Dealing With Copycats

Imitation vs. Inspiration

And How to Deal with Copycats.

A few years ago I ran into a fellow blog reader and photographer in the grocery store.  I had never met her, but she recognized me from my blog and quickly introduced herself.  (That makes me sound wildly popular… I’m not!  It’s the only time it’s happened!)

After the experience I went home and looked up her blog to see her work.  Within a few days of our grocery store encounter, she had changed her entire blog to look just like mine.  Suddenly a shoot appeared that was the exact same location I had shot a week before and she was using the same poses, objects and composition for her photos.

My interest peaked, I filtered through her older posts, realizing that she had copied me in other locations and conceptual shots as well.  I was REALLY upset.  And annoyed.  My husband tried to assuage the situation with the overused kitschy quotation, “imitation is the highest form of flattery”.  Flattery was not registering with me as readily as the irritation was.

I often speak about being a friendly photographer.  I encourage others to share their knowledge and experience.  I promote networking and building relationships with other photographers.  And here I was faced with an opportunity to practice what I preach or carry out the rant that I had boiling inside.   Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not perfect.  I did my rant dance for a good solid ten minutes in the privacy of my office.  After that was over, it was time to move on to higher ground.

Thus began my quest to clearly discern between Imitation and Inspiration.

Please allow me to share a few other illustrative experiences:

Shortly after moving to a new home in Utah County, I came upon a stunning location only a few blocks away from my home.  A photographers dreamland.  This home hosted a genuine antique school bus, vintage bikes, vintage trucks, out buildings for horses and gardening, with a concept for landscaping that somehow tied in all these unique objects into an artistic creation instead of a junk yard.  It was absolutely captivating!  I resolved instantly that I must shoot a session there!

I knocked on the door with an eagerness for the images that were already appearing in my mind.  A beautiful woman answered the door, listened to my request, and graciously replied, “Of course you may shoot here!  We get photographers coming here all the time!  They just love it and we’re glad people can enjoy it!”

Amidst my excitement of being granted permission, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed that I was not the first one to think of the idea.

Fast forward six months from that time.  I just discovered a quant Italian Ice Cream shop with a lovely picture window and sitting area inside that I knew would be perfect for an upcoming Senior shoot.  I approached the staff to ask permission to shoot inside, literally beaming with pride at my delightful discovery.

Their response?

“Sure!  People shoot in here all the time!”

I had never even seen the store, let alone any other images from that location!  I thought I was being original , but others had beat me to the idea.

After these experiences I started to wonder if maybe this same type of situation was happening in the cases I had quickly condemned other photographers for copying ME…  The grocery store girl came to mind.  I had a sneaking suspicion that sheepishly brought me back to her blog.

I found the post in which I had ranted over her “theft” of my ideas.  I discovered something.

Even though her poses and use of the location were nearly identical to mine, some of the images that I had privately scolded her for copying to exactness—I had actually never posted on my blog.


The “copied” images were instead a similar use of the location.  I was accusing someone based off the memory of my images, not what I had actually posted for the world to see.

I suddenly felt ridiculous for getting so upset.

As I sat there eating some humble pie, I decided to take a good screening of myself for the first time.  Had I ever copied other photographers?  The thought had barely entered my mind before memories came flooding back with a guilty thud.

My first experience with an SLR was shooting my sisters bridals.  With no experience and lots of excitement I set out to create some awesome images.  What did I do?  I copied the local extraordinary photographer, seeking out all his locations and poses to achieve insured success.  I shot my sisters engagement pictures in a similar style.  I went to all the locations I had seen other photographers go.  I copied their ideas.  I copied the trends.  I copied, copied, copied.

At the time I never thought of it in those terms.  I sincerely just thought that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing to be a successful photographer.

I continued along that same mentality for another year afterwards.  I checked out other photographers work and it became quite clear what was “popular” in poses, locations, and composition.  I wanted to be doing it “right” so I played along.  I was following what I saw as the recipe for a successful picture or business.  If it worked for others, it should work for me. Right?

Me Ra Koh stated a few years ago on her blog:

I would bet that every composition has been done.  What makes the image unique is our subjects and the spirit of who they are.  Yes, we grow in our ability to understand light, or post process our color tones, etc, but these things are all peripheral to the ability to capture the spirit of our subject.

Copy those you respect and admire until you find your own eye, your own voice.  I believe wholeheartedly that we all have our own specific eye.  But here’s the thing: the journey to find our own eye—our own voice—is not an overnight journey. It requires courage and faith to believe in what we can’t yet see in our ourselves, support from those around you and humility to start with others’ ideas until we see value in our own ideas.”

This is my story exactly.  I had to start with others ideas.  I had to take the journey of working through imitation, until I had the creative ability to work with inspiration.  There’s no way I could have started with my own ideas from the very beginning.

Once we find the ability to generate our own ideas, its easy to forget where we came from.  I had pridefully thought that I had always been my own photographic creative, but I had not.  How can I condemn others when I had done the same?

Before we condemn the copycat, we might also ask ourselves where our own ideas originated.  If we simply borrowed a concept off another photographer or a growing trend and ignorantly claim it as our own since we’re the first in our town to produce the idea, then we are really being hypocritical.  Who’s to say the labeled copycat didn’t find their idea the same way as we did?

In the long run, you’ll always have people copy your style, your locations, your editing, your props, and your poses…  But there’s a vital ingredient that they can never assimilate:  You.  No one can copy your personality, your working relations with clients, or the overall experience your clients have with you.  Make sure this aspect of your business is up to par and you’ll be unprecedented.  This key ingredient is what is going to keep people coming back to you again and again, even more so than having the greatest or most unique images.