John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

museum shootsMuseum Shoots

taking photos in a museum

How could you go wrong doing photography in a museum? Beautiful things abound. It's an inspiring challenge to both capture and add your own interpretation to these wonderful works of art.

But first things first. Make sure photography is allowed. Some museums permit it anywhere, some forbid it in special exhibits, some ban cameras entirely. The rules aren’t always clear. There might be a sign indicating prohibited areas, but it’s easy to accidentally wander into them without noticing the restrictions. I’ve been corrected and even yelled at several times by security people. At these moments, being a thick-skinned photographer comes in handy. Apologize. Accept the fact you made an honest mistake. Your best bet, just to be sure, is to ask the guards as you move from one area of the museum to another. If you’re the rebellious type with some sneaky tricks up your sleeve, you might be able to take a few surreptitious shots, but I don’t recommend it. It violates the rights of the museum and the artists.

When you take a shot of a particular piece of art, think about why you're doing it. What draws you to it: the visual style, the concept, the emotion? What pieces do you ignore? Considering these questions will give you insight into your own photography: what you like and don't like, what you express about yourself in your photos, and how you might want to stretch into new territories of ideas and techniques for executing them

When you take a shot, do you simply want to capture, as accurately as you can, what the artist created? Actually, a straightforward photographing of artwork isn’t that simple. Some photographers specialize in making high quality images that portray the piece as realistically as possible, in an objective sort of way, ideally in the way the artist intended it to be experienced. It requires special equipment - including complex lighting - and considerable technical know-how. Most museums aren’t going to let you, the average visitor, even use a flash or tripod, no less studio-quality gear. Here’s where you need to be familiar with the issues involved in low light photography, such as high ISO settings, fast versus slow lenses, narrow depths of field, the use of lower shutter speeds, and techniques for keeping your camera steady. Michael Freeman wrote a good book about the technical aspects of low light photography.

What if you want to do more than just photograph the artwork in as accurate a way as possible? What if you want to add your own creative interpretation to it, maybe even “make it your own?” Here are some ideas:

Different Camera Angles, Distances, and Lens

We all know that if you shoot something at different camera angles, at different distances, and with different lens, you’re going to get very different visual effects. This is especially true of sculptures. If you shoot a statue with a wide angle lens from very near the very bottom of the piece, the resulting photo will reveal the statue as tall, grand, powerful, and tapering off into the ceiling – even if the artist intended the work to appear quite different. If you use a wide aperture, your depth of field will be narrow, resulting in part of the statue staying in focus while other parts blur out and perhaps even become unrecognizable – a visual effect the artist probably never anticipated. You can shoot from a distance capturing the whole piece or move in for a close-up of a detail, which highlights it as well as takes it out of context, possibly changing it’s meaning. If you get in very close, you might take the detail so out of context that its shapes, colors, and textures become your own abstract photograph. Even the artist may not recognize it! Such close-up images, as well as intentionally blurry shots of artwork, might also come in handy as texture layers for the post-processing of other photos.

Art Interacts with Art

People who mount exhibitions know what they’re doing. They place art in strategic locations relative to each other in order to create themes, provide a specific flow to the exhibit experience, and allow different pieces to interact with each other. If you study how the artwork is installed, you might discover and capture what the designers intended. You might even be able to create interesting compositions that arrange the pieces in ways the designers did not anticipate. For example, use an opening in one work of art to aim through and frame a shot of another work. Experiment with camera angles to place two or more pieces near each other in conceptually, emotionally, or visually interesting arrangements. Pay attention to the distances as well as the qualities of the negative space between the works of art - like the shape, colors, and textures of that space. You might even fuse two or more works of art together in unusual ways by using camera angles that overlap them. Employ wide apertures to make distant blurry pieces interact with pieces that are closer to you and in focus – or vice versa. All of these techniques can dramatically change the feeling and meaning of artwork.

Art Interacts with Environment

The people who mount exhibits also pay close attention to how artwork interacts with the colors and architectural features of the building. Apply the same ideas about art interacting with art. Study how the pieces are placed in the room. Discover and photograph what the museum people might have intended. Using different camera angles and aperture settings, find interesting new ways to make the works of art interact with archways, windows, the floor, the ceiling, walls, doors, and lights. Use arches and doorways to frame a shot. Use walls for leading lines. Make use of how the lighting system and window sunlight illuminate different pieces. Explore ways to get art interacting with art as well as the various features of the environment. All of these techniques can significantly alter the emotion and meaning of artwork.

Museums can be interesting and often quite beautiful places onto themselves. In addition to taking shots of how art interacts with architecture, take photos of the architecture itself, as well as people within the context of the building.

People Interacting with Art

It’s fascinating to see how people examine art. What feelings and ideas does it arouse in their minds? Can you see the reaction on their faces or in their body language? How do groups and crowds of people behave in the museum? Try to capture that interaction between art and people’s reactions to it. This will be more tricky than the other types of shots described previously, because you might not get a second chance. Similar to street photography, you will be challenged to capture the “decisive moment” when the visual and psychological features of the scene briefly come together in a meaningful resonance. In some cases you might see a remarkable similarity between the person and the artwork – something that might account for the person’s interest in that piece. You might also ask people to pose for shots near specific pieces of art, allowing them to strike a posture and facial expression that represents their reaction to it - or ask them to pose in some other interesting way relative to the art. For example, you might ask them to interact with a statue, or to position themselves so that they appear to be inside a painting. If you want to get into the act, ask someone to take a shot of you as you relate to the art.

Reflections and Shadows

Almost all museums have lots of lights and glass. That means you’ll see lots of interesting shadows, in the case of statues, for example, as well as reflections from display cases and glass covering artwork. You may have to train yourself to see these shadows and reflections. Use them in your photography. For example, take a shot of a particular piece of art interacting with its own shadow, with the shadow of other pieces, or of only the shadows interacting with each other. Shoot through glass cases to capture artwork on the other side of the case. That piece might appear distorted in an interesting way, or perhaps it appears in an interesting juxtaposition with the art inside the glass case and with the line and corners of the case. Capture other people or yourself in glass reflections, which places them or you inside the artwork protected by that glass. Use the reflection to capture you or other people near artwork in other parts the room. In some cases you might even be able to capture all three: you and/or other people in the reflection, the art behind the glass, and reflections of other art in the exhibit. These kinds of reflection shots result in photos containing multiple layers of space and dimensions, which can be quite fascinating, complex, and symbolic, if done with care. For all these kinds of shots you might want to experiment with manual focus on your camera to see what combination of clear and blurry areas look best.

Blur and Camera Movement

When lighting conditions inside museums are not optimal for photography, you’ll have to use wide aperture settings, which results in a more narrow depth of field that requires a precise locking of focus on the target of the shot, as well as low shutter speeds, which means you’ll have to contend with camera shake and motion blur. To minimize blurry photos, you can use a variety of techniques to steady the camera – like assuming a stable stance, locking your arms against your body, holding your breath while pressing the shutter, leaning against a wall, or resting your arms or the camera itself on some horizontal surface. However, don’t lean against any statues or display cases. The security people will not be happy about that!

Keep in mind that blur isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, experiment with slow shutter speeds as well as with what some people call “intentional camera movement” (ICM). Pan the camera in one direction, swing it gently back and forth, create arcs and spinning motions. Some of the resulting images will look like a mess, but a few of them might be quite interesting. Smooth streaks of colors and forms can create beautiful ethereal textures that suggest things moving and blending together. That effect could come in handy for inventing your own unique interpretation of the art and how visitors relate to it.

Interactive Exhibits

There’s nothing more exciting than an exhibit that specifically inspires viewers to become part the artwork, while also encouraging photographers to capture this participation of the viewers in the creation of art. An excellent example of this is Michelangelo Pistoletto’s exhibit of paintings of people on mirrors, with large portions of the mirrors being empty, where you can see your and other visitor’s reflections alongside the painted people. I had a hard time pulling myself away from the seemingly endless variety of shots: photos of viewers inside the mirrors alongside the painted people; photos of people looking into the mirrors where the shot shows them, their reflection, and the painted people; photos of my reflection next to the painted people, taking shots of other viewers inside the mirrors; photos of double reflections in which one mirror painting reflects another mirror painting across the room, with viewers, including myself, looking into and being part of the paintings. It was a photographic wonderland of mind-boggling possibilities for exploring dimensions of space, the relationship of people to and in art, and for using Pistoletto’s ingenious exhibit as a springboard for creating my own unique photos. As with the more conventional shots of people looking at art, such interactive exhibits challenge you to find those brief “decisive moments” when all the elements of the scene – the viewers, the painted people, the reflections in the mirrors, and you – come together in a beautiful resonance of composition and meaning.


Last, but certainly not least, you can make another person’s artwork “your own” by post-processing a shot of it in an image editing program, like Photoshop. Here the only limitation is your imagination and skills at post-processing. You can simply enhance the natural colors and shapes of the art, or go for more dramatic results, like drastically altering colors; distorting shapes; converting to intense or subtle black-and-white images; adding noise, blur, and other filter effects; inserting yourself and other people into the artwork; placing an image of one work of art inside another to create an “art embedded within art” effect; creating diptychs, triptychs, collages, and double-exposure images using various shots of artwork from that artist, other artists, or any image at all. If you want to put your artistic and technical skills to the test, process a shot of a museum room so that it mimics the style of the art in the room – for example, an impressionist rendering of a room containing paintings by Monet. The sky’s the limit in these “meta-art” possibilities.

Skeptics might say that it’s wrong to manipulate someone else’s art in ways the artist did not intend, perhaps to the point of it becoming unrecognizable, even to the artist. Isn’t it plagiarism, stealing, or artistically sacrilegious? Are you turning a masterpiece into something mundane, or just plain wrecking it? While we might agree with this criticism, to a point, we all also know that artists often use other artists' works as an inspirational springboard for their own. We all also know that imitation is a sincere form of flattery.

Titles and Descriptions

Especially in online photosharing groups, people like to create titles and write descriptions for their pictures. Because text interacts with images in all sorts of fascinating ways, the words you choose to accompany a photograph of artwork can expand, modify, or dramatically alter a viewer’s interpretation of that piece. You might create your own text, or use well-known poems and quotes to blend the ideas of different creative people. Although some people might object to you infusing your particular choice of words and meanings into the artwork, is it really any different than talking with other people about your reaction to art, which is what most artists hope for anyway?

Some Cautions

No matter what approach you take to museum shoots - even when you’re trying to photograph artwork as close as possible to the experience the artist intended - the photo will still be your interpretation, taken from a camera angle and processed with tones and colors that you choose.

Whenever possible, give credit to the artist. When I take lots of shots in a museum, I sometimes forget whom the artists were. One solution is to look it up online afterwards. While at the museum you might jot down notes, or, even easier, you can take shots of the descriptions that accompany artwork, so you’ll have a record of the artist as well as what knowledgeable people had to say about it. In fact, that information might provide ideas that you can apply to the post-processing of the shot.

One danger of museum photo shoots is that you might spend so much time and effort looking for a good shot that you don’t really look at the art! That’s a big mistake. Be sure to put down your camera for a while. Really take in the art around you. In addition to simply enjoying the beauty of what you see, you might very well discover new ideas that can inspire your photography, including the photography you’re doing right then and there in the museum. The art might even affect your work on an unconscious level, in ways you hadn’t anticipated.

Keep in mind that we don't find art only in museums. We see it everywhere - in people's homes, stores, parks, plazas, on the street, and in office buildings, assuming the owners of the office building appreciate art! People often create these spaces with the same care that designers install museum exhibits. All of the ideas discussed above can be applied to photography in these settings.

*With thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Vassar College Art Museum, the Michener Museum, the UCLA DESMA Art Musuem, the Getty Center, and the Los Angeles Country Musuem of Art


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If you enjoyed this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:

Image shaping (post-processing)
Body language in photography
Camera angles

For more examples of museum photos and other images of art, visit my Art in Art set in flickr.

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche