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Museum Photography Tips to Capture a Memorable Day

Woman taking a photo with her smartphone at an art museum.

Reading Time: 6 minutes read

There’s no better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than exploring a museum or art gallery. Museums bring us face-to-face with historically important artifacts and ideas. Art galleries present the world from unique points of view. Both teach us about the world and help us develop an appreciation of other cultures and humanity’s rich past.

Museums and art galleries are fun, memorable places. And with a few photographic tips, we can capture those memories to enjoy at home.

Know the house rules

Since every museum and art gallery is different, each will have its own rules regarding photography. Some only prohibit flash, some don’t allow photography in certain exhibitions, and others ban it outright.

The reasons for these restrictions differ, but they typically stem from concerns over copyrights, improving visitor experience, and a desire to protect the exhibits from damage.

Read the house rules before taking any pictures. If the rules aren’t displayed or are unclear, ask a nearby docent for help.

Even if the museum allows photography carte blanche, there remains one rule we must follow: Be respectful of the other visitors. Don’t jostle anyone to get a better angle or hit a crowd with your flash. Some of these artifacts have waited thousands of years for their close-up. We can learn from their patience.

Photos in low-light situations

Exhibit designers work diligently to create spaces that protect and display their exhibits in the best light. Unfortunately, that same light can be subpar for photography. You’ll often find yourself shooting in low-light conditions. And what light there is will be artificial and shining from an unflattering angle.

To compensation, limit the amount of camera shake as much as possible. If you’re shooting with your smartphone, be sure to turn on HDR mode. If you are shooting with a camera, try utilizing a wider aperture.

Then experiment to find the best angle with the light furnished. With some creative problem solving and—and a little editing to reduce noise and enliven colors—you can bring home some quality photos.

Working with glass

You’ll find many artifacts housed behind glass to prevent degradation and keep people from touching them. That very same glass can also catch the light and add undesirable reflections to our images. It’s great for the artifacts, but a bugbear for museum photographers.

Sine we can’t remove it like a cat burglar in a heist movie, we’ll have to work with it.

Avoid using your flash even if the museum permits it. Instead, walk around the exhibit to locate the best approach. You want an angle that reduces glare and reflections as much as possible. Your own reflection will be your main concern, but don’t forget to look for those cast by other visitors and exhibits, too.

Connecting people with exhibits

So far, we’ve focused on shooting objects, but a true joy of any museum visit is observing how loved ones experience the arts, sciences, and cultural history. A great way to capture that moment of connection is with photography.

Look for ways to frame your friends and family with the exhibits. If you’re at an art gallery, wait until your partner is deep in admiration of a particular work. Then line up a portrait shot of them framed within the painting’s frame.

Here, reflections can be a boon. Does your child love an ancient samurai helmet? Try angling the shot so their face appears within it.

Museums and art galleries offer many such photogenic moments. Keep your senses alert, and we’re sure you’ll find plenty more.

Visit the interactive exhibits

Action shots can be difficult to come by in museums. Most exhibits stand still, and security guards throw serious side-eye if they catch you running around. Enter the interactive exhibit. Interactive exhibits are perfect for action shots and hands-on learning experiences.

If your museum experience is a family day out, be sure to explore by these exhibits and snap some pictures of the kids at play. Don’t have the kiddos with you? Swing by and snap a selfie anyway.

A little girl looking at a science experiment | Motif

Take pictures of object labels

Object labels are the informational plaques or cards next to exhibits. In an art gallery, the information they provide can be as minimal as the painter, title, and materials. Conversely, a natural history museum’s labels can offer rich, detailed histories for each object to explain how it fits into our understanding of past cultures.

Don’t rely on your memory to retain all the information; instead, take a picture. You can digest the information later or use it in your notes.

If later you use your pictures to, say, make a calendar, you can add these facts into your weeks for a year of learning.

Don’t forget the museum itself

Museums are more than just houses for important art and artifacts. They are often culturally significant landmarks themselves.

The Natural History Museum, London, is a premier example of sumptuous Victorian architecture. The Guggenheim’s atrium is a spacious and bright way to experience early modernism. Even your local museum will likely hide a few secret architectural wonders, thanks to a previous life as a city hall or church.

Natural History Museum, London
Natural History Museum, London

Take some time to explore the architecture of the museum and see what photographic opportunities arise. You may discover enticing angles in some turn-of-the-century steel work or fall in love with how the evening sun weaves through the flying buttresses. Even something as small as a series of finials can be just the thing for a beautiful leading line.

Craft a personalized museum book

With a memorable day at the museum in the books, what should we do with these wonderful photos? Design a personalized museum photo book, of course.

When designing your museum photo book, start with a theme.  Our “Chalk it up” theme offers a playful backdrop for school-trip photos, while “Pop of color” will showcase photos from a pop art exhibition in their element. Select the best photos and lay them out so the book follows your day through the museum.

Oh, and remember to include text explaining what the exhibits are and what you enjoyed learning about the. (See? Told you those object label photos would come in handy.)

How do you know which pictures are your best? Let Motif help you out. Its Autoflow option acts as your personal exhibit curator, selecting the best shots based on focus, clarity, orientation, and even faces. With Motif, you can spend more time reliving your memorable museum day and less time worrying about which photos best represent the day.

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