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04-12-2008, 02:39 PM   #1
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Best lens for handheld museum photography?

I'm an art historian trying to amass my own photo archive of Greek and Roman art, so mostly large pieces of sculpture and small three-dimensional artifacts (vases, bronze implements, etc.). The objects I photograph are mostly inside museums, where the lighting is poor and tripods are forbidden. There are exceptions, of course; some museums allow tripods on low-traffic days, and some will allow the use of one by prior arrangement, but for the most part, I'm stuck with low light and a handheld camera.

I'm starting to invest in better equipment to deal with the challenges of museum photography, but can't afford a whole suite of lenses. Right now I have only a Sigma 28-300 f/3.5. I figure a fast prime lens is probably the way to go, but I'm not sure how wide it should be. One of my friends said he bought a 50mm f/1.4, but he is disappointed in its very shallow depth of field. He described being unable to get both the nose and the ear of a sculpted portrait in focus at once (when shooting wide open), or else being unable to step back far enough to get a whole 6-ft-tall statue in the frame. (I know he's no photography expert, so it's possible he's just doing something wrong.) In my perfect world, I would be able to photograph statues in low light and have the shots turn out nice and sharp and with a blurred background to help the statue stand out.

So: would a 20mm f/1.8 be the way to go? Or would it be too wide and prevent me from getting that bokeh I desire? Would a 35 or 50mm be better? If so, how far back would I have to stand to get the whole statue in the frame?

04-12-2008, 03:55 PM   #2
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Hello and welcome to the site. Right off the bat I will let you know that you friend is indeed doing something wrong. The larger the aperature, the smaller the DOF he is going to have, f/1.4 is gonna get you about the width of a DVD, f/3.5 - 5.6 would do the trick.

Now back to you, if I were in your shoes, I would get the DA35LTD Macro. It should be wide enough to get the big items in your frame and with the macro feature you can get close to the smaller items. It is f/2.8 so it will be fast enough for indoors and it is small enough to use the on-camera flash and not get shadows. I would recommend getting a diffuser for it though.
04-13-2008, 01:01 AM   #3
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QuoteOriginally posted by Timarete Quote
So: would a 20mm f/1.8 be the way to go?
On a crop format camera, 20mm is not too wide and a good 20/1.8 lens would be quite ideal for museum work. Unfortunately, the only fast 20mm lens available for Pentax cameras is the Sigma, which is not very good below f/2.8. The Pentax FA 20/2.8 or DA 21/3.2 Limited are not so fast, but they are good lenses and are more compact than the Sigma. You can shoot handheld with a 20mm at 1/8 or 1/4 sec. with Shake Reduction if you have steady hands, so f/2.8 at 400-800 ISO would be OK inside most museums.

But my favorite lens for museum photography is the Sigma 24/1.8, which is much better than the 20mm. It is perfectly usable wide open. It also has a close focusing feature, which is very handy for photographing small items or details of bigger ones.

Cheers!

Abbazz
04-13-2008, 12:21 PM   #4
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I guess the first question I have is, are you a historian by profession, or by hobby?

I am surprised if you are doing this professionally that you would not get a permit from museums to photograph using a tripod, however, having said that your first need is a DSLR with shake reduction, because no matter what else you do, it is great for indoor low light situations.

regarding lenses, a good fast lens helps, but only with focuising because if you are concerned about statutes etc, then you need the depth of field of a lens stopped down.

If a friend was using a 50mm F1.4 and disappoinded by the lack of depth, it is because he was shooting wide open to get shutter speed,

I have shot quite successfully with the sigma 10-20mm zoom, in the french museums and churches, yes you need to up the ISO a little, but the results are quite good for personal collections (not so sure about commercial use however)

My last though brings up an interesting question, specifically the use of the photos.

04-13-2008, 01:44 PM   #5
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I bought the sigma 20mm f/1.8 It back focused very very very very badly I'll never buy a sigma product again. I'd certainly give it a shot if I had a store that supplied them, and I could make sure you had a good copy, but I won't touch them again thru mail order.
04-13-2008, 02:26 PM   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by Timarete Quote
I'm an art historian trying to amass my own photo archive of Greek and Roman art, so mostly large pieces of sculpture and small three-dimensional artifacts (vases, bronze implements, etc.). The objects I photograph are mostly inside museums, where the lighting is poor and tripods are forbidden. There are exceptions, of course; some museums allow tripods on low-traffic days, and some will allow the use of one by prior arrangement, but for the most part, I'm stuck with low light and a handheld camera.

I'm starting to invest in better equipment to deal with the challenges of museum photography, but can't afford a whole suite of lenses. Right now I have only a Sigma 28-300 f/3.5. I figure a fast prime lens is probably the way to go, but I'm not sure how wide it should be. One of my friends said he bought a 50mm f/1.4, but he is disappointed in its very shallow depth of field. He described being unable to get both the nose and the ear of a sculpted portrait in focus at once (when shooting wide open), or else being unable to step back far enough to get a whole 6-ft-tall statue in the frame. (I know he's no photography expert, so it's possible he's just doing something wrong.) In my perfect world, I would be able to photograph statues in low light and have the shots turn out nice and sharp and with a blurred background to help the statue stand out.

So: would a 20mm f/1.8 be the way to go? Or would it be too wide and prevent me from getting that bokeh I desire? Would a 35 or 50mm be better? If so, how far back would I have to stand to get the whole statue in the frame?
Although it is fairly expensive, the Pentax 12-24mm f/4 might be a good museum lens. Near focus is just 1 foot (30 cm). At this distance, the long side of the sensor takes in about 8 inches (20 cm) with the lens set to 24mm. The lens is NOT compatible with the internal flash, if flash is a consideration.
04-13-2008, 02:49 PM   #7
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Hi Timarete,
I have a Sigma EX DG 24mm F1.8. Its my low light companion (leads me into all sorts of dark alleys :ugh.
Not sure exactly what you are looking for and how much you want to spend....but this works for me, and it is affordable.

here's some examples, all handheld, no pp, apologies for the non straightening. .
Cheers
Grant

Last edited by Mallee Boy; 05-22-2008 at 03:49 AM.
04-13-2008, 03:02 PM   #8
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QuoteOriginally posted by Timarete Quote
One of my friends said he bought a 50mm f/1.4, but he is disappointed in its very shallow depth of field. He described being unable to get both the nose and the ear of a sculpted portrait in focus at once (when shooting wide open), or else being unable to step back far enough to get a whole 6-ft-tall statue in the frame.
That's just lens physics. If your friend is using the 50mm wide open from about three feet away the DOF is going to be under an inch. Not only is it difficult to grab precise focus but everything outside that narrow range will be a blur. If he wants one foot of DOF he's going to have to be 12 feet away... and runs into a wall or the other statue behind him.

One way to improve this situation is to stop down. At f/2.8 you'd get a foot of DOF at 9 feet away. But this is likely still going to be tough in a museum. The other way is to get a smaller focal length. At first I thought the new 35mm f/2.8 limited Buddha Jones recommended would be good, since it will provide that same DOF at only 6 feet when wide open. But unfortunately that is too close to get a 6 foot tall statue into the FOV.

If, on the other hand, you have a 20mm lens, you can stand 6 foot back and get in a six foot statue in portrait mode with a bit of leeway. If that same lens can go down to f/2.8 you'll have three feet of DOF... plenty. Others have recommended specific lenses in this zone. I have little experience.

04-13-2008, 09:59 PM   #9
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Keep 'em coming!

Wow. I'm getting some terrific replies here. Many thanks for your recommendations and thoughts on this topic!

To the person who inquired about my intended uses: good question. Yes, I am an art historian by profession, and yes, if I need to publish a particular object I will of course make a formal request to use a tripod and lights. My general project is to amass a collection that covers as many bases as possible, with my perfect world being an archive full of photos that are excellent for teaching, for personal reference, for illustrating conference talks, and that are also suitable for publication. I travel at great expense to many foreign destinations and want to be able to photograph as many objects as possible while I have the opportunity. I can get away with showing students substandard photos, but I'd rather not. I can get permission from museums to have special access, but it is expensive and time-consuming to make a special trip for such a purpose. Therefore, I'm in the habit of taking pictures of nearly everything on display at the museums I visit. And I want those photos to be good!

I did some quick research on the lenses that have been recommended so far in this thread. It is frustrating to find such a mixed bag of reviews out there. I'm not sure which ones to believe. Since my current lens is 28mm at its widest--and that seems just barely wide enough--I'm inclined to get something close to that length or wider. However, I'm hearing mostly bad reviews of the Sigma 20mm f/1.8. The Sigma 24mm f/1.8 and 30mm f/1.4 both have mixed reviews. The Pentax 31mm f/1.8 is probably more than I can afford. I was hoping to keep the price under $400 (not including filters).

I look forward to hearing more about these really fast, wide lenses, if any of you have more to say. Thanks again for the great replies!
04-14-2008, 07:37 AM   #10
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Have you looked into monopods? They might be allowed where tripods are not. Much smaller footprint and will really help you keep the camera steady.
04-14-2008, 08:11 AM   #11
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My experience, the DA40 is probably the best lens for handheld museum photography. One thing is because it is very sharp cross the field even at F2.8, the other thing is that the lens is very tiny and small, it's like you are holding the camera only, which helps alot to get sharp results even at a slow shutter speed.
04-14-2008, 09:20 AM   #12
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Is the DA35 macro a flat field? I know you said that you were mostly taking photos of 3D items, but a flat field macro would have the benefit of being ideal for copy work if you find yourself wanting to take pictures of documents.
04-14-2008, 09:53 AM   #13
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Do posts take a long time to appear?

I posted a fairly lengthy reply to this thread yesterday and don't see it here. I hope it ultimately appears. Do posts always have to be individually approved?
04-14-2008, 09:59 AM   #14
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QuoteOriginally posted by Timarete Quote
I posted a fairly lengthy reply to this thread yesterday and don't see it here. I hope it ultimately appears. Do posts always have to be individually approved?
No, I have not heard of that. In fact this message will appear instantly I hope, thus confirming my claim.
04-14-2008, 10:24 AM   #15
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QuoteOriginally posted by Timarete Quote
I posted a fairly lengthy reply to this thread yesterday and don't see it here. I hope it ultimately appears. Do posts always have to be individually approved?
It's most likely because your connection crashed right when you pressed the submit button .

Back to the original question. If you're an art historian, you might want to talk to the curator to let you stay for a short time after the closing hour to take your pictures.

Or you can use flash. IIRC, they don't have any policy against flash. You might want to read up some flash techniques from strobist blog site to avoid DMV flash style:

Strobist: Lighting 101

With flash, you can get any lens you want, but I would second the DA 12-24 since you can cover great FOV at close distance. Lug a macro with you, if you need finer detail. Beside, WA lens have greater DOF at a given aperture compared to normal or telephoto lens. So basically you need to carry a camera, 2 lenses, and a flash. No need for the cumbersome tripod/monopod..
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