How to Photograph Wildlife in Cemeteries & Graveyards
When considering the aerial view of a city, you’d expect the green parks and larger gardens to stand out. But people often overlook how much green space a cemetery or churchyard can provide in a sprawling city or bigger town. These green oases tend to be quieter, as well as having more complex and less manicured habitats than parks or gardens. They are a great place to explore for photography and are often home to a wonderful range of species.
Where and when to visit
A great starting point if you’re not aware of a churchyard nearby is to use Google Maps. Whilst not perfect, you can get a general idea of the scale of a cemetery – and maybe even make out the details of wilder corners that might be worth exploring in person.
Once you’ve done that home-based background research, there’s no real substitute for taking an early morning walk around the place you’ve discovered with your camera and seeing what catches your eye. Be sure to check opening times as some are locked at night, especially within London in the UK.
During your first few walks within your chosen churchyard, perhaps you’ll notice a fox always resting near the same headstone. Perhaps corvids land on the headstones near a feeding station for smaller birds, or if you’re really lucky you might glimpse a spotted flycatcher flit back to its nest in the side of a building.
By getting out there, you’ll be sure to discover photographic subjects.
As with many locations, churchyards really change with the seasons and so it’s important to visit at different times of the year. For example, inner city churchyards may attract jays only in autumn, so you’d miss that opportunity if you were only to visit in summer.
I often find cemetery jays to be far more confiding than their countryside cousins, whose white rump you glimpse as it disappears into a distant tree when disturbed.
A similar theme can be observed in most churchyard residents too, because they become more accustomed to the daily presence of people. This allows more scope for creativity as you tend to spend more time with a subject in front of you and less time waiting or searching.
A reliable subject allows scope to try new techniques or different uses of the available light, not a luxury often afforded to wildlife photographers working in wilder corners of the UK.
Species to look for in graveyards
I’ve mentioned how bigger cemeteries in cities offer a green oasis, but even in villages a churchyard can offer something special for wildlife with spaces that are managed in a similar way to old hay meadows – a habitat that is now sadly rare across the UK.
The irregular mowing, older trees and shrubs, as well as hidden neglected corners can revel some wonderful surprises like one of our pluckiest summer migrants: the spotted flycatcher.
Once a common bird, they have declined heavily across England especially, and now one of the best places to see them is in the older churchyards of villages.
They are probably my favourite churchyard resident, and I like to wait patiently for them to use headstones to hunt from when gathering flying insect prey to feed their hungry chicks.
Whilst my personal preference is to include man made features of the churchyard in my images, one lovely and sometimes overlooked aspect of larger churchyards or cemeteries is that there are often forgotten wilder corners just waiting to be discovered.
The headstones here might be smothered in ivy or the paths overgrown with bramble, and grasses provide a much more natural setting for taking images to supplement those you take in the countryside.
These spots can be great for invertebrates and plants with the overgrown shrubs, mimicking woodland clearings and under-stories. Often orchids can flourish along with other rare plants, with species like speckled bush crickets moving in too. They are lovely macro species if you fancy a change of pace from the longer lens.
When looking for compositions, there aren’t many better stages than the ancient headstone perches that spotted flycatchers use to hunt from. They can have wonderful, intricate textures that add great interest and something a little different when compared to conventional wildlife photographs.
Often I’m trying to convey the habitat the animal is in, so including headstones or other features typical of a churchyard do that perfectly and really tell a story.
The arched angles they form as you view your subject between them can add great leading lines or punchy patches of light and dark, creating an interesting mood.
Exposing correctly within this setting can be tricky as there are often very dark shadows and bright highlights with the headstones. I tend to use spot metering or set my exposure manually, if the conditions are consistent, to avoid blowing out the highlights.
When exploring, keep an eye out for interesting shapes – like crucifix headstones – that you can use, and wait for interesting light and a subject that shows them off at their best.
When you’re familiar with a location, don’t forget to use your other lenses for further compositions beyond the usual style of longer lenses. Some species can become very tame, and in the shot below I’ve used a wider lens on a fox as it walks between two headstones.
Respecting other visitors
As with photography anywhere, it’s important to be respectful of those in the environment you’re working in – be that the wildlife, the people, or the buildings. Cemeteries and churchyards are places where people will come to mourn family members or friends, so sticking to the rules really is a must if you want to continue visiting and enjoying a spot without issue. Please keep to paths where appropriate, or honor polite requests to avoid certain days of the week or areas within the churchyard.
For the smaller churchyards, it may be tempting to move amongst the headstones to get closer to subjects or to work a new angle with the available light, but bear in mind that other people could be visiting family burials and walking over graves really isn’t appropriate.
Often, once you’re familiar with a location, it can be beneficial to just sit back and keep still, scanning for movements. That’s how you could find a bird’s nest or a fox den, opening up many opportunities for photographs for future visits.
I’ll close with one really important point to consider with all photography, and churchyards and cemeteries are no different. Try and find one as local to you as you can. This allows better flexibility with visiting should a period of interesting weather or light be forecast.
Investing extra time in your chosen churchyard will lead to more wild encounters, more chances at making discoveries, better tuned fieldcraft and knowledge of the area and, ultimately, better photographs. That’s, of course, what photographers are always striving for.