Too Many and Not Enough

September 12, 2022  •  1 Comment

A museum could be termed a target-rich environment for whatever the museum is dedicated to. It's why the darn things exist, of course, to put a lot of related things together so they can be viewed.

What is seldom accounted for in displaying a museum's collections is photography. That's understandable, but often frustrating to a person wishing to bring home their own image of what they saw.

To help bring back better photos, here are a few tips to go along with the challenges.

The Challenges

I think the most common challenge to photographing in an indoor museum is lighting, usually the lack of it. Especially when we're looking at aviation museums, that paucity of illumination is probably a mix of the expense of lighting large objects in a large volume and the degrading effects of light on paint and plastics and fabrics. Fortunately for musea, the solution to both problems is the same: throw less light.

Unfortunately for photographers, less light means more work for us. For this article, I wrote several short paragraphs on the basics of exposure, with the pros and cons of the various camera-based adjustments, but that was time away from showing examples, so I've decided to skip it. You can certainly find that information elsewhere in these AeroMark Images articles, and the web is full of it.The other challenges for museum photography include necessarily limited physical access to the items in the collection, items packed/parked cheek-by-jowl or displayed in cases, and believe it or not, sometimes too much light in some places.

In the photo at top, I decided to embrace the mess and construct a multi-frame panorama of the T.A. Wilson Great Gallery at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. It's a beautiful space which, in an exception that proves the rule(?), has plenty of light due to its walls and ceiling of glass. Still, you can appreciate the clutter of aircraft makes picking just one out of the crowd problematic.

High & Low

One approach is shown here — I moved to the floor level above where I was standing for the panorama, affixed a long focal length lens, and pointed it toward the aft end of that airplane dominating the space, a special version of the A-12 high-speed reconnaissance plane called an M-21. The thin-winged cigar atop the M-21 is a D-21 high-speed reconnaissance drone (which, when you put the latter on the former, the joined result is an MD-21). Despite all or parts of other airplanes appearing in the image, this composition makes clear my intended subject, with the drone and its mother ship sharing similar colors, textures, and the pointy noses on their engines.

It's a fine photo that won't be winning any awards, but lets me share the memory with a friend, showing enough detail so we can go, "oooh, aaah, coooool."

Another option for bringing, if not order from chaos, at least bringing aired-out chaos from chaos, if the location affords it, is to photograph from, yet again, a different vantage point. In this case, one that gives the aircraft more individual, visual, space. At the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center, part of the Smithsonian, most of the early rotorcraft in their collection are clustered in one corner where, fortunately, a winding walkway to an upper viewing level has this overlook. This is not the be-all of views, but as a memento musea it can remind the viewer of the breadth of the collection. Believe me, from the ground floor, most of these aircraft are pretty well packed in there.

You ask for proof of that packing? Here it is. This little aircraft — no cabin, just a seat bolted to the three-legged frame, a tiny cluster of gauges between the pedals — despite my attempt to visually isolate it by shooting near and low, doesn't so much as pop off the page as lead our eyes into the rest of the skeletal structures of the other aircraft and the building. (This is a Hiller YROE-1 Rotorcycle, first flown in 1956.)

The winding walkway is the gray structure on the right edge of the frame; my perch for the top-down photo was along the handrail near the clock face.

Past the winding walkway structure, the elevated viewing level allowed this view of a more recent helicopter, the second generation of a concept flown by Sikorsky in the 1970s — twin, coaxial, main rotors, but instead of twin turbojets adding their thrust to forward speed, a pusher prop in the rear. In the '70s they proved the concept (go faster), but engines, structures, and computers were not sophisticated enough to develop into a viable craft. In 2008 this one-off X2 Technology Demonstrator* began its short life of testing, setting several (unofficial) speed records.

Anyway, the photographic factors are good and bad.

Good? The aircraft is clearly separated from its museum-mates. The fuzzy spotlight aimed at its forward section gives it some prominence. This view shows off the notable features of the aircraft and suggests its scale (not very large).

Bad? I'd say the power cord leading to the light pole is out of character compared to all the aeronautical shapes, which keeps drawing my eye. Also, the fuzzy spotlight is so bright the photo lacks detail in the brightest areas of the blades and fuselage. That spotlight also shows a challenge of lighting I've not yet mentioned: different color temperatures.

Much of the light in Udvar-Hazy comes through clearstory windows, which means the sky, which means blue. Additional lighting is provided by warmer light sources, such as tungsten filament bulbs (yellowish) or LEDs tuned to look the same as tungsten. Some locations might have various fluorescent light sources (potentially ugly green) and, maybe — hopefully not, but maybe — sodium vapor lamps in high or low pressure varieties (orange or extra orange). May the gods of photography help you if you are faced with sodium…

Note that I mention these, but don't really have a solution since as visitors we are not in control of the lighting. If this were paying work, there would be a lot more equipment, access, and control.

Back on the main level, I got down on the ground and framed this shot with bits of the other aircraft visible, but the intended subject is still obvious (remember the fuzzy spotlight helping). I also left plenty of blank foreground, over which text or graphics or inset photos could be positioned. If I wanted to restrict the view to mostly the X2, by having shot with a very high resolution camera and judicious post-processing, cropping still leaves plenty of pixels.

This is the same image, cropped, still good for the full width of a two-page spread (17 inches wide). Because of the distance to the subject, my camera's ground-level location provides only a subtle sense of that position.

The Angle Less Taken

Here's a more pronounced example of getting low to separate the subject from its milieu. Unlike the photo of the X2, I am very near the Huey, so the result is more of a hero shot, aggrandizing the aircraft in a photo as the helicopter appears to many in their memories. Yes, there's still clutter of adjacent aircraft, but the ceiling is obviously not another aircraft, so we not only hero-ize the Huey from down here, but we also better separate it from its surroundings.

I visited the main Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, on the National Mall in D.C., in 2005, but couldn't find an angle of the Spirit of St. Louis that I liked until I wandered toward its tail. There, I was drawn by the range of incongruous details, so this is the shot I made.

The open door suggests an interior, while our normal experience is entirely the exterior. The multiple cables and, especially, the shiny metal shackles are certainly, if understandably, out of place. The fabric skin is prominent from back here while, again, we normally envision the swirled metal nacelle behind the engine. And beyond the aircraft, there's a Ranger satellite and the structure of the building.As a photo of the Spirit of St. Louis, it is not very descriptive. But there are plenty of descriptive photos available elsewhere, so I opted for an angle on the ship that was unusual and placed Lucky Lindy's plane, circa 1927, in the same frame as a moon mission satellite launched less than 40 years later, well within Lindbergh's lifetime.**

A McDonnell F-4J/S Phantom II flown by famed U.S. Naval aviator "Duke" Cunningham is on display at the San Diego (California) Air & Space Museum. It is presented in a banking turn, a bank I further emphasized by slightly rolling my camera.

In the U.S. Navy's National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida, I was pleased to find a Vought F7U-3M Cutlass. What a sweet tail-end of an airplane, right? Sleek and smooth, with the engines snuggled into a flat fuselage and not one tail, but two! (Editor's note: the author remembers this aircraft for its looks, not for its stellar history — it was nicknamed "Gutless Cutlass" and you can learn more about it at

Where was I? Ah, yes — rolling the camera! By doing so I kept the information we see in the image — the shapes and colors — but added visual energy.

At the entrance to that same museum, a Grumman F-14 Tomcat has pride of place on a pylon. I put my on widest-angle lens and rolled, capturing an amazing amount of the aircraft, considering I'm nearly under the missiles in the upper left. The lens necessarily distorts objects/people at the edges, but near the center things look fairly normal. Lots of energy and fun.

Notes on the people: nearest my camera is my friend Gary Edwards, while another friend, John Sepp, is chatting with the man in yellow. The man in yellow — the man without a camera around his neck — is Russ Munson, a very successful aviation photographer, a nice and funny man, and the creator of the photos of seagulls that accompany the novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull. 

In Case of Case

A museum might have items of interest in glass or plexiglass cases, in which case (hah!) additional challenges must be met.

These mementos are displayed at the Louisiana Military Museum in Broussard, Louisiana. Such display cases are often poorly lighted, sometimes with the photographer blocking some of that poor lighting, so a wide aperture is a common, often automated, choice for a properly exposed image. But a wide aperture leads to a shallow depth of focus, so a slow shutter speed would be the better solution in order to keep more of the depth of items in focus. But a slow shutter speed is harder to hold steady and, thus, not blur the entire image from the tiny shaking of the camera during that longer exposure time.

The whole point of photographing items in a display case is to see the details, and yet the photographic constraints conspire to make this situation more demanding than it might appear. We need a small aperture (depth of focus) which needs a slow shutter speed, which needs a steady camera in a place that might not allow tripods.

Fine. In the above photo, I admit I had my monopod with me, and that let me keep a very small aperture for maximum depth of focus, as small as that lens allows (f/22), and a shutter speed slow enough for proper exposure without unwanted shake (1/13 of a sec).

This display case is not at a museum, but at the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office hangar outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. The case contains mementos and a model and, on top, a visitor logbook, this last item leading to an image that illustrates additional problems: defects in the glazing surface and reflections on same.

To keep the logbook in the shot, since I considered it part of the composition, I had to back away from the case, and apparently I couldn't get my camera more on top of the scene. I kept the depth of focus okay, and I was using my monopod again, but that scratched glass, emphasized by it reflecting the nearby fluorescent tube, really detracts. The mixed color temperatures don't help either — low pressure sodium light coming from behind me on the right, and the fluorescent, sure make a mess of the color accuracy, but the intent was not art but memory.

Back to Udvar-Hazy and a case full of rotary-wing aircraft models. I figured I'd make this shot to have the case placed in its environment, but what really drew me to this instant was the kids, on the far side, examining the display. It is hard to discern at this small size, but I love the interest I can see in their faces, and rightfully so because the range of aircraft in there is amazing.

And here's an angle to help support that contention and, believe me, if you are at the museum, this case is worth some of your time. Photographically, I have pushed the front of the lens flush against the glass, which both eliminates possible glare and defects and reflections of the camera and photographer, but also gives me a steady support for the necessary slow shutter speed (1/20 sec). No camera supports are allowed in the museum, so you find the support where you can.

Actually, I should call out that point: I believe every photo I made at Udvar-Hazy that day was made with the camera resting on something, such as the floor, a handrail, the seating or short railings that line the walkways (you can see them in the wide shot of the display case with the kids, which actually might make me a liar, in that the wide shot of the display case seems like I would have been standing to make it.)

Standing alone is another model in its very own, generously sized, case, and again I pressed my camera against the "glass" for the reasons mentioned above. I'm not sure why this model got its own display case, a frameless one at that, with just the clear panels on four sides and the top. I don't even recall what this aircraft is, which leads me to this tip…

Look For Labels

Although I still don't know how this model gained such isolation and prominence, I do know it is a one-sixth scale model of a Pennsylvania Aircraft Syndicate W.R.K. Gyroplane and, well, that's enough about it, but I know those things because I photographed the signage that accompanied it — facts I have at hand because I photographed the label.

And the value of bringing home the photo of the label might go beyond merely remembering the make and model; sometimes you read the label, or only part of the label, and miss a detail or later forget the interesting detail of the particular one on display. When did this fly? 1931. Why did this gyroplane have wings and ailerons? For control, though they were later removed and flown with just the rotors. Was it successful? Nope. On its second wing-less flight it crashed and killed the pilot.

Lots to learn later, as I certainly did not remember those details from my visit.

Plus, if you are visiting a museum with someone less enamored of the subject matter, they might easily tire of your pace, if your pace involves stopping to read each and every single itsy bitsy bit of information and, please, can we just go back to the hotel so I can get off my feet and maybe watch some TV?

You might be surprised to learn that this helicopter is a later version of the helicopters you see flying in the opening sequence of the television series M*A*S*H, the venerable Bell model 47. The military version of that aircraft, of which this is, was known as the H-13 and, starting with the 13J series it featured an elongated cabin and an enclosed tail boom. Nice. But you might not have known that this exact aircraft flew as Air Force One early in the Eisenhower administration, shuttling the then-president to and from destinations not far from the nation's capital.

If you'd not known that, and hadn't spent the time reading the placard at the museum but had captured the placard in pixels, you would be better informed later, in the comfort of the hotel room with your shoes off and the TV playing. Who knows? Maybe it was you who was tired of your pace!?

The Takeaway

Museums can be great places to visit, but are seldom great places for photography. Most often there are too many targets in not enough room, too much to see and not enough light to make great photos. But the best can be made of what's there.

The most common theme for enjoyable and more interesting museum photography, looking back at this piece, is making the photo from some other location than at eye level. By finding an angle to the subject, and possibly an angle to the camera, is both informative and visually satisfying.

Lighting is usually not your friend, so good support in the form of a tripod or monopod can be important. If those are not available, a nearby structures such as benches or poles — or even the ground — are useful alternatives.

Finally, do yourself, and possibly some poor friend/spouse who got dragged into visiting yet another big building full of machines, a big favor and bring back photos of the labels for everything you saw.

Musea may have aircraft that are difficult to see otherwise, or impossible to see if they are the only one made, or the only one left. You, and those who will view your images, will be better rewarded by making your memento musea more interesting and complete. Just a few more seconds behind the camera will give you minutes more pleasure.

* At the time, Sikorsky Aircraft was a client of my then-agency, and my business partner and I are responsible for the naming and branding graphics for the X2 Technology Demonstrator.

** My father was born two years after Charles Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight and, as I understand it, was named Charles in honor of the great airman. I can't say whether my father became a U.S. Air Force pilot because of that connection, but a pilot he did become.


Iain Ronis(non-registered)
Mark - Another great compilation of photos and thoughtful commentary. Museums like Udvar-Hazy, the Duxford American & British, and others are such target-rich environments and patience is a necessity if you visit on busy days. I'd not heard of the D-21 before; Mounted on the top of the M12, it makes one wonder what the performance of a three-engine'ed SR71 would have been like?!
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