“snapshot” – that word is usually used to describe an amateurish photograph (unless you are talking about a screen capture on your computer). But the term is not so much tied to the low level of professional knowledge as rather the haste/speed/lack of preparation that goes into taking the photograph. So the word has carried over into military use for a hastily taken shot – even for such a shot by an expert marksman. The same is true, obviously, for photography by experts: if there is no time, if you just yank up your camera and hit the trigger, it’s a snapshot, even if you’re Helmut Newton!

Now, obviously, an expert photographer will more often take snapshots that actually look like something, whereas us amateurs tend to produce, well….. erh…. let me just say that it’s a good thing that digital photography costs only the price of electrical power, and that I love the inventor of the “delete” button! And that better outcome quality is surely in part linked to the on average better equipment professional photographers and serious experienced amateurs lug around. It also correlates with knowledge of how to set up your camera so you’re ready for anything at short notice, and with practice.  And, to be perfectly honest, with not being lazy 😉 Let me explain how and why on an example, one that’s putting this post within the range of the impending Theropod Thursday:


A subadult ringbilled gull (Larus delawarensis) I photographed in New York, with the Peking and the Wavertree serving as the near-perfect frame. I caught the bird in flight and “froze” it perfectly – but only a half-second before I took the shot my camera had been dangling down by my leg. How did I do this? Am I a magician?

Certainly not – no magic involved at all! But two simple tricks and, admittedly, an OK camera. First of all, my camera is a fairly new DSLR, with a fairly new lens, which means it has a fast autofocus. And a smart one, too, that doesn’t get hung up on a tiny speck, but focusses quickly and reliably on whatever I ask it to focus on. If I handle the settings right, it’s point&shoot and the image will be in focus. A cell phone cam simply can’t do this, and even good compact cameras are usually hard pressed!

And secondly, I put it on settings that made the task easy. Here’s what you should do when you expect to be around birds, little children or other potential victims for snapshots:

–  set you camera to time variable mode (Tv for Canon). In this mode, you manually select the exposure time, and the camera tries to make aperture work for an OK exposure.
– select a short exposure time (here 1/1000 s). The shorter the less motion blur will you see, both from your moving the camera and from the subject you photograph moving versus the camera.
– check against the background you expect to photograph: can the camera come up with a well-exposed image with the settings you chose? If not, consider increasing the ISO value. I went to ISO 400 here, as I know this value gives OK images. For the shot above ISO 200 would have been possible (the image is F13!), but I was also expecting to shoot in the direction of the FDR Drive, which is a raised road, so that it’s kinda dark under it. And very low F-stops are not that great if your subject may be close to the camera. You may end up having part of it sharp, and parts already out of focus. If in doubt, let the camera take photos that are underexposed. You can always brighten them up on the computer. You can’t un-blur an image blurry from motion!
– depending on what you intend to photograph, decide between continuous, single-shot or some other autofocus mode.

So, now the camera is set up properly. I am a bit of a snob with regards to battery live, as I can always afford to carry enough spares. Therefore, I’ve set my camera not to switch off properly, but only “slumber” when there’s no action. This means that it comes back, ready to shoot, within a split-second if I press any button.

The second thing I do to make sure I am always ready for a snapshot is NOT dangling my camera from a long strap around my neck. I have a wrist strap, a short thing that serves as insurance only, and hand-carry my camera whenever I am in situations where I might be tempted to a snapshot. This means two things: I do not need to reach for my camera when an opportunity for a good photo comes around, and I do not have anything else in my right hand at that time!

So, when I see something, up comes the camera, and as I bring it up I lightly press the trigger. This turns the camera on, and by the time my eye is on the viewfinder it is ready to shoot. SNAP!


Another ringbill. Rats of the Air, some call them. Whatever – they are pretty 😉


Oh, a final hint: do not run out your zoom lens to the max length! With fast moving things close to you, a long lens means you spend a lot of time waving it around trying to find and focus on your subject. Rather, keep it short, and if there is time run out the zoom after acquiring your “prey”.

Oh, and if you want to read this advice again, but coming from someone who (as opposed to me) really knows what he’s talking about, go visit, the blog of my esteemed colleague Christian Neumann 😉


About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy
This entry was posted in Aves, Dinopics, Dinosauria, How to, photography, Theropoda. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to snaphots

  1. steve cohen says:

    Useful tips.

    But you forgot the most important key to good photography.

    “Shoot a lot and throw away a lot.”

    I’ve become a big fan of shooting “continuous” especially when shooting birds, animals and other fast-moving subjects.

    It makes a better image if the subjects’ eyes are looking directly at the camera and if the nearest legs are positioned forward.

    And it is almost impossible to compose that.

    But if you shoot a burst one of the images is often close to perfect.

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