How to Make Good Pictures

In 1922, Kodak published the 12th edition of How to Make Good Pictures as a guide for amateur photographers. The book was illustrated with photographs by Kodak clients and included technical instruction as well as chapters for artistic guidance—the do’s and don’ts of photography. A number of similar guides were published in the early days of photography, mostly authored by famous photographers. Modern and contemporary photographers have proven time and again that rules are made to be broken and have created compelling images in direct opposition to these guides. Included here are several excerpts of rules, tips, and instructions designed to ensure that amateur photographers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries could make technically correct and compositionally sound photographs.

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 On figure in the landscape

“Before placing figures in a landscape, the artist should first make up his mind whether the composition requires the introduction of any object to add to its completeness. If it does, do not let anything induce him to take the view without the figure, because he will be doing something that he can see could be done better with the assistance of a little more trouble; above all, he should avoid incongruity, and never, for the sake of pleasing a friend by putting him in the picture, introduce an element of discord. The figures should look so right where they are placed, that we should have no supposition that it would be possible to place them anywhere else.

If perfect pictorial success is to be expected, no more figures than are absolutely necessary should be introduced. One figure more would be a useless blot, and injure the effect. Care must be taken that the figures compose well in relation to themselves, as well as to the landscape. In too many photographs, figures are to be seen straggling over the foreground, perfect strangers to each other, to all appearance, united by no purpose whatever, except that of having their portraits taken at a great disadvantage.”
—Henry Peach Robinson, Pictorial Effect in Photography, Scovill & Adams, 1892

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On photographing portraits without heads

“The photograph of a man holding his own head in his hand or carrying it on a plate, etc., has always a very strange effect. Producing such pictures is not very difficult; it only requires some skill in combination printing. The sitter is photographed in front of a white background, and his hand arranged so as if it were holding some object. In the finished negative the picture is at first entirely stopped out with black varnish on the back, with the exception, however, of the head of the sitter, which is printed alone on the sensitive paper. Then the negative is taken out of the printing frame, the black varnish is removed from the back, and the head is now stopped out, and likewise that part of the negative corresponding to the place of the previously printed head. In printing the figure, the sensitive paper must be laid down on the negative so that the print of the head exactly covers the place prepared for it by the spot of black varnish.”
— Hermann Schnauss, Photographic Pastimes: A Series of Interesting Experiments for Amateurs for Obtaining Novel and Curious Effects with the Aid of the Camera, Illiffe & Son, 1891

Harsh words on gum bichromate printing

“All through my career as a photographer I am pleased to say I have had the kindly appreciation of the chief gentlemen and men of ability of the Photographic World—a support which has made “Naturalistic Photography” or the new photography, un fait accompli—notwithstanding the hordes of vain and mischief-making critics. The most recent “craze”—the “Gum-Bichromate” process of printing—I have noted as fully as it deserves, for there is no need to “slay the stain”—and Mr. T. Bedding, the able editor of the British Journal of Photography completely shattered all pretensions of that bungling process, which at best produced stupid imitations of other media.”
— Dr. P. H. Emerson, Naturalistic Photography, Dawbarn & Ward, 1899

A tree in blossom directly outside of the window, shielded the light from the Kodak lens.

A tree in blossom directly outside of the window, shielded the light from the Kodak lens.

On Portraits

“There is quite a difference between a portrait and a map. A portrait should be not only a correct likeness, but should present the subject in a pleasing pose, subduing defects and accentuating the strongest characteristics.

A portrait to be pleasing must avoid harsh contrasts and possess full gradation from highest light to deepest shadow, consequently you must so arrange your subject and light as to produce this effect. In your previous experiments you acquired some knowledge of the intensity value of light, you can now experiment a little in regard to its quality.

Placing your subject close to the window, with the light full on the face, you see that all parts are equally illuminated and with consequently no gradation. Now move the subject back a few feet, the light immediately softens, and you obtain a roundness and modeling far more pleasing.”
Kodak, 1922, 12th Edition