Grave Hunting with Justin & Liz

I am excited to announce that I have booked my first wedding photography job. My old college friend Justin is getting married in a small ceremony near Sacramento this April. His bride-to-be, Liz, is a lovely and spirited woman, and I had the pleasure of getting to know her last weekend. Justin’s always been a bit of a character: stubborn and a unique thinker. He was an assistant professor in Economics for some while, and he’s a history buff. So when Liz asked me for some good historical locations for our engagement photo shoot, I suggested my local cemetery. I also suggested a nearby Nike missile site, just in case. A little weird, maybe, but not everyone fits into the “beach at sunset” romance category.

There was rain for several days straight prior to the shoot. A couple of years ago, I got the bright idea to shoot some pictures in the giant military cemetery off highway 280, in San Bruno, but when I got there, it was pouring down rain. I got some great pictures due to the super-saturated colors that a big rain always gives, but the sod was loose. I was literally up to my ankles in sticky graveyard mud and it gave me the creeps in a big way. Despite fortitude against the macabre earned one summer working for a funeral home, I really didn’t want that to happen again.

Great color in the pouring rain


I did some photo reconnaissance a few days early, and got brochures and maps from the kind and helpful people who run the cemetery offices, both at the Santa Clara Mission catholic cemetery and the nearby Santa Clara Mission Park cemetery (equally old but non-catholic). I’m talking about how pleasant the caretakers were because that is important at a cemetery, and one doesn’t encounter it as often as one should, in these days of conglomerate memorial businesses. While scouting, I made a point to find a few good-looking mausoleums and interesting grave markers, vantage points, trees and statues to use as backdrops, and noted where we’d find the best light. After all, if you frame the couple tightly, it doesn’t have to look like you’re in a graveyard in every shot. Some of those mausoleums were pretty enough to look like chapels in their own right, with stately old trees. The reconnaissance also gave me the chance to assess the state of the grounds: no ankle-deep sod!

On the day of our shoot, we got beautiful sunny weather. And after a getting-acquainted brunch, we headed out to the Santa Clara Mission cemetery. It is very old, for California, with the earliest interment in the 1850s. The first state governor of California is buried there and we visited his tomb, along with those of several other noted local figures. We got there just a little after twelve noon, a time of harsh light and short shadows, so we used the shade for portraits to good effect. Then I found out that Justin needs to see *every* marker in the yard! All the patience I’ve developed in years of my own marriage paid off – not to mention the stamina to lug camera gear around for hours. Just to keep it interesting, one guy was playing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock N Roll” and other ‘80s rock hits at high volume over by the large wall mausoleum. Not sure what that was all about, but hey, I guess everyone grieves in their own way…

Looking at all the Markers

Justin speculated about the possible causes of death of those interred, and noted some interesting relations and facts about the deceased, such as some that obviously died together, perhaps in an accident. He made it a rather interesting tour and I could tell that he was comfortable doing this all day long. Apparently this was not their first cemetery together. Liz had a familiar look on her face after a couple of hours of this – the same one I have when my musician husband is wandering in a guitar store and he has our car keys in his pocket. But unlike me, it hadn’t occurred to her to pitch a lawn chair and read a book, or go study the public bus route. She’s going to make him a good wife; he is a lucky man. We eventually ambled down the way to the Santa Clara Mission Park cemetery, about three blocks from the old mission. There we used the maps and guides to find more historical markers. Finally, I too got tired and announced that it was time we sat down to go over our contract. I managed to get us back to our cars and on the road. Back to my home office we went, with many questions for my new clients.

Santa Clara Mission Park Cemetery


Liz & Justin, the happy couple

I am really looking forward to photographing their special day. We’ll see if I am cut out for wedding photography. I know I can deliver good photographs, or I wouldn’t take the job. But I wonder what I will think of the work. There is a lot more to being a professional photographer than good photography. In fact, some people manage to get all kinds of business while remaining lousy photographers. Mostly, succeeding as a pro photographer is about being a good businessperson – no matter your business type. Here’s hoping!

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