Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No photographs, please!

I promised a rant on this subject a few days ago. This is it, so please feel free to skip this post.

There is a common misconception that the light from flash units leads to premature fading of pigments. And this is the excuse you most often hear at museums. It simply isn't true. Modern flash units have extremely short flash duration, typically in the range of 1/1000 second. And the energy contained in a flash (or any radiation, for that matter) decreases by the square of the distance traveled. Think about it. How much energy is released by a flash unit? How much actually reaches the surface of concern? How does that compare with normal interior lighting? How does it compare with light coming in through windows? It simply doesn't compute. If there were a constant barrage of simultaneous and continuous flashes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, then perhaps there might be some validity to the argument. But that's very unlikely to happen.

So how did this get started? In the early days of popular flash photography we used flash bulbs. It was not at all uncommon for a bulb to shatter when flashed. The broken glass could be, and was, a hazard. Later bulbs were encased in a clear plastic coating, so shattering was much less common. Still the prohibition persisted, even into the era of electronic flash units, which never shatter.

So why prohibit all photography? There is one (possibly) legitimate reason. That is economic. If a museum sells images of its collections, then allowing visitors to take their own photographs might cut into their profits. Or, they may wish to charge a fee to allow photography. If they don't sell images and they don't sell licenses, then it's just plain being mean spirited.

That's my opinion.


  1. In one old house that I visit they claim that photography is banned because of security considerations - potential thieves will be able to plan their raids by using the photographs thus obtained! This of course presupposes that the criminals will obey the No Photography rule. Interestingly banks seem to have no such rule.

    1. Sounds like paranoia, doesn't it. It also presupposes that thieves' memories aren't sufficient to hold the relevant details until they can get out and write them down.

  2. This is one rule that I truly dislike. Sometimes something really gets my attention and I'd like to have a photo to look at later.

  3. I'm a wee bit late with this response, but note also that museums are notorious abusers of the copyright system. Typically, museums will claim copyright on all photos or other reproductions of anything in their collections, including things that are very obviously in the public domain. This claim is very unlikely to hold up on photographs produced by a third party, so museums prefer to be the only source of photographs of works in their collections.