When “No Photography” Really Means “No Flash Photography”

No Photography, These Animals Are Highly Sensitive

One of the things that annoys me to no end is when I see “no photography” policies that are put into place in order to restrict flash photography. Recently I encountered an example of this at the new California Academy of Sciences, a wonderful and remarkable museum where my family has purchased a family membership and which I’ve already shot pretty extensively so far.

I have to give the Academy high marks for allowing photography in the entire museum for the most part. It’s an incredible architecturally significant (and actually living) structure. The exhibits really are first rate and the fact that you can shoot there (and even wear a backpack) are really great. But I was disappointed recently when I visited and saw several “no photography” signs in the basement aquarium of the new museum.

People were ignoring these signs pretty much and shooting anyways, but that’s beside the point. I sat and watched one of the “no photography” exhibits for a while and saw several altercations between photographers and museum patrons. One patron chided another for taking a non-flash photograph, “can’t your read,” she curtly said to the photographer, “it says ‘no photography’ why do people like you always think they’re above the law.”

The photographer said that they thought that the museum meant no “flash photography,” (they were using an iPhone without a flash). The woman got agitated with the photographer and continued the altercation, “if they meant no ‘flash’ photography then it would say ‘no flash photography’,” she continued. “People like you are so rude,” she chided the photographer again.

After seeing a few altercations like this I decided to investigate this policy a bit so I went to talk to one of docents. I asked her why the signs were there and asked if it had to do with flash photography. She told me that actually it did not. She said that cameras have lasers in them and that when the shutter opens the laser in the camera can shoot out and harm the fish. Now, I know that there are not lasers in cameras, at least not in my new Canon 5D M2 that I was shooting with that day,” but I left it at that.

When I returned home from my trip I contacted the museum aquarium staff and inquired about the policy by email. The response that I got back was pretty much exactly as I expected. The museum staff confirmed what I assumed the reason why they had the “no photography” signs on certain exhibits was. They said it was to “be on the safe side, lest someone forget to turn off his/her flash.”

Now while I can see why the museum staff has this policy in place, I still don’t agree with it. My Canon 5D M2 doesn’t even have a flash on it. I couldn’t use flash on their exhibit even if I wanted to. And it sort of drives me crazy when people try to prohibit all photography based on arguments about flash.

So what’s the alternative? Well, they could easily replace the “no photography” sign with a sign that says “no photography without museum permission, or museum permit,” and point people to the staff offices for a permit. Here if there were photographers like me who really wanted to shoot those animals they could reconfirm and stress (if it’s indeed that important) that any photography must be done *without* a flash. I could then return with my simple paper permit in hand and when that batty woman who won’t mind her own business starts to chide me I could pull out my “permit” and show her that indeed I do have permission.

Of course as people mostly were just ignoring the sign anyways, while I was there at least, they could also just consider changing the sign to a more photographer friendly, “no flash photography,” with an explanation that flash really stresses the animals out to put extra emphasis on it.

They also might want to consider telling their docents that digital cameras don’t shoot laser beams. This is not Buck Rogers in the 21st Century — it’s a science museum, where it’s probably better that policies be based on real actual science, not science fiction.

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  1. Brian Hoyt says:

    While the docent said the wrong term I think what she was talking about was the IR light sensor on many cameras. The other possibility is the red eye reducer on some cameras. Both could be mistaken for a laser I suppose and would emit light that the fish could see if they are deep sea fish used to low light. When so many people are incapable of properly using their camera and thus have no idea how to disable flash I think it is fair for the protection of the animals.

  2. And this was at a science museum where the cameras allegedly have laser beams? Sigh.

    Anyway, agree w/ you 100% – if they don’t want flash photography, put up a No Flash Photography sign.

  3. Adam Maas says:

    Actually, the Docent was almost right. Active AF systems on some cameras, mostly film P&S’s and some early digital P&S’s actually do use IR beam rangefinder systems to focus, which may be using IR lasers in very late models. SLR’s and modern digital P&S’s don’t do this as their AF systems are passive systems (Phase-detect on SLR’s, contrast detect on P&S’s).

  4. jon says:

    To be fair though the majority of people taking pictures are not savvy enough to turn off their flash. Just look at the first pitch of the world series… thousands of flashes going off from people who are 100yards from their subject. If they were to allow photography then the animals would certainly get flashed.

    What they should probably do is implement some sort of application process to take pictures so you have to be fairly motivated to come take pictures. That would weed out a lot of the amateurs.

  5. _Don says:

    In low light, a DSLR will/may still throw light out to use its autofocus feature. My D200 does, and this may be what they mean. I’ve seen the Rebel XT flash-out AF light strobes that could cause an epileptic attack. Very distracting. So that’s what they mean. And I agree Thomas, if someone really wanted to, they could get a pass, and have the museum staff instruct them on the whys and hows.

    Having said that. One who knows their camera (and has the camera that can do it), just needs to switch to manual focus and all is good. I did this one time at a friend’s kid’s choir concert. They asked for no photography as the flash distracts the performers. Fair enough (i’ve been on the receiving end of said flash). So I just switched to manual mode and got the shots no one else could.

  6. Plug1 says:

    >> One patron chided another for taking a non-flash photograph, “can’t your read,” she curtly said to the photographer, “it says ‘no photography’ why do people like you always think they’re above the law.” >> ha! that was me (getting chided).

    still, that was a great day. i shot 568 RAW images that day. and still have not begun to process. all in all, i thought their policies were very permissive and it was nice to be able to shoot at will.

  7. Duey says:

    They should have just hung a sign that says “No Flash Photography”, as you suggested. They assume people will forget to turn off their flashes so they just say no photography, period. That’s ridiculous.

  8. Brad says:

    Not that it’s relevant today, but I have a Sony f707 that DOES use a laser diode for AF – and it works great. It paints an extremely sharp (over any distance) crosshatch pattern on your subject – permitting AF in total darkness (which is useful in nightshot mode). Was the best AF I’ve used. But, AFAIK, no manufacturer today is employing that; using IR and visible LEDs today.

    I can see both sides. If flash is harmful to the animals in *some* areas, then they’re opting on the side of safety. Because there will be some snappers who don’t have a clue and don’t know how to disable their flash on their point-n-shoots. I’ve seen that *many* times in many places – it’s guaranteed…

    A permit is probably the only workable system that’s safe.

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  11. Jason says:

    they could also just consider changing the sign to a more photographer friendly, “no flash photography,” with an explanation that flash really stresses the animals out to put extra emphasis on it.

    The problem is that most people either don’t read signs or aren’t smart enough to know how to turn off their flashes. If they see someone else taking a photo, they will just whip out their cameras and do the same. In this case, it is better to err too much on the side of caution since the well-being of the animals are at stake.

  12. Robert Gale says:

    I experienced this when I visited last October. The museum patrons were stopping people taking photos of the Leafy Sea Dragons yet a few days later in the Monterey Bay Aquarium the same species of animal were being kept in a much lighter environment and photography was allowed (at least there weren’t any signs forbidding it).

  13. Robin Capper says:

    I pondered those signs when I visited a couple of weeks ago. Interesting that the IXUS 980 I was using has an Aquarium mode which turns off both flash and AF “Laser”.

    The art that I found amusing was got a discount on the entry price because arrived on a bicycle, green transport discount?, but had flown 12 hours in a 747 to get to the bicycle…

    Post with some images from the day

  14. Places like that make me wanna go in there and take a bunch of pictures, and then just act clueless, so they can’t get too mad at me.

  15. Ernie Nitka says:

    Thomas – good post – was also recently at the CA museum – I didn’t see the signs or I ignored them – was shooting with the Panasonic LX3 – lens is f/2 so no reason to shoot flash. My OT comment though about the museum that it seemed like I was going into the Hall of Doom and Gloom – like we’ve really screwed up the planet and we all deserve to go to Hell for it. Still it was fun. I now make it a practice to ask at the ticket booth what their photography policy is. The only time I didn’t was at the Experience Music Project when the took my $20 and THEN said I couldn’t photograph – did anyway just to fuck with them

  16. Griffon says:

    Lasers? Really? Perhaps she meant a infrared light sensor that some cameras use?
    What the old saying better to remain silent and let people suspect you are a fool then open you mouth and remove all doubt.

  17. Veryuseful says:

    It isn’t the light… it is the sound. I’m fairly sure my 20D shutter clank can raise the dead. 🙂

  18. Heather says:

    TH- I think you are cool, but I take issue with some of the things in this post. We aren’t talking about buildings or trees, we are referring to animals. These animals are already under enough stress living in an artificial environment. Not EVERYTHING needs to be photographed, esp. when it might cause some harm. I love the CAS as well, but I’m sorry, I respect them and their mission enough not to push the envelope on issues like this. I also don’t expect the “room monitors” to know all the science involved. (Just like I don’t expect the guards at MOMA to know all about the art.) It would be nice to have special, permit only, photo times. (Like after hours, for a small fee…less crowds, but workers still getting paid) I’m sure they would love to have some amazing photos of the Academy (like the DeYoung does). I agree, it would be nice having to have some explaination of policy, and it would give the CAS an opportunity for more education. I wish there was a big sign, “Absolutely NO photos of this tank. To understand why, please read the attached brochure.” You could suggest this and even help them write it. I think that would be better that getting a bunch of photogs all riled up about something they may not understand.

  19. Rachel says:

    In September I spent three weeks traveling around the Mediterranean, and went to a number of museums which all had ‘No Flash Photography’ signs prominently posted. After all, they had things like 3600 year old frescos from Akrotiri, which were still stunningly well-preserved. And people blatantly ignored the no flash signs.

    Some might not have known how to turn off their flashes, but others were willfully disobedient. When being told that repeated uses of flashes will rapidly fade the 3600-year-old paint, I saw one person protest to a docent that, ‘But I won’t get a good picture otherwise. Just one flash won’t hurt it.’ AUGH!

    Unfortunately, this willful disregard for guidelines is why some places just ban photography rather than put up with that behavior. As a photographer, it drives me nuts because when one person chooses to selfishly ignore the guidelines we all suffer. 🙁

    (Of course, this is part of a greater ‘what I want is more important, I can ignore the signs’ mindset I’ve seen around. I watched tourists ignore the ‘do not cross’ ropes in ancient Greek and Roman sites and try to climb ruins for photo opportunities. I wanted to scream.)

  20. Gary Denness says:

    I have to say that on this occasion I disagree with you Thomas. I don’t know the details of this museum and the animals they keep, but I have my own aquarium housing turtles. They can be more than just distressed by flashes, they can potentially be blinded. That may have been the case with the creatures they were keeping. Do you know that is not the case? For certain?

    I appreciate that most people who read your blog do know how to turn their flashes off. But who here hasn’t seen countless morons over the years using their flashes in ‘No Flash’ areas? It might well be a rule born out of stupidity, but perhaps the stupidity of many photographers, rather than the museum.

    As for mocking the guy who referred to cameras having lasers. He may have gotten his terminology wrong, but I got what he meant straightaway. Photography might not be his speciality subject. Was he polite, and was he doing his job ok – those are more important questions. For all you guys know there might be a posse of scientists gathered round a table right now laughing about the photographer who referred to one of the fish as a shark, when really we all know it’s a psychlorsus misychodor.

  21. Daniel Taylor says:

    I want cameras…cameras with freakin laser beams attached to their hot shoes!

  22. Peter Cox says:

    Hello Thomas,
    I sort of stumbled on this topic,as I sort information on “flash photography” on turtles, I do respect other people’s view,however sometimes do not share the same viewpoint,but having said that,I do believe their are some things in life that “feels” wrong,and nobody has to tell somebody that “it is wrong”now situations are different,presently we are in the nesting season for turtles,after watching a “leatherback”labourously lay her eggs,it seems she has just gone through a very difficult task,and people would start “shooting”flash,this to me “cannot” be right,she must be blinded and disorientated for quite some time,does anyone know exactly how she feels!

  23. Random says:

    Sorry, did you take a PHOTOGRAPH of this sign?

    If so, that’s incredibly ironic

  24. Shane says:

    Good grief. So they take animals out of their natural habitat. Plop them in glass boxes and they’re worried about a “laser beam” shooting out of a camera?? Gimme a break. I love this country but it is seriously becoming a flock of ignorant sheep willing to buy whatever management is selling. The stupification of America is well under way…