I dropped into the British Museum on Monday and spent a few hours in the Mesopotamian galleries with a brief flit through the Greek and Roman rooms, too. I don’t often take photos in museums—that’s mostly the subject of another article—but there were plenty of people using their phones to take photos of the artefacts on display. Getting the best out of a museum with an iPhone might not be the easiest, but there certainly are some techniques that any photographer can apply in order to improve their exhibition photography.
1. Are you allowed to take photos?
Whatever the rights and wrongs of museums and galleries prohibiting or allowing photography, remember: it’s their house and their rules. I might get ratty when it comes to arbitrary rulings on whether or not a type of camera makes someone ‘professional’, but if the decision is ‘No photography’ then so be it. Institutions prohibit photography for a variety of reasons—from protecting their artefacts from light exposure to protecting copyright—but taking it up with the security guard won’t get you anywhere. Respect the rules and enjoy the exhibition.
If photography is permitted, it’s usually only for personal use. Images shot for commercial use will require the acquisition of a permit.
Remember that while a museum or gallery might allow photography as a general rule, special exhibitions frequently have special rules. Don’t be offended or surprised if you’re asked to put away your camera.
No photography means no photography, it doesn’t matter if you’re using a smartphone, a disposable camera, or a Nikon D5.
2. No flash, no tripod
The extent to which light has a degrading effect on artefacts is much debated but having spoken to one of my archaeologist friends I am reliably informed that ‘pigments are remarkably complicated, and each of them is a bit different.’ This means that while one painting might not suffer terribly from light exposure another could be badly affected. (Although you only have to observe faded wallpaper to know that light does diminish colour intensity.) Consequently it is easier—and safer—for institutions to prohibit flash across their premises than permit it in one room but not in another. Even if you don’t think that the artefacts might be at risk of light degradation, remember that periodic bursts of flash can be disturbing for other visitors. Museums and galleries are there for public enjoyment; you should be mindful of and courteous toward your fellow visitors. Disable your flash and we’ll look at ways of compensating for its loss in a bit.
Tripods are usually on the banned list, too. Set aside visions of a mis-wielded tripod crashing into a sculpture or ripping through a canvas, the nightmare is too awful, and instead think about the impact of people setting up and dismantling their gear on the flow of visitors through a gallery or museum. Exactly: traffic jams, over-crowding, and frustration. Even if you’re the most courteous and considerate person to ever use a tripod you will not be the only tripod user there. The sheer number of them would be detrimental to the visitor experience throughout a gallery or museum. It’s best that they stay packed away. To minimise camera-shake in the absence of a tripod, keep your elbows tucked into your sides.
Disable your flash and keep your arms tucked into your sides to help stabilise your smartphone. (You should be doing that anyway.)
3. Dealing with glass
You’re going to encounter a few technical issues when taking photos in a museum or gallery, but the one you’re most likely to spot immediately is the prevalence of glass. Plenty of artefacts will be exhibited in glass cabinets: they stop us from putting our grubby paws over the contents, they maintain a controlled climate, or both. But this does make photography tricky. You end up with odd reflections and awful glare.
If you can manage it without impinging on anyone else’s view or setting off any alarms, get your camera as close as you can to the glass. This will help to reduce any reflections by preventing light from reaching the glass in the first place. If you can’t get in that close, think about your angles instead. The more acute the angle from which you can take a photo, the lesser the chance of you catching your own reflection in it. But you also need to be aware of other lights, artefacts, and people that can reflect off of the glass.
In order to reduce glare, try attaching a polarising filter to your lens. Oh, and help with the housekeeping by carrying some wipes and removing any mucky fingerprints from the glass before taking photos.
A smartphone should allow you get close to the glass cases. Just be careful not to impede other visitors, or set off any alarms.
4. Aperture and ISO
Light is going to be at a premium in a museum or gallery. You’ll also be hand-holding your camera because you can’t use a tripod. This means that the slower shutter speed option won’t be available to you. Instead, you will need to use a larger aperture and to increase the ISO in order to manage your exposure. Don’t be fearful of digital noise: cameras are capable of handling high ISOs and noise reduction technology is at hand, too. Using a wider aperture will also ensure that you bring focus to your subject and not everything else around it. Just be careful about focusing properly.
A smartphone isn’t going to give you anywhere near the control that a camera with full manual controls will, so you’re going to have to do your best. Look for the light and use it to your best advantage, and hold your cameraphone as steady as you possibly can.
5. How close?
Closer usually equals better. But in a museum or gallery, you need to be careful about getting too close. First, you mustn’t hog an exhibit and cause consternation among other visitors. It’s bad manners. Second, if you get too close to an exhibit that isn’t behind glass, it’s very easy to inflict damage with a lens or lens hood. (It’s especially easy to forget how close your kit can come to your subject when you’re using a telephoto lens.) Even if you don’t get sufficiently close to touch an artefact, you might well set off a security alarm, which is all manner of embarrassing.
Being able to draw yourself optically close without getting physically close is very useful. If you can use a longer lens, without it being too intrusive or even too heavy, do. You won’t end up with the distortions associated with getting too close with a wide-angle lens, either.
Smartphone camera lenses are improving, but often you’ll be lumped with a wide-angle lens. Watch out that it doesn’t distort your photos too much, and lay off the optical zoom. If you need to, step back and crop later.
6. Coping with crowds
Unless you’ve managed a behind-the-scenes-at-the-museum special, you won’t be the only person wandering about. So that you can minimise both the chances of irritating anyone else or finding random people in your shots, plan your visit. Think about opening times and the most popular exhibits. Will you be best going as soon as the museum opens, and making your way straight to its most popular rooms? Is lunchtime a better option? Or how about aiming for last entries? Going in the school holidays is a recipe for disaster, whether you want to take photos or not.
7. Lighting and white balance
The chances are that you will be dealing with very specific lighting and potentially mixed light sources, too. Take a moment to assess the direction of the light on your chosen subject to determine where best to stand. Don’t be surprised if you need to set a custom white balance, either.
You’re going to have to look at the light very carefully if you’re taking photos with your smartphone, and there’s bugger all you can do about the white balance until you get to post-processing. Do give a slide about, though. You might surprise yourself.
I think I’ve said it enough that you need to mindful of your fellow visitors so that you don’t interfere with their visits. But the historian in me wants to remind you of something else: be sure to engage with the exhibits themselves. Don’t spend so long focusing on your photos that you forget what you’re looking at. Think about the woman who might have worn that 2,000 year old carnelian necklace, and the craftsperson who made it. Consider if the spearhead really had ever been thrown in anger, and if it hit or missed. Pay attention to the brushwork in the oil paintings. And don’t forget to contemplate the composition of any artwork and ask yourself how you can apply similar techniques to your photos.