Flash photography in museums

Link to column.

It’s interesting how the amazing light-capturing ability of digital cameras – which are mostly on phones now – has advanced since 2000, such that flash/no-flash is pretty much a non-issue now, except in the darkest of museums.

I’m not questioning or criticizing the informative answer to this question, but I was surprised that Mr. Grimm (the conservator) didn’t say anything about forbidding flash photography on esthetic grounds.

The technical considerations are important, but even if the artwork wasn’t so vulnerable to light, isn’t a bunch of, er, flashers constantly snapping away at artworks the last thing you’d want to have interfering with the “museum experience”?

I’m surprised this wasn’t brought up. No offense, but maybe SDStaff VegForLife should’ve checked with a museum curator/administrator in addition to a conservator.

When I visited the Hermitage there was one group of tourists who insisted on taking flash photographs no matter what the rules were. The flashes themselves didn’t bother me, since the room was well lit and there weren’t of them to be annoying in that sense. (Unlike a movie where it hurts your vision or a play where it annoys the actors.) I did get annoyed by their obvious selfishness and lack of concern for the preservation of our art works.
But I can see the problem in certain settings.

I saw a demonstration of the damage that light can do, during a tour at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Ca.

The guide led the group into a pool room – that is, a room with a pool table. The walls were covered with fabulous tapestries. In the middle of the room was the pool table, with the balls sitting on it, all racked up. Overhead there was a row of low-hanging lights. They were very small and very dim. The whole room was very dimly lit.

The guide discussed the damage that light can do. He moved the triangular rack, with all of the balls, several inches to one side, uncovering the area where the balls formerly were. That triangular patch of felt on the table was noticeably darker than the surrounding felt.

But that doesn’t prove that flash photography would make the problem significantly worse.

FWIW, you don’t need decades of exposure in a museum to see this effect. Just tape a piece of construction paper on a wall for a few months and see that it becomes lighter on the side facing out. The process will happen much faster in direct sunlight. But the question remains, to what degree would flash photography speed up the process? I suspect the answer is way less than 1%, probably more like 0.001%.

The question remains, is that enough to justify prohibiting flash photography or would there be some other reason, such as annoying the other museum patrons?

Just a WAG…

There are certain phenomena that have disproportionate impact as energy increases. The one that comes immediately to mind is from my Navy days–we were taught that overtorquing the main shaft by amount X one time only can cause greater damage than overtorquing the shaft multiple times by a lesser amount. Similar to how an accident at 30mph is far worse than one at 20mph (due to KE=1/2 mv^2)

How might this apply? A photo flash puts out a huge amount of energy in a very tiny slice of time, on the order of milliseconds, so there may be some disproportionate effect caused by that. Doing this day in and day out, hundreds of times per hour might be a problem.

Again, just a WAG.

My personal WAG with respect to flash photography in museums is more along the lines of the fact that many of the artifacts are centuries old and/or irreplaceable, so why take the chance?

I mean, is it really so important that Joe Six-Pack from Peoria get a good flash photograph of a famous painting (let’s say Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew” for argument’s sake), relative to any potential damage that the flash might incur to the painting?

I think the fact that they can’t really know what the damage might be over time means that museum curators are very conservative when it comes to things like flash photography.

And FWIW, cameras are a lot better, but I wouldn’t say flash photography isn’t needed. I went to Space Center Houston this past weekend, and found myself needing to use flash a lot, even though I have a Canon T2i DSLR with a max of 12800 ISO, and a f1.4 lens.

Keep in mind that most of those signs were probably put up before everyone had a cell phone with their wimpy flashes.

A professional grade flash is brighter than the sun. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that certain reactions would take place that damage paintings in the same way that relatively brief high intensity UV light can damage skin, but lower intensity does not.

I’ve seen places that have these in only certain places and usually for works that appear more delicate.

I do agree it sort of adds to the panache(sp?) - and wouldn’t be suprised if in some cases this is done for those reasons, but I think that many museums certainly believe this to be the case (I read a lot about lighting and museums certainly are concerned about the damaging effects of lighting [but these were not discussions regarding flash])

Where you able to see? I can take pics handheld at night with my Olympus OMD (but it has great image stabilization). I’ve never used a flash, but sometimes use a tripod - or makeshift.

Regards the parent question, most of the curators/ museum people that I have talked with, mainly its about preserving the gravitas of the situation, with a minor in insurance related reasons.

Now, the space center

You would probably have been better off shooting in raw and running the images through photoshop or paintshop to brighten them up. The on board flash is only good out to about 9 feet, and difuses to quickly after that. For a big open area like the center, flash seems a waste.


Quite a lot has moved on since 2000.

For a start, professional digital photography of paintings has now already reached a very high standard. No, there’s no substitute for having the actual work in front of you, but, in practice, professional art historians and dealers have got comfortable with such high-resolution images as acceptable. They make judgements and attributions on such a basis all the time. This means that there will often be a terribly-high quality image of any particular painting already out there and usually on the web. You think you can do better?

Meanwhile, attitudes towards amateur visitors taking photos in museums have become fluid and vary quite a bit. The National Gallery in London relaxed it’s policy about a year or so ago, with attendant controversy. I thus spent a while one afternoon in the NG observing what people were actually photographing. The main hit, with an obvious continuous cluster of the tourists taking selfies, is the NG’s version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and, to some extent, the other Post-Impressionists in the same single room.
Nobody seems to really do the same with what one might consider the other obviously famous works in the collection. The Ambassadors, The Haywain, The Fighting Temeraire, even their Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks? Nope.

No, what seems to fixate people is the big, unfinished Stubbs that they use to anchor the big, long axis across the whole building. Every teenage girl dragged through the NG on a school party wants a photo of it. It’s position and size evidently apparently signals it as, somehow, important and it’s (a very good painting of) a horse. The combination just seems irresistible as the photo op.

That’s what I did where I could (DXO Optics). With the faster lens, the flash carries a bit further than with say… a f3.5 lens, so that was helpful, and it let me use slightly lower ISO for less noise as well.

The pictures came out fine- I was just pointing out that even with a rig that’s fairly competent in low-light conditions (maybe not THE most competent, but still decent), there are lots of situations where it’s hard to get good non-flash photo.

Most of the special exhibitions here just have a ban on photography. Flash or not, just banned. It seems to be mostly to preserver digital rights (which prehaps may be kind of pointless when much better photographs are already available), but certainly also just so people aren’t getting in each others way.

While I think the gift shop angle might play a part on banning all photography, my theory is that the museum just doesn’t want to deal with people who will not or cannot turn the flash off on their cameras. (Lots of point-and-shoot cameras will automatically turn on the flash, and typically the type of person that has that camera doesn’t know how to do anything but fully-automatic.)

Having seen the backups caused by people messing with their cameras, getting the kids to stand still, recruiting a stranger to take their picture, etc., I’m in favor of museums banning photography entirely, simply as an effort to keep people moving.

If you really want a picture of the painting or sculpture, either buy the book or postcard at the gift shop or google the thing, where you’ll probably find plenty of professionally-done photos.