What's the Difference Between a Snap and a Photograph?

What's the Difference Between a Snap and a Photograph?

Does taking a snapshot and taking a photograph means the same thing, or is there a vast degree of skill differentiating between the two? In this piece, I explore the answer.

We often think of snapshots as holiday pictures and photographs as a proper attempt at capturing a subject. After all, a snap is just something taken hastily with minimal thought behind it, and a photograph is taken with planning and precision. But, there's plenty of overlap between a snapshot (or "snap," as I'll be referring to it) and a photograph. 

Man cycling through town

Here, the photographer has purposely tracked the subject and deliberately used a slower shutter speed in order to blur the background as the camera panned through the scene. However, we don't know if the photographer planned to capture this scene before they set out. Image by Snapwire via Pexels

Snapshot: An informal photograph taken quickly, typically with a small handheld camera. ‘a collection of family snapshots’

Photograph: A picture made using a camera, in which an image is focused on to light-sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by chemical treatment, or stored digitally. ‘a photograph of her father’

- Oxford Dictionary

The two dictionary definitions above outline some basic assumptions that I'm not entirely convinced by. The definition for "snapshot," for example, addresses the formality, speed, and size of the camera. So, does that mean snaps can't be taken on a big camera? What is a big camera, anyway? How do you make a landscape "formal"? And how much time must elapse for it to be considered "quickly"? As for the definition of the photograph, well, that's pretty much any camera and even covers snapshots in this definition. Let's explore this in a little more detail.

Formality

Aerial photo of beach and waves

An aerial photograph, such as this one, by definition, could never be a snapshot, because it takes time to set up a drone, get appropriate permissions for flying, and/or gain a pilot's license to photograph. Image by Pok Rie via Pexels

I think of formality as following convention or a recognized form, which when photographing, probably means using the standard rules of composition, exposure, and color theory. That might look like a photo that has a level horizon, with subjects placed along the lines following the rule of thirds and that has no highlights or shadows clipping. 

But does that mean a snap has to be wonky, under- or overexposed, and/or have poor white balance? I've taken plenty of those when I was concentrating on making a shot for a magazine, or for a print, or a client. I just see the mistake and correct it, a photograph that doesn't live up to the standard I set myself, but not a snap.

Speed

Man with smartphone taking photos

Smartphones make it increasingly easy to take shots when out and about. The Google Pixel 2, for instance, has a button shortcut, which pulls up the camera mode instantly, great for saving time when capturing those fleeting moments. But does this carry the same gravitas as setting up a DSLR?

What if you have a big DSLR, such as a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III or a Nikon D6 but hastily use automatic mode and get a quick shot of something as you wander by while you're on holiday. Is that a snapshot still? I have plenty of friends who work as professional photographers that need to take shots quickly, whether it's shooting the Olympics and uploading instantly to a newsroom or getting only two minutes with a public figure, but I wouldn't call those snaps. They're photographs with incredibly short timeframes.

Size of Camera

Man photographing with DSLR

If a snapshot is defined as being taken on a small, handheld camera, then how big does a camera have to be in order for it to be classed as a snapshot? Does a bigger camera mean that any picture taken with it cannot be classified a snap?

So, what size does a camera have to be considered big? Is its mass or its dimensions? A small handheld camera, in my eyes, is probably something a child could pick up and shoot with. Perhaps it's not the behemoth large format analog cameras with glass plates and whatnot, but something around point-and-shoot to entry-level DSLR level.

But that said, mirrorless cameras have smaller form factors, and some of them are full frame, with all the high-end technical specifications you'd expect to find on their larger DSLR counterparts. There are some bridge cameras that weigh more than a small, entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera. So, defining the "small handheld camera" part of the definition is imperative.

My Conclusion

It's difficult to define what makes an image a snapshot or a photograph. In my head, the snap is of lower merit both artistically and technically, whereas a photograph has been planned and is taken with care and concentration, but with the counterarguments I've mentioned, I'm rather contradicting my own opinion. 

Woman photographing with DSLR camera

The definition between snapshot and photograph doesn't quite correlate, as all snapshots by definition are photographs, but not all photographs are necessarily snapshots.

Although "snap" has a negative connotation, I don't think it is defined by its quality. Rather, it must be defined by its preparation and the photographer's intent behind it. Planning a landscape photograph based on weather, lighting, and camera angle would never count as a snap to me, regardless of whether it was in focus or underexposed, etc. Even if the photo looks bad, the photographer had intent behind it and made plans to create what they desired in the frame.

Whereas, in my mind, a snap occurs by happenstance and could look technically fantastic, but was not preconceived by the photographer. But the gray area in this argument occurs when the photographer takes a camera "just in case" something pops up, or such as happens on holiday, to capture a moment for posterity. Then, I think it relies on the explanation of the photographer to discern whether it's a snap or photograph. If there's a lot of thinking behind the shot, such as choosing the right angle to shoot from, being aware of lighting, the technicalities of camera settings, and being precise with composition, then in my mind, it's likely a photograph.

Images by mentatdgt, Pok Rie, and Snapwire via Pexels.

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17 Comments

Mike Shwarts's picture

Nothing wrong with snapshots. They have a place. Sometimes you don't have time for more than a snapshot. Often friends or family are impatient, and you have to settle for a snapshot instead of making a photograph. At other times, a snapshot is all that is required. All you need is a photo document.

You can tell the guy in this article is a pro by the lens cap still on the lens. ;)

Peter Unk's picture

Snapshots are a subset of photographs.

CRAIG KING's picture

How about if there is any kind of artistic visualization concerning the scene, call it a "photograph." If you find yourself shooting random things it's a "snap."

Mike Shwarts's picture

Why is random things a reason to call the image a snap? People photograph random stuff all time, and still put in effort to be artistic. Also artistic is pretty vague. What if somebody has artistic intent, but you don't like the photo? What if they have artistic intent, but haven't yet developed the skill to capture the image that meets what they see in their mind? Are their photos snaps, or just photographs with a different way of seeing the subject, or skills that need to be learned or honed?

CRAIG KING's picture

If they "put in effort to be artistic" I'm calling it a photograph. "Artistic" is extremely vague. If the photographer doesn't capture what they visualized it's still a "photograph."

David Pavlich's picture

A snap shooter looks through the viewfinder or the rear screen or the phone screen and takes the picture without thought to composition, lighting, focus, etc.

I didn't get serious about this stuff until about 8 years ago. I took pictures for a long time, but never gave a thought to what I was doing except for getting the focus correct.

After talking with seasoned shooters and watching a lot of critique videos, the way I looked through the viewfinder changed drastically. Now, like most of you, I consider background, foreground, f stops, shutter speeds, the different 'rules' that go along with a proper photograph.

The other consideration is post processing. I wouldn't think that a snap shooter would be all that concerned about shooting in RAW and bringing out the best of the data that the camera picked up.

Charles Mercier's picture

To me, a snapshot is a photographic record without artistic intent. By chance, it could end up being art/artistic.

jim hughes's picture

I agree and I'll add that "snapshot" is just a putdown that photgraphers throw at each other; the public doesn't know what it means. It can be a way to ridicule an interesting photo by saying "he got lucky".

It's interesting to try to nail down what qualities make a photo look intentional or "serious" and I think it obviously includes post-processing. I wrote a blog post about some of my ideas, but there's certainly a lot more to it.
https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2020/02/29/not-taken-by-a-phone/

Ed C's picture

It is very simple. It has nothing to do with camera size, medium used, speed of execution, etc. etc. It has to do with planning. It has a purposeful subject, thoughful composition, lighting, exposure choice, to blur or not to blur, etc.. Some people can plan very quickly. I agree with Peter Unk that a snapshot is a subset of photographs. Probably the biggest subset IMO.

Joseph Walsh's picture

To me, the idea of something's being a snap suggests either speed or ease of execution - so something like a phone camera, or a simple point-and-shoot, which don't really allow you to get out of fully automatic exposure modes, would only produce snaps (though of course they might be very good, artistic snaps!). More advanced cameras can also produce snaps, of course, but they also produce photographs by allowing you to set various exposure parameters manually (which is of course more time consuming and less "snappy"). For what it's worth, I'm not suggesting snaps aren't as good as photographs - that depends on who is taking them!

Adriano Brigante's picture

Here are a few thoughts.
I see the "snapshot to real photograph" graduation as an emerging property of the picture. It's like how many grains of sands does it take to make a heap of sand? There's no definitive answer, except it takes a few. You have to combine a few of the parameters listed here (subject, intent, composition, etc.). Also not all parameters are weighted the same. For example, if the subject is just your family at Disneyland, you have to work pretty hard to make it a non-snapshot.

Also, I think three parameters are missing here: the uniqueness of the photograph, the context, and the viewer's perception. Here's an scenario: Imagine three dudes on a trip. They're in their vehicle, and one of them sees something out the window. He thinks it looks cool, so quickly grabs his camera, and takes a simple picture just to document their trip. Now, here are two examples of photos that were both taken in this exact scenario. One is a snapshot, the other is one of the most iconic photograph of all time. And it's pretty obvious which is which. The difference here is uniqueness, context, and viewer's perception.

Mike Ditz's picture

While this is an iconic photo is it not just another "He thinks it looks cool, so quickly grabs his camera, and takes a simple picture just to document their trip." the photographer didn't do much other than be in the right place at the right time.. :)

Mike Shwarts's picture

It's an iconic snapshot. :)

John Ellingson's picture

From my own perspective a photograph is made between our ears and we use a camera to get it out and show someone else. A snapshot is made in the camera with little creative effort involved. Ansel Adams called this pre-visualization. I had the great privilege to get to know Ansel and go on location with him. I remember one month in Yosemite where we went out every day to photograph something he had in mind. During that whole month he might have exposed just one sheet of film, because the photograph he had conceived could not be captured when we were where he wanted to take it -- the clouds weren't the ones he wanted, etc. A photograph is a mental creation. A snapshot is just what the name implies -- a "snap shot."

Javier Gutierrez's picture

There is a difference. When I first started out and placed a picture on a site for critique, I first heard the term snap shot. This was decades ago. I learned from that. A snap shot is like ''Mike Smith'' writing an article but worse. (Hopefully he will learn from his article / Snap shot) A photograph is like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Simple.

J Riley Stewart's picture

You can argue all day about the difference between 'snaps' and 'photograph' -- but at some point we'll start asking "Why argue about them?" ALL snaps are photographs (just see the definition for photograph). I've seen beautiful, fine art photographs made with large format cameras and printed elegantly on large papers, and the artists chose to call them "snaps." -- Is about the same as asking which is correct: "Bob" or "Robert"

That said, there is a difference I think between "snaps" and fine art photographs... the first implies very little artistic intention or purpose to create art while the second clearly does. But will I get offended if someone calls one of my fine art photographs a "snap"-- nope. I'm a Jim not a James.