Snapshots vs Photographs

If you have been exploring the world of photography you would have heard many people proclaiming how important it is to produce photographs, not snapshots. I have heard this advise and reminder plentiful times, but it still puzzles me on how to properly define and differentiate an image as a good photograph from a snapshot. Generally people agree that a randomly snapped photograph, mostly captured via the "point and shoot" style without much thought would result in a commonly ordinary looking snapshots. On the other hand, a good photograph usually would come from stronger technical execution and bold artistic projection.

I believe that the line which separates a snapshot from what everyone so inconsistently defines as a good photograph can be rather thin, and blurry.

I understand that views on photography is widely open for debates, and everyone is free to choose whichever sides. The thoughts brought forth by anyone in the online photography community (which can get rather brutal and vicious sometimes), including myself are not necessarily absolutely final and 100% accurate, and may subject to individual interpretations. However, I do encourage open discussion, because only by doing so we can better understand and learn from each other (photographers thoughts and emotions while shooting) and hence, progress further in photography. Kindly proceed with a grain of salt.

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko 11-22mm F2.8-3.5 or 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 mk1

Burning prayers

Blurred smoke

Roof leaking light

Chinese Temple

Distance in between

Wrong orientation

Not local.


Recently I have stumbled upon an unusual online discussion of snapshot vs good photograph. I shall quote the excerpt of the discussion as follows:

"Snapshots are personal. They record a personal history and are very important for that reason, but only to people who know the people and places in the photos. Technical quality is less important than capturing the people and place in time. Digital point and shoots are ideal for this purpose.

Good photos grab anyone’s attention without any personal or other history. They speak for themselves. Ideally they take an interesting subject and highlight what makes the subject interesting through selective focus, contrast, etc. I use this test: if you saw a particular photo in a gallery, without knowing anything else, would you want to buy it and put it in your house?"

The thoughts being put forth were rather contradictory to my own beliefs in taking good photographs. I strongly believe that a good photograph should have a story to tell. It must have an idea, or a message to get across to the viewer, and it has to be able to communicate openly. Therefore, I also believe in shooting images that capture my attention, and called out to me while I was hunting for photography subjects especially when I am doing my usual street shooting. Those subjects that I photograph are usually personal in nature, and only the photographer, being present at the place and time the photograph was taken, could fully understand the full meaning behind the whole picture. I attach a huge part of that "personal history" in my street photographs, they are the elements that enhanced the augmented the interest of the photography subject. Does this mean, all my photographs are actually snapshots? Oh dear !!

As I read further into the second part of the argument as quoted earlier, something started to stir within my own thoughts. I cannot help but to agree that, "a good photograph should speak for itself, without attachment of any personal or other history". My audience will not be there to know what fully happened when I took the photograph, and I cannot in any way provide a full elaboration and story-telling, since that would defeat the purpose of photography in the first place. As surprising as this may sound to you all (believe me it was a shock to myself as well), I have never even considered shooting a photograph that is free from attachment to any "history". This surely has opened my eyes to a new perspective. I may not exactly fully agree with excluding all attachments to history, but I do admit there is a strong sense of truth in that argument and I find myself seeing a lot of weaknesses in my own photographs. Time to rearrange strategies and add in new ones.

Hands on bars

No need for jacket

No need for jacket: Part 2

Voodoo doll?


Sitting on the kerb

Textile texture.

The discussion I read online has opened my eyes to new possibilities. I acknowledge the importance to shoot just for myself, and not care too much on how the photograph would be received by others. However, if I claim that I shoot fully for myself, I would just be plain selfish, and photography works both ways: interaction between the photograph and its viewers. If the audience cannot connect to the photograph (which was selfish in nature) then there was really no point in photography at all in the first place.

Some would say that I am being insecure about my own photography skills (or even myself), but lets face it, no one should be too proud or arrogant about their own photography work. We should constantly seek ways to improve and do experimentations, finding that breakthrough to the next level. No one is perfect, accepting this fact only means, we have to be open to criticism.

I sure would like to think that my photographs are not all just sadly snapshots at this point. I asked myself "would I buy and hang my own photographs on my wall at home?" Unfortunately, from many photographs I have taken, I could only picked a few.

Do share your thoughts on the "snapshots vs good photograph". How do you distinguish a good photograph from snapshots? What should a photographer do to avoid taking too many snapshots, and start to produce better photographs?


  1. Knowing what comes next, anticipation and being prepared is key for great photojournalistic photos.

    Pressing the shutter at the right time at the right location with the right composition with the addition of the right exposure is a necessity in order to create shots as such.

    I personally believe that there is a huge distinction between unplanned/unprepared candid/snapshots and a planned shot, but of course, we can only do so much to capture the moments to our best ability.

    Eventually, it all comes down to a bit of luck too! Thanks for the read :)

  2. Hello Raymond,
    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

    Preparation is very important, and decisive moment to click that shutter button will either nail the shot or break it. I agree with you on that.

    Your definition of snapshot is of an "unplanned/unprepared/candid" shot. That is true to a certain extent, but the wise guy who put forth the argument as I have quoted on my blog is referring to the subject content of the photograph itself.

    May it be a prepared, or a candid shot, a good photograph should be free of personal history. I want to disagree with that, but I do admit there is truth in that sentence.

  3. Ultimately you have to decide for yourself. We all see this differently, and if you spend much time reading gear talk you might be swayed in the technical direction which is where I see the so-called "photograph" argument.

    I find a lot of those supporting the "Photograph" to be a little pompous, and their images to be somewhat cliche. They over think it all, becoming so invested in their vision that they become demeaning to others who believe otherwise. Meanwhile, after several days planning and "envisioning" the shot, with perfect camera settings in place, they're up before dawn, waiting for the sunrise (the one everyone else has captured before) to frame the oak tree, or waiting at the street corner for the local beggar to move into their frame. How creative is that?

    I'd say this guy made some very personal "snapshots" and I find them infinitely more interesting than the well thought out, technically proficient, and often boring/contrived pictures being churned out by the so called photographers of today:

  4. Anonymous,
    Please leave a name next time so I can trace back your comments.
    Thank you for your kind sharing. I agree with you wholeheartedly when it comes to photography philosophies, where endless debates have been doing around the internet community. Many have been sucked too deeply into it and become lost.
    However, as much as I want to isolate ourselves from the traumas and dramas out there, as a photographer who is still new and exploring the world of photography, it is crucial for me to be open minded, and accept criticisms.
    I wont take everything in blindly and bluntly, but when I see something that challenges the norm of my own photography style, yet I find myself agreeing with its notion, don't you think it is worth giving a consideration?

    I understand your resentment on the overexertion of the definition of what a "photograph" should be.

    I myself strongly practice "personal" kind of photography, where I have very personal message, something from my own thoughts and ideas to share in my photography work with my viewers. However, I do not wish to call those "snapshots". Thats where it got me thinking hard.

    Nonetheless, we decide what is "boring", "good" or "great" on our own, hence I will not go as far as stereotyping modern photographs as being boring.

    You have a strong point. Sometimes, we "overthink" it all.

    Hence, I shall remain faithful to my "simplicity" approach, which has worked beautifully all this time.

  5. Hi Robin. Call me Joel.

    Re: "However, I do not wish to call those "snapshots". "

    Then don't. But, I don't consider "snapshot" a dirty word. I abhor that notion. Some of the world's great, iconic "photographs" were captured with no planning or forethought involved, with less than optimum camera gear and settings. And, I can guarantee you that some of the world's great art is stored in a shoe boxes everywhere, never to seen by more than a few.

    As a blogger and writer, I suppose it's natural that you would hit on this topic in due time.

    FWIW, I like many of your pictures. I visit you regularly.

  6. Hello Joel !!
    Thanks for including your name, I really appreciate that. If you ever comment again in the future, at least I know it was the same person, hence there is a history, rather than me treating you as a stranger again.

    Some of the best photographs are probably hidden, as you have mentioned. How true indeed !

    I blog about things that run through my mind, and publish it so that I will have something to refer to in say, half year from now when I would not remember everything clearly. Plus, adding useful feedback from so many beautiful people out there such as yourself, made these "thoughts" even more meaningful.

    Thanks for following my blog, I am still very fresh to this world of photography, but hey, its a long journey !!

  7. Great men think alike - I was thinking along similar lines.

  8. Hello Ananda,
    Thanks for sharing !! So many things in that entry that I would have echoed too.

  9. love hands on bar and the textile shots.

    how true in joel latest comments.

    and if one is shooting for himself doesn't mean he's selfish. if one is happy with a shot, he will keep it and share. if one is not happy with the shot, how to share since already deleted. and how to interact with the viewers for a shot that you dont like.

    in the end the photographer needs to like it 1st.. no? selfish?

  10. Thanks Anonymous for the compliments, and also for reminding that the photographer must at first be connected and be in love with his own photographs, and be happy about his work. It is true what you mentioned, that how can a photograph be shared if the photographer was not even happy with it in the first place.
    I do not think this is selfish, yes it is shooting for self-pleasure, but in that act of self-indulgence, the photographer captured his own joy in his photograph. It is his choice to decide whether this joy is to be shared.

  11. Please, all anonymous, please kindly leave at least a name (not necessarily your real one) so I can remember you if you decide to comment again the the future.

  12. I think my definition of a photograph is any picture that holds my attention for more than a fraction of a second.

    So when somebody posts a load of pictures online and you scroll through them, which ones do you stop at and spend time "absorbing"?

    For me the technicalities (sharpness, noise, blah blah blah) rarely factor into that equation. This means you can have a photograph taken by a kid with a cameraphone and a snapshot taken by a pro with a Leica.

    Sadly where many of us get exposed to "professional" photographers is weddings. And wedding albums are often full of posed, well crafted snapshots. Rarely a photograph to be seen. I think that's why we often dread looking through them!

    On how to take photographs then. Avoid cliches. Don't let the rules rule you too often. Take pictures of things you are connected with or interested in.

    I'm new to your blog and enjoying it a lot. Thanks. Nice PHOTOGRAPHS too!

  13. hello sam,
    thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and tips!! I particularly like what you said; dont let rules rule you. so true, that is probably one of my weaknesses.
    weddings photographs are so cliche, totally agree with you on that. everything looked so polished, and controlled. nothing unexpected, no surprises.

  14. Hi Robin, I don't like to spam comment boxes but I would have to disagree with your last comment:

    "weddings photographs are so cliche"

    "everything looked so polished, and controlled. nothing unexpected, no surprises."

    I do agree that wedding photography can be made cliched/controlled by some, but ultimately, I think that it really depends on your mindset on how you would approach your subject matter.

    I like to be able to keep my minds open and document every wedding as a unique, special moment for each couple. I try my best to prevent interfering too much or pose my subjects as much as I can, but of course, that's my personal approach.

    But when it comes to location/formal shoots, there is still a need to take control of the situation, but that is what makes photography not just an art, but also a skill, and there is always room to learn and grow in.

    Not one wedding is the same for me. The moments are always there, it's really whether or not we can capture it that matters.

    Anyway, just putting my thoughts forward :) Hope you're not offended!

  15. hello Raymond,
    No worries !! No offense taken, especially from one wedding photographer to another.
    Everyone is free to express their own thoughts and opinion. It is good to voice up so that others may know what you have in mind, and we can benefit from each other.
    I still stand firm, that wedding photography has become cliche.
    I will not refute your points. they are all valid. However, if you can find an online portfolio (wedding photography, either actual day or pre-wedding) and show me the photographs that aren't cliche, then we shall talk.

    Just one portfolio.

  16. Hmm, isn't wedding photography controlled by the customer? Oh, says the bride, I want pictures like this - showing you examples. And so the cliche is propagated.


  17. How do you distinguish a good photograph from snapshots ?

    Its simple really, you don`t and should`nt, you should only distinguish between good and bad snapshots, after all the snap shot is simply a photograph shot spontaneously and quickly, it was something Henri Cartier-Bresson become very good at.

    We all take snapshots.

  18. this didnt help shit

  19. Comparing my shots taken with a p&s canon s100 and what the pro does with his canon 5d mark3 the marked contrast in the use of selective focus to highlight the subject. My pix everything remains in focus. While the pro's pix most taken with large apertures very narrow depths of field. I suspect at one time, in the early days of photography, having everything in focus was the much sought after goal. Now that it is easy to attain with small sensor p&s digitals the ideals have moved.

  20. Photography is not an art. I'm not saying I don't enjoy looking at photography, and I'm not saying there isn't good and bad photography, but it's just a literal depiction of what is there. Detection via depiction. What is captured was already there...the creation of the photo is belief independent. You can try and dress up/alter the photo with techniques like photoshop, but you'll have to do a lot of that to get out of the photo the aesthetic effect you'll get from a painting or drawing.


  21. Thanks for sharing
    we are Roofing Repair company contact uss canada(604 655 8486)
    leaf guard canada
    pakistani Rishta
    roofing company
    photobooth rentals in australia