Lessons from the Scene: Four Elements That Separate a Good Photograph from a Snapshot

by Stanley Leary


Family Photo


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 of 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 life’s other 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.
funny thing is, every time we watch 
these videos together, the family made the same 
comments. We caught ourselves laughing at how 
these old pictures always trigger the
 same responses.
As I think back I realize that the older 
films, made before I was born, don’t do much for me. You just had to be there for these snapshots to work.

Photos Need to Communicate

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 story.
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

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. We’ll end up with another snapshot.

Emotional impact or mood

Some folks 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, is often no more than a 
technically competent boring snapshot.
Of course we must be 
sure the camera’s settings are correct, 
but this is only the beginning. We 
need to look from 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.