From snapshot to photograph

Not to get all elitist on you or anything, but there is a difference. And yes, I know that a snapshot is a photograph, but not all photographs are snapshots, so that’s how I’m using the term. I just couldn’t come up with something better that gets at what I mean.

To me a snapshot is something taken spontaneously. A grab shot. Something produced with very little planning or study of the environment. Usually there is only one of them. Quick, everyone huddle up and…cheese! You know the thing.

A photograph, on the other hand, is an image arrived at after some consideration and evaluation of the subject. Often there is finagling, fiddling and futzing to be done to get it right. Photographs often have stages of development from that first composition to what we decide will be our final; each change marching us forward.

Snapshots aren’t usually valued for being works of art. They are fun and often full of energy and “mistakes”, but who doesn’t have a phone full of them? Photographs can be valued as artworks, we try to avoid “mistakes” and we usually don’t make them on our phones. Clear? It’s a simplified version, but for this post let’s go with it.

So if we know and understand that there are two calibers of picture, how do you go from one to the other. How long does it take and when will you start producing more work you really like than run-of-the-mill snapshots?

For many photographers, the ability so see, frame and compose is second nature. Plunk any good one down in a new spot and she will dive in like a duck to water. But how did that happen? How long before enhancing artistic and aesthetic elements in a scene becomes habit? Instinctive. Reflexive. However you characterize it, it’s the key to both slow and fast photography.

Everyone these days is on about slow photography and I’ve even written about it myself, but because that’s my normal operational mode and something I’ve been doing forever, I find my challenge is to quickly set up and capture a scene under changing conditions or time constraints. Honing your aesthetic and technical skills will allow you greater opportunities in nature because you can evaluate and switch those sensibilities on quickly. Wildlife photography comes to mind when I think of fast photography, but also changing weather or light conditions. I often go on field trips into nature preserves with a group and there isn’t time to devote time to studying the scene and setting up. I’m not great at it, but I’m much better than I was starting out. How did I improve?

A quick diversion first –

I’m not going to dwell on light in this post. Light is something you also have to study to see how it works – the sun and clouds do amazing things, but sometimes you just have to take what’s on offer and so then it comes down to composition. I know everyone wants to be a badboy and break rules out of the gate, but truly pleasing arrangements and color palettes exist and classic rules are worth knowing.

Some of those rules and techniques should be studied as part of your training. Other photographers have produced endless books, monographs, tutorials and videos about it. Many are worth your time. Another is to study painting and painters’ techniques. Yes, they start with nothing and add everything while with photographers it’s the opposite, but knowing what to leave out takes time. When I’m considering a scene these days, I have a mantra going in my head – is it in or is it out? And if it’s in, why is it in? What does it do? How does it help?

Here’s a nice progression done in basically two shots –

It was the bendy parts that made me stop on this outing. I love the way the path snakes away out of sight, making you wonder what’s there, making you want to keep going to find out. But check out the other bendy thing in this scene. Once I saw it, I knew I had to shift slightly so it would be isolated against the snow and between other trees.

That little tree! Now it shows up in all its quirky glory.

It was a couple of things that made this an easy fix for me. One is my love of bendy trees so they stick out to me, and second is my understanding that separation between trees is key in the woods. Granted, not every tree is going to stand all on its own, but finding dark clumps that block views, bright slivers between them that get too much attention and, of course, finding weird shapes will help you define and harmonize forest landscapes. After years, and making a lot of mistakes, I’m better at it and recognize how I can identify and fix problems easier than before I had all that practice.

You’ll notice another change – the big trees on the left are gone. See how much more balanced things are? The visual weight of those two trees made things feel lopsided and drew too much attention despite the leading line. If there was something on the left, like a rock or stump or just more trees of similar size, they would work as a framing element. With them only on one side, things just look unstudied, unconsidered and accidental. It’s what changes a photo from a snapshot to a successful photograph – deliberation, choices and thought.

Consider this exercise in foreground –

December 2009, Tucker Falls

And this one –

May 2011, Tucker Falls

It seems I learned a lot in a year and a half. I’m just staggered that I thought that first photo was going to work at all. It’s pretty much a disaster. A few things happened in that year and a half and some of it was field work, but a lot was studying other photos to see what I thought was a success. What things were they doing that I wasn’t? How did those things make for stronger (gasp *better*!) photos than mine? After spending a lot of hours looking, especially at the photographs other people made at the same locations that were better, I’d try to incorporate those ideas into my approach.

Plus there was a lot of practice. I just checked my Lightroom catalog and here are the numbers –

2009 – 653

2010 – 9337

2011 – 5944

2012 – 4596

2013 – 2752

2014 – 4477

2015 – 4738

2016 – 4490

2017 – 4466

2018 – 8365

2019 – 11362

2020 – 15504

2021 – 18715

2022 – 15301

For a total of 110,700 photos! I shot all the time. Every chance I could. Still do.

Truth in advertising – I’ve done some major catalog purging up until 2015 and clearly I need to do more. I started stacking and photo workshops in the late teens so the numbers went up. Jeez do I need to get in there and dump some stuff that shouldn’t get to stay. Anyway…it’s what my driving instructors always called “seat time”. You need it to get better. Shoot as much as you can and be ruthless in evaluating what you’ve shot. Hence the catalog purges.

So you’re out there doing everything you can to find great light, subjects and compelling compositions, but sometimes that’s just the beginning. The art of photography is about seeing and obviously it begins in the field, but it ends with processing. If you’ve got something pretty good to begin with, editing can bring an image fully into its best state.

For example, this photo came together like a sculpture – there was something in the heart of it that needed me to chip away to remove the stuff that was blocking it in; covering it up.

Nice, but there is too much in view. After studying it a bit in Lightroom, I realized where the most interest and attraction was. And here’s my first crop.

Now we’re onto something. Check out those lines – the shadows, the trees and the path. They all harmonize the photo. They’re bold and there on purpose. A good start, but here’s my final crop –

It’s subtle, but do you see the difference? Look at the top and right edge – distractions! That little wedge of shadow and splotch of dark snow just pulled my eye up there and kept it from the shadows and the patterns in the main part of the photo. I don’t want you up there, I want you in the middle of the frame, working outward.

To me the wide scene is a snapshot, but with potential. The underlying structure and pull is there, but I really should have popped the longer lens on and cut this smaller crop out in the field. I didn’t, but I had the presence of mind to photograph it anyway and later pruned it down to its essentials.

That said, I’m a very instinctive composer, at least at first. If something stops me or catches my attention, I’m pretty good at figuring out what and how best to depict it. These days though I try to at least evaluate other options and move the camera around and through the scene to find whether my initial composition is indeed the best one.

Here’s a fun example – you can flip through the total number of photos I took in the order I took them. The final is an edited RAW file, but the ones leading up to it are all SOOC jpegs. Every single move I made was considered and evaluated based on what I was seeing in my EVF. It was me, just trying to find the heart of the image and what did I do? Exclude, exclude, exclude!

In the end, I have the most interesting and graphically harmonious parts of the photo. You don’t need to see the rest of the woods to deduce it probably is in the woods. I don’t think having all that distraction tells the story better. The story is a deer frantically bounding away through deep snow. Under normal circumstances, deer walk through deep snow. If they’re in a hurry, they can’t run, but have to jump. What set this one off? What was it trying to escape from? What scared it? That’s what should be going through our minds seeing this, not wondering about all the other trees or the one leaning on the left. Or why the photographer didn’t get her lens hood straight the first time. LOL.

As you can see, working through a snapshot to find the photograph within can take time and sometimes can come together in post rather than on location. But it starts there and it relies on your ability to recognize a interesting subject, then to distill it down to its bare essentials. If you do it long enough and get so that each set up takes less and less time, the more confident you can be without the luxury of that slow pace. This is fast photography! Not a snapshot, but a quickly shot photo born of experience and a practiced sense of strong composition.

So to wrap up I’ll share a few of my favorite grab shots that were made under pressure of time. For each one I wasn’t alone and couldn’t linger or carefully plan. Two were done in the kayak. They were all done quickly and by instinct. They are all products of a lot of time behind the camera and a lot of stuff that didn’t work. Click one to see it large and then you can flip through the rest. Enjoy!


3 thoughts on “From snapshot to photograph

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  1. I think that snap shots are the reason they say that for every 100 pictures you take, you are lucky to get 1 or 2 keepers. I tend to be a snap shot person even when I am trying for nicer pictures. The reason is that if I am with people, they usually tap their feet impatiently. Okay for me to wait for them . . . you know how life is! I also crop and modify . For me, most photos are best taken alone if I want to be “serious” or go out with friends who like to do the same – and sadly, for now, they are not here.

    1. Non-photographers are such a drag, aren’t they?! LOL. No one hikes with me anymore. Not that I hike, exactly. More like sauntering with a camera. Like-minded photographers can hang, but otherwise, nope. And that’s fine. I do my best work alone, too. That way I have time and am not annoying.

      1. I agree. Also, getting out in the natural world, alone, is one of the best ways to reconnect with your soul. I saunter, too, and that really bugs people who are on a mission to get somewhere.

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