The Copycat Epidemic

You’re nobody until somebody copies you, right? Maybe a client screen-grabbed your online gallery instead of buying digital files. Maybe a new photographer is offering to shoot weddings at a quarter of the price you charge. Maybe you noticed another photographer’s “about me” page looks suspiciously similar to yours. Maybe every time you shoot in a new location, your closest competitor seems to shoot in that exact same location the following week.

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, but that’s a misleading saying. There’s a big difference between drawing inspiration and flat-out copying. Imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, but the truth is, you work hard for your art, and it stings when someone rips you off.

But here’s what no one wants to talk about: You may be supporting the copycat epidemic without even realizing it.

It may sound hard to believe. But…have you ever bought a $5 set of 10+ actions, or subscribed to a dirt-cheap all-you-can-download service, or used your Photoshop skills to recreate a pricey original design you loved?

When photography is your passion, those little design elements -- your logo, your branding, your marketing materials, your albums -- might feel like the boring nuts and bolts of your business. But for professional graphic designers, that’s our art.

And just like you stress out when someone copies your signature style or invades your secret shooting location, we stress out when we see knockoffs of the templates we worked hard to conceive and create.

We promise, it’s not just our wallets we worry about. As photographers, you can relate to this too -- as much as you hate losing clients to cheap competitors, doesn’t it also bother you to see someone trusting their family’s memories to subpar work? Likewise, when designers see knockoff templates and products originally created to help photographers’ businesses, we get a little bummed because we know you and your business deserve better.

Here are a few problems with bargain-basement templates and actions:

  • Less attention to detail. If a design element is off by a few pixels, it could make the whole design look sloppy. But when a designer is only making a few bucks, what’s their motivation to quadruple-check their work?
  • Tricky customization. Skilled designers put in extra work at the front end to make sure you can quickly and easily change fonts, wording, logos, and images without pulling your hair out. Time is money.
  • Careless content. What good is a comprehensive set of marketing materials if the wording is awkward or the text is littered with typos?
  • Brand confusion. It’s hard to build a cohesive brand when you have a bunch of different looks for your logo, your website, your business cards, your product templates, etc.
  • The “groundhog day” effect. Now and then, a discount designer really nails it with a cute, cheap website template or plug-and-play marketing piece, and everyone jumps on board. But if you take advantage of the same sweet deal as everyone else, your branding is going to look…like everyone else’s.
  • It steers the industry. Ever feel pressured to compete with those bargain-basement photographers? Likewise, even the most talented and experienced designers can feel like they have to drop their prices and crank out new designs to meet the demand. And suddenly, there are fewer designers taking the time to create sleek, professional, original work.

To put it in photography terms, cheap knock-off templates are the neon grass and oompa-loompa skin of the design industry. We see it everywhere, we know it’s wrong, and we can’t help but cringe.

But here’s the biggest problem: It encourages stealing.

You know how fired up you get when you scroll through That’s how our designers feel when we release a new product, only to see a discount site attempt to whip up an exact replica two days later. Or when a designer spends weeks testing a new set of actions, only to have someone tweak a step or two and sell it under a new name. Or when someone teaches an editing workshop, and a month later one of their students is offering a workshop on the same exact technique. We’ve even seen photographers demanding discount sites to replicate a more expensive design they saw elsewhere.

Like you, we try to take the high road and tell ourselves that the clients who don’t recognize quality aren’t our ideal clients anyway. But like you, we secretly worry that this is becoming the industry norm, because too many creative folks are becoming complacent about it.  

Bottom line: If you want to be respected as an artist, you need to respect artists. If you cringe when someone crops out your watermark, don’t download copyrighted templates and actions from a share site. If you hate losing clients to undercutters, then go out of your way to make sure you have a unique brand and offer a superior custom experience. If you’ve ever put your foot down about someone screen grabbing your images, don’t use unlicensed music on your website. If it drives you nuts when someone retraces all your locations, don’t beg discount sites to copy a template you saw elsewhere.

Want to break the cycle? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Remember that your branding reflects your commitment to providing a luxury custom service. Don’t rely on a $5 logo to promote a $1500 portrait package. A little extra investment means you’re valuing art the way you’d like your clients to value art; you’re getting a more polished product; and you’re supporting other talented artists and professionals.
  • Encourage creativity. When that competitor who’s always one step behind you posts something unique for a change, give them praise. They obviously value your opinion, so let them know you appreciate originality. It might give them the courage to stop following you and forge their own path.
  • Know what makes you different. Anyone can copy a pose or a location. But if your photos evoke true emotion, that’s impossible to imitate. Make sure you’re not relying on trendy poses or pretty locations to carry your work. Find your style and tell your story. No one can fake that.
  • Mind your business. We mean that literally -- the best thing you can do to curb the copycat epidemic is to focus on growing and evolving your own style, rather than worrying about what everyone else is doing.
Above all, support the artists who create original work. You’re one of them.

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