I see a lot of comments and posts about “using” people’s photographic ideas to draw inspiration from, asking if it’s okay or not okay to be inspired by other photographers when creating your own work. Most people will say “no” outright to photography imitation. For me, the answer is…it depends. And here’s why, as controversial as that may sound.
Photography Imitation Can Help You Learn What You Like
When first starting out in photography, you are still very new to everything. You are a baby bird trying to figure out how to fly, but you don’t really know you are a bird yet. In other words, you don’t really know what you like to photograph and you definitely don’t yet have a style in which you photograph either.
Some photographers, at this point, try and reproduce every image they are drawn to. This photography imitation process can not only help you narrow down what it is that you actually like to shoot, but you will learn valuable lessons in lens selection, lighting, composition, post-production and all other aspects of photography.
If you are trying to reproduce a portrait you like, you will have to learn how it was lit and then how it was posed. You will most likely fail to actually get things right the first couple times around. That will make you research what you need to do differently. You’ll need to figure out what you need to add to your process and what you need to take away. You’ll try, and then you’ll try again.
Similarly, if you are trying to reproduce a landscape image, you’ll quickly realize how important timing is to get the perfect image. You’ll find out that you may need to visit a location dozens of times to get what you are looking for.
You’ll also start to learn what is possible in post-production in order to add drama to your image. You’ll begin to explore polarizer filters, ND filters and possibly even light-painting, all in an effort to make something you were visually drawn to that was previously produced by another artist.
Photography imitation in this situation isn’t stealing; it’s simply using inspiration as a learning opportunity. You are figuring out what you like and using that as a means to learn how to create for yourself.
When “Stealing” Ideas from Other Photographers is Not Okay
The real problem with this process is that you will feel emotionally and physically connected to the images you make. That makes sense; at the end of the day, you could have put hours and hours of work into making an image. You did the legwork and you put in the time.
You’ll share your image across your social media platforms and bask in all your likes and comments. And I think you should! You should be proud of what you have done. You should share your work and you should reap the rewards.
This process becomes not okay when you photography imitation doesn’t pay homage to the creator of the art you set out to reproduce. All it takes is a simple line of text saying you were inspired by someone. Even if that artist was also inspired by someone else, tag them and let them know. Show them that their work has inspired you to create something.
Use Photos as Inspiration, But Take Your Images Further
As you continue down this road of photography imitation, you will slowly and surely start to find your way as an artist. You will realize that maybe you don’t like working with people that much. Or that maybe waking up at 2 a.m. to catch a sunrise landscape just isn’t your cup of tea.
This is when you will start to narrow down the work you are reproducing. You will be drawn to a select few types of artists as you are looking for images to work with.
How can you put your own fingerprint on a certain idea? How can you make your image different while holding true to the style you have grown to enjoy reproducing? This could be as simple as playing with the color of light on a portrait you like or even finding a different composition for a landscape. Or maybe you can try and combine two different styles you have grown to love into one.
The idea here is to take what you love to see and find a way to put your own small twist on it. That’s photography imitation done right.
How to Find Your Voice in Your Photos
Eventually, you will get to the point where you are no longer using other people’s photos as inspiration. This is when it may serve you well to completely remove these other artists from your everyday view.
Stop following them on social media and stop referencing them before you shoot. I’m not saying you can no longer enjoy their work, but make it so you don’t consume their art as often. Your work will then be able to stand on its own.
Start following other artists that are completely different from you and what you shoot. Figure out how you can add pieces of these different styles into your own.
You can also start using your own photos as inspiration. You can set out to reproduce your own work and put a new spin on it.
If you work for clients, you can use them as inspiration as well. What do they like and how can you do that thing with your own voice? For me, this comes up when a client loves a certain shot we have taken in the past and wants the same thing. I’ll simply tell them that we can do something similar, but let’s get them their own version.
This can also come up when you need to shoot the same location more than once. How can you show it differently? Even if you shoot it the exact same, how can you put one small twist into the image to make it different?
Eventually, you will start to notice that you no longer look for other photos as inspiration. You will show up to a scene and see it with your own eyes and then apply your own creative touch to it.
While your vision may have been built on the foundation of reproducing other artists’ work as a helpful exercise to help you grow and find your own voice, the building sitting atop that foundation will be all your own.
Jason Vinson runs Vinson Images with his wife, Chasnie, out of Bentonville, Arkansas, and has been ranked as one of the Top 100 Wedding Photographers in the World by Fearless Photographers two years in a row, as well as Top 10 for the United States, and was also named Best of the Best by Junebug.
Editor’s note: It’s important to have your images copyrighted and know that copyright does not protect ideas (or styles or concepts or inspirations or thoughts). Copyright protects the tangible execution of an idea that’s “original” to the author. It can be a copyright infringement if a photographer copies an entire or substantive portion of a third-party photograph or take copyrightable elements and make a new work from it (derivative formation) without a license from the original photographer.