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.