The Reasons and Myths Behind the “No Flash Photography” Sign

There’s always been a general consensus that there is an actual reason behind the “No Flash Photography” signs we see plastered all over the place. In some places it makes sense — not flashing photosensitive animals at the aquarium speaks for itself — but what about art galleries and museums? Why exactly do we have to rely on natural light there? According to Steve Meltzer on Imaging Resource, no good reason at all.

The other day, I went to an exhibition of photographs by W. Eugene Smith. Entering the museum, I spotted a sign that said, “No Flash Photography!” Out of curiosity, I walked over to a museum guard and asked him why flash photography was prohibited.

His response was that “the flash light is so bright that it freezes an object and the sudden cold shock is damaging to delicate paintings and other objects.”

At first, I laughed. Was this some weird Jedi mind trick?

The rest of the article goes on to discuss the main, less “Jedi mind trick” reasons behind those signs and why they’re all essentially bogus. Check out the entire piece over on Imaging Resource if you want more details and then, next time you see one of those signs at a museum or art gallery, ask the security guard and see what reason he gives you. Who knows, it may be time to drop the myths and take the signs down.

Does flash photography really damage art? The persistence of a myth. [Imaging Resource]

Image credit: No Flash Photography of This Exhibit Case Please! by Leo Reynolds

  • Ken

    I was under the impression that Flash photography eventually fades the colors in artwork. Similar to a painting that is exposed to sunlight becoming faded over time.

  • Albert Zablit

    Why shoot pictures of artwork at exhibits and even more so with straight on flash?

  • FranklinBluth

    It may not damage as much as claimed, but people taking a photo with the flash won’t realize they might not get a good picture because of the reflection off of glass. More importantly, flash photography will annoy the other guests and affect how they see the work of art.

  • N1ght Crawler

    Flash photography is annoying for everybody else who tries to watch the painting. Thats why its prohibited.

  • seriesrover2

    Why are you asking a museum guard – they guard the art, not particularly expert on why not to use a flash. I always thought it was to protect the artworks from damage.

  • Alfred_34

    I totally agree with N1ght Crawler, it’s annoying for the rest of us who are there to view the art piece.

  • Boa Thor

    First t is annoying and it is also stupid. Just imagin how disturbing it would be to visit a gallery and hundreds of people permanently uses their flash….

  • Bruce

    The signs exists because telling some people they are annoying wouldn’t change their behavior. Their sense of entitlement is too strong. But, telling them they could be causing damage might give them pause. Especially when the guard is there to enforce the rule.

  • Kathleen Grace

    I worked as an art and custom framing consultant – and I can speak to the fact that any kind of artwork can be sensitive to light, particularly long-term exposure, but also continual bright flashes. These days if one allowed flash photography it would look like strobe lights going off in galleries, particularly in museums where lighting is normally low except on the artwork. All paints and inks have a sensitivity to light – you don’t ever display artwork directly in daylight or fluorescent light. And we know that fluorescent light emits ultraviolet radiation and that can cause deterioration of all artwork including sculptures. And considering this is a photography site, we should all know what light does to photography. Framed art is also sensitive to environmental pollution – often forming a film inside a framed artwork, and light is a contributor to that film. I don’t care what some person came up with as an idea, I have seen hundreds of times first hand the damage that light does to artwork and particularly framed art. In addition, exposed to light, the temperature of the artwork under glass can increase and cause offgassing, a chemical release of gas from the artwork, and that can cause deterioration of the artwork. As well, the artwork can swell and cause paint cracking, and on paper artwork can cause moisture build-up under the glass which in turn can cause mold to form and paper to curl – a photograph’s worst enemy.

  • Chris H

    I was told it was more an issue of annoying other people in the room as well as protection from people attempting duplication.

  • Jeff Peterson

    I agree with the other posters here, whether or not the flash damages the works in a museum, constantly having the flash going off, especially in busier places, is distracting to those trying to enjoy the artwork. There needs to be a balance between the rights of photographers and the rights of those trying to just enjoy and no flash seems like a good balance to me. I generally don’t like places that don’t allow photography period but there are situations where it makes sense because photography takes away from the experience for everyone else. I visited the famous caves in Mallorca, Spain a couple years ago and while I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t take photos, it definitely also made it much easier to enjoy the caves without people constantly taking photos.

  • Alex

    The responses to this article seen to make more sense than the article itself

  • BBgun Billy

    this article was useless…

  • tdj

    Agree with the nuisance aspect. Do we really need flashes going off ever 5 seconds whilst trying to view a piece of art? Do we really need another dull instagram remake of The Scream? Buy a postcard in the gift shop and leave the rest of us in peace please.

  • Edgar David

    20 photographers flashing 3 times a second each would drive nuts visitors… specially non photographer visitors :-)

  • Mario Groleau

    I know that many exibit have a max annual charge of light exposure. Many of them return to reserve periodicaly for this reason.

  • Er Flow

    My input is that is annoying and also because paintings would reflect the light, making the photograph an ugly shot and also very important masterpieces are covered with a film or glass that would reflect even more light and maybe they don’t want ugly pictures of the paintings wandering around the Internet creating a false idea of the actual piece…. Just a thought.

  • Ted Nghiem

    Why do you want to photograph a piece of art in a museum in the first place?

  • D400webb

    So glad to see that most of the readers know more than the writer. Just another example of mindless blog writing – any fool with a keyboard can write something that surficialy passes as journalism.

  • Bobfantastic

    Reading the original article, I have to say the author did a pretty poor job with this piece.
    Getting back to the issue of flashes in art galleries, I’m pretty sure flashes are prohibited because the small, hot, bright points of light can be mistaken for fire by optical flame detectors. This would also explain why some galleries are OK with flash, and others are not- it just depends on the technology used.

  • Yoong Khean

    Like the others said, the comments make much more sense than the article. Maybe whoever is running Petapixel should start looking into quality articles for us photographers…

  • derekdj

    I suggest the authors do more research aside from talking to the museum guards and rumor mills. Guards are often annoyed, misinformed and lowly paid employees who are just enforcing museum policies and don’t want to engage in a long discourse in the whys and what fors.

    Having worked with several museums on exhibition displays, their concerns with regards to flashes are two fold. One is that artwork can be damaged by persistent, repeated exposure to high intensity light, not only UV, but all light spectrums. There is a blanket policy because if you’re a large institution you don’t want to put up long lists of works that are particularly sensitive to what spectrum. The concern is with ancient pieces that have been protected from the elements for thousands of years (those are particularly sensitive) and newer contemporary works that might not be executed on archival materials, many contemporary artists use UV sensitive processes that might not have been fixed properly or a mixture of natural/organic materials that react poorly to the elements over time.

    More importantly, curators and institutions are very sensitive to their patrons. Incredibly they pay a lot of attention to user experience. Having flashes pop off and reflect off of all the glass is distracting to visitors, this is why in addition to flashes many museums prohibit cellphone conversations. This is especially true when ticket prices and the cost of mounting shows are on the rise. It’s not because of terrorist threats it’s because it’s damn annoying hearing about mary-joe’s toe fungus when you’re trying to enjoy a Matisse.

    Finally and more controversial is the issue of marketing and reproduction rights. Many museums prohibit photography because of the fear that when these images are released on the internet and social networks visitors may not visit the works in person, there by losing out on valuable admissions dollars.

  • Illyssa

    Back to Kathleen, it’s because of the damage that flash can do to an image over time. Yes, the flash you take that second may not have an instant effect on the image but 1,000 flashes a day over a year will. Just look at an image you’ve displayed in a well lit area. Is it not less vibrant than it was when the image was first displayed? Anyone dealing with the art in a museum would know this, along with any photographer who displays their work. I’m disappointed in this article.

  • Alan Dove

    I always thought it was just a euphemism for “Don’t Be An Asshole.”

  • SpaceMan

    It’s a big jump going from “I have seen damage and I have seen people use flash” to “flash caused the damage”. Leave these conclusions to scientists please

  • Cinobite

    If people are stupid enough to point a flash at a glass framed photo mounted on the wall – I’d let them go right ahead.

  • gah

    wouldnt be to show to a friend or relative that cant make it to the museum. nah, no way :O

  • David Dinwoodie

    Isn’t it to protect their copyright?

  • Tiktian C

    what about, “I’ve seen damaged caused by exposure to light” and “flash is light”?

  • Mastertoot

    When you walk into my house there’s a sign saying “Wipe your feet”. I don’t expect you to ask why and i don’t need to provide scientific proof that dirty shoes ruin carpets, you’re in my house, so respect my wishes. Same goes here. Sometimes you just need to respect the wishes of others, whether you agree or not,.

  • Scott M.

    It is almost impossible to photograph an oil painting with one straight on flash. The varnish on the painting will reflect it. Even with natural light it can be difficult. You can use a flash from the top row of a stadium during the Super Bowl. Especially during the halftime show.

  • Scott M.

    The museum guards I have spoken to in museums are extremely knowlegable about the exhibits they guard. Talk to one sometime.