They say imitation is the best form of flattery, but sometimes it can be pretty annoying.
Okay, seriously. If you’ve been a photographer for more than a couple months, you probably already have a few fans. Wonderful!
However in another few months or a year it may seem like the fans have gotten stale with the same old “nice photo!” compliments, …and something entirely new has emerged: the copycat. The BFF (or random fan) who has also just picked up a camera, and seems to be bent on imitating everything you do.
At first it’s kind of fun, to answer their questions and let them tag along on a shoot or two. But once the novelty wears off, you find yourself getting annoyed when they start posting images that are clearly a bad (or very good!) knock-off of yours.
If you’re just a hobbyist, this might simply be a matter of accepting imitation as flattery, and moving on. However if you’re a professional photographer, either aspiring or full-time, it can be extremely frustrating. You might even lose a client or two to another “protog” who is just a few months / years behind you. Or, most annoyingly, they’re shooting for free in an effort to get into business, and it is causing you to feel over-priced or under-valued in general.
So, are copycat pros actually hurting your business? Are they stealing your clients? Could they actually be destroying the industry? …Or maybe it’s all in your head?
“Copycat stock image” – (Just some friends having fun at a photo shoot!)
The Truth About Imitation
The very first thing to remember is that, simply put, not every viewer (or customer) has “the eye”. If everybody had “the eye”, then there would be a LOT more talented photographers in the world, wouldn’t there?
So, there will always be those who cannot tell the difference between your photos and others’, even if yours are stunning and the others’ are merely “good”. In other words, a cheap imitation knock-off will always sell as well (or better) than the real thing. This is common everywhere, not just in photography! You have to just let this go. Don’t be bothered by it, and don’t put too much effort into “educating” someone who isn’t seeing a difference in photographic merit. Usually people will simply feel insulted, and you risk sounding snobbish. ;-)
The best thing to do? Focus on those who do appreciate your work. If you’re a professional, focus on those who value your work enough to be willing to pay for it. And whenever you feel like you’re losing business to a copycat, just remember that not everybody has your standards and appreciation for the craft.
Of course this doesn’t mean you should completely sweep the “problem” under the rug. It is always a good idea to talk about these kinds of things among the community. The more aspiring photographers are encouraged to think for themselves, the less they will need to imitate. And the more aspiring professionals are encouraged to do business with integrity and values, well, that’s a whole can of worms we shouldn’t open right now.
Jealousy Goes Both Ways
The next thing to remember is this: Just as much as you are annoyed by an imitator, they probably feel an equal amount of jealousy towards you! This is just human nature. People will envy or even resent those whom they also look up to, and oppositely people will often look down on those who are just below them, or trying to be like them. This is another element of human nature that you will never be rid of, even if you give up photography. (Like you always threaten to do when you vent on Twitter or Facebook!) ;-) Human nature is inescapable.
So, have a heart. Don’t fight fire with fire. In other words, in this industry it usually doesn’t work to be negative towards someone who doesn’t even know they’re doing something wrong. Unless someone is actually breaking the law, the best thing to do is to leave them alone.
What If They ARE Better?
Sometimes, let’s be honest here, your copycat surpasses you. Your cute little protégé eclipses your own talent, or even your success. That beginner (to whom you just recently explained camera settings) has now booked themselves solid for the season, and is churning out great images that even you might envy. Ouch! Even if they’re merely close to surpassing you, it can still be very discouraging.
You might question whether or not you even have what it takes. If these newbies are taking such good pictures so soon after starting out, and it took you much longer to just barely get where you are today, …are you even cut out for this?
Absolutely. In fact many of the greatest photographers of all time took decades to hone their craft, let alone be recognized for their talent. Many of my own favorite photographers didn’t even pick up a camera at all until they were over forty. So you should never, ever, EVER compare yourself to others, especially if you’re both younger and just starting out.
Everybody has their own path, and as Zack Arias says in his famous video “Transform”, “Some of you are the REAL top ten photographers in the world, and the rest of us don’t even know you’re alive”. Although a bit dark and depressing at the beginning, I always make time to watch this video each winter because by the end of it, I feel very inspired.
Crank It Up To Eleven!
So, what do you do, when the copycats and wannabes are hot on your heels? Step it up. Get out of your rut. Crank it up so many notches that it makes your copycats cry when they can’t possibly imitate you. You have an entire life to improve your craft, and again as Zack says- “Am I so arrogant to think that I’ll have it all figured out at 36 years old?” Truth is, the only thing holding you back is something quite harmless: satisfaction with your current portfolio. So, stop letting yourself do the same thing every time!
Or, for professionals, you might also be held back by a preoccupation with what the “wannabes” are doing. Let them shoot for cheap, or free… That’s (mostly) just not your market. You can certainly talk about the issue among friends and co-workers who can have a cool-headed discussion on the topic, but “bashing” a complete stranger will never help. Public rants usually never help either. Sure, a bunch of people will agree with you and get fired up, …but will anybody actually “change their ways”? Probably not. If you feel a need to rant, private venting to close friends is just as satisfying and with a lot less blowback. At the end of the day though, you should just focus on one thing: Kicking ass.
Self-Deprecation VS Self-Motivation
When it comes time to push yourself to do better, the main thing you need to identify is the line between being self-deprecating, and being self-motivated.. Nobody can list their entire lifespan of photo shoots and jobs and say that every single one was a perfectly incremental improvement over the previous. We have good days and bad days. We all know that feeling we get while driving home from a shoot- we either feel like we bombed it, or killed it. That’s normal.
I propose that you try and think of it this way: If the only feeling you ever get is complete satisfaction and pride in every photo you take, then you’re probably kidding yourself or your standards are way too low. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have incredibly high standards for myself. It may be a little tougher to get through the ruts, but as a whole your body of work will always rise much faster, and go higher.
I hope this article has accomplished two things: Helping you to waste less energy worrying about copycats, and motivating you to find ways to improve your craft. In other words, you only have so much energy and time in each day. Invest it in your own craft and well-being.