What’s the difference between a snapshot and a good photograph?
No photographer rolls out of bed hoping to take crappy pictures.
Rather we all hope to take spectacular photographs. What usually happens rests somewhere in between the two extremes. How we define the crappy versus the spectacular varies based on our intent, experience or what we had for breakfast.
We don’t all see things the same way, thank goodness. The world is better off for it. While there needn’t be rigid, uncompromising definitions of what is lousy and what is solid photography, it’s worth pondering how we draw these boundaries in our own work.
Seven photographers, including myself, set out to answer this question in an effort to give shape to the divide between a snapshot and a good photograph.
In my mind, the difference between a snapshot and a “good” photograph often comes down to equipment. If my kids are doing something hilarious and all I have is a phone in my pocket, I’ll whip it out and get the shot just so it exists in our digital memory. If I a) have the energy and b) think the scene will continue for longer than three nanoseconds, I’ll grab the actual camera and do the photo justice (theoretically).
We went on a beach vacation recently and I decided not to take my DSLR. I know you’re all gasping in disbelief. Honestly, I needed a vacation from every responsibility I carry in our lives: cooking, cleaning, direct activities, managing emotions and yes, even protecting an expensive camera from sand and slushy drinks. But people like us can’t NOT see photographs just because we don’t have a real camera. So I decided to use the Camera+ app on my phone for the times when a snap shot just wouldn’t do.
I guess this means there’s another layer to my opinion and that is composition. If the moment is brief, I’m not going to spend oodles of time getting myself in the right spot. If I’m actually setting out with the intention of taking a photograph, I’ll get myself set up and think about where I want whoever to be in the scene.
Lastly, a “good” photograph most often means I’m flashing some poor soul my less-than-dignified plumber bum.
P.S. A snap shot is also one I am embarrassed to share amongst photographers, something I realized as I was picking images for this article.
For me, the difference between a snapshot and a photograph comes down to portraying the intention of the photographer. For example, in my snapshot image I am trying to capture a moment where my husband is teaching our friend’s daughter to snorkel in the ocean. I see that. The girl’s mother would probably see that, but I am certain that any other viewer would not see that story looking at this image. There is no clear direction for who the subject is in this frame and what the viewer should be focusing on. My intention in creating this image does not come across, so I would consider it a snapshot.
Although this other photograph is imperfect and technically flawed with a foot chop I would still consider it a good photograph. Using thoughtful selection of depth of field, composition and exposure the relationship between the little girl and the man carrying her is conveyed. For me, photography is about showing the rest of the world my view on this beautiful life. It’s a way of allowing others to experience a situation through my eyes that might not be apparent to them otherwise. A scene can be captured with a snapshot, but my intention and my story are not. Although photographs can be imperfect for me, they are successful if they convey my unique perspective to my audience.
So for me, a snapshot is one that doesn’t require much thought. I usually take them when I am looking to document a scene, either a moment that I want to remember later and that has personal meaning to me, or a posed shot for the grandparents.
As I am more of a documentary photographer, I don’t usually set up my shots; I take most of my photos capturing scenes as I see it, so a good photo, for me, is usually one where I have placed myself in the best spot to capture my subject, and I am waiting for the right moment to press the shutter – whether it is waiting for people in the background to clear out, for an expression from my subject, or for my subject’s body language to be in the best position to illustrate what they are doing. Sometimes I may adjust the placement of my subject, but not often. Either way, the subject is much more clearly defined in my good photos, leading to a stronger story. Sometimes I get lucky and get a good shot, but in general there are deliberate choices made and the technicals are there. Because my subjects are usually my children, “good” photos for me are also ones where I can convey a little bit of their inner world – what they were thinking at the time. So these images connect more with me and hopefully others as well.
Most of the time, I think the term “snapshot” is thrown around to be insulting (but that girl version of insulting, where you say something like, “I think that other dress is more flattering” when you really mean, “this looks awful on you”) or to undermine yourself if you’re feeling insecure about an image (“oh, it’s just a snapshot”). So I will admit from the start that I don’t love the term. I think that taking a “good” photograph happens when you have the convergence of three things. The first is that you have to have something to say with your image. The second is that – from the almost infinite number of choices that you must make (subject, composition, exposure, light, post processing, the moment you click the shutter, etc.) – you must make those choices deliberately or figure out how to work around or deal with the things you cannot control among those choices. Choosing deliberately means that you are not merely following rules, but that all those choices are made based upon what you are trying to say. Part of this process becomes more automatic with experience – you become better at seeing good compositions, controlling light, choosing the correct exposure, waiting for the moment, etc. But a big part of it is that you have to be thoughtful – you can’t just be lazy. (Ultimately that is what makes a snapshot – laziness.) And finally, there is luck. The reality is that you cannot control all the elements and that is especially true with lifestyle photography. So you can have something to say, and you can best use the elements, but ultimately those things will come together in a way that works – that is aesthetically pleasing and moves you – or that is just meh. It helps to shoot a lot – gives luck better odds.
Both of these images were taken last weekend at the tulip festival. Gorgeous setting, but super crowded with people and bright, mid-day sun. In both images I am trying to show that my kids can be somewhere pretty, but mostly don’t care about their gorgeous surroundings – they will make their own fun and focus on their own thing. In the first, Alexa is walking around blowing bubbles, but I didn’t get a great action shot of her blowing bubbles, I didn’t pick a great angle, there are people all in the back just standing around – I was just lazily snapping away. And it’s possible that I could have caught something amazing if luck had been on my side, but that didn’t happen here. A good memory for me of the day, but nothing I’d post anywhere or hang on my wall.
In the second, my girls are rolling around on the ground. Which is silly, for sure, but that’s what I was trying to show – there are the most gorgeous flowers all around them and they don’t care at all. I could use them lying on the ground to deal with the midday sun, because it meant no real shadows, and I could crop it so that you could see some flowers but not the hundreds of people nearby. It may not quite be portfolio-worthy, but I feel like it says what I wanted it to say and that I made the situation work for me.
The difference for me between a snapshot and an intentional photograph is that one I am shooting ‘at’ while the other I am shooting ‘through’. By through, I mean using compositional elements, anticipation and timing to evoke a sense of what it felt like to be in that very moment. When I’m shooting at something, it typically means that I see my subject doing something and immediately take a picture of the action. I’ll illustrate this using my “Cute Preschoolers with Dogs” theme.
In the snapshot example, I was outside with my daughter who was taking what appears to be imaginary macro selfies with my Holga. She’s smack in the center of the photo (which I actually do a lot but there’s no real reason why I did it here), and while you can see the dog in the background, he looks more like a blob that matches the fence than an animal. There’s random foliage on the right side of the frame, and even though we know she’s outside, they look more like creepy leaf hands trying to beckon her from beyond. The biggest distinction to me, though, is the expression on her face. I immediately think “cute moment alert” because what I’m really envisioning are all those sweet and well-planned-out Pinterest photos of kids with cameras. In reality I’m just capturing her staring blankly at my Holga, and because her hand is blocking most of it, would you have known it was a Holga had I not told you? There’s no expression or really anything that would bring this photo much more beyond “kid holding thing up to face and oh wait is that a dog back there?”
In the intentional photograph, I had just arrived at a client’s home for a session. I typically don’t stick my camera in their faces the second I get to their home, but when I saw this particular moment of the dog being really excited to see me and the daughter a little hesitant and shy, I wanted to capture it. Similar to my snapshot, the dog is out of focus, but this time you can see all the recognizable canine attributes (like, oh say, a face). Also, the little girl is almost exactly in the center like the snapshot, but she’s intentionally framed between the wall and the partially open door (with the lines of the door drawing us to her face). All of the ‘action’ in this photograph is happening in only 25% of the frame, but because of the way it is framed by the door it tells the story of a little girl who is a little bit uncertain of who in the world just showed up at their house.
I have thought quite a bit about what distinguishes a snapshot from a “good” photograph because I closely follow photojournalism principles in my own shooting style. I try not to enter my environment by removing things, cleaning up or altering the environment that I am shooting. I process minimally, cropping and toning but I no longer clone or combine images. Given that this is a very different approach from most “lifestyle” shooters, I decided to mentor for a year with Tyler Wirken who does not turn a light on or off or move even a water bottle out of his scene when he’s shooting. He sees all of these distractions as compositional challenges during a shooting assignment – whether it be a wedding, a birth or a documentary family session.
So what makes a “good” photograph as opposed to a “snapshot”? For me, the distinction lies in whether there is intention behind the image. A single, hastily taken frame on some occasions can be a good photograph but it is rare and usually comes down to luck. I recently heard Mary Oliver being interviewed on the NPR podcast “On Being”. She described the occasional poem that came out of the blue for her, which she wrote down and did not revise. However, she had a hard time remembering even two or three such poems in a lifetime of poetry.
Similarly, a good documentary photograph usually takes a great deal of work. Even if the scene is found, the photographer must approach the scene with intention in composition, light, and moment. Tyler calls this the trifecta of a good documentary image.
If you only have one of these three elements, then it better be really incredible. Ultimately, there is a lot of work and patience that goes into a strong documentary photograph. Usually, there has to be a good dose of luck as well. A snapshot is simply captured rather than created. If it happens to be “good” then it’s usually a happy accident.
Snaphsot is often used as a euphemism for a bad picture. When I use that label on my own work, I simply mean that it’s a shot without an artistic point. It’s a memory. My boys donning their basketball uniforms is a snapshot because my only point is for posterity.
My good photographs are ones where my intent is expressed through the craft of designing a well composed, well exposed and intimate peek at someone or something.
All seven of us arrived at the distinction between a snapshot and a good picture according to our own set of values and aesthetics. It helps to know where we stand so that we give ourselves permission to take a variety of images. More importantly, we don’t need to overburden ourselves with the responsibility of taking that good picture every time. We’ve got enough other stuff to keep us busy. The dog isn’t going to walk himself! Snapshots are important too; their purpose is different. Just like shampoo isn’t conditioner and cats aren’t dogs, snapshots aren’t good photographs. There’s room for everyone on this crazy train. Get on board.