Strategies for taking better photos of works of art and architecture

Recommended

Smarthistory offers thousands of images for teaching, learning and scholarship—for free.

Etiquette

  • The thing you’ll need the most during your photography session is patience and good humor.
  • Photographing an object draws attention. We step back so others can look, or even snap their own shot. 
  • Be aware of privacy concerns. We photograph people from behind or blur faces in Photoshop.
  • Follow stated institutional rules (this almost always means no flash or tripods).

Before you arrive

  • If you plan to shot objects behind glass, wear dark clothing without patterns.
  • Make sure your camera and lenses are clean, your battery is charged, and your memory card is empty (and perhaps reformatted)

Tips for taking better shots

  • In order to take a sharp photo in the low light environment of a museum, your objective is be as still as possible. To do this, stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Hold the camera with two hands. Your left hand, palm up, cradles the lens; Your right hand grips the right side of the camera body as your right index finger presses the shutter; exhale slowly as you press the shutter.
  • Be sure the camera is level and that nothing is cropped unintentionally, be aware of the how the subject is composed within the frame.
  • Once your focus is set, take at least three to five shots in a row to increase the likelihood of a sharp, well-framed image. 
  • Take shots where the work nearly fills the frame, take some at a good distance for context, and take details close up.
  • If the camera has a viewfinder, use it to frame your shot.
  • use a lens hood if you have one, it can reduce glare and increase contrast and clarity
  • For scale, perhaps include a person looking at the work (but be sure to protect their privacy).
  • Stop midway through your shoot to review and make sure your settings are giving you the results you want.
  • Walk around, look for new views at varying distances; this is especially important for architecture.
  • Most importantly, look carefully when shooting, our brains filter visual distractions, but the camera won’t.
  • Shooting outdoors? Avoid shooting when the summer sun is high in the sky, a low sun will generally give you better light.

Settings

  • Take a variety of photos using different settings, in addition to auto, experiment with aperture(A) and shutter(S) priority. When you fee more confident, try full manual(M). See the “Basic Camera Functions” section below
  • Set the camera to automatically bracket (move the f-stop one click in each direction) to increase the likelihood of a well exposed photograph.
  • If you are in a room with visual distractions try adjusting your depth of field to narrow the range that is in focus. Use a low number on the aperture ring to open the camera’s lens. This lets in more light and reduce the depth of field (see photo below). Using shallow depth of field can blur the background. Conversely, closing your aperture will increase the area in focus
  • For closeups use “macro mode” if your camera has that setting
  • Don’t exceed your camera’s physical zoom capability (do not use “digital zoom”)
  • Explore your camera’s white balance functions if available

Common problems

When shooting details, make sure to pay attention to reflections. Even slight changes in angle can minimize reflection. Remember to be aware of your shadow as well as your reflection especially when you are close to the object. Be aware of bright clothing, or bags or backpacks with logos that are distracting. 

Reconstruction of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán in Huaca Rajada, Peru (photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ear spool depicting a warrior, c. 640–680 (Moche), gold, turquoise, wood (Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, Lambayeque, Peru),

The photo above was shot with a narrow depth of field to blur distractions in the background:
Camera: Sony RX1RM2 version 1 (full frame sensor)
Lens: 35mm f/2.0 (a pretty fast lens with a slightly wider angle than the human eye has)
Shutter speed: 1/160 second (a handheld photo shot slower than 1/30 or even 1/60 may be blurry)
F-stop: 2.5 (the aperture is close to its widest setting to create a soft blurred background.

Basic camera functions

Shutter speed: how long the shutter is open to received light
Faster speeds reduce blur but require more light

Aperture (f-stop): how wide the lens opens
A wide open lens lets more light in and reduces depth of field (narrowing what is in focus)

ISO (ASA): sets the sensitivity of the light sensor
Low ISO requires more light and creates smooth photos; high ISO can create grainy images

When a camera is set to automatic it adjusts all three settings in relation to each other to create a well exposed image. Auto settings are often quite good, but learning to control these settings manually can offer valuable benefits.

Lens types

Prime lens: has a fixed focal length and can be faster (brighter) than a zoom

Zoom lens: has an adjustable focal length, is often slower (dimmer) than a prime

Telephoto lens: has a focal length longer than the human eye (more than 50mm)

Wide angle lens: has a focal length wider than the human eye (less than 50mm)

Macro lens: 1:1 magnification, the size of the object is the size it appears on the sensor 

Fast lens: has a low f-stop number, f/1.4 for example (a fast lens can let a lot of light in)

Basic sensor information

Digital cameras use an internal light sensor instead of light sensitive film to capture the image. In general, the bigger the light sensor, the better the photograph. This is especially true in museums since they are often dimly lit. The benefit of a small sensor is that it can fit in a compact camera.

Full Frame (35mm): mimics 35mm film cameras and provide the largest light sensor available before stepping up to a medium format camera.

Crop Factor (APS-C): about half the size of full frame, can take excellent photos

Four Thirds – 1 inch: about one quarter to one sixth the size of full frame, used in high-end compacts, can produce beautiful shots in good light

2/3, 1/1.7, 1/2/5 and smaller: not recommended

Camera recommendations 

  • Look for a small, light camera that you will happily carry around all day. A high-quality pocket camera such as the Sony RX100 vii (which has a 1 inch sensor) is expensive but tiny and incredibly capable. It’s a great choice for the serious beginner. For very high quality images and the ability to swap lenses, look at full frame mirrorless cameras by Sony, Fuji, and others. This will require a significantly larger investment.
  • Look for the ability to control settings manually including f-stop, shutter speed, and ISO.
  • Choose the largest possible light sensor in your budget.
  • Choose the best lens(es) you can afford, a good lens makes a real difference.
  • To save money consider purchasing last year’s model. For example, a Sony RX100vi is very much the same as the vii, but hundreds less. You can also save money by purchasing used equipment, just be sure you trust the seller.

What we use

We use a full frame mirrorless camera and since we shoot in dim museums, churches, and archaeological sites, we use fast prime lenses (with large apertures that let in as much light as possible) but that aren’t too heavy to carry around all day. Our lenses currently range from 18mm (very wide) to 110mm (telephoto). Our current kit includes:

camera body

  • Sony A7riii (mirrorless)

lenses listed from wide to telephoto (these are all FE, meaning they are designed for a Sony full frame body, we are very happy with them):

  • 18mm f/2.8 Zeiss Batis (auto focus)
  • 30mm f/1.2 Voigtländer Nokton (manual focus) — very fast, so excellent for dark spaces
  • 55mm f/1.8 Zeiss (Sony) Sonnar (auto focus)
  • 85mm f/1.8 Sony (auto focus)
  • 110mm f/2.5 Voigtländer APO-Lanthar, also a 1:1 macro (manual focus) — this one is a bit heavy

How to decipher a lens name

Here are some basics that will help you read a lens and and better understand what it does.

Example 1: Sony FE f/1.8 55mm ZA Zeiss Sonnar T* — here’s what that means,

Sony produces and markets the lens
FE is the code for lenses designed for Sony’s E-Mount full frame mirrorless cameras
F1.8 notes the lens’s widest possible aperture (fairly fast). The lens can close down to f/22
55mm a midrange focal length very close to what the human eye sees (neither wide nor telephoto)
ZA means the design was approved by Carl Zeiss, the legendary German optics company founded in 1846
Zeiss is simply more co-branding (the lens was made by Sony in Thailand)
Sonnar refers to a lens design developed in 1932 that reduces chromatic aberrations and flaring, and improves contrast
T* means the lens uses Zeiss’s trademark anti-reflective coating
Notes this is an amazingly sharp lens. It is small and light. It is an autofocus lens. It has 7 elements (pieces of glass) and 9 rounded aperture blades

Example 2: Zeiss Batis FE f/2.8 18mm Distagon T* — here’s what that means,

Carl Zeiss produces and markets the lens
Batis is the name for Zeiss’s line of lenses designed for Sony’s E-Mount full frame mirrorless cameras
FE is the code for lenses designed for Sony’s E-Mount full frame mirrorless cameras
F2.8 notes the lens’s widest possible aperture (not very fast). The lens can close down to f/22
18mm is a very wide angle focal length that captures much of the periphery
Distagon refers to a Zeiss lens design developed in 1953 that accommodates larger apertures but requires additional corrective elements to reduce distortion making the lens bigger and more expensive
T* means the lens uses Zeiss’s trademark anti-reflective coating
Notes this is an amazingly sharp lens with less distortion than is common in wide lenses. It is large but light. It is an autofocus lens. It has 11 elements (pieces of glass) and 10 aperture blades