The Louvre – a challenging photographic subject

The challenge
Sharon has dealt elsewhere with the challenge of drawing in a visually cluttered space – and a similar challenge awaits the unwary photographer.

Musee de Louvre

Louvre Museum

It’s all about the looking
For me, it’s all about the looking. As with drawing, if you take photos then you start to notice the little things, how light is playing on the object, how a shadow falls or reflection provides an odd juxtaposition. How does the object sit in its context? And what about the workmanship!

Difficult conditions
In the Museé de Louvre there are a number of things working against the photographer.

  • Firstly, and rightly, it is important to conserve the objects and ensure they are not damaged by light – so many are housed in a dark environment. That’s great for your eyes because you adapt and can see an extraordinarily dynamic light range – unlike your camera. And flash is definitely forbidden. Besides, you don’t want to be a vandal and degrade the colours for future generations do you?
  • Secondly, so as not to impede the traffic flow you are not allowed to use a tripod. So those long exposure shots to counter the dark are not happening.
  • Thirdly there is a mix of artificial and natural light that changes from room to room, object to object and plays merry hell with your white balance.
  • The objects are in groups and form a visual feast from which it can be hard to determine in a photo where one object finishes and the next begins.
  • Then there are objects behind glass – all those reflections and you can barely see the object behind, let alone photograph it. A challenge? ‘Don’t get me started….’ I hear you say.

The solution
Well, I love a challenge – and all of these issues can be at least partially overcome with a little planning and forethought. When heading to a museum I consider what I’m going to be looking at – so a bit of research first. Napoleon’s rooms seem a good place to start – as we hadn’t really tackled these on previous visits. So there will be tight room shots requiring a wide angle lens – into the bag goes the 10-24mm wide angle lens. Next there will be some low light shots – so you want a fast lens – better put in the 17-50 f/2.8 – it has a useful zoom range for close views, is pretty good in low light and with the addition of a 1.4x teleconverter I can extend the range into a 24-70mm focal length – good to get across a room and still have reasonable light. The 17-50 also has an image stabiliser – good for longer hand-held exposures. You can leave the heavy super zoom at the hotel, because you are shooting interiors after all.

And for the reflections? the one filter I use on such occasions – never leave home without it – is a circular polarising filter.

How polarising works: When light travels to an object the light waves are random in all directions. But when they bounce off an object (reflection) the ones coming back at you are all lined up in in one direction – this is called polarising. The circular polarising filter allows you to rotate the filter until it cancels out the reflected light, leaving all the others from the object intact and clear to photograph.

So forget the UV filters (they can protect your lens, but so will a lens hood) – just make sure you have a circular polariser in your kit bag. I’m actually amazed at how many people take big DSLR cameras into a museum and don’t have a circular polariser.

Now Sharon reckons that with everything working against the photographer I’m just going to get a bunch of blurred dark  orange photos. Either that or she knows I’m up for a challenge and she should get at least an hour’s drawing in before I give up in disgust… 🙂

And the photos
So here goes. First challenge is Napoleon’s dining room. It is dark, has strong natural light coming from the side, is visually cluttered and has yellow artificial light in the centre.

Napoleon's dining room, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Napoleon’s dining room, Museé du Louvre, Paris

First thing I notice is that there is a rope across so you can’t enter the room. But the rope is attached to a stand that is not a museum collection object, it is stable and about waist height – more on that in a moment. The light is mostly natural, so I bias the white balance to ‘shade’. It is quite dark and I know I have to risk movement. To minimise movement I want a fast shutter speed, so I push the ISO (sensitivity) to about 1600 – the canon 60D copes with it quite well, and means I can get the shot at around 1/20th of a second. Remember that rope stand? I stabilise the camera on it and take the shot – actually I take 2-3 on the basis that I probably moved on at least one. There will be some noise at ISO1600, but you can filter that out later – whereas a motion blurred image will still be blurred. I also shoot in RAW format as that retains more data than you see, meaning I can retrieve information from the shadows later. I shoot with the meter at least one stop dark to get the fastest shot (shortest exposure) I can. And the above photo is the result.

Napoleon’s bedroom was fairly straightforward

Napoleon's bedroom, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Napoleon’s bedroom, Museé du Louvre, Paris

Here the main challenge was that I was facing a window, so I metered for the bed, over exposing the window, which I later cropped out.

mask, Musee de Louvr

mask, Museé du Louvre

This mask was behind glass – so on went the circular polariser and away went the annoying reflections.

The vase was stunningly beautiful and I really liked the concept of the two children exploring – while functioning as handles. Brilliant design, great colours and yes it was hidden in a dark corner, with a window reflection.

Vase, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Vase, Museé du Louvre, Paris

The polariser limited some reflections, but the curved surface meant that there were multiple reflections with different polarity – so all I could do was cut down the worst.

There were no rests so it was a case of push up the ISO, meter the light on the low side, take a couple of breaths and hold the camera still while I breathed out and took the shot. It worked. Three others didn’t. That happens. But with digital you are not wasting film so shoot away 🙂

Same goes for this cabinet – great craftsmanship and wonderful design, but in a dark room with a dark background. The blue-green of the wall provided a great complimentary colour to bring out the warmth of the wood.

Cabinet, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Cabinet, Musee de Louvre, Paris


There were of course many more photos, but this is probably enough to say for one post! Have I missed any tips? Please let me know in the comments 🙂


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5 Responses to The Louvre – a challenging photographic subject

  1. sharonb says:

    Jerry you could just buy a postcard…
    grins …

  2. Anneliese says:

    Yes, indeed, beautiful photos just like postcards. I was reading the description how you took the photos with very much interest. Unreachable for me.

  3. Barbara says:

    I really enjoyed this post. You shots are great and I’m sure we all appreciate your expertise and tips.
    Barbara
    P.S. Sharon, where’s the challenge in buying postcards?? 🙂

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