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Constructive Plagiarism?

Posted by Greg Blue on Monday, November 16th, 2015

This post looks at copying other photographer’s images for the purpose of learning a technique, or refining your understanding of lighting. There’s been an interesting debate on the topic at the school where I teach – some instructors feel that it is a really valuable exercise, while others feel that it is a dangerous approach as it can easily be abused. I’m of the opinion that it is a really helpful technique for learning, but I absolutely understand the concerns of those apposed to the approach.

I remember an assignment when I was in school where I had to choose an existing image and then copy it as closely as possible. Being the lazy bastard that I am, I chose an ad for Bailey’s Irish Cream that simply showed a hand holding a glass of Bailey’s against a white background – I figured that shot should be a snap. I could clearly see the rectangular specular highlight on the glass from a soft box. The only other thing I had to do was light a pure white background.

Problem was, the ad looked really beautiful and every shot I attempted looked like crap in comparison. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong – I assumed I must have been using a substandard soft box not realizing, at that stage of my career, it was me that was substandard. I didn’t realize that the original photographer’s soft box was probably about 2 feet closer to the glass than mine was. I knew that when your hand is close to your face, it looks big, and when you stretch your arm out, it looks smaller, but I didn’t realize how relevant that was to light quality and specular contrast.

I didn’t need to try and emulate that shot to know what kind of modifiers were used as it was abundantly clear just by looking at the shot. But that one assignment made me realize there was a lot about finessing light that I did not know. In hindsight I’m glad my assignment didn’t work, as that failure caused me to understand I was missing some key information. Had I simply nailed the shot right away, I wouldn’t have really learned anything. To me, this is the value in trying to emulate another photograph – I’m not talking about trying to emulate another photographer’s style, just trying to match the quality and type of light on an image so you can learn how to refine light.

However, as beneficial as this practice can be, I highly recommend that you consider it (and the image you shoot) to be nothing more than an academic exercise. In other words, once you have successfully copied the image, you should file it away and not use it to show or promote yourself with it. Actually let me clarify that statement – if you copy a photograph that is more generic, like a straightforward portrait or scenic shot, then you’d be fine to show your image. But if you copy an image that has a very defined and original concept, then you seriously run the risk of being sued for plagiarism. For example:


The image below is totally OK to copy.

Tiffany © Greg Blue

Tiffany © Greg Blue 2011

The image below is totally not OK to copy.

Clock & Hammer © Greg Blue 2001

Clock & Hammer © Greg Blue 2001

The shot above of Tiffany does not really have any kind of unique concept to it – the image is a straightforward glamour shot and the only unique aspect of the shot is Tiffany herself. If you have the pleasure of working with her (as many of my students have), then you would be absolutely welcome to ask her to wear the same outfit and makeup and emulate this shot exactly.

The Clock & Hammer shot however relies on a much more unique concept, collection, and placing of props in a single image. If any photographer produced an image too close in concept, styling, and propping to this image, it would likely result in a lawsuit (and I’m not a litigious kind of guy)!

It would be wise to spend a good amount of time making sure that you are familiar with copyright laws to protect your own work, but to also avoid situations where you could be charged with plagiarism. There are some very good blogs and sites on photographic legalities such as A Photo Editor and That Other Legal Blog.

There was an instance of plagiarism that I experienced where a student not only copied very closely a highly unique image, but also entered that image in an industry award show and won. This didn’t happen in the program I teach in and I will not mention anything about the situation that identifies the past student. But when I contacted that student and his program to express my concern as I had seen the original photo in the Communication Arts Magazine Photography Annual, I was pretty frustrated by their attitude.

They seemed to feel that the student had done nothing “illegal” and that, while the student acknowledged using the original image as resource, the lighting was a bit different and obviously the student was not shooting the same prop – the difference between the two images was very minor. I explained that the student was at risk of being sued by the original photographer as well as doing some serious damage to his reputation. I also let them know that if they did not contact the original photographer to explain the situation, I would.

The student’s instructor contacted the photographer and cc’d me, but I felt made the situation even worse by immediately defending the copy as being perfectly legal, which just pissed the original photographer off even more. The original photographer made it clear that the only reason he was not suing was because the image was produced by a student and was not being used commercially to generate revenue – but that does not change the fact that the student copied his very unique concept and put it forward as his own. Please make sure you never do this.

So feel free to copy an image exactly as long as the final shot is used as a learning tool and then never sees the light of day again. But keep in mind a couple of other reminders – copying images too often can promote an obsession with technique, where you do not spend as much time as you should on original ideas. A photographer who has a fantastic style, but is not good at coming up with original ideas will be at a real disadvantage against a photographer who has fantastic ideas, but may not be so polished at executing them. Also keep in mind that, while copying other photographs can be very helpful, it will never trump the value of personal experimentation.

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Constructive Plagiarism?
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Constructive Plagiarism?
Constructive Plagiarism? This post looks at copying other photographer’s images for the purpose of learning a technique, or refining your understanding of lighting.

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