Museum Photography Tips

When you go on holiday, chances are you will visit local museums as a way to learn more about the area. Museums can hold paintings, sculptures, animals or historical items. The most important consideration is lighting since the indoor environment has its own set of photographic problems. Here are some tips on how to perfect your indoor images.


Before you Begin

People walking around inside a museum in London

Museums are usually strict about who can take photographs and where. There may be restrictions on using flash, and restrictions on certain displays, for example special editions and rare articles. However, most museums will allow you to photograph the architecture of the building and the outside/foyer areas. Choose a large aperture (f/2.8 – f/4) to let sufficient light in and use a tripod or monopod to deal with the slow shutter speed if flash is not allowed.


Shooting in Low Light

The cycle of paintings in the Contarelli Chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi church in Rome

Light is usually dim in museums as this is more aesthetically pleasing, and many museum pieces can deteriorate over time when exposed to bright light and camera flash. Therefore you need to set your camera accordingly. Push the ISO up to at least 400. If flash isn’t allowed then use the widest aperture possible so you can hand hold the camera and use a relatively fast shutter speed. When photographing the actual displays, tripods may not be allowed as they can block other people’s ability to view the work.


Avoid Glass Reflections

Museum displaying an ancient ornamental mask

Many exhibitions are held behind glass, especially artifacts and precious paintings. There are various things you can do to avoid reflections. Never use flash. For display cases, push the lens directly onto the glass without any gap, if this is permitted. This way you are bypassing any kind of reflective quality from the glass – but DO give it a wipe to eliminate fingerprints beforehand. If you can use a polarizing filter; it will reduce reflections. You may need to push the ISO up since many artifacts are in extremely low light conditions; ISO 1600 is more than adequate.


Pay Attention to Details

Close up of a male statue in a museum, modern copy of a Greek original.

Don’t be afraid to move close up to objects to get a dramatic effect. If you can get close to the object then you can use a macro lens to pick out the details. If you are far away, use a zoom lens to get in close. Use a large aperture of f/1.8 – f/4.0 and a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second if you are using flash, 1/60th of a second and slower if you can’t. Statues are inanimate but you can bring them to life when you zoom in close to their facial features.


Capturing the Ceiling

Vatican Museums - Ceiling in the Gallery of Maps

Some museums have architecture that is as incredible as the art work being displayed. Because this ornate architecture is usually in the foyer you may be allowed to use a tripod. Turn the camera upwards so it is facing the ceiling and try not using flash. Push the ISO up to 400 or even higher so that the camera can deal with little light and choose AUTO without flash to see what settings your camera chooses. Use your camera’s self-timer or a cable release to avoid blur.


Recommended Settings

Museums are generally relaxed places and depending on the museum’s rules and regulations, you will have to change your settings accordingly. Generally, you won’t be allowed to use a tripod or flash. Therefore, use the widest aperture possible if you need to let more light in. Push the ISO up if your camera is giving you speeds you cannot handhold; up to 3200 if your camera offers this, but remember the finished image will be grainier.


Recommended Equipment

You will need a standard lens and a telephoto lens in some cases. A lens that has a wide aperture capability is a great choice. Good quality 50mm lenses for example go as wide as f/1.2. Monopods are a great way to get support without getting in people’s way. A polarizer filter is useful if you want to photograph against glass, as are glass cleaning wipes. When selecting a camera bag, remember to choose one that is easy to open and shows all your equipment quickly because museums will very likely want to check your bag’s contents.



Museums are a big part of many vacations, so why not record your visits. Don’t forget to take pictures of the outside too; the architecture is usually impressive. Remember to be inconspicuous and not get into anyone’s way while you take photographs. With careful planning you will have a memorable set of images to share once you get home.

Attila Kun

Attila is the founder and editor-in-chief of Exposure Guide. He is an avid photographer, graphic designer, bedroom DJ and devoted Mac addict. Attila got his first DSLR camera, a Canon 10D, back in 2003 and he has been hooked on photography ever since.