How to Take Great Photos in Museums

I have been exceedingly fortunate during the last few years to be able to travel to many places in Europe and research historical clothing in many museums and churches, as well as having private appointments to study items not on display. As a visual person, my camera is my memory and main research tool. I do take notes but as the cliché goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, and this is certainly true for me! I do not expect ever to be able to return to the places I visit to see the same objects again, so I need to get good photos during my visit.

While taking research photos in museums and churches can be a lot of fun, it has its own unique challenges that taking regular photos does not have.  After several years, and a lot of marathon museum photo sessions, I’ve developed several techniques for getting good, useful, photos in a variety of settings. Ideally I would be able to give you the professional photographer talk about f-stops and ISO, but sadly, I’ve not gotten that advanced yet, and you probably aren’t at that stage either. All of these photos were taken on the camera’s automatic setting, without a flash, and I’m here to tell the beginner photographer like myself how to do that better.

Camera Quality Matters

Before we get started on how to take the photos, I want to talk about equipment. I have used a variety of cameras over the years, starting with a point and shoot digital camera, moving to a Canon Rebel T3 DSLR (12 MP), with an 18-55mm lens, and then currently shooting with a Sony A6000 mirrorless with a 16-50 lens (24.6 MP). I’ve also captured some great photos with a cell phone, either a Samsung Galaxy 3 (8 MP) or my current phone a OnePlus 3T (16MP) .  The MP number in brackets is the megapixel number, which is the number of millions of pixels in each photo. In non-tech geek speak, it’s the amount of detail captured in each photo. Ideally, you want a higher number so you can zoom in and see more in the finished photo.

A good camera makes a huge difference, so if you are planning an extensive museum research trip, research cameras and choose one that handles low light situations well, has image stabilization, and is not too heavy! A camera that seems light at first, will feel exceedingly heavy after shooting for two hours straight. I love how lightweight (and small!) the Sony A6000 is, and can’t see using anything heavier ever again as a travel camera, my neck and shoulders just can’t take anything heavier. 

Invest in a good, comfortable camera strap; don’t just use the one that came with the camera. The standard ones are notoriously uncomfortable, especially after the first hour of shooting. Be sure always to bring along an extra battery and memory card! The one time you don’t bring along the extra battery is the time you will discover some amazing piece in a museum, only to discover that your battery is dead, and the spare is a one-hour train trip away. (True story!) 

For example of the difference in low-light handling capabilities, first my old 5MP point-and-shoot camera , versus the 12 MP Canon DSLR below. The lighting is the same in both of these photos, the piece is the same, but the camera makes all the difference.  The extra megapixels and better glass lens of the Canon pick up much more in the very low-lit museum, allowing for a better photo.

The old camera, at 5MP
The Canon Rebel T3, with much better low light handling.

Planning your Trip and Getting Permission

Before your trip, you should find out whether you need to purchase tickets before arriving at the museum. This has never been an issue in Germany, but it can be in England, France and especially Italy, so do your research before you go.  

When you get to the museum, ask at the information desk whether photos are allowed. You may need to purchase a photography permit for a small fee. Museums have different photography permission schemes, and they change all the time. At some places, photos are allowed throughout the regular collection, but not in special exhibits; others have the photography permissions listed on each object placard, and others do not allow ANY photos at all in the entire museum. Churches and historic buildings that do not allow photography usually have large signs right by the front door. Please read all the signs, be respectful and follow the instructions.

Most European museums have luggage lockers that you can use for a 1 Euro or £1 coin, so take advantage of them and just walk through the museum with the bare essentials. This will give your back and shoulders a welcome break. When you are done with the museum, you’ll get the coin back when you turn the key in the lock.

When you are taking photos in museums and at historical sites, it is important to be polite. Do not cut in front of people while they’re taking a photo! Wait for them to move on and then take the photo. Do not take photos during religious services. Practice common courtesy and respect for others, and you won’t hear them complain in the local language about “Those pushy tourists and their cameras!”

If you want to arrange a study appointment, start by researching who to contact on the museum website, and email them 3-4 months in advance. Sometimes this isn’t possible, as the trip wasn’t planned that far in advance, but contact them anyway; they may be able to fit you in at the last moment. If you do get a private study appointment, find out what the terms are for using the photographs you took during the session. Some places have very strict policies about photos being for personal use only, and do not allow for usage on blogs; other places are OK with you using them on your blog, but restrict that usage to the non-commercial variety (in other words, you couldn’t use them in an article for us, for example, because readers would have to pay to see them, and you couldn’t use them to advertise your business). You can always email the museum later to clarify the photography usage terms if you forgot to do so at the time, or if you want clarification.

Have a Plan

The amount of time you have at the museum will determine whether you make a surgical strike and only see the galleries in which you are interested, or whether you take a leisurely stroll to explore areas in which you may not have known you would be interested. Pick up a map of the museum at the information desk and use it to plan your walk through the museum. (It’s also handy for finding the restrooms and café when you need them.)

Create a photography organizational plan before you go, so that your photos are organized before you take them. There’s nothing worse than coming home from a long trip and finding a great photo and not being able to remember which museum/historical site/city you took it in, so here’s how to do that:

The first step of photo organization is setting the date right on your camera. Look up the manual online and make sure the date is set correctly.

Once I’m in the museum or historical site, the first photo I take is of a sign showing the site’s name, or the ticket with the name of the place I’m visiting. This acts as a marker for the start of the photos for this site, and it also gives me something to refer to when trying to remember where I took the photos. Please do not think that a shot of the building alone will help you to remember the name of the building – it won’t. I learned that lesson the hard way!

Start with photographing the museum ticket so you remember which museum you shot the photos at.

Once you are inside and ready to begin, first take a photo of the artwork’s label and then the artwork, followed by any close ups of the artwork. Take as many close-ups as you need of the artwork before moving on to the next one, This will help minimize confusion later, as the photos will be kept in context.

Photograph the art placard
Start by photographing the full object
Then zoom in on the details you want to capture

Churches will not often have altars or gravestones clearly labeled, so what do you do if there is no label? Zoom out for context and try to capture a bit of the building or the surrounding area to help ground the artwork in the structure. This will also help you identify the artwork in a guidebook or online catalog at a later date.

Gravestone in Vienna’s St Stephan’s Cathedral

When photographing statues, effigies or other sculpted objects, take full shots from several angles. The most interesting details are often seen from the sides or the back. Make sure you zoom in to get photos of the details. Yes, you can zoom in on the computer after you get home, but a good close-up photo is amazing at capturing fine detail in a painting or sculpture.

Lastly, don’t be shy about kneeling on the floor or taking your shoes off to get a good photo. Some of my best shots were taking with my shoes off, crouching on the floor in front of a glass case. Yes, you’ll probably get some weird looks from the staff, but that’s OK – you’re a tourist, not a respectable local!

Princess, from a St. George statue group, Swabia, about 1440, Bavarian National Museum BNM-MA1686
Detail of the side-back of her head.
Zoomed in as far as my lens will go to pick up all the details.

The Problem of Light

It often seems that there is either too much light for your photos, or too little, and never from the right direction. Lighting is one of the biggest challenges in taking photos of objects, and especially so in museums and churches, since using a flash is not allowed. While at first it is annoying to have to remember to turn it off, it is actually a good thing, A flash can really ruin a good photo with glare bouncing off the glass or the glaze of the painting. Before you go, learn how to turn off the flash on your camera and practice taking photos of various objects, paintings and textiles around your house. This will give you practice with your camera set up, and allow you to experiment with different angles and techniques.  Also, learn how to turn the beep off on your camera before you leave home. You’ll thank me later, after two hours of photos, and the other people in the museum will thank you too!

When photographing objects in low light, it can be really hard to get a good, clear shot without the shutter being open so long that the result is blurry. Check to see if you got a good photo, and that it isn’t blurred and unusable.


It took eight attempts to get a good, clear photo of the front lacing of this dress. I’m glad I checked before I left the museum to see if it was blurry or not!

However, what to do if the subject is really dark and you need extra light? Bring a pocket flashlight! You often need just a tiny bit of light to get the photo, and a small flashlight can make a huge difference. 

Dealing with Glare

Most objects in museums are kept behind a panel of glass. It can be hard to get a good shot of an object behind glass without glare; museums are not lit to allow for good photographs, and sometimes the lighting can be downright horrible. These photos of a piece of carriage equipment in the basement of the Brussels Museum of Decorative Art help to demonstrate this. Below you can see a nice self-portrait reflection in the glass, along with a full photo of the object! In this photo, I’m standing on my tiptoes to restrict the reflection to the upper left hand corner. By doing this, I’ve moved my reflection and the glare from the lights into one corner of the photo, so that they do not obscure the whole thing. Some glare from the lights is usually unavoidable, but you can minimize it or move it to an unimportant part of the photo by moving your body left, right, up or down. 

Then, to get the detail shot below I carefully placed the camera lens right on the glass, removing all external glass glare from the lights, and zoomed in as far as possible. This allowed for a great detail shot, without the glare, and the photo is still well lit.

This also works with great with phone cameras. On another occasion I was able to get great detail photos of the trim and buttons on this piece (below) using this technique, without the glare. I just wish I had not been so forgetful, and had not left my big camera in my other bag before walking into the exhibit!

However, one should be careful of setting off alarms when doing this, or leaning over ropes and setting off alarms. Try not to make your name “Bane of Museum Docents!” by repeatedly setting off the alarms while photographing artwork.

Doublet at the German National Museum, Nuremberg, at the opening night reception of the Mode exhibit.
Closeup of the buttons and trim by placing the camera flat on the glass

Magnification

Sometimes zooming in with the camera just doesn’t get you close enough, and that’s when it’s time to step it up a notch. Micro Phone Lens produces macro and microscope lenses that stick on the cameras in tablets and cellphones. Unlike the very expensive macro lenses for DSLR cameras, or the even more expensive and heavy camera microscopes in labs, these are light, easily portable and cheap. You can get all three of these lenses for $30 USD, which is an amazing deal considering that a cheap macro lens for a camera costs about $200.

The 8x lense

I have used the 15x microscope lens to take pictures of the stitching and fabric of an early 17th century silk flag through the glass, as well as to examine garment construction up close. You will need an additional light source to get good photos with 15x lens, but as before, a pocket flashlight works well.

The full sized flag
A seam in the flag, photographed using the 15x lense, a camera phone and a pocket flashlight

The only issue you should be aware of with these lenses is that there is no autofocus. They are focused by moving the phone/tablet backwards and forwards until the focus point is found. This can make taking a good photo a little work, especially for the 15x lens, but it’s worth it for the details you can see  when you get it just right.

These four photos were taken with an 8 MP cell phone camera, and the resulting photos were cropped to the same pixel size. 

L-R: regular-non zoom photo, Macro 4x lens, Macro 8x lens, Micro 15x lens

These lenses are especially useful during a study appointment, or when doing research on your own collection. When you have the opportunity to study garments, photographing details with a ruler in the photo will help you with the scale and size later.

These four photos of a handmade buttonhole on a corset cover, dated 1903, were taken with an 8 MP cell phone camera, with a metric ruler for scale. 

L-R: regular-non zoom photo, Macro 4x lens, Macro 8x lens, Micro 15x lens

Of the three lenses, the 8x seems to be the most useful. It shows great details without being as finicky to work with as the 15x. However, I do love the extreme magnification that I can get with the 15x, as I love its abilities to capture the fine details, such as the pull in the fabric threads from the stitching. Of the three lenses, I found the 4x lens to be only slightly useful, as it did not capture as much detail as I would have liked.

I hope these easy photography tips will help you to capture the details and moments that are important to you in conducting your own research. I hope they also give you ideas for new tools that could make a huge difference in the quality of the resulting images that you take home.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for this, I realised the other week that I needed to up my game with taking reference photos, actually there are not that many useful articles/tutorials about the practical aspects of costume research.

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