Stuff taking photos with an iPad; how does taking photos of works of art do them any justice at all?

Snapping pictures of pictures. Why?

August 12 , 2013 by: Daniela Bowker Opinion & Editorial

Over at Gizmodo on Saturday, they asked the question ‘What’s so wrong about taking photos with an iPad?‘ I’ve covered the ‘using the iPad as a camera’ issue before, so I’m not going to rehash it because that would be boring and actually it rather misses my point because what caught my eye was the image choice to illustrate the article. It was of a young woman using her iPad to photograph impressionist paintings in a gallery. This. This is something that I just do not understand.

Not specifically using an iPad to photograph multi-layered, complex works of art, normally exhibited in carefully controlled environments, but photographing them at all. What’s the obsession?

It wasn’t just the Gizmodo article that got me thinking this; it’s something that I’ve noticed before now in various galleries. Rather than taking time to absorb a piece, to let its colours and its story and its brushwork wash over you, people seem to be intent on looking at it through their three inch—or in the case of a tablet, slightly larger—screens, grabbing a quick photo and moving on from it. I cannot determine any pleasure in that I’m not certain how appreciative it is of the artist’s skill and talent.

Stuff taking photos with an iPad; how does taking photos of works of art do them any justice at all?

Stuff taking photos with an iPad; how does taking photos of works of art do them any justice at all? (The picture that got me started, on Gizmodo.)

When you have a Renoir worth millions hanging before you, you pay it the attention it demands and the respect it deserves. That doesn’t come from a photo snapped hastily with a miniscule-sensored camera that you’ll probably never actually look at again. Even if you do look at your snapshot again, it’ll never be able to entrance and captivate you in the same way that the original can. I promise you, a pefectly lit, carefully composed medium format reproduction of a Guardi, a Stubbs, or a Fantin-Latour cannot, in any way, compare to the real thing. So don’t think that your iPad-snap or point-and-shoot shot will. You’re in a gallery to observe the art, why not do that?

It’s almost as if people are taking photos to remind themselves that they’ve actually seen something, rather than really looking at it and being able to remember it for how glorious it is.

Yes, I suppose that people can waste their time and money photographing delicate, intricate pieces of art with cameras of varying quality in far-from-optimal lighting conditions, rather than gazing at it, enjoying it, and absorbing it if they want to. But can they damn well make sure that they do not stand directly in front it, obscuring my view, when I’m trying to do just that?

About Daniela

This post was written by Daniela Bowker, who has written 1397 articles for Photocritic

Daniela has written three books on photography, contributed to several others, and acted as the editorial consultant on many more.

Her newest book, Social Photography, is currently available as a digital download as well as in bookshops in the UK and US.

You might also want to check out her exploration of other-worldly photographic creations, Surreal Photography: Creating the Impossible, and Photo School Fundamentals, for which she contributed the section on composition.


  • Almost 5,000 photographs of paintings.

    • But… why?

  • I do this on almost every visit to a museum.
    I also photograph the description card next to the painting or other work of art.

    Both actions happen after I spend time with the pieces.

    A few reasons:
    I can’t take them home. Something is better than nothing.
    To have visual notes to spur further research on obscure artists (Spanish Impressionists anyone?) while
    To use is studying composition at leisure. You don’t need an excellent reproduction for that purpose.

    • This I can understand. I’m far more perplexed by people who look for a second-and-half (if that), snap a picture, and move on.

  • This further enforces my (unfortunate) belief that more and more people are content to view their world(s) via the digital screen of their smartphones or computers. They don’t even know what they’re losing …

  • Yes, I have been known to do this. Not so much in my hometown, where I can visit the artwork whenever I want, but when traveling to distant museums and galleries, if something catches my eye and I’m able, I do snap it. For later reference mostly.

  • To be completely honest, I think there is a relatively high number of people that go to museums, not for the works of art so much as they can say they’ve been to a museum. I guess they feel it gives them “cultural street cred”. The cellphone/iPad photos allow them to immediately show their Facebook friends that they are not boors. Quick glance, quick snapshot, move on…

    I have snapped a few photographs of sculptures from time to time, and sometimes photos of archeological artifacts.

    When I was young I used to look at the color plates of paintings in art-books and was enamored by the beauty of many of these paintings, but the first time I ever laid eyes on an actual Van Gogh painting I was amazed and just floored by it. The thick layers of paint and the swirling textures created an almost tactile composition that was something I never perceived even in the most expensive books.

    There’s a three-dimensionality in paintings that can’t be recreated even by the best photographers and equipment let alone a distorted badly color balanced snapshot taken by art tourist with an iPad.

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