As photographers, we take inspiration from everywhere. Pictures we see on the internet, things our friends say to us over coffee, magazines, galleries and museums, even the advertising we see at the bus stop. All of it gets stored away inside our heads for later, even if we don’t realize it. All this visual information we have consumed throughout our lives becomes a part of the new photographs that we create in some way. It influences us to make certain choices about the way we style or shoot images or the way we post-process them. So if we’re all taking inspiration from the things we see around us, even without realizing, when is it photographic inspiration or copying?
Why is copying seen as such a bad thing in the photographic world? Moreover, is there a clear line between taking photographic inspiration, or is it fuzzy and open to interpretation?
Imitation or inspiration?
It’s often said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery (a nineteenth-century English art collector originally said it). And in many ways, I agree with this.
If you’re imitating a picture by another photographer or you’re imitating their technique, then you must think it’s going to be worth putting in time and effort to learning more about what they do. And that’s where we get the idea that this process is flattery.
But it doesn’t always feel like flattery when you’re on the receiving end of being imitated. Instead, it feels like someone is just copying the hard work that you put in, without any creativity on their part.
Of course, in the commercial world, there can be real financial implications if another photographer copies your work. But perhaps it’s time, in the rest of the photographic world, to worry a little less about copying and to focus more on learning new skills and developing a voice.
Turning imitation into inspiration
We’ve all imitated others, I’m sure. Maybe a pose borrowed from one image, the lighting from another, or the setting from somewhere else. It’s so hard to be truly original when it comes to the creation of photographs. We can’t just close ourselves off from the world and stop looking at the imagery that surrounds us.
So how do you move from imitating another artist to using their work as inspiration?
I think that the difference happens when you start to bring your own experience to the images you create. If you allow the work to reflect your own view of the world and the things that have happened to you, then that’s when the originality starts to happen.
Is originality of subject as important as originality of voice?
Let’s face it – you’re unlikely to hit upon a genuinely original subject or concept for your next photograph. Most things out there have been photographed thousands of times before.
I’m not sure that having a totally original subject is that important, as long as you’re bringing your own voice to the photograph. If you’re saying things in your way with your viewpoint, then that is something truly original.
Think about many of the celebrity portrait photographers, or the well-known landscape photographers. Those photographers don’t usually have original subjects that have never been photographed before. But what they do have is originality in voice, an ability to find something unique about their subject, and the skills to show that uniqueness to the world.
Finding your voice
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? “Just find your voice and make your images unique!” I guess you’re sitting there wondering how you find your voice and stop copying? Here’s a few pointers with that in mind.
1. Bring your own experiences
Nobody else has led your life and had your experiences. If you bring these elements of you to your image-making, you will automatically be creating something different from everybody else. Nobody else is you, no matter how much they imitate your work.
Of course, your own experiences could also be showing up at the right time and place to create a unique shot.
2. Critique your photos
For every photo that you think is great, write down five ideas that would improve it if you took that photo again. Even the daftest ideas are worth writing down. Put a small print of the image in a notebook and record your thoughts there if you can. Then you can revisit it when you want ideas of new things to try.
3. Keep shooting
Don’t give up. It takes most people a long time to find their unique voice and viewpoint when they’re making images. You have to shoot quite a few photographs before you start discovering what makes your images unique. The longer you shoot, the more likely you are to hit on something that makes your work truly your own.
How bad is copying really?
So, photographic inspiration or copying? In the grand scheme of things, in my opinion, copying isn’t really that big of a deal.
Artists have always copied other artists. Going back hundreds of years, artists have sat in front of the work of another artist and made sketches from what they see. It’s a way of learning and improving your skills, and photographers can (and perhaps even should) consider doing the same – photographically speaking.
If copying is being done for practice, learning, and curiosity, it should be encouraged. As long as nobody is claiming the ideas that they’ve copied as their own, then does it really matter?
The difficulty comes when people are using ideas and presenting them as their own, without taking the time to develop them fully and put an individual spin on the work.
So as long as you’re bringing something new to the work you present as being authentically yours, then I don’t think there’s any problem. And even if you are copying to learn technical or creative skills – so what? Does it even matter?
I’d like to know what you think about photographic inspiration or copying. What do you have to do to stop copying and start being inspired by other people’s work? How do you find your voice and make your own photographs unique? Share with us in the comments!