The Scintilla of Difference


I was recently watching a session with one of my personal favourite instructors and photographers, Mr. Joe McNally, and he used this phrase in part of his discourse.  He described it as the difference that sets your work apart from all the other folks doing something very similar.   As he often does, a word from Joe prompts me to think deeply about a concept.  Want to learn all about this? Scintilla means a tiny trace, or spark, of a specified quality or feeling. What sets a great photograph apart from a good photograph is the scintilla of difference.

Think of this.  How many sunset photos have you seen?  How many have you shot yourself?  After being involved in photography for over 35 years, I've made more than enough images myself and when I worked a long time ago in photographic retail when film processing was a big deal, I saw literally thousands of sunsets.  To the person who made them, each of them was wonderful and special.

The question to ask is, do they set themselves off differently from every other sunset?  We have all seen a sunset that was beautiful or majestic or had amazing colour.   We've probably made images of them.  They may still ring great bells for us, but most of the time that is because they act as a mnemonic trigger, releasing the memory of what was happening and how the shooter felt at the time the photo was made.  For those without the memory, it's a pretty picture.  Probably.  Or it might be the ten thousandth sunset picture that they have seen and they are now so jaded by sunsets they could care less if they ever see another sunset image.

This leads to the next major step in our own development as artists and as our own photo editor.  There is nothing wrong at all with liking one of your images.  There is nothing wrong with you printing an image of a sunset and hanging it in your home if it matters to you. The question is whether it belongs in your portfolio or your online archive of work.  If it's just another beautiful sunset, where its only power is your personal mnemonic trigger, then the answer is probably not.   We've talked a lot at the camera club and in my private classes about the importance of framework in the work you publish.  Does the image tell a story that a viewer can clearly understand?  Does the image provide a framework where the viewer can write his or her own interesting story?   At a recent club challenge, local photographer Bill Bell shared a street image he made in Paris.  It was extremely well received and not for the technical excellence.  What made the photo special was the framework created so the viewer could write his or her own story about the woman in the image.  About ten members offered their perspective and their stories were different each time.  If Bill knew the real story, he smartly kept it to himself, the viewer's own stories being much more poignant and relevant to them.

Great photos have this spark, this scintilla of difference that sets them apart.  I think of Alfred Eisenstadt's images of Marilyn Monroe in her back yard, Arnold Newman's portrait of Igor Stravinsky, Gregory Heisler's image of Muhammad Ali, John Paul Caponigro's work in Iceland or Moose Peterson's bear series.  There's a certain something that sets those images apart, something that the artist has seen and made available to the viewer, even when separated by decades as with much of Eisie's work (Alfred Eisenstadt's book Witness to our Time was my personal inspiration to take up photography).

Social media encourages people to publish everything.  When Google + first started up the Food Photography community, the work was fascinating and you could see that the publishers were trying to tell a story or show a set up or coach newer shooters on a process.   Now it is a near endless movie of out of focus, poorly exposed, badly composed photos of people's lunch.

One of my friends, Valerie, really enjoys flowers.  She grows them, she hunts them and she photographs them.   This is a very hard gig, and Valerie only does this to please herself.  Any photo editor will tell you that if you put an image of a flower in your portfolio it had better blow the doors off, because flowers are naturally beautiful.  Your image has to do more than just replicate the beauty.   Yet every day there are thousands of pictures of very beautiful flowers published on social media.  They are beautiful.  And they look like every other one with very rare exception.  When Valerie puts her artist into a flower image, there's more there than a beautiful flower, and for the image to have any weight at all, there has to be.

As a student, a teacher, a mentee and a mentor, I search for the scintilla of difference.  I've missed great images because I was too busy focusing on getting a great image.  I've made hundreds of images while doing an assignment and come back with nothing.  When mentees ask how many keepers I have at the end of a day, I tell them that I have had a very good day if I retain 6%.  I have worked very hard to be a very tough editor of my own work.  I don't publish often and I am very lucky that when I do, I receive the kind of critiques I need to get better.  Coming full circle, the best instructor I have ever seen give critique is Joe McNally.  He is clear, he is direct but he is never demeaning or arrogant.  I like to believe that I have developed my own critique style based on what I have learned from Joe and also what not to do by watching other critiques, the providers going unnamed so as not to be rude.

So that's the challenge gentle readers.  Before you publish, heck before you even start post processing, does the image have the scintilla of difference that will set it apart, does it have the spark, that raises it above the fog?


PS, could we all agree to remove the phrase "awesome capture" completely from our vocabulary as it is both meaningless and trite.