good subject and place your tripod.  Ask permission to make photos if appropriate, and make a series of photos at a well-composed group of gravesites.   One good photo of one gravesite is better than 50 bad photos of 50 gravesites.

If you stay in one place you become invisible to the subjects who get used to you after a few minutes.  You begin to understand better the ebb and flow of the action about you and the wind effects on the candles. Your eyes accustom to the light levels and you see more composition opportunities. With your tripod in place you can time your shots between the movement of visitors walking throughout the cemetery.
     With a tripod you also can more accurately manual focus. Once set, you need not change the focus unless you zoom in or out.   Tips Page, Composition
     People who move in front of you are not usually a problem in a long exposure as long as they keep moving. When they do stay in motion they don't show in the frame because there is not enough light on them. The family at the gravesite usually sits still at the edge of the grave and this results in no motion blur.

     Once you plant a tripod and your eyes become accustomed to the light levels you can experiment with different lenses, different angles of view, high or low, left or right, and you can isolate parts of the scene that you find pleasing.

Related Links
Day of the Dead Atzompa
Day of the Dead Xoxocotlon

Day of the Dead Cemetery Visits, Schedule Oaxaca

The night of October 31 sees the old cemetery (cementerio viejo)
in the village of  Xoxocotlan  come alive with candles and flowers
 that decorate the tombs as the families wait for the return 
of the spirits of the deceased.

Schedule of Night Cemetery Visits 

Update May 25, 2014


     The City of Oaxaca welcomes visitors for the The Day Of The Dead festivities during the last week of October.  
      This Day of the Dead schedule lists the days and places near the City of Oaxaca where visitors can go to the cemeteries in the evening to visit  the grave sites where the local people decorate the tombs and grave sites with candles and flowers.  During a night vigil the families sit by the graves and wait for the return of the spirits.   Visitors are welcome to observe and photograph the cemetery rituals.

Sand painting in the New Cemetery

When To Visit The Cemeteries

Xoxocotlan October, 31
   On the night of October 31, the town of Xoxocotlan just a few miles west of Oaxaca City, celebrates its Day of the Dead in two Cemeteries, Cementerio Viejo, the old cemetery, and Cementerio Nuevo, the new cemetery.
The most interesting is the Old Cemetery as it is a magic place of densely packed grave sites ablaze with thousands of candles.  It is a challenge to photograph when the crowds stream in at around ten in the evening. With patience, great photos can result. It is best to find just one good group of tombs or grave sites and make well-composed photos.
See Day of the Dead Photo  link Composition Page

If possible, arrive as dusk falls to include the afterglow of a sunset in your photos.  This will also allow you to become acquainted with the cemetery layout. The candlelight will become intense and the cemetery crowded after nine pm when the families arrive to sit by the graves.

  • Atzompa, October 31

On October 31, the village of Atzompa holds a cemetery vigil starting around 11 pm. This is a less-crowded cemetery where the vigil goes on throughout the night, accompanied by modern salsa and cumbia music.
The arch from an old gate makes a good backdrop for photos.
Taxis from Oaxaca City reach Atzompa.  You can arrange for a later pickup with the driver.  We have done this and find the drivers reliable. There is no bus service at night.

  • Oaxaca City Cemetery, Panteon General, November 1
On November 1, in the Oaxaca City Cemetery, the Day of the Dead celebration continues in the Panteon General on the east side of the city. The Panteon makes a good daytime or pre-dusk visit to photograph the preparations and the displays of offering tables that represent the many regions of Oaxaca State. The Panteon General can be walked from the Zocalo.  Go to the Santo Domingo Church and then walk east on Constitution.

  • Xochimilco Barrio, Oaxaca City
Offering table,  Xochimilco
 Oct Nov 2012
Xochimilco is a small cemetery and a good visit for those that do not want to leave the city.  At Xochimilco you can make daytime photos in the cemetery.  (the cemetery could be closed after dark)
There are various programs offered including the building of offering tables.  The offrenda are traditional offerings that are displayed in the church grounds.
Walk north from the Zocalo on Garcia Vigil (street) across the Ninos Highway.  Go two blocks north and turn left for one block. Find the church and cemetery.
Activity on Oct 31 , offrenda, and November 1, a comparsas, a costumed parade that starts in the church at 7 pm.
(check ahead as the cemetery has been closed at night in the past and the other activities schedules change)

Details of an ofrenda or offering table,  Xochimilco Nov 2012

Ofrenda or offering table,  Xochimilco Nov 2012

Details of an ofrenda or offering table,  Xochimilco Nov 2012

Tlaixtac de Cabrera November 1

Tlaixtac de Cabrera is a village six miles southeast of Oaxaca City where the townspeople celebrate exuberantly with brass bands, strolling guitar groups, and candlelit vigils by graveside.  Tour agencies offer trips to this cemetery.  See Barroco Tours on Garcia Vigil in Oaxaca City for guided tours to this cemetery.

  • San Felipe del Agua, November 2
San Felipe del Agua, north of Oaxaca City, celebrates on November 2.
San Felipe is a quiet neighborhood cemetery in a well-to-do community of professionals and Government employees that can be reached by taxi or public bus. Bus service stops after 9:30 but taxis are plentiful and should cost around 50-60 pesos for a return to Oaxaca City center.

  • Village of San Antonino Castillo Velasco
The outlying villages of Oaxaca offer interesting Day of the Dead celebrations and none is more fascinating then the Vllage of San Antonino Castillo Velasco.
San Antonino is a flower growing village south of Oaxaca City, beyond the airport, off of Route 175.   The town celebrates as much as a week after the other villages celebrate because the farmers of San Antonino are busy harvesting and selling flowers during the traditional festival time.  In San Antonino, flowers are used to create artwork unique in the valley of Oaxaca. This is a good, late-afternoon visit to photograph the preparations of the gravesites.
Tour agencies will know the date of this festival.
Ask at Borroco Travel Agency located at 406 Calle (street) Garcia Vigil in Oaxaca's historic center; they conduct tours during the three nights of activities and will have information about San Antonino.
Cemetery at Xoxocotlan on the night of October 31

Cemetery Photos

During Day of the Dead cemetery visits, the people of the villages invite the foreign visitor to join them in the graveside vigil. They are proud of their offerings of marigold flowers, chocolate, special bread, and candles. They have decorated as their budget allows and they don't mind sharing with you the pride they feel about their decorated tomb. They are, after all, attempting to lure the spirit of a loved one back for a visit and if you find the decorations pleasing, most likely the spirit will also.
  • Courtesy
While the families do welcome visitors to their gravesite, a little courtesy is in order.
It is best not to use flash photography in the cemetery, although it will be very dark in places. The problem with flash is that it will blind everybody momentarily and  actually will make a less pleasing photo.  Deer-in the-headlights photos done with flash will rarely include any ambient light such as the candles in the distance.
It is best to use a tripod or other support, (just not the family's gravestone) and use a slow shutter speed to capture the ambiance of the cemetery full of candles.
The people standing or sitting by the grave will be nearly motionless and therefore, a long exposure (slow shutter speed) should not show excessive motion blur.
During a long exposure (slow shutter speed) people crossing in front of you will not show, as long as they keep moving.
Students in Oaxaca city prepare
 altars and sand paintings in the
 streets of Oaxaca during the week
 leading up to the cemetery visits.
It is best to ask the family first, whenever possible, before making a photo, just to respect their privacy.
At times you will not want to disturb the family if they are sitting quietly; you make the photo and move on. At other times you can engage the family in conversation and then ask to make a photo even if you do it via sign language. They are proud of their decorated tomb and will most often welcome you.
If you are with a tour guide, the guide will ask for you or will advise you when it is appropriate to ask or when it is appropriate to just make the photo.
The Barroco Tours staff is well acquainted with the needs of photographers.  If you book with them, their guides will ask whenever it is appropriate. 
Tel.  514-1294  cell 044-951-187-2637
We are not affiliated with Barroco tours but have traveled with them on many occasions and like the way they consider the needs of their clients and the privacy of the families at the gravesites.
Gravesite video
The people of Oaxaca have an approach to death that is different than the western way. Death to them is not necessarily sad, it is part of the cycle of life. They will at times be saddened by the recent death of a loved one or the death of a child, however, so some sensitivity on the part of the visitor is appreciated.

Next Technical Considerations When Making Photos In A Darkened Cemetery

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Day of the Dead Photos, Oaxaca Cemetery Photos

Photography, Day of the Dead, Oaxaca Cemetery 
Text and Photos David Hilbert
Updated May 21, 2014

October 31 will start the cemetery visits during Oaxaca's Day of the Dead celebration.  The visits to the gravesites ends the week of parades, art exhibits, sand painting on the streets, and decoration in the stores and restaurants.  The  visits to the cemetery. (link) are a magic time in Oaxaca and a great event at which to make photos.   We present here the schedule of visits, the sites, and some tips on making Day Of The Dead photos in the cemeteries.

Oaxaca Cemeteries Open
     Oaxaca cemeteries open to visitors on the last night of October and the first two nights of November . October 31 Nov 1 and 2.  
      At the cemeteries thousands of candles illuminate the graves and make a great photo event.  The families have decorated with marigold flowers, cockscomb flowers, candles, and copal incense burners. Families gather and chant the ancient songs and listen to strolling musicians. 

Each village celebrates at different times and in different ways but the evenings can be ones of magic as the families sit by the graves, light candles,  and wait for the spirits to return.
Schedule Of Cemetery Visits  
(Link to Schedule)

Day of the Dead Photos

     During the week that leads up to the cemetery visits, the colorful markets load up on marigold, red cockscomb flowers, and many other types of flowers.  The markets stack the shelves with special Day of the Dead bread and create displays that can be a great photo opportunity. (link)
The vendors in the markets live in a tough competitive environment, however, so it is not unreasonable to ask before you make a photo or to offer an inducement before  making your photos.
Most vendors are happy to accommodate you if you buy something from them or offer a ten peso coin.
 Of course you can just point and shoot on the run and still make good photos especially if the area of the market is well lit.
You can make it a better experience and perhaps a better photo, however, if you ask first. By asking you show respect and make a connection. You also have more time to compose and will make better photos.

Abastos Market 
The largest market in Oaxaca City is eight blocks south of the central plaza, the Zocalo. Tons of flowers will be displayed for sale at the end of the month.

Benito Juarez MarketBenito Juarez is one block south of the Zocalo
on Calle (street) Aldama near the San Juan de Dios Church, two blocks south of the Zocalo.   The street between the Benito Juarez Market and the Twenty of November Market will be full of flower sellers.

Photos of Day of the Dead Street Scenes

During the week before the cemetery visits, the people of Oaxaca build and decorate traditional offering tables in their homes. These contain symbolic fruits and produce of ancient indigenous times and the trapping of the virtues and vices of the deceased. The people also create these offerings in the streets and shops of the city.The altars are unique works of art worthy of photos. Just a walk down the Alcala, (link) Oaxaca's pedestrian only street, will reveal many offering tables in shops and hotel and restaurant lobbies that are artistic masterpieces. Along with the altars (offering table or ofrenda) the artists and art students of Oaxaca create sand paintings in the pedestrian-only streets and plazas in a friendly competition.
Meanwhile, Oaxaca's hotels, (link) restaurants and shops decorate their entrances with candles, marigold, and elaborate offering tables.

Best Locations for Day of the Dead Street Scene Photos

A walk south on the pedestrian-only Alcala will reveal many elaborate altars and decorations worthy of a photo. The small plaza beside Oro de Monte Alban on the right side (west) will put on a creative display with the use of their reflective pool. A little further south on the west side the Hosteria de Alcala Restaurant decorates the interior. The upstairs galleries at the Hosteria are worth a look. A block to the east, the Camino Real Hotel decorates their hall and lobby in sumptuous fashion.
Further south on the Alcala, restaurants and shope decorate their entryways.
The restaurant El Sagario decorates their lobby. Half a block south the restaurant below the Marquese del Valle Hotel creates a decoration with modern touches. At the south end of the Zocalo, Oaxaca's main plaza, the Museo de Palacio (link) at times past has decorated with a grand display of Day of the Dead art.
There are many other displays of Oaxacan Day of the Dead art throughout the city.  Every hotel lobby, art gallery, and museum is apt to have an interesting display.

Cemetery Visits
Make Cemetery Photos