Photography Copycats – The fine line between inspiration and ripping off others

Oct 27, 2022

David Williams

Dave Williams is an accomplished travel photographer, writer, and best-selling author from the UK. He is also a photography educator and published Aurora expert. Dave has traveled extensively in recent years, capturing stunning images from around the world in a modified van. His work has been featured in various publications and he has worked with notable brands such as Skoda, EE, Boeing, Huawei, Microsoft, BMW, Conde Nast, Electronic Arts, Discovery, BBC, The Guardian, ESPN, NBC, and many others.

Photography Copycats – The fine line between inspiration and ripping off others

Oct 27, 2022

David Williams

Dave Williams is an accomplished travel photographer, writer, and best-selling author from the UK. He is also a photography educator and published Aurora expert. Dave has traveled extensively in recent years, capturing stunning images from around the world in a modified van. His work has been featured in various publications and he has worked with notable brands such as Skoda, EE, Boeing, Huawei, Microsoft, BMW, Conde Nast, Electronic Arts, Discovery, BBC, The Guardian, ESPN, NBC, and many others.

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This is a tricky article to write. I’m writing it because of observations I’ve made within the photography community, so here goes.

As photographers, we all know that copying other photos and reverse engineering them is part and parcel of our learning experience. We’ve all been on more or less the same journey, impressing ourselves with what we now know to be rather cliché shots that, at the time, we thought were amazing. I’m talking about selective colour, Dutch tilt, and all the stuff that we learn from and leave behind as we find our own photographic voice. There are some examples around of more extreme learning where photographers are literally cloning the work of others in a copycat fashion, and that’s what I want to try and pick apart today.

Let’s first have a look at a book by Glyn Dewis entitled, ‘Photograph Like a Thief.’ This is a fantastic book to explore the topic of this post a little deeper, and I want to quickly pull a quote from page three, right at the start of the book. Glyn explains,

…I get the whole unique thing, but what I’m talking about here is using copying as a way to develop yourself, not plagiarising the work of others. When I say copying, I mean it in the loosest use of the term. We’re not talking about trying to recreate an exact copy of another piece of work, but instead about being inspired by the work of others. Yes, inspired is a good word for it.

That’s a perfect explanation by Glyn, I couldn’t have put it better myself. Let’s take a look at a real-world example of photography copycats. This is Kaylee Greer:

Kaylee is a world-renowned dog photographer. She’s been featured in the press worldwide, and as well as being the author of Dogtography she’s the star of Puparazzi on NatGeo Wild. Her work is on dog food packets, and many pet photographers look to learn from her. Kaylee’s style comes from a ground-breaking idea to give homeless dogs a voice and really bring out their character in shelters, lifting their chance of adoption. Kaylee’s photos really portray the dog as the hero of the shot, getting down to a super-low perspective. Nature is key in showing a dog in a stunning location with a beautiful sky. To get these shots, Kaylee has perfected her style, and to those who want to learn from her experience, she offers workshops as well as teaching online and in person.

Kaylee intends for her teaching to be taken as inspiration for other photographers to take the skills and knowledge they learn from her into their arsenal, finding and adapting their own creative voice from what she teaches. When Kaylee began teaching, she found that a lot of photographers learning from her were carbon-copying her style rather than making it their own, so she had to adapt. Cue the waterproof housing. This is Kaylee’s way of separating herself again to ensure she was creating unique images that stand out from those who were copying her. Getting into the water achieves two things: it gets even lower to add to the ‘hero’ look and is simply a cool shot in itself.

Despite being clear that her teaching is to help inspire photographers, Kaylee has found her style being copied. My opinion of this is that it’s lazy and unoriginal. It’s a testament to Kaylee’s creativity and the incredible style she’s forged out of nothing. I noticed the copycat photographers out there, but I also noticed that her personality is also being copied. I know what it’s like to have photos stolen and copied myself. I also know it’s not just about the black-and-white of copyright and the ignorance of copying someone else. I wanted to get beyond the face value of the situation. I reached out to Kaylee and asked her how this makes her feel and how she adapts to it.

Here are her words:

For me, the need and drive to change and keep moving forward to push my creative boundaries is something that lives inside me all the time. Its a constant fire, burning incessantly. A force knocking on my ribcage from the inside out. A stubborn, unyielding –  but beautiful – little monster that refuses to be ignored. It’s not convenient, and it never, ever strives to make me comfortable. In fact, I condemn it sometimes, on hard days, when I know its caused me, yet again, to adventure so far outside of my comfort zone that it scares me.

This drive to keep progressing my creative voice is not necessarily as conscious as me looking around in the photography industry and saying to myself ‘hey, I’ve got to change and flex so I can keep ahead of the game’. It’s not something I do for likes, for fame or for money. By the very nature of it, it can’t be powered by those things. Because that would break the purpose of it at its core. Its what it means to human, right? It’s the need to leave something behind in this world that matters. To use one’s two small hands to make a mark. To make a change. To make a difference. This need to adapt and keep changing artistically is truly just a part of my spirit that’s been there inside me for as long as I can remember. A constant need to be pushing ahead, breaking boundaries and testing the limits of what’s possible (hint: anything) within this dog-hair-covered artistic niche of mine. It’s something that I’m so passionate about.

I think thats the thing about passion, isn’t it? It cant be manufactured. It can’t be faked. And it certainly can’t be drawn off the back of someone else because it looks like a cool and trendy thing to do. You, quite simply, can’t put your name on someone else’s heart. Because thats what it is, right? It’s the DNA of someone’s life story. Their unique viewpoint. Their own perspective that came from every single individual factor along the way that has affected a particular person’s unique existence. So, no matter how hard one might try to take another artist’s viewpoint – it’s fair to say – that simply based on the atoms we’re all made up of – its truly an impossible thing to do. I mean, even despite knowing this, of course, people try to do that all the time. Both inside and outside of the photography industry. The basis of our social society is simply people looking around at what other people are doing and drawing a card from the middle of the herd – so they can skip all the hard parts and jump right to success – since someone else has figured it out for them. Where there’s a Coke, there’s a Pepsi, right? For lack of a better analogy.

But I truly believe that art can’t work that way. Because good art surprises you. It makes you feel deeply. It drops your stomach or knots your heart in a way that it has never felt before. And due to that factor that exists only within the completely unique and novel – the second or third or fourth or fifth person trying to do that same thing – to achieve that same result –  will never genuinely be able to affect the same feeling and reaction in a viewer. It’s a fruitless pursuit.

As for the carbon-copying — its a difficult subject to broach isn’t it. It doesn’t make anyone comfortable to discuss that for sure. And I’m certain that any creative person who has any level of influence and has brought something unique to the world has dealt with this exact challenge before. But the feeling of it, well – that’s something that’s both impossible to describe and perfectly describable at exactly the same time.

And with that said, I’ll give you this: Ever since I was a little girl, I saw the world out of these two tiny blue eyes in a very specific way. For me, when things got hard, I found perfect solace in the eyes of my sweet dog, Ginger. She was my best friend on earth. I spent every waking moment of my childhood years beside her and every night with my fingers twisted up in her golden fur. To me, Ginger was capable of anything. To me, and from my 5 year old perspective always tilted upward towards Ginger as we were on another great adventure, she was a superhero. And so, ever since those moments, I’ve seen dogs as larger-than-life. I’ve seen them as my personal version of royalty. Like Kings and Queens in the pages of a fairytale. So when it came to the day my whole life was leading to – and I pointed my camera at a dog for the very first time … I was seeing that frame through those very same, wide open eyes of that 5 year old kid. And so, that viewpoint and those perspectives are reflected in my work. A bright and unapologetic world dripping with childlike fantasy and color, wide angles from down low featuring dogs just like the superheroes that I always knew them to be. Just like Ginger was to me.

So, now you ask how it feels when I see work out there that exists as an exact emulation of that pair of my 5 year old eyes? Images that are a technical recreation of my perspective – but without any of the story, spirit or soul that led to the very creation of them in the first place?

I’m sure you can imagine the answer.

But what I will leave you with is this:

It’s disorienting, at best.

It’s a tragic missed opportunity for another artist to express their own unique viewpoint, and affect the world with their own genuine and beautiful stories, at worst.

I decided to research this specific issue a little harder and reached out to another dog photographer, Craig Turner-Bullock of Furtography and Unleashed Education in New Zealand. There are some things that I’ve found out from Kaylee and Craig, as well as Kaylee’s boyfriend Sam, that are too specific to share publicly without defaming somebody’s character, and they come from multiple photographers.

There’s one photographer in particular who is literally cloning Kaylee’s work, replicating her shots, and even going so far as to roll with comments on social media relating to Kaylee’s book and NatGeo show as if they are her own. My personal opinion is that not correcting mistakes made is just plain wrong, especially when the person who taught this photographer at a workshop was Kaylee herself. Is this a case of ignorance or is it deliberate? Either way, it’s totally unoriginal and it’s hurting Kaylee. We all need to learn and copying others for this purpose is a great thing to do, but ripping off the work of others and calling it your own is going to catch up with you sooner or later. This is the difference between being a photographer and a camera owner.

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David Williams

David Williams

Dave Williams is an accomplished travel photographer, writer, and best-selling author from the UK. He is also a photography educator and published Aurora expert. Dave has traveled extensively in recent years, capturing stunning images from around the world in a modified van. His work has been featured in various publications and he has worked with notable brands such as Skoda, EE, Boeing, Huawei, Microsoft, BMW, Conde Nast, Electronic Arts, Discovery, BBC, The Guardian, ESPN, NBC, and many others.

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2 responses to “Photography Copycats – The fine line between inspiration and ripping off others”

  1. John Beatty Avatar
    John Beatty

    Hmm, can you copyright a photo style? Now if a photographer is trying to pass of another photographers “work” as their own that is a different story. I classify this as a issue where issue is not there. Next.

  2. Steven Gotz Avatar
    Steven Gotz

    Interesting. When I was shooting headshots I copied as much of Peter Hurley’s methods as I was capable of copying. I never achieved a perfect copy and part of the reason is that I found that I preferred a slightly different look. Some of the things he liked, I didn’t. Some of the things he didn’t like, I really did. Besides, I would never be able to copy that huge personality of his. But trying to copy him gave me a foundation from which to deviate.

    When photographing animals, I copied the work of Joel Sartore as much as possible. But once again, as I got closer to copy success, I found things about his work that I felt like he should do differently. So I do it the way I prefer it.

    Both of these things have led me to find my own style when shooting zoo animals, which is my specialty. I didn’t even know I had a style until I put together a web page with some of my photos and realized they all looked like they were shot by the same person.

    I really feel like no matter who you are copying, by the time you get to the point where nobody could tell the difference, you will have found ways to differentiate your work from theirs. It just happens. If you are interested in growth, of course.