Beyond Snapshots (or, why do all those other photos look better than mine) :: Digital Photo Secrets

Beyond Snapshots (or, why do all those other photos look better than mine)

by Becki Robins 3 comments

There are two types of photos in this world. No, I don't mean black and white vs. color. I don't mean digital vs. film. I mean snapshots vs. works of art.

You have probably taken your share of snapshots. We all have. Snapshots are what happen when we whip out our iPhones to grab a picture of Kid A or Kid B holding that preschool graduation diploma or smearing spaghetti sauce all over his face. And don't get me wrong, a snapshot of something you want to remember is better than no photo at all. But why settle for a mere snapshot when you can have a work of art instead?

How bad a snapshot are thee? Let me count the ways … First of all, the light is that awful, direct overhead sun that makes shadows black and obscures faces. There's way too much setting in this shot, and it's boring setting—random people, cars, pavement and plain blue sky. One subject is posing, the other one looks oblivious and you can't even see the third one's face. Sure, there's a cool airplane in the sky but it's tiny and insignificant. And, the composition is awful, too, with several photographic rules all being broken at the same time.

What is the difference between a snapshot and a photograph?

Some people actually don't seem to notice that these kinds of shots are bad. After all, how could any photos of their beloved babies be bad? OK, I'm kind of guilty. I save every photo I ever take of my kids, even the bad ones. The difference is that I don't show them to anyone, except for when I'm writing articles about how to avoid taking bad pictures.

I'm pretty sure you know a snapshot when you see one--almost everyone does, except for those few oblivious folks who can't seem to recognize them in their own photo albums (I used to have a friend who had an entire scrapbook full of out of focus, low resolution snapshots of her only child, and she didn't even seem to care or even notice). And though life would certainly be easier if we all thought every snapshot we took was a work of art, that would also make for a pretty sad collection of a lifetime of images.

It's easy to tell the difference between a snapshot and a photograph, but it's not always so easy to pinpoint what qualities made a photo one or the other. Really, though, the difference boils down to a single word: carelessness. Snapshots are just that: shots you snap. When you take a snapshot, you don't give any thought to what you are doing. You put your camera in auto mode, you point it at something, and you snap the photo. What you get in return is a document that tells you what happened at the moment you clicked that button. But that's all. It's a piece of information.

When a snapshot becomes more than a snapshot—how many baby photos have you seen where the baby is overshadowed by all the other stuff in the room—the diaper bag, maybe, or stuffed toys, plastic teething rings and other random stuff. When you slow down and really think about how you can make your photos better, you'll find yourself with fewer snapshots and more images you're proud to share. For this shot, I simply placed my subject on a black sheet and got in close so the only thing in the frame was her sweet face.

So if you want to stop capturing simple pieces of information and create art instead, the very first thing you need to keep in mind is that carelessness is not a very good way to create art. That is not to say that art can't happen by accident--it can--but you're going to be waiting a really long time in between successes if you rely on those accidents to turn out incredible photos. To create art and to do it consistently, you need to have intent. And you can start by making sure every time you lift your camera you are thinking about what kind of image you want to create.

The three elements of photographic art: light, composition and moment

You have probably heard a lot about light and composition, and maybe not so much about moment. I've added it to the list because I believe it's one of the most overlooked elements of creating amazing photographs of people. But first let's talk about the two more commonly-cited elements of photographic art, starting with light.

How light can transform your snapshot

What's not to love about this photo besides, you know, everything. OK not everything because I have a certain prejudice about the subject, but direct flash does not do her justice. Her skin looks washed out, there are very dark shadows around her chin, her eyes look sunken and every little mark on her face has been highlighted by that bright on-board flash.

The most lethal mistake that beginning photographers make--if you don't count silly things like forgetting to take off the lens cap or spending a whole afternoon taking photos through a smudged lens--is not paying attention to the light, or worse, not caring about it. Look at the average person's family photo album and you'll see exactly what I mean. The pages are full of flash photographs—washed out faces, demonic red eyes and ugly shadows. Other pages hold images of people shot at mid-day, their faces obscured by ball-cap shadows or the mottled shadows from leafy trees. It's not that these snap-shooters don't care about what their photos are going to look like, it's just that they shoot first and ask questions later. Need light? Pop up the flash. Too much light? Didn't notice. For them, photography is like rolling the dice. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't. The standard response to a bad outcome is, "Oh, that didn't come out," when what it should be is "What did I do wrong and how can I fix it?"

Now anyone who shoots a lot of family images can tell you that it's impossible to plan events around the light. Try getting a teenager out of bed at 6am to get a nice portrait in magic hour light—ain't gonna happen. Sometimes you just have to make the best of what's available, so let's start with a short checklist. Memorize it, and then scroll through it in your head every time you're out with your camera, before you lift it and start blindly shooting.

I actually kind of like this photo, because I'm such a mean mom. But it was shot at mid-day without any kind of fill light, and it's therefore a classic example of 'raccoon eyes.' The shadows on her face—especially over her eyes—are pretty unflattering. Her pouty expression is, too, but in an endearing sort of way.

What time is it? Photos shot at mid-day in sunny conditions are going to be the most difficult to get right. If you are out during this time of day, consider moving your subjects to the shade. If this isn't possible, use a fill-flash or a portable reflector to get rid of the hard shadows that are the inevitable side effect of trying to shoot in harsh lighting conditions. Of course, this question matters less on an overcast day, or if you're shooting indoors, because the quality of the light is going to be a lot different than it is outdoors on a bright sunny day. Which leads to the next question:

Is the light hard or soft? Hard light is the sort of light we just talked about: it creates very dark shadows, very bright highlights and hence, lots of contrast. Soft light, on the other hand, creates softer shadows, much more gentle transitions from tone to tone, and much less contrast. Most of the time, soft light is preferable to hard light—but soft light can have its challenges, too. Very soft, even light such as the light you get on an overcast day tends to flatten out your subjects, so you may find that you actually need to add shadows in these conditions in order to make your subjects look more tree dimensional.

For this shot, the primary light source was actually two huge spotlights. There's some light coming from the glow-stick, too, but it isn't a major source of illumination. I could have used a flash to light this scene, but it would have dramatically changed the mood. Instead I turned up my ISO and shot this hand held, using only the light from those spotlights.

What is your primary light source? If you're outside during daylight hours, this is usually going to be the sun. If you're indoors, it could be that overhead lamp. It might be a candle. You could also get light from a fire or from the moon. The important thing is to identify the main source of light and its associated color temperature—incandescent bulbs, for example, have a warmer color temperature than the sun does. This is going to affect your white balance, and if you don't know ahead of time what kind of effect it will have, you might end up with an unwanted color cast in your image.

Where is your light source? Light can come from any direction, of course, and its direction does make a huge difference to your image. We don't normally notice this difference with our eyes, but our cameras do. Light that comes from in front of your subject, for example, can make him look flat and dimensionless. Overhead light is that stuff we already talked about—this is typically noontime, direct light but can also come from ceiling fixtures. It tends to create shadows in all the wrong places. Light that comes from behind your subject can turn him into a silhouette—if that's not your goal, you may need to add fill flash or use a reflector to put light back onto your subject's face. Side light tends to be preferred for most situations—this creates shadow—the good kind—that can help give dimension to your subject.

How bright is the light? Lastly, you need to pay attention to how bright the light is. Very low light scenes and very bright scenes are going to pose special challenges, and will require careful attention to shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Thunder looks great in this shot, but my daughter has lens flare right on top of her face. If you don't pay attention to where your primary light source is, you could get lens flare, too. Depending on where the light is, you could also get silhouetting (back lighting) or a flat, dimensionless subject (front lighting). Always make sure you're aware of where your light is coming from.

Now that you've asked yourself these five questions, you will of course need to shoot the scene with your answers in mind. Is your subject front lit? Move her so that the light falls on her from the side instead (this has the added benefit of correcting that squint that human beings tend to have when looking directly into the sun). Is the light too hard? Try diffusing it with a portable diffuser, or add some fill flash to fill in those unwanted shadows. Is your primary light source the sun? Make sure you are using your camera's daylight white balance setting.

I promise if you run through this list enough times it will become automatic, and eventually you will be able to do it all in a microsecond. Once you really start paying attention to light and understanding how different kinds of light affect your photos, you'll see a leap in your snapshot vs. work of art ratio.

One final note about light—don't be tempted to use your onboard flash, even when you're in a dark room. First, try bumping up your ISO to whatever setting gives you acceptable results. Open up your aperture as wide as your lens will allow. Slow down your shutter speed to the point where you are just barely able to hand hold it without camera shake, if you can't, then find a way to brace it or use a tripod. When you've exhausted all those options, consider adding flash—but use an external one and bounce it off of a white surface, such as a ceiling. Nothing screams "snapshot!" like an image shot with a pop-up flash, so avoid using it in low light conditions.


Sometimes a sleeping baby is just a sleeping baby. This shot was simplified by getting close to the subject and eliminating distractions such as the crib slats, mobiles and other elements that don't add to the composition.

I am always amazed by how often beginning photographers and snap-shooters neglect composition. This is, of course, that same problem that I talked about above—something happens that you want to grab a picture of, so you just lift your camera and click the button without giving any thought to where your subject is in the frame or what is around her. Now, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have any photos like this. Sometimes you just didn't expect your kid to jump off the side of the boat, and you can hardly tell her to wait a second while you place her eye on the golden section and maneuver the boat around so that ugly houseboat in the background isn't in the shot. There are certainly moments that come and go so quickly that you just don't have time to think about things like lighting and composition, and that doesn't mean you should just let the moment pass without trying to capture it. So in that sense, I give you permission to take the occasional bad photo, if it's the only way to preserve the memory.

Having said that, I am still amazed by how many shots I see that didn't need to be captured in a hurry, but are still badly composed. And with many of them the photographer wouldn't really have had to do much to turn that bad photo into a great one.

What's going on in this photo? I don't know, because the subjects are so tiny I can barely even identify them. And yet, you'd be surprised how many people have albums full of shots just like this one.

Let's take kid shots, for example. I'm going to reveal to all of you what a domestic nerd I am when I tell you that I often go to scrapbooking workshops, so I get a chance to look at a lot of photographs of kids and families. By far the most common error I see Mom and Dad photographers make is a basic failure to fill the frame. You know this one when you see it, too. The setting is a park—a big, green park with a line of trees in the background and a huge open lawn, and right in the center of the shot there is a tiny little spec of a kid. He's running, that much you can see. But is he laughing or crying? Is he enjoying a run out on that big, open lawn or is he fleeing in terror from a large and over-exuberant puppy? You have no idea, because he's so tiny you can't see the expression on his face.

Now I suppose you could ask Mom, and she may love the opportunity to tell you what was going on with her darling boy when she took that picture (so perhaps bad composition was just a part of her evil plan). But what you really want is to be able to look at that photo and see the joy in the child's face, right down to that perfectly focused left eye. Photographer Mom could have easily captured this if she'd just moved in a little closer to fill the frame with her child, giving him just a little space to run into.

I thought this composition through when I made this photo. I used the playground equipment as a natural frame, I 'filled the frame' with my subject and I caught her in a great, playful moment. There's no background clutter and the flying hair gives it some action, too.

In this scenario, background is almost completely unimportant. That line of trees looks like every other line of trees you've ever seen. The lawn looks like every other lawn in America. You only need a little bit of one or both to give your shot some context. Now, if there really is an over-exuberant puppy somewhere in the scene you probably want to include him, too, unless of course you need to actually save your child from the over-exuberant puppy, then by all means put down your camera and save your child instead of taking the picture. But in most other non-life or death situations where there isn't anything else in the picture that's relevant to the moment, you should opt for filling the frame with your subject.

Besides filling the frame, there is one other very important thing you can do with your composition to turn your kid snapshots into amazing photos. First, get down to kid level. We look at kids from adult height all the time, but how often do we get down to their level and view them the way other children see them? That little change alone can improve your kid shots a million times over.

But what if your snapshots aren't kid photos--what if they are pictures of your dog, or your friends, or the places you travel to? Well, again, the first thing that should happen every time you lift that camera and before you press that shutter button is thought. Think about what you're photographing and what mood you want to capture. Then think about how best to compose that image.

In this photo, the ocean is just as important as the girl who's looking at it. I chose to zoom out a little, but I placed my subject on the right 1/3rd line. This gives the viewer's eye some room to move around, and there's plenty of space in front of my subject so that we can imagine how she must be feeling while she looks out at that vast ocean.

Let's first run through a few of the basic composition rules you are already familiar with. We've already covered "fill the frame," now let's talk about the most famous of all compositional rules: the rule of thirds. If today is the first time you've ever picked up a camera, then you may not have heard about the rule of thirds, so here's a short explanation. The rule of thirds has been around for a long time, for centuries, actually, so if you're not sure you agree with it you can blame the Renaissance masters. Basically, the rule just says that human beings prefer images that aren't static. An image doesn't have to be literally in motion, of course, but it does have to encourage your eye to move. It has to be interactive. If you drop your subject in the center of an image, your viewer's eye goes straight to it and then stops. If, however, you place you subject on the left third or right third, your viewer's eye will move through the image, stop at your subject, and then move on to see what else is there. Motion. We love to look at motion, or to participate in motion, because the world is not a static place. We don't want our photos to be static, either, even though they technically are.

So the very first thing you need to do to transform your images from snapshots to works of art is practice composing according to the rule of thirds. That is not to say that you always need to follow the rule of thirds, but you should always have it in the back of your mind. Ask yourself if the photo you're about to take will work better if you divide it into thirds. Or is it a more symmetrical subject, one that would look better in the center of the frame?

Now that you've internalized that idea, here's another one for you--there are a ton of different compositional rules, and not all of them will work in every situation. Some subjects lend themselves to a triangular composition. Some subject/setting combinations just need to be simplified. For a pretty comprehensive look at many of the different rules of composition, I encourage you to read David's article "18 Composition Rules For Photos That Shine." Memorize them. No, really. If you must, put them on a list, print it out and laminate it, then put it in your camera bag. When you're out with your camera, take the list out and run through it. Try composing your photo using several different rules, and compare to see which one worked best.


Lots of pictures are about nothing, even those that are about something.

Yawn. What's going on in this image? Nothing. Well, something—the kids are kicking their soccer balls down the field. But this is a really dull photo of a moment that just isn't that interesting. The kids aren't interacting, they don't look that excited and they aren't really doing very much. Add to that a background that is full of distracting clutter and the result is—snapshot. Boring snapshot.

For example, how many images have you seen of kids' basketball games and birthday parties where nothing is happening? Of course the misleading factor is that it seems like things are happening--kids are running, eating or interacting, but when you step back and look at that photo, there really aren't any great moments in it. A kid dribbling the ball down the basketball court is not in itself a great moment. A bunch of kids sitting at the table eating pizza at a birthday party is also not really a great moment.

Essentially it boils down to this: everything that happens is technically a moment, but not everything that happens is an interesting moment. For example, that kid dribbling the ball down the basketball court is not by itself a photo worthy moment, because even though that's your kid and you desperately love her, she's dribbling that ball in exactly the same way she's always dribbled that ball, in more or less the same way every kid dribbles a ball in every basketball game. But the moment she steals the ball from another player, or scores despite all the opposing teams' efforts to stop her, that's a moment worth capturing. It's a moment that goes somewhere. It's drama.

Why is this photo better than the one above? There's action! My daughter's foot is mid-kick, and the ball is speeding off into the corner with just the right amount of motion blur. And the look on her face is priceless—she's really giving that poor ball what it deserves. There's no background clutter or distractions in the frame, it's just a girl and her ball. This image is no longer a snapshot—it's something more than that.

Of course that is a very generalized example, and I don't mean to imply that dribbling will never make a good shot. Sometimes an intense facial expression, an approaching player or some other quality can give you that moment you need, but ultimately you need to be able to recognize that moment and be ready for it.

Choose your moments carefully. The moments that transform your images from snapshots to works of art are the ones that matter, the ones where there is emotion or excitement, drama or a sense that something is about to happen, or the aftermath of something that did happen. A moment can also be one of great peace and tranquility, or in the case of a landscape image, that moment where the light strikes the scene in a beautiful way, or when the clouds are full of rain and ready to burst. And sometimes you can find a great moment in a scene where nothing much is happening at all—a simple connection between subject and photographer can also be a great moment.

How do you know that moment when it happens? Pay attention and take care. If you combine that moment with thoughtful composition and awareness of the light, you may never take another snapshot again. Well, you might end up with one or two, because sometimes life happens and you're not quick enough. Just keep those precious snapshots in your scrapbook, use them to remember your life, and show those works of art to the world.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Sue Fenton says:

    Thank you Becki for this clear and concise article. I had to cringe at the thought of all those snapshots that grace my photo albums from the past. Thank goodness for The Dash !

  2. Ed Greding says:

    In the very first photo, showing the sad woman sitting alone by the ocean, as you say, it is obvious that she is sad from her posture, her expression, and her covering her face. You add that if people were present, wading or swimming, and perhaps sunning on the beach, the effect would be to destroy the metaphor of sadness, since one could presume that these people are reasonably happy---even though they would be too far away to see their expressions. BUT, it seems to me that the happy people, smooth ocean, and a blue, sky with just a few, fleecy clouds would offer a strong contrast to the unhappy woman close to the photographer's viewpoint. The rest of the world depicted as happy would accent her sadness, and SHE is the central thing in the photo. The mood would seem to me to be even sadder than without these changes. Just an idea to express how different interpretations can be so easily formulated. It's still a fine photograph! THANK YOU BOTH for such fine lessons!

  3. Chris says:

    Thank you!

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33 minutes
About Becki Robins
Becki Robins is a Californian who has a strong background in photography including an associate in arts degree in commercial photography. She has been a hobby and professional photographer for more than a decade and has taken thousands of photos, some of which have been published and won awards. Becki is also an excellent coach of the Photography Dashes.