Lessons from the Scene: Making Snapshots Better by Stanley Leary


 by Stanley Leary

 Figure 1Figure 2Figure 3
Stage One:  “Literal” Snapshot – making photographs to simply describe what you see.
A snapshot is popularly defined as a photograph that is "shot" spontaneously and quickly, most often without artistic or journalistic intent. Snapshots are commonly considered to be technically "imperfect" or amateurish--out of focus or poorly framed or composed.
We all start with the literal snapshot and often revisit this stage of photography. These literal snapshots are primarily taken for pleasure of the photographer. The photos are “memory joggers”.
Believe it or not there are many “professional” photographers who never move beyond this point.  Since the bride and groom were there with the photographer, the literal snapshots are like “memory joggers” for them as well. 
Another place I see this is my church. After a team comes back from their mission trip they show their photos. The team laughs because they get the "inside joke." While not always a joke it’s another memory jogger and not a photo that communicates to the audience.
When a photographer realizes that other photographers are getting better looking photos than they do, they often move to stage two.
Stage Two:  “Artistic” Snapshot - making aesthetically pleasing pictures that enhance what you saw
In this stage the photographer is aware of visual composition, exposure and how to do things like control their depth-of-field and/or freezing a subject or blurring the background. 
This is where a photographer thinks about being sure the subject is well composed.
Not everyone is able to see the difference in their own photos at stage two, but believe me most everyone can see the difference between a “literal snapshot” and an “artistic snapshot.”
Stage Three:  “Expressive” Images - images made for public, rather than private meanings. Expressive photography, like all art, offers universal, and often metaphorical, statements.
Ansel Adams said it best, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”  Once you realize this and want the audience to feel about the subject as you do then you want to move beyond just the “rule of composition.”
Figure 4There are three aspects to Expressive Photography, see the diagram.  All three need to be present for the photo to be more than an “artistic snapshot.”
Abstraction removes literal, descriptive clutter and hones an image down to its essence and encourages unlimited thinking.  In music this might be the difference of listening to music that has no words in the tune.  Your mind is free to explore your thoughts.  However, if the music has words in the music then it is less abstract even if the words are not sung.  Hearing Amazing Grace played even without the words will put a more literal thought and therefore is not unlimited as the abstract music.
If the photo moves too far into just abstraction then the other parts of the triangle become weakened and the photo becomes just an “artistic snapshot.”
Incongruity presents elements that seem to be at odds with their context and creates contrasts and juxtapositions that stimulate both the emotions and the imagination.  This is where the photographer helps create a mood within the photo.  They may use composition, lighting and exposure or in combination to help move the photo beyond just documenting the moment to an interpretation of the moment.  Under expose a little and you create darkness or gloom.  Over expose and you may create lightness and lighten the mood.
Human values convey the emotions, beliefs, traditions and knowledge that we understand and share as humans. Genuine smiles communicate across all language barriers, just as frowns and anger will.  We often say this is one of the most critical factors of the portrait. 
What are the three most important things of a portrait? 1) Expression 2) Expression and 3) Expression.
To make expressive photos you must first, ask yourself what it is you want to express through your image(s). How do you feel about your subject?
I like to boil this down to “Why?”  Why should anyone in your audience care about what you want them to see? 
Journalists are trained to ask: Who, What, Where, When, How and Why.  In my opinion the hook of the story often is resting on the Why.  If you failed to ask yourself why you’re making this photograph—rest assured that your audience will not know either.

Editors Note:
Stanley Leary wants to invite you to go with him to Tibet next summer. So many people continue to ask Stanley to help them with visual storytelling he decided to put together hands on workshop. Partnering with Brian Hirschy and Plateau Photo Tours, their goal is to help participants engage new cultures photographically, respectfully, and effectively as photographers.

Stanley is excited to be able to offer this hands-on workshop in historic Tibet. Participants will walk away with a better understanding of how to engage a culture and effectively tell compelling and complete stories through their photography. All this while having the chance of a lifetime to engage, understand, and photograph the unique culture of eastern Tibet. Go here for more information http://www.plateauphototours.com/blog/visual-storytelling-workshop/.

FTC Disclosure - WeArePhotographers.com receives no financial consideration at the time of this post for anything associated with Plateau Photo Tours.