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I once knew the names for this type of bronze vessel, it now escapes me.

I once knew the names for this type of bronze vessel, it now escapes me.

I went to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco today on the way back from dropping someone off at SFO. As always I enjoyed the exhibits (they had Samurai’s this time), but the trip highlighted the challenges of photographing in museums.

First I had all of my camera gear with me since I was unsure of what I would be doing before and after the museum, at this point that just constitutes at Think Tank Photo Streetwalker backpack. However there was a size limit on bags in the museum so I had to check my bag in the complimentary coat check. I was allowed to take my camera with me but not the bag. I had to decide which lens to take with me, knowing that no flashes are allowed I chose my 50mm f/1.8 for the high speed.

With no flash and no tripod I would have be limited mostly to all handheld shots and museums are surprisingly dark places (for the most part). I rarely went below an ISO of 400 and kept the aperture at f/1.8 the entire time. I would have liked a zoom lens for the wider angles and even a zoom but the kit lenses I have are far too slow.

With a high ISO I am pleased how the photos came out (the Samurai exhibit did not allow photography) the only problem I faced was the lack of an autofocus. Usually I am fine with manual focus, however it was combined with low light so I was below the standard 1/50s exposure time (since it is a 50mm lens) and was often at 1/20 or 1/40. It was necessary to manually focus with a shallow depth of field and steady the camera.

I utilized the usual trick of bracing against walls, pillars, signs and the odd chair though this museum had a dearth of conveniently located propping points. In the end I relied on the high ISO, an exposure compensation of -1 or -2 and the large aperture. I realize now that I should have set metering to be just at the focal point instead of factoring in the entire frame, the rest of the frame tended to be black if not dark and unnecessarily increased the exposure.

Back home when I went through the photos I found myself holding them to a different standard compared to other subjects. Instead of evaluating the photos of the art pieces by their content I did it by lighting, sharpness and focal plane. Only if a given piece had multiple sharp well exposed photos did I start to look into composition and even subject matter.

Now if I could only remember back to my Chinese Art History class to figure out what I photographed.

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