The Value in a Snapshot

As Photographers, we put ourselves under a lot of internal pressure. This applies if you use the term Photographer in any way to describe yourself, even only in your own mind, and is not dependent on whatever word you put in front of it, beginner, amateur, semi-professional, serious amateur, hobbyist, whatever. You still identify on some level as being a Photographer, or put another way, someone engaged in the serious pursuit of making good (or better) photographs. Unlike the average person with a point and shoot camera (increasingly rare these days), or shooting on their phone. They do not identify as a photographer. They see themselves as “just taking pictures”. Whereas we as “Photographers” strive to make the best possible image. In fact, most average phone shooters would never refer to their pictures as “images”. when those folks get a “good one” they are happy, when the don’t, it’s “no big deal” for the Photographers among us it’s a blow to our psyche.

As Photographers, we have been conditioned to abhor the snapshot. We use every technique we know, from lighting and composition to exposure control to create a picture that cannot be called a snapshot. To this end we invest in the best equipment we can afford and try to find the time to pursue the “craft” of photography. Indeed often we refer to what we are doing as “a personal project” or “personal work” as if this verbal talisman somehow lends a sense of importance to our picture making. We avoid, at all costs, making snapshots, and are severely disappointed when our “images” end up being snapshots. We view snapshots as what they are, photos made in a hurry with little regard for proper technique. To eschew them as inferior though, is the ultimate disservice.

Some of my better snapshots … or so I think.

My first encounter, as a Photogapher, with the unintended snapshot was in the early nineties. There was an area at the southern end of California’s Eastern Sierras that I passed through two or three times a year. I eventually noticed a meadow with an old barn and a range of low mountains in the background. A very bucolic, though cliche scene. The first few times I drove past it I did not have my camera. The next time through however, I made sure to take a camera.

I do not remember exactly which camera I took, I know it was one of my Canon EOS models, I just don’t remember if it was a Rebel, or my EOS 630. I don’t remember which lens either, but it was probably a 35-80 kit lens. I was just a beginner.

When I arrived at the scene, I parked on the shoulder of the highway. The barn was quite far away, and I couldn’t get closer due to a barbed wire fence at the highway, but the barn was meant to be the focal point of the shot. It was nearly noon and the light was extremely flat and there were no clouds or anything to add interest to the sky. I was loaded with color print film (likely Kodak Gold 100) and I remember bracketing three exposures. I was so focused on the barn that I though I had a great image, a real “banger” so, on with the rest of my day.

After getting back home I hurriedly dropped the film off for processing. I picked it up the next day and couldn’t wait to see my “incredible” landscape image. After looking through the prints, I couldn’t find it. Sure, there were some crappy snapshots of the barn in question, but no wonderful image to ooh and ahh over. Well, that was disappointing. The disappointment was that the photo was not representative of what I saw- though it was an absolutely objective representation of the scene that was before me that day.

So what happened? Simple, I was so enamored of the scene that I didn’t take anything else into account. I didn’t think about the lousy light, I didn’t think that my lens was wrong, I didn’t stop to think that the composition was off. I didn’t think about the complexity of shooting a brown subject against a darker brown background. In short, I didn’t think. I just shot like any other non-photographer. I turned the image in my mind into a snapshot.

I don’t know whatever happened to that photo, I kept it for several years though, and I can still see it with clarity in my “mind’s eye” with no problem whatsoever. That photo, more than any other drove me to try and improve my photography, and I am sure a similar experience has happened to every serious photographer ever. I wish I still had that photo, not because it represents a failure, but rather because it represents an evolution in my photography,

So I, like many other Photographers, have had a built in prejudice toward any image that can be called a snapshot. Likely because we want to differentiate ourselves from the common “picture taker”. Though it has recently occurred to me that the snapshot might just be one of the most valid forms of photography and is due as much respect as more serious “images”, regardless of who made it.

Snapshots are the backbone of our personal history. The inevitable box or album of old family photos is, almost always, full of snapshots taken by someone in the family with a camera. Taken at every family event, vacation or occasion imaginable, they are our individual historical record.

In fact, historians have learned more about the daily lives of past generations through casual snapshot photography than they ever have with formal images. Snapshots are, most often, made as remembrances not as a form of art. They are the penultimate document of our lives, and, when viewed, usually a cause for nostalgia and reminiscence. In short, by and large, they are a big part of our humanity, as individuals, and as a society.

As Photographers, we should celebrate the snapshot instead of making it the object of our derision. That doesn’t mean we should not use whatever acquired skills we have to make better snapshots, quite the contrary, but we need to remember, that not every photograph should be art. Some (if not most) should be allowed to just be photos.