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.
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’
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.