Taking photos in a museum can be quite challenging from several standpoints. There are limitations on the type of equipment that can be brought into a museum and on what accessories can be used once inside. There also may be limitations on which artwork can and can not be photographed.
Once you find a subject of your interest, obtaining proper exposure may be difficult due to low room lighting. Because tripods are often prohibited, you should find alternative ways to keep your camera steady to prevent camera shake such as leaning against a wall.
Equipment prohibited in museums
Still cameras are allowed in most museums but not movie and video cameras.* Rules generally prohibit the use of a flash when photographing works of art.
Tripods and large camera bags may be prohibited because they can also damage artwork. However, some museums let you use a tripod certain days of the week if you obtain a permit. Be sure to contact a museum’s registration department or public information officer ahead of time to find out the policy.
Limitations on what can be photographed
To protect an artist’s copyright privileges, museums often limit what can be photographed. Some let you photograph only items in their permanent collection.
Most prohibit taking photos of photographs or works of art not owned by the museum displaying it. You may be required to obtain a photograph release form before taking pictures of certain artwork.
Despite the limitations, you should not be discouraged about taking photographs during a museum visit. Just realize you will have to rely on available light, use slower shutter speeds and possibly higher sensitivity (ISO).
Using a digital camera in a museum
Before entering the museum, switch your digital camera flash from auto mode to OFF. That will ensure the flash doesn’t go off inadvertently. It’s not the best way to start your visit by unintentionally violating the rules.
If you have to check in your camera bag, don’t forget to grab extra batteries and memory card, if needed. Some avoid checking their camera bag by using an alternative bag.
Digital camera settings
Sensitivity & White Balance
To get better pictures in low light with a compact digital camera, use a higher ISO number. Unless you have a compact camera with a larger sensor that does well in low light, try to use a ISO setting no higher than 400.
The downside of using higher sensitivity is that there can be increased noise in photos. Noise results in less photo detail and clarity. Fortunately some of the effects of noise can be reduced with special software.
If necessary, change the white balance setting to match the dominant light source in a room. This prevents photos from having an orange or other color cast. If you can set white balance manually, do so. If you still end up with a color cast, it can be removed in most photo editing programs.
When you can’t use a tripod
If tripods are disallowed, do whatever you can to hold the camera still to prevent camera shake. If your camera has image stabilization, turn it on. Otherwise sit, crouch or lean against wherever you’re permitted in order to steady yourself.
Use the viewfinder, rather than a LCD, when shooting (if your camera has one). It’s easier to hold the camera steady when it is pressed firmly against your face. Hold it in both hands, bend your arms downward and brace both of them against the sides of your body.
Sometimes you may be allowed to place your digital camera against the glass that encases an artifact. This will steady it and also help eliminate glare. Ask first though, lest you set off an alarm.
Focus and exposure
If you can control how a camera focuses, shut continuous-autofocus off. Use a single area focus mode or focus manually instead so you, not the camera, controls what is in focus.
Exposure can be tricky. It will vary according to the subject, how close you are to it and the amount of light in the room. Take test photos using different exposure settings, then check the results on the LCD before taking final shots. Bracket if you can.
Avoiding lens distortion
To avoid lens distortion, don’t shoot at the widest lens angle and or stand too close to the artwork. If you want a close-up shot, step back and zoom in instead.
Take several photos of the same subject and take a few at slightly different angles. You’re likely to have more “keepers”, which you’ll be proud to share others.
TIP: Before lugging your camera equipment to a museum, contact it ahead of time to learn their specific policies.
*Still photography in museums is permitted for private, noncommercial use. Press and other special photography, including filming and videotaping, needs to be arraigned with the museum.