make your personal photography more than just snapshots

your personal photography – aiming for more than just snapshots

This just might be my most favorite photo of my daughter, Janine. It’s from 2003 when she was 9 years old. I was trying out my new Nikon D100, reveling in being able to instantly see any photos I took. We were outside in the garden area of the apartment complex we lived in at the time. With a long focal length, I concentrated on capturing her expression, and some element of who she was at the time – that interesting blend of confidence and shyness … and a fortunate dose of just indulging her dad with the new toy.

Simplifying the composition, the photo is all about her expression and those soulful eyes. She still has that. But she has grown into a confident young woman.

She’s currently (2013) studying to become a Chemical Engineer and doing very well at university. Yup, she’s bright. That obvious intelligence is also blended with an amazing confidence now. She always was independent; even more so now as a young adult. There’s an individualism there that I can see others are drawn towards. Magnetic. It’s astonishing at times to watch her interact with other people with an assuredness I didn’t have until much, much later in my life. I’m very proud of her, and in a large way also in awe of who she is. She’s an incredible person to know. Even more so as her dad.

It’s interesting to look over the older photographs now, trying to recognize traces even then of who she is now.

And if I sound a little nostalgic, I am. She moved out of the house when university started in 2012, and she has gained momentum with her own life. So we see much less of her now.

While all the memories are intact, the photographs I have of her have an even more powerful resonance now. And I wish I had more photos of her.

Like any new parent, I shot rolls and rolls of film of her as she grew, but this tapered off as she grew older. In a way , as the “newness” of the baby was shed, we became more used to her as being part of the family. She’s just *there* with us; part of us.

Now I wish I had many more photos of her taken during later stages. And not just camera-phone snapshots, but more carefully crafted portraits like this image.

I think there is a danger there – if danger is the proper word – that we reach for our camera phones more readily than before, instead of using a “proper” camera to record events. Make no mistake, I do value having a camera and video-camera as capable as the iPhone on hand, everywhere. In fact, this weekend I surreptitiously recorded a 10 minute video clip as she railed about something. The gestures are amusing. Not that I’d show her now, but to her mother and I, this is an incredibly endearing thing to have. It’s very much her.

While having an iPhone / camera phone on hand is just dandy, I think that as photographers we easily become a little too lazy over time. We gradually start to neglect to properly photograph those who are dear to us with better cameras than just our phones.

So this post is a touch self-indulgent as I reminisce, it’s also a gentle reminder to everyone that there is real value in taking the extra bit of time and effort. We shouldn’t stop taking careful, meaningful portraits of those who touch our lives. With time, we’ll be ever more glad we did.


To counter-balance the sweetness of the photograph at the top, here are a few anecdotes from the past year …

That’s my car, Grrrrr. No, I don’t give names to inanimate objects, but it has such a nice purr to it, that it just seemed apt to call it Grrrrr.

Driving my daughter back to the dorm one evening, I floored the accelerator of my BMW X5 between intersections in Manhattan to get ahead where two lanes narrowed into one lane. My car sprang ahead with a comfortable Grrrrrowl … and I turned to Janine and asked, “Did you hear what my car just said?” She drily replied, “Yes, it screamed ‘douchebag!'”

During the past 6 months she’s lived on campus in Brooklyn, she has really taken the idea of living in New York, to heart. She’s constantly exploring and visiting new friends. Her life story is now abbreviated as, “I was born in South Africa, but I now live in New York.” Yup, quietly skipping past the twelve years in New Jersey.

In amusing ways, it seems like the time she’s spent living in Brooklyn, has rubbed off on her. One weekend when she was visiting us, she had to install the Windows OS on her Mac. (Her University studies require a Windows computer.) She was getting more and more frustrated with the Microsoft website, ranting how a freshman student could program it more logically. The final straw was when the error message popped up saying, “This page can not be displayed”. Her reaction was an exasperated, “Bitch, I will cut you!” Even more amusing when you know what a gentle person she really is.

The times with my daughter are still little adventures, even now. Perhaps the most memorable in the past year was the mad dash on the night of the general election here in the USA. We had to fetch her from a random bus stop to get her to the voting station in time … and we got her here with 2 minutes to spare! She walked out, exhilarated afterwards, two thumbs up!

What happened was that since the election day was shortly after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast. There were still massive traffic delays that evening from New York (where she is attending university), to where she is registered here at home in New Jersey. She finally arrived here after frustrated hours, waiting in line for the subways and buses. So when we got her to the voting station just in time, with just those two minutes to spare, it was a huge relief. Exhilaration. As immigrants to the USA, it was an important (and emotional) event for us that day, voting for the first time and taking an active part in the shape our adopted country is going to take.

Now I’m just rambling. The point of all this – make sure that your personal photography is elevated above mere snapshots. Take the time and make the effort.

Some of you may want to know the camera settings, and details about the lens used for that photo at the top. Sadly, I can’t give it to you. I don’t have the original file. An inconvenient hard drive crash way back then, meant that I had lost a number of images that were of real value to me. And all I have left of that photo sequence, is the one web-sized photograph. Lesson learnt, and from there on I made sure I had more than one back-up of everything.

So make very sure that you do keep those images safe, and don’t risk a devastating loss to your data and photos. Think in terms of worst-case scenarios when it comes to data loss. The precautions are easy, and options aren’t expensive. Keep those photos safe!


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33 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 2mike says

    As a father of three( a college sophomore, a hs junior and a third grader) I love and appreciated the way you feel about your daughter. Pictures are so important and convincing the children to “allow” me to take their pic can be the most difficult part of the process. But, in the end I am so proud to see pics of my three joys and love displaying them in the house, at work and on the web.
    thanks Neil
    ps loving the books!!

  2. 3dmarcellus says

    Lost my first 6-7 months of good serious work as well with a hard drive crash, I have a son on the way (first one) and I’m grateful to have made my mistakes early on. I’ll take your advice to heart.

  3. 4Deji Odetoyinbo says


    You’ve penned many, many, fine words in the many months I’ve been reading this blog. These are, by far, the most powerful.
    So many reminders about so much that’s so important – the nuances of parenting, the evolution of an independent adult, the love of country (birth and adopted), the demonstration of commitment to our communities, the sheer essentialness of backup strategy… all neatly enveloped in a brief essay on a photography blog.


  4. 5 says

    Neil – I got hooked on your blog when I watched the BFT video (awesome – many pieces fell into place after viewing it) … I to am an ex-Saffer living in Vancouver (Canada) … and have been ‘documenting’ my kids (1 boy, 1 girl) rise to adulthood from a very young age (pics and vid)… my daughter (22 in March)- her dancing in the early days (point and shoot, and old PAL Video camera)… got serious about better equipment when she started playing hockey at 11 years old (learnt tons about lighting – even in those early days – one had to in poorly lit hockey rinks!!) … my sons hockey escapades – his incredible growth in playing/learning piano … I am so grateful that I had the foresight to document as much as I could … I must have close to a terabyte of images and videos … I regularly print out new pics and pin them over the older ones in my office … some of my awesome shots I frame and they are on the walls … home and office – it was for them that we came to Canada – to give them a better chance to excel … It is amazing how quickly they adapted (although – they were 6 and 2 when we arrived here) – and have minimal memory of the ‘old country’ … I could go on for ages about them :) … however – I only wanted to add how important backing up your old files is … USB sticks/USB external drives are so much cheaper these days – I try to keep at least 2 copies of all my jpg’s – I used to retain the RAW file as well – but these days I find myself working on the RAW file straight from memory card and saving only the final image.
    Keep up your amazing work – I really appreciate how you give back :) Phil

  5. 6Tony says

    Neil, I have similar stories about my daughter being out in Michigan at school now finishing up at Duquense University and my youngest daughter just starting out in her second semester in college. You are right about those shots, I lost albums a few years ago from a flood of the kids when they were younger but I do have a notebook full of negatives. I do enjoy reading your post and want to thank you again for the few times I asked your advice about cameras and you never hesitated getting back to me.

  6. 7 says

    Thank you for emphasizing the need to take more pictures of our kids. Mine are 7 and 10 and I enjoy both snapshots and taking portraits of them. I have a few that I go back to look at to help me remind me who the were and how they have grown. I will make it a goal to get some through out all the ages!

  7. 8Rudy says

    I agree completely and am often amazed how many photos my friends share of their family outings that would never look good in print because they were taken with a camera phone. They feel as if they have captured the moment when they hear the phone reproduce the sound of a shutter…they sometimes give me a hard time because I always have my gear with me but they see, at the same time, that I am documenting trips, moments and memories…and they are being recorded at the highest quality. We regularly have photo books printed and my house is full of photos on Kodak paper from pro labs-not Walmart or Kinney’s. And the main reason these photos look good (if they do) is because of fellow photogs such as you-those willing to share their knowledge. Great story and great to hear that your daughter is growing up and into a confident women and she has a love for science! I happen to be a Biologist and Biochemist myself :)

  8. 9 says

    Great post. In the last three years both of our children left our home to attend universities out of state, so I very much appreciate your thoughtful article.

    I would only add that for parents with more than one child, they need to make sure to photograph their subsequent children as much as they do the eldest. The tendency is to photograph every last thing the first child does due to the novelty but then take far fewer photos of every other child. It would be tragic to look back at your life and discover that only one of your children was well documented. My wife and I made a careful effort to avoid this, but it is a common mistake.

    Best wishes to you and your wife, and to your wonderful daughter.

  9. 10 says

    Fantastic, thank you for the advice and above all for sharing and reminding us of the importance of the photos we take especially of our loved ones. A note, I, too am a father of two, ironically my daughter is also away in the mainland studying Psycology, we miss her…and want the best for her.

    take care, with amizade(friendship), Joe

  10. 11Jen Klinetop says

    ohhh, Freckles!! Love to hear a father talk about his love for his daughter, so sweet. As a mom and aspiring photographer I try and balance practicing and capturing! I love to find the light in and behind my daughters eyes!!!!

    Thanks for sharing.

    Jen :)

  11. 12plonker says

    Hi All

    I was born in 1945.I never knew my father, a war time thing, but I had a mother, grandparents, and a family in general. Around 1953 I was separated from them. I have always had good memories of them but was unable to remember what my mother looked like.

    With the power of the internet and the most incredible luck, last year, I acquired two rather poor condition pictures of my mother. My picture restoration skills are reasonable so I now have those pictures, proudly displayed in my office. I look at them every day. There are no words to describe the value I place on these pictures.

    Lots of people have old B/W pictures in boxes or at the back of drawers etc, many taken with the much loved Box Brownie. Collectively they form part of our social history and hopefully are passed on through the family. This is how I finally got to see what my mum looked like.

    I recorded my own children growing up; they have their story in images on disc.
    How much longer will we have the equipment to read a disc?
    How much longer will we have the equipment to read a HDD?
    Technology moves on so I see disappointments ahead for some people. Just don’t let it be you.


    Photoshop Restoration and Retouching by Katrin Eismann is a must read for anyone wanting to undertake photo restoration and more. It’s almost as good as one on Neil’s books.

  12. 13Kevin Haehl says

    Neil, that’s a great photo memory and an excellent reminder of why I need to lug my DSLR and lenses everywhere with my kids. I think I know how you feel, as my oldest daughter is also a freshman in Chemical Engineering, and I also see that little girl in the beautiful young woman. I’ve followed your blog for a long time, but this one was extra special. Thanks so much for sharing.

  13. 14 says

    I have believed for some time that the most important pictures I take are those of my family. And generally, I use my best available skill and equipment to capture those images. And for family, I post them online so they can see them and I do quadruple digital copies in the hopes they will survive, but I have NOT done the final step for many of the very best of the pictures: get them printed or hard copy of some form. I have been pondering the concept of printing a book per year of the best of the family pictures and giving a copy to each of our kids.

    With our camera’s video capabilities, our ability to capture family is even greater. How we preserve those memories even more problematic. Ideas? I just finished a project of having 8mm film (about 300 minutes worth) converted to 1080p digital files. The film span from 1949-1988. The results were excellent and I am now working to distribute those digital files family members, but in what format? Yes, Blu-ray disks and magnetic disks, but I don’t believe those will survive for another 60 plus years. Options? And what about all that video from today?

    Neil, this is a great blog and I congratulate you!

  14. 16Peter (Barnet, London) says

    I have a couple of pictures of my two boys when they were very young, the pictures came out very well. But there’s more to them than that. Whenever I see these pictures part me wants to reach in and give then a hug.

    So Neil I know (I think I know) how you feel when a photo transports you back for a moment. A really nice story, which adds weight to an already great picture.

  15. 17 says

    It’s easy to treat personal photos as second priority, since they aren’t the ones that put the bacon on the table. But off-site backups are getting cheaper and cheaper, making it much easier to secure those memories. I use for backups, and it’s been a great service. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

    – David

  16. 18Bashar A. says

    Great sentimental article Neil… I enjoyed reading it very much even though it has a bit of sad/somber feel to it :) Have a great weekend.

  17. 19Alan Frank says

    Hi Neil, This is my first time commenting on one of your articles. Mainly because it struck a chord with me as a father and grandfather. There are are pictures of people and then there are portraits. In my opinion, the difference being the eyes. Which you have captured so wonderfully in the image of your daughter. Regards, Alan

  18. 20Steve says

    Wonderful article, Neil. I’d like to share a bit of a realization I’ve had in recent years. For the longest time I was obsessed with taking photos of my twins much like that beautiful shot of your daughter. I loved clear, vivid, beautifully lit, count the individual eyelashes sorts of shots with their heads filling the frame. I still love them dearly.

    But I realized that what I was missing when reviewing those shots months or years later was any sort of context. I often couldn’t remember when or where the shot was taken or what was going on in our lives when I took it. I’ve since pretty much glued a 50mm prime lens to my full frame body when it is at home and I take great care to include more of the surroundings, both appealing and unappealing, in many of the shots.

    When I look back in 5 or 50 years I know it’s going to be a further tug on my heartstrings to see not only my beautiful children, but what they were doing, where they were doing, it and who they were doing it with. I want to see the dirty clothes on the couch and the toys strewn across the floor. I want to remember what cars we were driving and what the weather was like and how terrible the grass in my yard looked. I’m going to want some context! And clear, vivid, beautifully lit, count the individual eyelashes sort of shots with their heads filling the frame, too.

  19. 21 says

    Two of the comments so far have touched on the longevity of the medium we use to save our images on .. and also the file format.

    This is a real concern. Computer technology is advancing so quickly, that who knows if the media we save our images on *now* will be usable in the future. Just try and find a computer now that can read your 3.5″ floppy discs!

    Perhaps the future really is to keep our images and data on the cloud – then the specific hardware would matter less. For now.

  20. 22Peter (Barnet, London) says

    Saving to the cloud looks very enticing, it means you don’t have to worry about disc drives failing because you “assume” the people running the cloud have all sorts of backup, RAID, replication, load balancing strategies, etc.

    But what if the cloud company goes bust? Gets taken over? Or aren’t doing all the things we assume they must be doing.

    The cloud must be better in the long term, I use Google Docs for most things now, but I’m not sure what happens if, for example, Google loose all my stuff – then what!!!

  21. 23 says

    You’re right. I wouldn’t entrust everything to just one cloud service. And I’d still want my own data and images on a hard drive next to me.

  22. 24Augie De Blieck Jr. says

    My daughter’s only four and I’m already sliding on the photography front. Part of it is just that she has her own opinions for when she’d like to be photographed. When she was little, she had no choice or didn’t know better. Now she knows Daddy’s camera is coming out and might flinch. I know it’s only going to get worse as she gets older. I need to re-commit to this. Thanks for the kick in the pants…

  23. 25 says

    Thanks for sharing. I am going to remember your points about getting more pics of kids once they are older. Mine is 8 and 11 so I got lots of photos of them. I always joke with my wife to say our kids going to have the best photos of them growing up at their wedding :-) I agree with your comments about using iphone to take photos and videos and have actually ordered a X100s to carry around for my everyday shots – I just want more control over my photos. Cheers

  24. 26Carl says

    Neil- i have learned so much from you. this post really touched me. what a lovely photo and sentiment.

    the world needs more scientists and engineers. bravo for your daughter.

    my screen saver is a compilation of family photos taken over the last 25 years. i have had a digital camera since the beginning of digital cameras. it brings me a lot of joy to watch them scroll by. my daughter is 27 now. she and her husband and dog are right now in their car driving from Victoria Canada to los Angeles for a visit. i will be taking some photos of them while they are here, and not with my iPhone.

  25. 27Julio Aponte says

    Neil I’ve learn a lot from your posts. But never thought you were that sentimental. I know from heart what you felt when she left home for College. Been there done that. My daughter finished her Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering and then move towards her PhD in Aeronautical Engineer
    at Boulder CU. You’ve just starting, but many things will come your way
    with your smart daughter which will amaze you. Keep up your good work.
    Hope to cross ways sometime in the future to share our stories. God Bless.

  26. 28Marty says

    Great pics and a great tale. Always good to hear of people who take the freedom of voting seriously. Good luck to your daughter at University and beyond. Keep up your great online photo work.

    Original Brooklyn Boy, Marty

  27. 30 says

    Dear Neil,

    That was a great post. It was very apropos for me today because I was going through old photos for a friend. Their pet died recently and they wanted a compilation of all his photos. It’s wonderful to go back through one’s personal photos. They really do take on added meaning as time goes by. Like you said it’s extremely important to make your images more than just snapshots. I’m curious, how much did your D100 cost back in 2003?


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