If you’re ever stuck for photographic inspiration there’s no better cure than a trip to a local museum or art gallery. There you can often find lots of weird and wonderful subjects to photograph that you wouldn’t find in your own home. For instance, my local museum has a wide range of exhibits including a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, Egyptian relics, and stuffed animals. (Of course you may have these things in your house, in which case do you mind if I pop round for a visit?)

Museums and art galleries are often interesting buildings in their own right too. Older galleries were often a source of civic pride and built to showcase local architectural styles and materials. New buildings are often less characterful, but no less interesting in their own modern way.

However, before you set off you should first check to see whether your local museum or gallery allows photography. Some do, some don’t. It’s just not worth the hassle and embarrassment of being stopped mid-shoot by an official and asked to cease. A museum’s website is usually a good source for this information, or at least as a place to find a contact number or email address with which you can check policy. Generally though, thanks to mobile phones, most museums and galleries are tolerant of photography now. However, if a museum or gallery doesn’t allow photography – or has specific rooms where photography isn’t allowed – don’t try and be sneaky and shoot when no-one’s looking. It’s unethical, and you may well be being watched by security cameras…

Even if a museum or gallery allows cameras it probably won’t allow tripods – unless you have special permission. It’s not difficult to see why a gallery wouldn’t want photographers using tripods – people can trip over them, particularly when it’s busy.

Look for flat surfaces in a museum to – carefully! – rest your camera on. I bracketed this shot to create a blended exposure later, keeping the camera steady on a display case.

Unfortunately, tripods would be a benefit as museums and galleries can be relatively dim places. One solution is to use a highish ISO to achieve reasonably fast shutter speeds (and avoid camera shake). Another solution is to use prime lenses and shoot at or close to the lens’s maximum aperture. (Zoom lenses, apart from the heaviest and most expensive in a manufacturer’s range, generally have relatively small maximum apertures.)

When I’m in a museum or gallery I keep a look out for convenient flat surfaces I can rest my camera on. With the camera nice and steady I can then use low ISOs for improved image quality, as well as a smaller aperture to increase depth of field. (Selecting the camera’s self-timer helps too, as it reduces the risk of the camera being knocked when the shutter fires.)

Something that would be useful is flash. However, these is often banned even when photography isn’t. This is usually because some types of exhibits – such as watercolours – are delicate and would be harmed by the bright light of flash. On-camera flash is a frontal light and not that aesthetically pleasing either. If you’re shooting in an automatic mode make sure the flash is turned off before you begin shooting.

Invariably there will be some exhibits that are behind glass. One annoying quality of glass is its reflectiveness. There’s no point in shooting something interesting if the photo is marred by a reflection of you and your camera! The simplest solution is press the lens gently against the glass. (Don’t press too hard though, particularly if the front element of the lens rotates as it focuses.) If you want to be particularly picky then wipe the glass first before you shoot. It’s amazing how many fingerprints and other sticky residues can be found on glass cases. They’ll make your shot softer and may mark the front of your lens.

Unfortunately, solving one problem often leads to other issues. Lenses have a minimum focusing distance. With your lens pressed against the glass case you may be closer to your subject than the minimum focusing distance of the lens. One solution is to take along a macro lens, which will allow closer focusing. Another solution is to take a compact digital camera with you. These often have macro or close focusing modes. They’re also less obtrusive than larger cameras such as DSLRs.

‘Living’ history museums, where staff dress in period costume, are great places for portraits, and where the subjects are usually willing to pose for a photo.
Humour can be used in your museum photos. This scene made me chuckle when I first saw it. You have to wonder whether the tea things were placed there on purpose…

Shooting the subjects in a simple, documentary way is fun, but arguably not that creative. One way to shake things up is to look for unusual juxtapositions, framing compositions with subjects that have a quirky or obscure relationship with each other. This can be used to create humorous shots, or images that pose a question or create a conceptual tension. A photographer who excels in creating this type of photo is Elliot Erwitt, who is someone I’d highly recommend checking out – particularly his Museum Watching book.

If you can match or even better Erwitt’s work then you’ll be well on the way to your work appearing in your local museum or gallery. Stranger things have happened!

Editors Note! This article was originally written by David back in January 2020 – Long before the Coronavirus Pandemic knocked all of our lives for six! I decided at the time of launch (which was when the lockdown had just begun) to hang onto this article until our lives returned to a bit of normality. Hopefully, we can now all return to our favourite museums with a new level of appreciation for what we lost for a while. I know that I can’t wait to return to the Natural History Museum to try taking a fresh image of the one featured here which I captured nearly a decade ago. Jason Friend

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