If You Can’t Be Original, You Should at Least Be Honest


Many photographers start out with lofty goals. The budding artist wants to be an original — to immortalize something unique with his or her camera.

These beginners soon learn that there are very few “secret” locations that have not been captured in photographs (particularly now that a camera is part of most everyone’s mobile phone). For some, this realization makes them not want to step outside or hold a camera up to their eye, because everything they see has been photographed so many times before.

Of course, to become an artist, you need to use your camera. It’s how you learn all those pesky dials, knobs and buttons. And it’s how you develop, through years of practice, a style that is uniquely your own.

It’s how you become an original.

A Disturbing Trend

What I find disturbing, though, is that some beginning photographers don’t seem to value originality.

In fact, they don’t even understand the difference between learning photography and creating photography. They think that snapping a shutter is what photography is about.

Today there are elaborate workshops where you pay big bucks and an instructor arranges the models, the props, and the lights. The teacher does everything except for the final click.

It’s the equivalent of painting by numbers.

Such workshops are available in every genre imaginable today. If you fancy yourself a wildlife photographer, you can go on an African photo safari. If you want to shoot for men’s magazines, you can attend gatherings of scantily clad women — assembled for your instruction in glamour photography.

Don’t own any gear but you’re in Zion National Park? No problem.

There are schools there where you can rent the equipment — and then be driven to a location where you can see the tell-tale impressions made by previous tripod legs. Just stick your own tripod in the same place and start clicking.

All of this is well and good — as long as students know that these exercises are for instruction, or even just for fun. They do not represent original work.

But since I started teaching a few years ago, I’ve noticed that many students don’t see the distinction. To many young people, the “artist” is now simply the person who trips the shutter on the camera.

Recently, I noticed that one of my former students was using a picture taken during a demo I set up in class to promote his portrait photography business.

Making matters worse, the ex-student had handed the model, a fellow classmate, some paperwork and said to her, “If you sign this model release, I’ll give you the original file.”

The model had posed as a favor to the class. Now, she was being asked to sign a model release — and the ex-student was presenting the shot of her that I set up as his original work.

Path to Originality

Performing artists learn first by imitating others and then by creating their own interpretation of “old material.” Photographers are no different; finding a picture you like and emulating it is a great way to learn.

This approach, over time, can lead to the development of your own, original style.

But never treat mimicking others or shooting a picture set up for you as an end in itself. That’s not photography; it’s the mechanical act of snapping a shutter.


10 Responses to “If You Can’t Be Original, You Should at Least Be Honest”

  1. While we're on the subject of honesty, let me say this post wouldn't be as coherent and easy to read if not for the hard work of editor Scott Baradell.

    Thanks Scott for making me look good.

  2. It seems like it should be pretty simple to be original if you're having fun with what you do. Of course, how many ways can you take a pic of a flower? I love photographing everything. I got a chuckle from what your student did; not one little part of his/her brain thought that this was a little bit cheating?

  3. Aw shucks...anytime, Peter :)

  4. Try the Buddhist approach. Let it go. It's not important enough in life to even worry about. In fact take it as a compliment that your lighting and setup were used. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. People will find out soon enough that his work does not stand on it's own. Now together. Breathe. ;)

  5. Right, not cool to use a shot setup by someone else in your portfolio,, but like Ted said any client will find out soon enough that person is not capable of reproducing a similar shot.

  6. Learning from and later modeling a master is often a good jumping off point. Stealing is a no-no. Did you contact the student and tell him that what he did was to say the least: 'Tacky'?

  7. As Peter himself points out - virtually every photograph has already been taken; but why get upset about the student and his photograph. The students' photograph IS unique as his settings and his particular angle will be different to every other camera in the room.
    I take 'influence'from or 'pay homage' to many different photographers; capturing my own version of a subject. Sometimes it works other times not.

    It's impossible to say what is original or not in this medium.

  8. Ted, Jason, AlanH and Celebratographer, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    As clarification, I didn't feel any attachment to the picture I set up. I am not so petty and insecure that way.

    Actually, I was more appalled at the tackiness or lack of integrity of the student who bullied his classmate/model into signing a model release.

    By doing so, he made me complicit in the coercion of his classmate to sign the model release.

    It wasn't ever about the picture which I set up, but the coercion of the model into signing the model release.

  9. I have empathy for the author. I used to get really worked up when I had something that I considered my own original work, then find it copied by someone else. It was really aggravating because I felt that I had worked hard to obtain my own original piece - whether it be in my photographic or written works. Not to mention that those same people never bothered to extend any compliment personally to me whatsoever and made it seem as if the idea were all their own.

    A friend suggested to consider it a compliment, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. As difficult as it was for me to accept that at first, as soon as I "let it go" as someone had suggested above, the more my own successes were recognized.

  10. I've had original work plagerized without receiving credit and the best thing for me was to get 'completion with the thief and then just simply move on confident that I can create something better and the thief probably wouldn't. plagerized. An

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