“Borrowing” Ideas

Merced River and El CapitanIt 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?

Yosemite Tunnel ViewLet’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…

About Tim Grey

Tim Grey is in the business of making photographers smarter and happier. He is the author of more than a dozen books on digital imaging for photographers, has written hundreds of magazine articles, and publishes the Ask Tim Grey e-mail newsletter as well as the Pixology digital magazine. He also speaks at a variety of events and leads photography workshops around the world.
This entry was posted in Copyright, Creativity, Philosophical. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to “Borrowing” Ideas

  1. Brett P says:

    I wonder what the intent of the hobbyist photog was when they commissioned the Pro. Was it to get those good idea, and to learn from them? Or was it to get the commissioned work. If it just happened that the hobbyist said to themselves “hey, that didn’t seem too hard, I could do that, why don’t I give it a try” then is there any harm? But if the hobbyist set about to learn from a Pro without engaging the Pro to do that, it’s a different approach. I like your view Tim, think good of people and assume they didn’t intend to “steal work” from the pro so there’s probably little harm done, and the pro may have been taking things too personal. And maybe the pro should to back to the hobbyist and offer their services to help them learn more, and make some more money that way too – they’re obviously a good teacher whether they knew it or not ! :-)

  2. c1asia says:

    so if i just happened to be in yosemite valley at the same exact spot at the same exact time with the same exact photographic intentions as you had and we just happened to have the same exact camera/lens/settings with the same exact scene framed in our viewfinders standing side by side and we just happened to release the shutter at the same exact moment, who owns/stole the image? or let’s say i released the shutter one second earlier than you did…??

  3. Ryan says:

    As a new and amateur photographer I often think about trying to recreate a photograph that I see in a magazine or online. Not for the purpose of selling a copy of it, but as an assignment to help me learn. I would not consider that to be stealing. Regarding your other comment about secretive photographers, there are many like that including several whom you know and with you whom you have appeared. They seem all friendly and willing to help on their podcasts and websites but when you ask them about a photograph that they post, they have no desire to be helpful. I find that a bit hypocritical.

    • Tim Grey says:

      Ryan – I totally agree. I do know too many photographers who present to others but won’t truly share details about a photo. I don’t like that approach, but I sure see it a lot.


  4. Steven House says:

    I think you can learn a lot from ‘replicating’ the shots of others, including poses and lighting. After all that what books, tutorials and courses are all about.

    On the other hand who’s going to notice your photographs if they are in the style of someone more famous? That’s the trick. Learn what you can and then press on and find your space and view and style. It’s not easy to do this and that’s why many get stuck in the replication department.

  5. DebraLynn Mims says:

    I agree with your view, but then I’m only a very amateur photobug. By sharing a photo in any form, you’ve chosen to the share the idea. Imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, so take it as a good thing. I do like Brett P’s idea about going back to the client and offering services for a price for additional training.

  6. Ansel Adams had virtually copied a photograph made by Timothy O’Sullivan in 1873. While he says he realized this only after the fact, who’s to say it wasn’t at least in his subconscious at the time he made the photograph.

    Everything is a remix . . . http://vimeo.com/14912890

    “I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.”
    Henry Ford

    • ChristianR says:

      I am glad someone brought that video up. It has completely changed my perception of what it means to be a photographer and exactly what I am doing when I think someone is infringing upon my creative efforts. Bravo for the suggestion Jim!

  7. R Thomas Berner says:

    I once sent a manuscript of a book I was working on to someone who was working on a book in the same subject area. She was amazed and wondered if I wasn’t concerned that she’d rip me off. I told her that no one could write my book and I could not write her book so I wasn’t worried.

    Later, I encountered someone who knew something about the subject matter of my latest photo project. I asked her for help. She refused because I would steal from her. I had to explain that we were not doing the same thing, but merely working with the same subject. She seemed to come around, although she hasn’t provided me with any information yet.

    That’s a long way of saying that maybe you can steal my idea, but you can’t write my book or take my photograph. It’s yours and it will be different.

    I noticed a long time ago that many photographs people take are similar to what professionals have taken. I think we get an image in our mind and when we see it, we photograph it. I took a neat photo in Moab National Park a few years ago and was surprised to see a similar (and earlier) photo in a professional’s gallery. I wonder if I saw it before and then subconsciously coded into my photo genes.

  8. Bob O'Connell says:

    Woah. We are really getting carried away when we question whether it is right to learn from watching others work. I pay to attend photo workshops so I can watch the instructor compose and process images. I hire a tree trimmer and watch him so I might be able to learn how to fell a tree myself. I have my house painted and watch the painter so I can improve my painting techniques. I watch a professional golfer to learn how to improve my game. I listen to a lecture to learn how to improve my speaking ability. And on and on. If I can’t take a picture from the same location that someone else has used, can I build a house next to another house with a beautiful view? After all, they had the same picture window view as I will get, only they were there first. Extending this idea to ordinary life shows how rediculous it can get.

  9. Larry Cowles says:

    I believe in sharing information with other photographers and do so on my blog, http://www.lcowlesphotography.wordpress.com, that’s how we all learn and grow. We take a class from Tim Grey, learn a new technique then go out and use it, hopefully better than the teacher. At the most popular photo destinations, it’s hard to take a new and unique image but still there is always some difference in light and tone. How can you go to Yosemite and not take something that looks like someone else’s work?

    In commercial photography, taste changes, and someone will come up with a look, people like it, everyone else copies it. Right or wrong it happens. The wheel was invented a long time ago but there are still people coping it and making it better.
    Larry Cowles

    • Tim Grey says:


      All good points. And when someone takes one of my classes, sometimes they go on to teach the same technique to others. When that happens, I don’t consider them a thief, but rather consider myself a good teacher. :-)


  10. I am like Tim. I share pretty much everything. Doing so has paid huge dividends over the years. You get what you give. Whatever you know or learn, you still need to go out and create a good image. The light and the poses are always different. I have no problem with the hobbyist learning from the pro whom she paid…. There were surely no restrictions in the contract…

    Early on I was inspired by the flowers of John Shaw and the birds of Rod Planck and Tim Fitzharris. Now folks are inspired by me and mimic my style. I am flattered by their effort and thrilled at their successes. I saw an image in the book of a friend who has had many BBC honored images. I made a very similar image. It is in the finals of the current BBC judging. Good luck to me :) .

    ps: the intent of the hobbyist is irrelevant.
    pps: many, many folks who attended one or more IPTs went on to start their own photo tour businesses. Only two out of dozens of those stabbed me in the back; their problem not mine :) . In most cases, what goes around comes around.

    • Tim Grey says:


      Yes, indeed, you do share! No secrets are kept when you’re learning from Arthur Morris on one of his Instructional Photo Tours.

      Good luck with the BBC contest!


  11. Bob Brown says:

    “Murky” was the operative word. In the literary world, plagiarism is clearly defined. In the photographic world, not so defined. News photographer’s often shoot the same subject matter at a similar vantage point. So which one is doing the stealing? Like you, I can relate to both sides of the argument. If my income was solely based on my photographic images, I think I would say where I shot the photo. Having said that, I’d might be a bit vague as to the precise (GPS) location. So here’s my answer to this question, “Is it proper for someone seek out and photograph the same subject as your own?” Yes, no, maybe and whatever! How’s that for clarity?

  12. Doug Stocks says:

    Perhaps the difference in one’s attitude stems from their self view. Perhaps my 48 years experience as a teacher of mathematics has some relevance here. My greatest joy was to be able to help develop the talent of students who were then able to prove theorems that were beyond my ability to conquer. I’ve had similar experiences in photography. I’ve been able to assist others in learning the basics; but rather quickly they were producing photographic work far superior to anything I’ve ever done personally. The fact that I’ve been able to have this small roll in the development of the talents of others brings me a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction.

  13. John says:

    Tim- I had a situation were a competitor at an art show asked about a photograph I had hanging on display. He wanted to know the location and time of day of a Spanish mission I had photographed. I happily gave him the information he asked for. Later in the year this same photographer was at another show I was participating in. This time he had an identical photo of my photograph…..composition, time of day lighting, shadows, etc. To make matters worse he copied one of my best selling images. I lost respect for him not only as a photographer but as a person. I’ve seen photographs of locations in books, magazines etc. that I photograph but I try to put my perspective (angle of view, lighting, etc.) on the scene to make it different and more compelling. I feel sad for a person that copies someone else’s work because of a lack of creativity on their part.

  14. Larry Hayes says:

    If you’re trying to make a living with your photography and other people are trying to copy your techniques or style I think you ought to feel some pride knowing that others think that much of your work. If, on the other hand, they are doing so but doing it better then you best get to work!! Look at the world around us…K-Mart, Walmart, Costco; Starbuck’s, Caribou Coffee, Coffee Beanery; Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s; etc, etc, etc. We live in a free enterprise system where anyone, if they have the means, can start their own business even if it is just like some other business just down the street. If they are to not only survive but prosper they need to excel at what they do. Those that don’t end up going out of business. My family has owned and operated a retail business (non-photography related) for 50 years. During that time there have been many businesses like ours that have moved into our area (one even moved in across the street years ago). Most didn’t last long. Those that did, evolved to find their niche just as we have. Competition, though we don’t always like it, makes for better products and business for all of us. Anyone in business needs to be aware of their competition, but those that pay too much attention to others rather than working at getting better at what they themselves are doing, oftentimes fail.

  15. Eric Onasick says:

    In my opinion it is fine to learn from others’ work, usually by trying to do it yourself. But you can never be that person. Everyone’s style is developed after doing, doing, doing. Like 10,000 times. As long as you are not eating someone else’s lunch, I see no harm in trying out the techniques they use. What are schools for?

    Apparently someone published the GPS coordinates of the exact spots where Adams stood when photographing his masterpieces. Suppose you go to one of them. How long will you have to wait for the weather and light to be the same? Are you going to use a wet darkroom to duplicate the print, something Mr. Adams is renowned for?

    And the bottom line: even if you managed to exactly re-create the image, what is the point? Photography, like all art, is about expressing yourself (not other selves – their job). Add to the dialogue; don’t re-say what has already been said. Copy and learn all you want, but put your own imprimatur on it. And after appropriate attribution, call it your own.

  16. Bill Brennan says:

    Agree with those who share, copy and mimic ideas, techniques and knowledge. Some well known photographers would even let others have a go at printing their negatives.

    At our photography club in Tucson, we have a mentor program to help others improve their skills.

    It must have been hurtful and a learning experience for John with his Spanish mission image when he found that he shared too much with an unscrupulous competitor.

    Bill Brennan

  17. Noella Ballenger says:

    I do a lot of teaching through my on-line classes and through the articles I write for http://www.apogeephoto.com. Sharing and teaching are real privileges. I am always thankful for the discussions I have with other photographers because I learn as well. Everyone has a different viewpoint based on their background and experiences. It is exciting to think that I extend to others some of the wisdom and ideas of my mentors and teachers. Is it stealing … I don’t think so. There is an old saying that I love “We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.” Learning from one another is one way to make progress.

  18. Brice Voran says:

    I think that an important way to improve is study the work of others. Because I am an amateur, I don’t have commercial problems when replicating someone else’s work. However, there is one way to handle the problem. I once worked with a model to see if we could copy the famous National Geographic photograph of a refugee woman in Afghanistan. I liked the result and that it showed respect for the original photographer. When I entered the image in a show I titled it “Refugee–With Apologies to National Geographic.” I thought this was an elegant solution because viewers could judge my picture two ways: (1) How good was it in its own right. (2) How did it compare with the original.

  19. James Doyle says:

    Hi Tim,
    I’m going to be one of those angry hornets you stirred up. :-)

    I would have to concur with most of your thoughts on the subject Tim. I believe it is healthy for less experienced and perhaps more experienced photographers to study the work of other photographers and the techniques that were employed to enable the image to be captured. This becomes a learning tool in which we can grow as photographers.

    As to the person hiring a professional to take images and then using the same techniques, including location to make money from someone else, I would have an issue with. As a nature photographer I could not nor would I excuse photographers that remove flowers and the like after they themselves have taken images of the subject….to me this is unethical and a very unprofessional practice.

    With regards to sharing of information, as a professional nature photographer I am often asked “where is the best place to photograph?” This is not an easy question to answer honestly as there is many variables that come to play such as time of year, what subject matter they wish to photograph, their skill sets, not only as a photographer but as a person in general. As an example; migratory birds which visit our shores each summer from the northern hemisphere, I would be very reluctant to give detailed locations to someone I didn’t know. The reason, is because the birds need to be able to rest undisturbed and if I didn’t know the ethical standard of the person I would be neglecting my duty as a professional to ensure the birds wellbeing came before all else.

    Years ago, I had seen this happen, where I had freely given locations and advice to strangers only to have been banned from the location myself because of the behaviour of others, so I learnt to be cautious in giving away such information.

    Also, as a very large generalisation, I have found we live in a world now of “instant gratification” were a large number of people want instant results in whatever they do and their photography is no different. So instead of researching locations for themselves and learning about the logistics involved they would rather just have the name of the location given to them from someone else. As an example, I manage a nature photography community in which we run fieldtrips, we have some people who just join to find locations and never get involved in the community. We had one member who joined, got all the locations and then set up a tour business using our favourite locations.

    You be the judge in our case!

    • Tim Grey says:


      Great “hornet” comments!

      In my view, what this comes down to is perspective. And mostly a matter of maintaining perspective.

      A big part of the reason that this sort of issue raises hackles for folks is that it creates an emotional response. And if one doesn’t have a healthy self-esteem, the reaction is likely to be worse.

      Every now and then I come up with a really cool technique in Photoshop. I don’t keep it a secret, but share it openly. Obviously in many contexts I’m also trying to make money from that information, because this is how I make a living. But when someone then “steals” that technique and shares it with (or sells it to) others, I don’t let it bother me. Even if they blatantly stole.

      Similarly, if I run a photo workshop and share a bunch of cool locations, I realize that there is a possibility that an attendee will then use that information to run their own workshop for a profit. But so be it. These locations aren’t secret. I just happen to know them, and others don’t.

      One of the things I always try to keep in mind is that while I sort of make a living selling information, it isn’t really about the information. Rather, it is about the delivery. Anyone can search for a particular topic and get information, but hopefully I can explain it better, and that “better” is worth a little bit of money, so that I can keep paying my bills. :-)


  20. James Doyle says:

    Thanks for your comments Tim, it is an interesting subject. :-) I was just writting a further comment when your reply came through, I’ll add it here anyway, if you wish to edit it or choose not to make it public I’ll understand. I just want to say I appreciate all the free knowledge you and others share because I for one continue to learn and grow as a photographer through the knowledge shared by others, professionals and amatures alike.
    (what I was writing before your reply)

    Just another observation on this subject; in some of the comments it has been said (nothing personal Bob just using what you said as an example) “I pay to attend photo workshops so I can watch the instructor compose and process images. I hire a tree trimmer and watch him so I might be able to learn how to fell a tree myself. I have my house painted and watch the painter so I can improve my painting techniques. I watch a professional golfer to learn how to improve my game.” What has to be remembered is that the people providing the service in which you wish to learn are trying to run a business; they wish to obtain an income from their knowledge. Tim Grey or Arthur Morris and others are no different when they sell books, videos or run workshops. Even the humble under paid teacher is employed to share their knowledge and to inspire others. But if we believe that we should just take that knowledge and do as we wish with it that would be a sad day for us all.

    I know of many photographers who give freely of their time and knowledge at no cost, such as Tim with his blogs and email newsletter, Arthur Morris with his online communities and the list goes on but in reality there will be a balance between commercial interests and a free spirit to share, each person needs to decide what is comfortable for them.

    In a purely commercial world, there are many rules by which people are to behave with any knowledge that they have. As an example, a money broker which trades in the stock exchange, they shouldn’t use their knowledge to get an unfair advantage, it’s called inside of trading.

    So in the end I don’t believe there is any real right or wrong answer as long as what you do is legal and ethical.

  21. I want to quote Arthur Morris, what goes around, comes around. If I share a location or a camera trick with someone, someone else will share with me and we all profit. And if someone copies me, well, then I’m honored, because he/she obviously likes what I’m doing…;-)

  22. Tony Bynum says:

    Tim, nice article. I think the issue of “stealing” and sharing information comes down to intent and purpose which to me are guided by your ethics. Emulating, or in some cases copying can be seen by some as flattering, and there’s not doubt it helps some people learn to “see” landscapes better. However, things change when you add money, time, and competition. If I shoot a scene for a corporate client, and someone from the company that I’m working for is sent out, after viewing my photograph and getting the details about it’s location, to reproduce it and thereby avoiding the licensing fees that I would have made, things get a little weird. There’s not need to get into the details of contracts and law, which is always so case by case that it’s not worth talking about in a forum like this. What I’m saying is that we need to, as professionals, develop our own values and principals. Having a corporate client duplicate your ideas based on your hard work and vision is stealing and so in some cases sharing can get you in some trouble. That said for the most part, I share it all and am always there to help not just my clients but all my fiends and followers! Cheers . . . Tony Bynum

    • Tim Grey says:


      Very well said. I do think there’s a big difference between a fellow photographer stealing your idea and a client stealing your idea. But most importantly, you’re right that we as photographers need to consider our own values and principles.


  23. Enrico says:

    All the greatest painters, especially in Florence during the renaissance, started literally copying the pictures of previous masters. I think the emulating phase is a necessary step for every artist to develop their own style.

    With that said, I believe stealing based on copyright ownership is stealing. For example if I take a photograph and the client uses it for commercial purposes whitout paying usage fees, that’s pure stealing and has to be enforced.


  24. Great post Tim!

    I’ve had many conversations about this subject. I believe there’s a huge difference between copying an image and being inspired by an image. I’m not a fan of those who copy photographs but to find something that inspires you can lead to creating incredible images. Lets face it, when someone copies an image of yours they are doing so because they admire the image on some level. There is no thought in making the copy. However, if one is inspired and works to add their own interpretation it can be wonderful. . I wouldn’t want to buy the Matisse copy, and I wouldn’t want to own an Annie Liebovitz copy. The original has more than just the elements we see in the image, it has the soul of the person who created it, and that can never be copied.

    Thank you for starting the dialog on this subject!

    • Tim Grey says:


      Great to hear from you, and I hope you’re doing well!

      You make an excellent point regarding the difference between copying and being inspired. That is a very important distinction!


  25. Great topic, and terrific discussion. I’m on Tim’s team on this one, I definitely believe in sharing. It is a great tool for learning, and flattering to me to know that someone believes a photo is worth copying. It is an important process for learning – just as artists copy masterworks. But what ultimately sets a photographer apart is the emergence of his or own unique creative vision. Copying ideas is a step towards that realization, and those who don’t know how to move beyond it will not be successful in the long term.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>