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the fine art of originality and authenticity

The photography world is incredibly connected.  Many photographers rely on the same blogs, sites, pages or feeds and catch on to the same trends and generally all strive for the next best thing - you've seen it with posts, actions, fonts, designs, and even packaging. And in many cases, the re-use is handled with an original spin and something new is creatively born out of the inspiration.

But often, there are misguided actions (intentional or not), and it cuts to the core of originality, authenticity, and downright plagiarism.

Plagiarism: The act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts, ideas, or passages therefrom, and passing the material off as one's own creation.

Plagiarism is a pretty simple nut to crack. If you Google "natural light lifestyle photographer" for your city, chances are that within the first page or two, you will find at least 5 photographers who have an "About Me" section that states that they picked up a camera after the birth of their first child, they'll never make you say cheese, and then they will proceed to list things they like. Did they all copy each other?  Probably not.  It's a trend.  But if two people have an almost identical like list and and there are enough words/sentences that are uncannily similar, no doubt one "inspired" the other.  One of those persons is not being authentic and plagiarized the content, and the other is probably steaming mad.  Should you not follow the trend because you are worried about plagiarizing? No, you can do whatever feels right to you, but come up with the content YOURSELF.  If it feels like it's similar to something you've read before, it probably is.  Sit on it, mull it over, and with a little time, you will probably have an "ah-ha moment" and think "THIS is what I want them to know about me... and it's SO ME."  It is quite possible to be incredibly inspired without downright copying.

Along the lines of plagiarism is the obvious issue of stealing images or content.  If you take someone's image, and play it off as your own it is not only wrong, but illegal (and this is whether your "web developer" is using it as a "placeholder" or you Photoshop off another photographer's logo).  The same goes for design and content.  If you "borrow" content or designs to either use, or for inspiration, that is also both wrong and illegal.  And if you try to then SELL what you've stolen, that opens up an entirely different can of worms is definitely a prosecutable offense.

Creating a blog or a website can be daunting -- so much text you have to come up with.  How do you sound witty, smart, like the chic girl next door who will never make you say cheese and wants to capture the in between moments and "tell your story?"  You can buy the content.  It's easy. There is so much content available for purchase, from Design Aglow and other reputable sources. 

And when you BUY it, you are PAYING for the right to use content that someone else came up with.  FAIR & SQUARE.  But when you COPY it from someone else (or illegally procure it), whether they live in the next town over, or across the country, it's ILLEGAL. You are essentially looking at a fellow photographer and saying "I don't value you or the industry at all, I have no respect for the time and work that you put into developing this, and I am just going to take it."

Whoever says "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" is kidding themselves. 

Exact imitation shows not only a total lack of respect, but it also puts a spotlight on what you have failed to learn to do yourself. Originality and authenticity are tough nuts to crack.  It often feels like almost everything has been done before. And when you are just starting out in business, you have superstars, or maybe even just a local competitor that you "stalk."  It is natural that you begin to believe that you want to build a portfolio similar to theirs.  You start to almost think you are friends, because you have read them every day, commented, and maybe even received a response back.  And when that happens, you begin to think anything is possible.  You covet their style, you find out what actions they use to process, what lenses they like to shoot with, you might even purchase the same web template as them or print at their labs. 

But you are missing one MAJOR element: you aren't in their head, you haven't walked a mile in their shoes, and most important, you don't see the world through their eyes.  And that's OK, you see it through yours, and you bring your own experiences to the plate. 

So rather than try to take on their style, think about how you make it unique.  What's the first thing you see when YOU get to a session location?  Is it the same fence post you've seen photographed there time and again?  Or is it a hydrant you never noticed?  You can shoot the heck out of someone leaning in a particular pose against a split rail, just as you've seen many times before. Or you can think "that hydrant has awesome fresh paint, I bet I could do a head shot there and no one would ever know it was a hydrant!"  The point is, you can't take another persons scenario and slot in your subjects.  It's not your vision, it's theirs. 

Does that mean you can't shoot in a public place because someone else shoots their?  Heck no, in fact give three experience professionals a chance to shoot at the same location, at different times, and we guarantee you will see three very different galleries of images.

Things like newborn photography make it even that much more difficult.  There are endless props and endless workshops and in many cases, there just isn't a whole lot of immediate differentiation between "curl up and sleep on a beanbag."  But there are people that get it right every time, who shoot something like 20-24 newborns a month.  They are meticulous about selection of hats, props, and backdrops, and while they may repeat poses, almost never do they exactly copy even their own setups.  They challenge themselves by assessing what is on their mind that day, seeing it through their eyes, using experience of what works and what doesn't, and then adjusting and adapting that to the unique newborn that is in her studio.  Is it unoriginal if you put a baby in a bucket (safely!)?  Yes and no.  But it is copying if you ask for a list of fabric and prop vendors and then you buy the same blanket and hat, and put it in the same bucket, and position the baby the same way.  And after all that, since it's not your setup, and it didn't come from your heart, soul and experience, will the image really be that good?

We recommend you stick with the mode of operation that if you've seen it before, verify it and do due diligence to make sure that you are not stepping on toes or really copying. If so, back off, and spend some time thinking about how you can present the idea in a way that is uniquely you, without ever devaluing the original source. We understand this can be a challenge, especially for less seasoned photographers who create endless "inspiration" pin boards and can so easily access other photographer's portfolios or favorite images.  If the idea is too close, take a step back and think about where you are in your life and how you can bring your own experiences to light and embark on the adventure of defining your own style. 

Is it difficult? You bet. You might even feel a bit defensive if you think "I am not copying, this idea was MINE (I think)" or "it's been done SO many times, it's not like she owns that pose." There is such an incredible difference between imitation and inspiration.  Imitation is replication.  Inspiration is being awed, and then putting your own spin on it.  There is inspiration EVERYWHERE. It's YOUR JOB as a photographer, and an artist, and a business person, to figure out how to OWN IT in your own way.  Learning this, on your own, is the only way you can build a brand that is AUTHENTIC to you.  To quote Audrey Woulard, "If your brand isn't AUTHENTICALLY YOU, it will fall flat and FAIL."  You have to start somewhere, you have to begin learning, and imitation may be part of that process.  But until you have figured out how to make what you do authentically yours, you need to take a step back and evaluate where you are in the development of your business and brand.  It is so difficult to survive in this industry, but it's almost impossible to be successful if you do not work through the growth process and challenge of defining your own style and deriving your final inspiration from within.




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