Snaps vs Photographs – 2 Myths & 5 Great Tips

How do I turn my snapshots into great photographs?

Snaps vs Photographs - taking a snap with a mobile / cell 'phone

The difference between a "snap" and a "great photograph" can be enormous, but many people believe they can't achieve any better, because they don't have a "fancy camera", or that it's just beyond them. Well, that's quite frankly hogwash. Great photography is within the reach of anyone with any camera.

The difference between snaps vs photographs is just a little bit of knowledge. It doesn't take much to start making a huge difference. Below you'll find some great pointers to get you off to a flying start, plus some myths busted right out of the ground.

If you scroll down there's a video to accompany this article, but you'll learn far more if you both read and watch. Scientific studies have been done on this - really! It's called multi modal learning.

Snaps vs Photographs - what's the difference?

Auto Mode - great for snaps or snapshots

Snaps: or "snapshots"

Tends to happen when you "point and shoot"

It's taken quickly, usually on "auto" mode, with little consideration to composition, camera settings, lighting, etc.

It's a convenience shot, often to preserve a memory, or document something. Snaps serve a purpose, and there is a time and a place for them.

A carousel taken with thought - as "photographs" often are

Photograph: We're getting into the art of photography

Tends to be better thought out and the knowledge and skill of the photographer tends to show.

Thought is given to things like settings, composition, lighting, story telling etc. It just "looks good", and can also convey emotion.

It can take you and the viewer right back to the moment you took it. It's more than just a document.

A man feeling great above the clouds - a feeling that comes from great photography

That little bit of knowledge: Makes all the difference

Once you've developed your photographers eye every shot becomes a photograph.

It becomes automatic in your mind rather like riding a bike.

By way of example you're holiday photographs will really start to reflect how it actually felt to be there. No more looking back with disappointment thinking "it looked so much better in the flesh". 

Crossing the bridge from taking snaps to really great photographs doesn't take much.

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2 Myths and 5 Tips to get you started

Myth Busting 1: You don't need a fancy camera!

Yes, you read that right. All that stuff you heard about great photography requiring the newest, shiniest and most expensive cameras really doesn't wash. That's because the quality of any given photograph is far more about what YOU KNOW than the quality of your camera. Cheaper cameras can do far more than just take snaps if you know what to do with them.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Your camera is a tool, and no more. It can only do what you tell it to do, and it can only point in the direction you hold it towards. Think about this - how much of the wonder of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling was down to Michelangelo's genius, and how much was about the make and model of his paintbrush? It's the same thing, but as photographers we're not painting with paint, we're painting with light. Photography literally means painting with light. Photo = light. Graph = writing/painting.

Yes, when you're a skilled photographer, you're going to start hitting the limitations of your kit - but it takes time and knowledge to hit those limits. Many people never reach those limits, and many wouldn't notice the difference a "really expensive" camera would make without "pixel peeping". You can get the same artistic effects at the cheaper end of the camera ranges, as at the expensive end. 

Camera Comparison - Myth Busting

The two pictures below were taken with very different cameras, but the image I'd call a snap (left) was taken on an expensive DSLR camera, and the image I'd call a true photograph (right) was taken on a cheap compact camera. 

example of snaps / snapshots a flower taken on DSLR
Expensive Camera
Poppy taken on Compact "a photograph" - well thought out
Compact Camera

What separates these two images is just two things - composition and the use of aperture. So with a tiny bit of thought and the know how to change one setting you can transform your shot. This is well within anyone's capability - it's certainly within yours.

Tip 1 - Composition - Point of View and Background

The first image taken on the expensive camera (above left) has at least a couple of compositional issues which keep it in the "snaps" category: 

  • We are looking down on the subject (an angle we see every day which makes it uninteresting). It would be better to take the image from a different "point of view" such as the vantage point of the flower itself - low down.
  • It has a very cluttered background so that the viewer doesn't know what they are supposed to look at. The flower does not stand out from the leaves, and the grey of the pavement is very distracting. 
Composition point of view helps make photographs

The photograph of the poppy however is taken from the same height as the poppy - so that we have a more interesting point of view (we're in the poppy's world so to speak), and the background is uncluttered which draws the eye on the poppy. To seperate the poppy even more from the background the photographer (me) has used another tool - the aperture setting.

Just a little bit of thought here can turn an ordinary snapshot into a really great photograph. Like we said, it doesn't take much.

Tip 2 - Aperture

The aperture setting (just one setting) on the camera controls how much of the foreground and the background is in focus. It's the setting we use to blur those backgrounds.

Not all compact camera's allow you to change your aperture settings - so if you're going compact make sure you look out for one which does. This could really transform your photography. Pretty much any DSLR or Mirrorless will allow you to change this setting.

Demonstration 1 - Using Dogvid Bailey

The two pictures below of my cocker spaniel Bailey (Mr. B Ratbag) both use the aperture setting to blur the background slightly. The photograph below right also uses a fast shutter speed to freeze the action (in particular freezing Bailey's "go faster" ears in mid air).

Aperture and Shutter Speed

Tip 3 - Shutter Speed

Again shutter speed is just one camera setting. If you use a fast shutter speed it will freeze action like the picture above right with the "go faster ears". Using a slow shutter speed will blur motion which can be used to stunning effect, like the carousel we saw above.

Tip 4 - Exposure Triangle

Aperture and Shutter speed form two corners of the "exposure triangle" (the other corner being ISO - which controls the sensitivity of your camera's sensor). 

If you can understand how these 3 elements relate to each other you'll be able to take artistic control of your photos, and your photography could be transformed. It's simple, but SO important.

Myth 2 - Mobile/Cell 'phones

Surprisingly for some - the mobile/cell 'phone won't always produce an inferior shot to a Mirrorless or DSLR camera. That's because good photography is as much, if not more, about the photographer as the equipment. A good tool used badly will still yield a bad result, and vice versa. Take the photographs of Mr. Ratbag below for example.

Demonstration 2 - Using Dogvid Bailey

Expensive Camera
Mobile / Cell 'phone

Here it's the mobile/cell 'phone shot that wins. That's because someone who knows what they are doing (that could be you!) can take a far better shot from a mobile/cell 'phone than someone who doesn't have great knowledge could get from a posh DSLR / Mirrorless. It's composition that wins out for the mobile/cell 'phone shot here e.g. the shot is taken from Bailey's level, uses leading lines etc. Just a little knowledge goes a long way.

A handy starting point for composition is knowing the rule of thirds.

Tip 5 - The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds was used in taking the mobile/cell shot of Bailey Ratbag above. Essentially, you should consider a thirds grid over any photograph you are about to take (see below), and line up the elements of the picture as described below. It's quite easy to imagine the grid in your head as you shoot. You don't need to be exact.

Rule of Thirds Grid
  • The most important elements of the image go on or near where the lines intersect (as circled above). As you can see the eye, throat and beak of the bird are all on or near the intersections.
  • Use the horizontal and vertical lines. Notice how the bird is lined up on the left vertical.
  • Place horizons on one of the horizontals. Notice on the mobile / cell 'phone shot of Bailey above, the horizon is placed near the upper horizontal.

Here's the video we teased...

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