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There are several reasons why people are often asked not to take flash photographs in museums. The primary concern is preservation of the art, as flash photography can cause significant damage to works of art, especially when it occurs in high volume. Some cynics have also suggested that prohibitions on flash photographs in museums may have something to do with a desire to preserve gift shop revenue, but this is not in fact the case.
Flash photography can contribute significantly to the degradation process of a piece of art. Flashes produce both light and heat, which can trigger a variety of chemical reactions. Exposure to light and heat, for example, causes the cellulose in paper to break down, and damages many pigments, as anyone who has left a photograph in a sunny window for a few months may have noted. While a single flash is not a large issue, numerous flashes over the course of years of exhibition will cause a work of art to deteriorate more quickly. This leads to the formulation of policies forbidding flash photographs in museums, so that future visitors can enjoy the art too.
Concerns about light and heat also explain the environmental conditions in museums. Most reputable museums are designed in such a way that sunlight never touches the art, with specialized low-level lighting which allows people to see the art without causing damage. The air is often also kept cool and at a steady temperature, to ensure that the art is not damaged by heat or temperature fluctuations.
There are some other reasons why taking flash photographs in museums is frowned upon. For one thing, flash photography can be very disruptive to other patrons, especially people with medical conditions which cause increased sensitivity to light. In sites of cultural and artistic value, such as cathedrals, flash photography may also be viewed as disrespectful. Taking flash photographs in museums during events or ceremonies is also generally viewed as disruptive, as flashes can be extremely distracting.
That said, many museums have recognized the desire to take photographs of their collections. In response, many permit photography, as long as a flash is not used. The use of a tripod is highly recommended to compensate for the low lighting conditions, and photographers should try to be respectful of other patrons while photographing their favorite works of art.
Some museums disallow all photography due to copyright concerns, or by special request of an artist or the owner of a loaner collection. In these cases, taking photographs may result in a polite request to vacate the premises.
This article begins with the statement: "The primary concern is preservation of the art, as flash photography can cause significant damage to works of art".
Although this statement has been repeated over and over again, in various ways, it does not make it true. Any exposure to light can degrade many works of art, but the idea that light from photoflash is somehow more dangerous was debunked long ago by a science-based year-long study at the National Gallery, published in their Technical Bulletin in 1995. The same conclusions were published in "Museum Management and Curatorship" in 1994. Sensitive works of art are displayed in galleries where the light levels are reduced. Even in these galleries, it has been shown that one minute of gallery lighting is equivalent to about 50 typical photographic flashes.
The current situation is summarized in an article: "Amateur Photographers in Art Galleries: Assessing the harm done by flash photography" that was posted on the internet in 2010.
Well informed curators no longer believe that flash is a threat to works of art. Flash is, however, an irritation to other gallery visitors. Some curators seek to control photography, with or without flash, by claiming copyright rules, but these vary greatly from one country to another and are very difficult to interpret in law.
I have a good SLR camera but am not a professional photographer and am not sure about what settings to use in a museum.
Can anyone tell me what settings would be best to get a great shot when I am not allowed to use a flash?
I really want to get a high enough quality photo that I can print a copy for myself with the art and put it on my wall.
Also, besides settings, is there a certain lens or kind of equipment I should bring?
I believe that if you have paid admission to a museum you should be allowed to take pictures of the art, as long as you follow the guidelines.
I find that the lighting conditions in museums are generally terrible for pictures, so unless you have a high quality camera and equipment you are wasting your time bringing your point-and-shoot in.
While there may be some concerns about museums only wanting to boost their gift shop sales, I think people should buy prints of the art they loves, or books with the collection in it.
If you really like a piece, buy your copy, and don't show everyone a grainy photo that doesn't do justice to the subject.