Museums present a treasure trove of fascinating artifacts that can make appealing photographs. Museum photography offers a whole set of challenges that you need to tackle to bring home beguiling images of those tokens of days past. Here are my thoughts that might help you to make a museum visit a fun and productive experience.
The first obstacles to museum photography are the rules imposed by the institution. Some museum strictly prohibit any photography, on the other end of the scale are places that urge you to bring your camera. Most are somewhere in between.
The larger museums may have extensive information about taking pictures on their website. They also tend to be the most restrictive. If you don’t find specific information on photography give the museum a call and ask.
The most likely rules let you take photographs for your own use – no publication, commercialization or selling of the photos. You can often get permission for such use, but generally that involves fees, special scheduling, supervision, and approval of the final images. That is beyond the scope of this article.
Some museums restrict the type of cameras that can be used. Cellphone cameras and unobtrusive point-and-shoot cameras are more likely to be allowed. Anything that looks like professional gear may be frowned upon.
For security reasons museums, like so many other places, tend to prohibit backpacks and large cases. Plan on travelling light, just the camera and maybe an extra lens – not much more.
Expect that tripods are not allowed, they do impede traffic and the enjoyment of the exhibits by other visitors. Flash or other artificial light may generally not be used. Many artifacts have delicate paints and pigments that are affected by light and the use of bright lights will degrade these items, obviously something you don’t want to do.
Having maneuvered around access restrictions you are now faced with another set of obstacles.
Museums tend to be dark places. That means using large apertures, slow shutter speeds that you can successfully handhold, and high ISO, sensor sensitivity, settings. Not the best formula for crisp, sharp images. Be prepared to spend a good deal of time on post-processing.
Learn to handhold your camera for steady pictures. Lens vibration reduction features can help a great deal. Bracing your elbows against your body and holding your breath during the exposure can allow shutter speeds below 1/10 of a second.
In many instances there will be light from windows or skylights in addition to localized spot lighting. Not the best formula for color photography. You will just have to make the best of it. The overhead spot lights may not provide the best lighting for photography, but there is little you can do. Find the best angle that will allow you to create a compelling image.
Especially smaller artifacts will likely be in glass cases. Museums generally try to keep these quite clean, but reflections can be a pain. The closer you come to the glass the easier it is to avoid reflections from room lights, yourself, your camera and things behind you. Do not touch your camera to the glass, that might interfere with your lens focusing and may introduce vibrations. Do not brace yourself with a hand against the glass, your fingerprints can only detract from the experience of the visitors behind you.
For larger objects you have the added problem of disturbing other items or even visitors on the other side. The shallow depth of field at large aperture settings helps a great deal. You should also consider getting down on a knee to get an upward angle. The higher walls and ceilings may make for a more pleasing background. Of course, a downward angle might also be possible, but do not even think of climbing on displays or furniture.
So you did the best you could and have a haul of exposures to process into your masterpieces.
Here is an example that I took all the way to “café art”. This photo is of a head of the Greek goddess Demeter at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. It was hand-held at 1/6 sec. The other parameters are f/5.6, 55mm, ISO 1600. There was just a tiny bit of camera shake visible at high magnification.
My camera is not of the latest technology and high ISO settings show a great deal of noise. Your camera may do a lot better. On a visit to the above-mentioned Carlos museum I used mostly ISO 3200 – the highest setting – to allow shutter speeds of around 1/15 second. To reduce the noise in the photos I used the “edge-preserving smooth” tool in PaintShop Pro. Here is an illustration of the tool’s effect:
The screenshot on the left shows the original, the one on the right the resulting smoothing. For this illustration I used a higher setting than I actually used in order for the effect to be more obvious in this blog post. A high smoothing setting results in a “painterly” look as you can see. It does, however, reduce the apparent noise enough so that further processing steps can bring out the best in the photo. For the illustrations above and the one below, all from the Carlos Museum, I mostly maintained the warm look of incandescent illumination since that is what the museum uses. Here is the head of the Aphrodite statue, one of the museum’s prize properties.
Here the lighting in the museum and the background work well.
For some photos, where the lighting was too contrasty because of localized spotlights, I found using HDR effect tools useful for flattening the tones. My favorite one is the HDR effect in onOne Perfect Effects 8. A similar tool , but a bit harder to use, is also found in Picasa.
I used the HDR effect tool on the photo below to bring out the detail of the machinery. This photo is from the Southeastern Railway Museum, Duluth, Georgia. This museum is a delight for photographers – your cameras and even tripods are welcome. The photo below was a 20 second exposure taken inside one of their large buildings. Clearly not in reach of a handheld camera.
Even the interiors of outdoor displays require long exposures. The above photo was a 3.6 second exposure.
For another outdoor photo the problem was a a gray, overcast sky. My solution for this was to make the photo into a line and ink “painting”.
There is much to see at museums, and many photo opportunities. Enjoy!
This article was simultaneously published on Photography Notes and Tips
Addendum (5 July 2014)
© 2014 Ludwig Keck