Taking Better Museum Photos

I’ve done some light research and experiment to improve my photography in museums. Most of my subjects are small, finely detailed, harshly lit in otherwise dark rooms, and obscured by the glare reflected off their oversize display cases. I’ve got a Nikon Coolpix L830 and an iPhone 5s. My iPhone seems to do better automatically selecting settings, but my Nikon achieves the better photos when I use it adroitly. This long-ish post gave me a way to take notes as I experimented, and I hope that others might use it to learn from some of my mistakes. And the casual visitor need not worry; there’s lots of pictures.

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As Rome was burning during the fifth and sixth centuries, Scandinavian warlords collected gold neck rings and arm bands, perhaps gathering their wealth from serving Rome either as her invaders or as her mercenaries. Now, these rings are protected by highly reflective glass under harsh lights in a dim room, challenging the prospective photographer but also multiplying their wealth into ghostly reflections stretching in every direction. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Choosing the Right Settings

Turn off the flash. Not only will flash photography reflect off display cases and spoil a shot, it’s also potentially damaging to the objects on display. Most museums prohibit flash anyway, so it’s best to turn off the flash and get to know the other options for overcoming museum displays.

Adjust exposure time. In a dim museum, there’s two ways to brighten a shot without resorting to flash. The first is increasing exposure time, which may also be called exposure value (EV) or exposure compensation. This means the shutter will stay open longer and allow more light to enter. But the longer an exposure is, the greater the chance that minor shakes will cause it to blur. Although upping the EV is often recommended, my shots start to turn fuzzy at about EV + 1. In fact, I often need to turn my EV down. My Nikon senses the dim environment of a museum and sets a high EV, but this makes reflective objects like metal and glass wash out of the shot. For most cameras I’ve owned, EV is the easiest setting to access and adjust.

Increase the ISO setting. The other option for combatting dim light is increasing the ISO setting. This increases a camera’s sensitivity to light, allowing it to collect light more quickly. But if the ISO is set too high (and especially if there’s a lot of distance between the foreground and background of a shot), the light collection will be uneven, leading to a grainy image with a lot of unwanted noise. Lower ISO settings are truer to light and color, so the lowest effective setting is the best one. Typically, somewhere between 200 and 1600 should do. I rarely play with ISO.

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Glass and gold beads from various locations in Denmark, first and second century A.D. These objects may have begun their trip north as diplomatic gifts from officials of the Roman empire. The balance in the photo is decent, with more than enough light, but some detail has been lost. Perhaps a shorter EV or higher ISO would help. Reflections on the glass don’t obstruct the objects, but they may distract some viewers. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Try HDR. There are times when a low-EV setting captures detail but looks too dark, a high-EV setting washes out the details with too much light, and a high ISO strikes the right balance but turns out grainy and pixellated. Many cameras have a high-dynamic range (HDR) option that takes a number of photographs at these different settings and then combines the sharpest bits of them into one high-quality image. Because HDR relies on stitching multiple photos together, it’s important that both camera and subject are still. So HDR is great for museum display cases and stained-glass windows, but it’s no good for cathedrals scenes with people moving through.

Experiment with macro. If available, macro mode may be useful for taking very close-up shots. Some cameras automatically select it when they sense a short focal length, and others need it to be manually turned on. It’s not always clear what macro mode does, or when it’s best to use. Some trial and error may be needed. When my Nikon has difficulty selecting the right focus, turning on macro often clears things up.

Adjust the white balance. If a photos seems yellow or blue, the white balance needs to be adjusted. Yellow-tinted photos are being saturated by light from incandescent or tungsten light bulbs (like most of us have at home). Bluish photos are picking up florescent lighting (like at the office or at school). I usually forget which is which and need to experiment to see which setting works best. If all else fails, most basic photo programs can edit balance after the shots have been taken. (For Mac users with Photos, it’s under Image > Show Edit Tools.) Note that everyone has their own unique sensitivity to color and their own aesthetic preferences as well. It’s okay not to see eye-to-eye with whoever calibrated the auto functions on a camera.

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This tiny foil of gold, smaller than a finger nail and weighing a fraction of a gram, was abandoned at what seems to have been a cult site of Sorte Muld on the island of Bornholm in the south Baltic. It’s a unique image of a bear from the same period that the Beowulf legend may have been beginning to take shape. I got this closeup using my Nikon’s Museum and macro modes, combined with my Moleskine notebook to block reflections off the glass. (Bornholms Museum, Rønne, Denmark.)

Museum Mode. My Nikon has a Museum Mode, which seems to take shots using a number of settings effective for low-light conditions and then select the best one. Generally, it does a pretty good job, although I often end up still needing to adjust EV when using Museum Mode.

Take the Right Shot

Shoot from an angle. Don’t stand in front of display cases when you’re taking photos—you’re bound to get your own reflection if you do. And if you’re taking photos of something beneath you, it’s likely that you’ll see your feet reflected back. I have hundreds of photographs where the museum displays seem to be growing my feet. An oblique angle is often best.

Shoot from against the glass. This is probably the best and easiest way to minimize glare, although it’s by no means foolproof. Leaning the camera lens against the glass has the added advantage of stabilizing the shot, allowing you to use a higher EV and/or a lower ISO setting. Of course, this only applies if you’re allowed to touch display cases.

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Silver hoard with arm rings and a necklace. Silver replaced gold as the favorite precious metal of the Viking Age. This hoard was buried in Denmark in the tenth century. The shot strikes a good balance of light and detail, with the focal length somewhat better fitted to the necklace than the arm rings. An oblique angle prevents reflections and makes the glass seem almost completely transparent. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Use the widest shot possible. Try to avoid zooming in, especially if you’re using a high ISO. It will increase the likelihood that your picture will end up grainy. In some circumstances, however, the only way to beat glare may be to step back from the display cases and take a zoomed-in photo.

Get the right focus. Taking oblique shots in high contrast lighting through reflective glass can confound even the best camera’s auto settings. Most cameras show their focus when the shutter button is pressed only slightly. I’ve often found that if my camera isn’t finding the right focal length or light balance, the quickest fix is to focus on a nearby object that gets the right settings and then redirecting my camera toward the object I want to capture.

Brace yourself. Use your body to help stabilize the camera. If you’re standing, tuck your elbows into your ribs. Try leaning against a wall or display case. If you crouch or kneel, put your elbow on your thigh or seat your upper arm against your knee; meat-to-bone contact will give the greatest stability. Exhale before you shoot, press and hold the shutter release until the shot is done, and don’t inhale until your finger is off the trigger.

Be bold. When I take pictures in a museum, it’s generally so that I can document what I’ve seen. But it’s also because I’m excited about encountering rare artifacts from the past. I try to capture some of this excitement by choosing unexpected angles, placing my foreground off center, or looking for opportunities to use contrast and depth. The photos that capture your interest are most likely to capture the interest of others.

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A viking god? This object confounded my efforts to photograph it for the past two years, but with the right angle and my lens pressed to the glass, I captured this handsome shot. Unfortunately, it seems that the photograph I took of accompanying text turned out blurry, so I need to go back to get more details. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Don’t forget the text! Museums tend to be full of rare and exciting stuff, but it’s easy to forget why an obscure object is important or how a mundane object might actually be part of a larger human story. Taking a photo of the museum placard is the easiest way to document what you’ve seen. It’s also worth considering taking photos of entire rooms, doorways that mark transitions in the collections, and the wall text that introduces a new room or section. Museum curators work hard to make stories about the past come alive. Take note of the stories that they’ve chosen to tell. Remember that these stories guide which objects museums showcase and which ones they leave in storage. Your best bet is to think about (and photograph) the complete context: room, case, text, object.

Bring the Right Equipment

The comments above should be enough to help take satisfactory shots of most museum displays, but a few other things might help. As someone who travels a lot, I keep my extra equipment to a minimum.

A microfiber cloth. The small ones used for a regular pair of glasses are fine; just something to wipe smudges off the display cases with, so someone’s fingerprints don’t spoil a shot.

Something black. Draping a black cloth as a hood between the lens and a display case will help cut out reflections. Or if one particular light is causing glare, use something black to block the incoming light. In a pinch, I’ve used the back of my black messenger bag or my pocket-sized Moleskine to help minimize reflections.

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Half of my photos look like this—a poor angle with bad balance and a better image of my own reflection than the objects in the case. But this quick shot captured enough information for me to quickly identify the surrounding photos as belonging to a famous magnate’s grave from Bjerringhøj on Jutland. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

A small tripod. I’m a fan of flexible tripods like the GorillaPod. They’re not great for stabilizing a shot, but they let you geek out as a tourist and take photos of yourself pretty much anywhere. You never know when you might get a photo op with an exquisite display or artifact. Note that some museums prohibit selfie sticks so patrons don’t risk hitting something on accident.

Gee-whiz equipment. More serious photographers justifiably recommend specialized equipment, such as a wide-aperture lens or a gee-whiz tripod. But that’s not me, and I’m happy with the shots I can get with minimal gear.

Some Final Thoughts

It’s important not to be a nuisance to other visitors. Sure, a researcher might see a photographing excursion as work, but pleasing patrons is the work of the museum and it’s what keeps  artifacts out for display and study. So get out of the way, turn your camera to silent, give it a break if the shutter seem to be annoying fellow patrons, and be willing to spend a lot longer in the museum than a tourist passing through. On a more positive note, remember that visitors come to museums to learn, and they often sense what’s important based on what other visitors are looking at when they enter a room. Seeing your enthusiasm may well help spark an enduring interest in your field of study.

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My iPhone camera glitched as I took this shot of a tombstone in Copenhagen, and it left me this strange image. It shows how modern cameras can cycle through filters and settings to produce a better image, and it has a nice effect of its own. Don’t blink! (Vestre Cemetery, Copenhagen, Denmark.)

A Few Resources

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One thought on “Taking Better Museum Photos

  1. Pingback: The Frankenstein Bead of Bornholm – text and trowel

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