How to take a great photograph

Ahead of the launch of our photography exhibition Spirit of the North, artist and photographer John Kippin shares his top tips for creating great images (on your camera phone or otherwise).

What makes a good photograph?

Liverpool Docks, Merseyside. A man stands in the foreground looking out to the river
Liverpool Docks, Liverpool, Merseyside [ part of Spirit of the North series ] © John Kippin 2018
For most of us a good photograph is one that is in some way special to us. It might be a picture of people or places that we like to be reminded of, perhaps something that we once were or something that invokes a particular emotional response. A ‘bad photograph’ might show something that we find disagreeable, uninteresting, or worse.

For some people the idea of a ‘good photograph’ is located within the technical and aesthetic requirements of photography. (i.e. that that photographs look like paintings).

The ruined wreck of an aircraft in a field with mountains and greay clouds in the behind
HIDDEN. National Park Northumberland © John Kippin

Photography is deceitful by nature. It creates myths and fantasies and distorts and changes reality. It is both a window on the world and a mirror of our own intentions. It always needs to be interrogated with suspicion and is not intrinsically ‘good’.

An understanding of the relationship between the duration of the exposure (shutter speed) and the aperture (the blinds which allow light to be admitted to the camera) is still relevant and not in any way difficult to understand but few trouble to make the effort.

Even today, the camera in one’s ‘smart’ phone is the least sophisticated function of its operation, although the image processing software that surrounds it might be highly complex.

Close up image of a fish at the surface of a body of water
NATURAL, Scotland 2004 © John Kippin

For those wishing to get the best from their photography, here are some simple (and timeless) guidelines for creating quality images:

  1. Keep the camera steady (If you are handholding it use a shutter speed of 250th second or shorter)
  2. Point the camera at something interesting and ask yourself ‘what is this photograph about?’
  3. Put the subject in the frame – remember, the camera will include even the parts of the image that you didn’t notice such as what is around the edge of the frame.
  4. Use a camera that does not have a shutter delay between pressing the button and the release of the shutter (timing is important and in this regard camera phones are not good).
  5. Make your own prints

  6. Try to focus your opinions through your photography and think about why you are making your photograph.
  7. Do not present your photography with music or use image processing software beyond its most basic functions.
  8. Use standard, or near standard, focal length lenses. The majority of zoom lenses in my experience, only make good paper weights and cause backache.
  9. Develop originality through research, thought, making images and reflecting on them – essentially the same process as making any work of art.

  10. Slow down, both in creating photographs, and in looking at them. The huge numbers of images available to us overwhelm our senses. Galleries provide special spaces for contemplation and reflection and it is worth giving them time.

These 10 points are a useful starting point for those who wish to think more clearly about the technical application of photography, but it is also worth mentioning that photography, although much in evidence, is little understood. In its various guises, it not only describes – but in many ways defines, our modern world.

Adapted from original text by Professor John Kippin MA PhD.

A group of people look at a large ship docked on a beach. There is a small caravan in the foreground
NOSTALGIA FOR THE FUTURE billboard 1998 © John Kippin

Spirit of the North will be exhibited at Bessie Surtees House in Newcastle from 22 June 2018. Find out more here.

Historic Photographer of the Year award

The second Historic Photographer of the Year Awards is open to amateur and professional photographers around the world. We’re proud to be partnering to create a new English History category, which celebrates our unique and incredible historic environment. Find out about how to enter.

Further Reading

5 responses to How to take a great photograph

  1. Matt Emmett says:

    I am teaching photography to students as part of several HLF restoration projects. I am pleased to see quite a few on this list are some of the key things I am teaching as part of the course.

  2. Perhaps an effective way to understand what is happening when you make an image (understanding being the key to success in any endeavour) is to use a film camera. An SLR is probably the most appropriate type. Set it to full manual control and change the variables, noting how the exposure indicator changes in response. Only when the relationship between shutter speed and aperture with ISO is appreciated should one actually put a film in the camera. Make notes of settings and intentions and develop films quickly to keep it relevant. Mimic settings on your digital camera simultaneously in due course. Never use intelligent auto. In emergency use ‘program’ (P) and tweek settings.

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