Four Elements That Separate a Good Photograph from a Snapshot

Sometime back while flying out of
Dallas, I was sitting by a sweet little
grandmother. She had been visiting her
grandchildren and was eager to talk
about them. She showed me a snapshot
of a red dot in the middle of someone’s
front yard. The red dot (at least to her)
was a compelling photograph of her
granddaughter in a little red dress my
new friend had made for the child.

All I could see was a red dot, but the
grandmother could see, in her mind’s
eye, the beautiful little girl and her
handmade red dress. If I had made
photographs like that one while I was on
my assignment, it would have been the
last time I ever worked for that client!

That grandmother held a snapshot that
was a memory jogger for her and those
who already knew the little girl. A
photograph that can communicate to everyone is something else altogether.
If my assignment had included that
child, I would have needed to show the
cute little daughter up close enough for
anyone to see for themselves how
charming she was, and perhaps through
body language the child could let the
viewer know how proud she was of her
new dress.

I believe there are two main reasons people make photos: (1) people take
pictures to please themselves or (2)
people take pictures to communicate

something to others.

Making photos for ourselves is pretty
easy. We know right away if the photo
was successful. Either we like it or we
don’t. If we don’t like it, we probably
can figure out what would make it
better. Photos we take for ourselves
belong in the category of snapshots.
They are intended for the family photo
album to hold memories of vacations,
birthdays and other of life’s special

One year I decided to help my father
transfer the family movies to video. It
was a pretty crude setup, but it worked.
We projected the movies onto a screen
and videotaped them while our family
watched the old movies. The video
camera captured the comments we
made as we watched the old films. The
funny thing is every time we watch
these videos together, the same
comments are made by the family and
we catch ourselves laughing at how
these old pictures always trigger the
same responses.

As I think back I realize that the older
films, the ones made before I was born, don’t do much for me. You just had to be there for these snapshots to work.

Okay, so if we want our photos to communicate, we must consider another person’s point of view. How can we attract and hold the attention of our audience? One way to learn to do this is by studying the work of photographers whose work does just that.

I suggest aiming for the top. If you like
sports, then open Sports Illustrated and
study the photos. Ask yourself and
others why these photos work. If you
enjoy travel photography, study National
Geographic, Southern Living or other
magazines that do a good job keeping a paying audience.

There are some key elements that keep
the viewer’s attention. Editorial
photographers try to stop the viewer with
their photographs. They want the photo
to spark curiosity; to make us read the
caption under the photo. A good
caption will make us want to read the

Here are some of the key elements that distinguish a good photo from a snapshot:

Stopping power. The world is full of
visuals vying for our attention. There
are photos on products, TV, magazines,
newspapers, the Web … everywhere
pictures, pictures and more pictures!

I believe the key is to show our audience
something different. Most snapshots are
shot from standing height and way too
far away. Get down to the ground for a
worm’s eye view or get up on something
for a bird’s eye view. Get a lot closer.
This will give our photo a little stopping
power. It’s out of the ordinary. It’s a

Communication of purpose. Getting
the attention must be followed by good
content. People want to be amused,
entertained or learn something from a
photograph. We need to think about
why we are taking a picture. If we
aren’t sure, no one else will be either
and we’ve made another snapshot.

Emotional impact or mood. Some folks can just tell stories better than others. The same is true with making photos, but we will make better photos if we consider how to bring more drama
into them. The key to creating
emotional impact is to first experience
the emotions we wish to convey. We need to have a genuine interest in the
subjects we photograph.

Graphic interest. Our photos need to
be technically correct, that’s
understood, just as a musician is
expected to at least play the right
notes. But if the photo doesn’t draw
the viewer in and move them in some
way, it’s like listening to a machine
perform Chopin. What we choose to
include or exclude makes up the
graphical elements that can catch the
viewer’s attention.

Remember, a technically competent
photograph often is no more than a
technically competent snapshot and
quite boring. Of course we must be
sure the camera’s settings are correct,
but this is only the beginning. We
need to look for a new perspective,
look for another point of view so that
people will want to see more of our
pictures rather than looking for ways to
get out of enduring more snapshots.

2 Responses to “Four Elements That Separate a Good Photograph from a Snapshot”

  1. "I believe there are two main reasons people make photos: (1) people take
    pictures to please themselves or (2)
    people take pictures to communicate"

    Are "making photos" and "taking pictures" the same thing?
    I like to "make photos" by working around the subject and capturing different angles. To me "taking pictures" is just pointing and shooting at what's in front of you.... Not much thought in it.

  1. [...] Source:  Four Elements That Separate a Good Photograph from a Snapshot, by Stanley Leary [...]

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