It has been a while since I’ve opened up a can of worms (meant figuratively, as I’ve never done this literally), so I figure its about time to stir up the hornet’s nest (hopefully without the use of any more clichés).
From the standpoint of sharing, I’ve always figured there are two types of photographers. There are those (like me) who don’t mind letting you know all the “secrets” of where they photographed a subject, how they photographed that subject, and how they processed the image after the capture. Ask me where a picture was taken and I’ll be flattered (assuming you liked my photo, even if really you only liked the subject and want to go make a better photograph of it) and I’ll happily tell you where it was and how to get there. About the only exception is in situations where I’m concerned about the subject. For example, if someone I don’t know asks about a bird nest with freshly hatched eggs, I might not share so willingly. But the point is that I don’t feel the need to keep any secrets when it comes to my photographs.
The other type of photographer tends to be more secretive. They don’t want to let other photographers know where the subject of a favorite photo is, or any other details that might be helpful in capturing a similar image. The extreme version of this photographer is the one you’ve perhaps heard about (hopefully only anecdotally) who picks a flower after photographing it so nobody else can get the same photo. But for the most part, I believe this type of photographer is not the least bit mean-spirited. They just recognize that part of what makes a photograph valuable is a unique subject or perspective, and if you give away all your secrets your photos might not be so valuable.
So I’m not judging either type of photographer. I’m just pointing out the difference as I see it.
Not long ago I found myself stumbling around on a social networking site that will remain nameless (in the interest of mysteriousness, not secrecy, of course). I came upon a post from another photographer who was complaining about a client using unauthorized copies of their photos to share with others. I certainly understand that frustration. For example, I’ve taken part in quite a few cycling and running events, and in the process got my picture taken by an event photographer. Later I was offered the opportunity to purchase copies of the images. Now, I’m not really one to share photos of myself suffering through a grueling event, but even if I was I wouldn’t steal the sample images. And if I did steal them (hypothetically), I certainly wouldn’t share them with the world, making it clear by the watermark that I hadn’t paid for the use of the image.
But I digress…
While perusing comments from others, I read a rant from another photographer who was frustrated by the behavior of one of her clients. Turns out the client was a hobbyist photographer, and after hiring the professional photographer to create some portraits, this hobbyist went on to get a freelance job photographing portraits for another couple. The frustration of the professional photographer was that this hobbyist had stolen all of the ideas from this pro photographer, right down to the location where the photographs were taken and the poses used for the subjects in the photos.
I always find this sort of “stealing” issue to be interesting. I’ve written about this issue before (see my blog post “When Is It Stealing?“) in the context of photographing a subject that is the copyrighted work of someone else. But what about the idea of a photograph?
Traditionally, you’re not able to copyright an idea, only the execution of that idea. Of course, that concept has been made a bit more murky (at least in the United Kingdom) by a judge’s ruling that a tea company infringed a copyright by commissioning a photograph that was very similar to that used on a variety of London souvenirs. But regardless of copyright law, is it “wrong” to look at someone else’s photograph, and then try to reproduce what is, in effect, the same image?
On the surface, you might immediately say that it is wrong. After all, you’re just stealing the idea instead of coming up with something on your own. But how many photographers have really never photographed the same scene as another photographer, in much the same way, after having seen images by that other photographer?
Let’s take a classic example. I love visiting Yosemite Valley, would visit often when I was still living in California. And of course, whenever I’m there photographing, I can’t help but be influenced by the images I enjoyed starting in high school when I first became familiar with Ansel Adams (among other photographers). If I find a scene similar to one that had been photographed by Adams or another photographer, is there anything wrong with me trying to produce a similar image on my own?
The images shown here, for example, are certainly not unique. They are scenes captured by a great many photographers over the years. So much so that I’m surprised there aren’t permanent impressions of tripod legs in the ground there. So have I stolen the idea of someone who came before me, or have I simply photographed something that I too enjoyed and wanted to capture?
I personally don’t see anything inherently wrong with seeing someone else’s photograph and then seeking out the same subject in order to photograph it yourself. But I don’t make a living directly by selling my images. And I know other photographers would disagree with my perspective, some vehemently. What do you think? Is there even a clear answer to this issue, considering all the variables of context, intent, and more? Share your thoughts in the comments below…