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Photography in museums (04/18/2004)
By Tom Hirsch

Most of us are familiar with the museum in our home town, and we have heard of or have visited some that cover such subjects as the fine arts and natural history. But do you know about the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York (photography, of course); the Space Museum in Huntsville, Alabama; the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio; or the Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin?

Museums come in all sizes and shapes, and cover a wide range of themes, but they all have one thing in common: something of interest for everyone. In addition to the things you would expect to see in a museum, you can also find well organized dioramas, large-screen film attractions, and/or hands-on displays.

When you enter any museum with camera in hand, the first thing to do is learn their policy regarding picture-taking. Many museums have no restrictions, while others allow no cameras at all. You might have permission to take pictures if no flash is used, or pictures might be allowed in some rooms of a museum but banned in others. Keep in mind that there is a reason for each restriction, and every policy must be strictly obeyed.

Okay, I admit it; I'm a museum freak. I like to browse through museums and read each plaque in its entirety, much to the chagrin of my wife. But I also like to take pictures in museums, so when I'm stymied by a sign that says "No photographs," I still want to explore the possibilities.

One common restriction is that photographs may not be taken of art work. The reason is that the intense light from a flash unit can damage the delicate oil pigments in a painting. Available light photography might be allowed, but because of the relatively low light levels in most museums, a tripod is needed for camera stability. But, alas, in many museums, tripods are forbidden because they tend to get in the way of other patrons.

I was able to overcome the tripod restriction in one museum by asking if there was a time when photographers could come in and take pictures without disturbing other people. I was informed that if I would be at the main gate at 8 o'clock the following morning, I could take pictures for an hour, but no flash would be allowed. A tripod could be used, but only if it had rubber pads on the feet. I assured the administrator that these conditions would be met.

I arrived promptly at eight the following morning and was ushered in. Because I had scouted the premises the previous day, I knew exactly where and what I wanted to shoot. I also noted that the museum was illuminated by fluorescent lights so I came prepared with an FL-D filter to counter the greenish cast produced by this type of lighting.

During regular museum business hours, if you are allowed to photograph but are barred from using flash or a tripod, don't despair. A roll of so of a high-quality ISO 800 or 1000 film would help, but you'll still need to use your best camera-holding techniques to steady the camera. For added support, look for a bench, column or wall on which you can brace yourself or the camera for steadiness.

In some types of museums, the use of a tripod is permitted. You may need a permit to use one, but if it is allowed, you might want to use a good-quality ISO 200 or 400 speed film with a 35mm or APS (Advanced Photo System) camera, or use ISO 100 with your digital camera. You will have a finer grained image, and this is an important consideration if you want to have enlargements made, or you want to bring out the finest detail in the subject matter.

The final restriction won't affect most of us, but it should be stated anyway: Photos taken in museums may never be used for commercial purposes unless specifically cleared in advance.

As you travel, seek out museums along the way. Whether you take pictures or not, you'll learn a great deal about this wonderful world of ours. 


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