Snapshots to Art

Earlier this year, I was asked to create a photography workshop. The challenge was we were working with a rural community in Livingston, Guatemala. That meant we are not working with traditional single reflex lens (SLR) cameras so out with the lessons on aperture, shutter speed, focal length, et cetera and in with basic technique, lighting, and composition universal to all cameras. Reflecting upon this, the lessons had real practical applications to the simplicity of modern mobile photography and serves well as a beginner course to photography. 

Introduction and analysis.

First we analyze what separates a snapshot from a work of art? What are some of the problems with typical photos? Below are some of the common attribute frequently found with snapshots which we will address in this workshop.

black-cat m
Examples of blurry shots and lighting problems
Dad-in-Taiwan Moeser
Examples of poor framing and undefined subject.

In general, snapshot are quick and usually lack the thought and time that is put into a work of art. We will discuss four topics and try out strategies that will make your photos more meaningful.


Good photography technique is the most fundamental thing you can do to avoid blurry photos, especially in low light. When it is dark, the camera needs more time to properly exposed the shot and this means the camera need to be held steady longer to get a sharp picture. Here are a few strategies to get steady shots:

• Rest the camera on a railing or leaning against a tree/wall.
• If you are in a building or non moving vehicle, press the lens against the window for stability.
• If there is nothing available, be a human tripod: stand with your feet slightly apart, tuck your elbow into your gut and take a deep breath before snapping your photo.

Resting the camera on a railing and the resulting photograph.

Note that this issue is more apparent when shooting videos and these techniques can be use to get steadier video as well.


Photography is all about manipulating light. Notice where the light is coming from and let that determine the position from which you want to capture your subject. Also be aware that the camera does NOT register the same range of light our eyes see. This often creates the problem with the background or sky being overexposed or subject being underexposed. Consider the following strategies to manipulate light to your advantage.

• Capture a well exposed shot by keeping the light behind you and therefore facing your subject.
• If you must shoot against the light, consider intentionally overexposing the background or underexposing the subject for a silhouette.
• Another strategy is to use a reflector or a white wall to bounce light on your subject.

Bride-Overexposed Bride-Underexposed
Intentionally Overexposing the background for a glowing image or underexposing for a silhouette.

Note how your subject appears in different light such as direct sunlight, shade, or overcast. Consider how a scene will look at different times of the day and planning your shoot to catch the changing light. 

Belize Pier Sunrise_1Belize Pier Sunrise_2
Belize Pier Sunrise_3Belize Pier Sunrise_4
he difference in light can change drastically within an hour.


The Rule of Thirds is a good starting point for framing your shot. The rule of thirds divides up the frame like a tic tac toe board and aligning elements of your shot to the dividing lines.

• Use the Rule of Thirds to give your shot a natural and less intrusive feel, like your audience is an observer.
• Break the rule to give your shot an imposing and powerful feel like it is speaking directly to your audience. Creating a centerline can be useful for reflections or showing duality.

West Point LightDowntown-Houston-Reflection
xample of the Rule of Third being used and when to break that rule.

Height and distance.
Most people take photos of subject at eye level and at arms length. That is natural and emulates our eyes but it can be boring because it is a view we are accustomed to seeing. You can get a unique look by trying the following:

• Bird’s Eye View: Shooting photos from a high angle will make your subject feel small and cute.
• Worm’s Eye View: Whereas shooting from a low angle will make your subject feel large and intimidating.
• Getting close to the subject will give you an intimate feel.
• Taking a few steps back or a panoramic shot can be awe-inspiring.

Examples of Birds Eye View and Worms Eye View.
Examples of a close up inches away and a wide panoramic.

Defining your subject

An important part of any form of art is to make a statement. To do so, you need a well defined subject that can be interpreted. Think about your subject in relation to the environment that it is in.

• Utilize the foreground, background, and maybe even a midground to isolate your subject.
• Utilize light to highlight your subject.
• Find patterns and use your subject to break that pattern.
• Think about your subject’s interaction to the rest of the frame and what is the story there.

Gas Works Dandelion
Decommissioned gas plant in the background symbolizes the past while the dandelion in the foreground represents the future.

Lit Tree
The subject illuminated by the light gleaming through taller redwoods.


Some of the questions to reflect on are:
• Which strategies did you like and how did that photo make you feel?
• How can you use these strategies to help convey a message?
• How has this workshop affected the way you look at a photograph?

Lastly, photography is all about patience. You may not always be able to use these strategies all the time but keep them in mind for the right moment to make a meaningful photograph.

Are these points useful to you? Are there other points you want to add. Let me know what you think by contacting me below.

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