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Inspiration & Plagiarism: The Good, Bad, & The Ugly

December 9th 2014 7:30 AM

I have often preached that it’s your ability as an artist to stand out and be different that will set you apart and make you great. One of the most famous and well known artists in our history, Pablo Picasso, was known for his originality in his work. He was also the artist that once said, “Good artists copy, but great artists steal.” Wait, what?!?

Freelensing

Freelensing Shot by Jay Cassario

The Harsh Reality

We live in a time where plagiarism and theft of others’ work has risen to a whole new level. Digital photography now makes ripping off other people’s work to claim as your own is as easy as clicking the shutter of your camera. Even the artists and photographers that have made it to the top of their industry have even been caught plagiarizing in recent years. At the same time though, there is a harsh reality and truth to Picasso’s quote, and that nothing is truly original anymore. Everything has been done to some extent before.

To stand out and be unique, ironically, takes knowing how to use another’s work as inspiration, copying to an extent, stealing if you will, and ultimately, molding it into your own unique work. No great artist or photographer has built their career without taking from others, it’s a simple fact. It’s the line between inspiration and plagiarism that is often too thin these days making it difficult for some to truly understand. Knowing that line and how to use inspiration without actually stealing the work of others and calling it your own is what can make you great. Knowing how to use inspiration to make you a better photographer is critical in creating that “originality” to your work, and your style. The photographers that know how to draw on inspiration from a number of different places and successfully mold them into their own unique work are the ones that become great.

[REWIND:Rihanna Sued For Plagiarism]

pano

Brenizer Method by Jay Cassario

The Good

  • Look to other places for inspiration. If you’re a wedding photographer, look at fashion magazines or landscape photography, just for example. Something different to spark new ideas and add to your creativity.
  • Look to incorporate something different in your work than what you normally do. A great way to learn new techniques, whether it be lighting, posing, or even processing techniques, is to take a specific photograph that impresses you and try to duplicate it. You can do this without it be plagiarism by adding your own twist to it and giving the original artist credit. This is a great learning tool.
  • When just getting started, look at several photographers who have different styles. Consider taking workshops by other photographer’s whose work inspires you. Workshops are a great way to learn new techniques and see how other photographers work.

The Bad

  • Do not copy another photographer’s work with the intent to make your work look similar. Whether it be that you love their work and want yours to look the same, or because you think that since it works for them, it will almost certainly work for you. I see a lot of photographers want to know the exact processing settings so that they can make their work look the same as a favorite photographer they follow. You don’t want people to look at your work and know exactly who you are trying to replicate. Learn techniques, processes, etc to enhance your own work, but never to look identical. I feel like its becoming a growing problem in the industry with a large number of photographer’s work looking all the same with lack of originality.
  • Early in your career, don’t be afraid to copy another photographer’s work with the intent to learn from it. Being scared of using inspiration and copying other’s work with the feeling that it will hold you back from being original will hurt you. Inspiration is a good thing and learning from others will only speed your progress to becoming great.
  • Don’t feel entitled to things you have done; you have gotten them from somewhere else. Maybe not completely, but don’t cringe when you see someone copy something you have done. Instead, I suggest looking at it as a compliment. If your work or a specific project/photograph is copied, you should be given credit in one way or another, but if it’s not identical then that isn’t always necessary.

The Ugly

  • Don’t use another photographer’s images to try and claim as your own in the hopes that it will bring you business.
  • If you want to copy a certain photograph or project to learn from the process, give credit to the original artist.
  • Plagiarism will always catch up to you, and will cripple you in the end. Be honest and true to yourself, learn from others, and you will be great.
JayCassario

Jay Cassario

MY PERSONAL THOUGHTS

I personally believe that you can never stop learning, nor would I ever want to, and I look to many places for inspiration. That being said, my inspiration today is much different than what it was years ago. Early on in my career, I looked to other photographers whose work I admired and tried to learn the techniques that they used for certain images. I was very interested in learning techniques that pushed my creativity, such as free-lensing, tilt-shift photography, and especially, the Brenizer method. The extremely shallow depth of field similar to that of medium format film really impressed me. Today I am inspired by photographers that have excelled in genres of photography outside of the wedding industry, such as high end fashion and popular street photographers. Two completely different genres, both inspiring me to think outside of the “wedding photography” box, to help keep my work fresh and always evolving.

Here is an example of an image I created using the technique, and an image by Ryan Brenizer himself. Ryan admits that he wasn’t the first to do this technique, but since I learned it from him I always give him credit, labeling it a Brenizer shot.

brenizer_method

Brenizer Method by Jay Cassario

RB

Brenizer Method by Ryan Brenizer

 PERSPECTIVE FROM OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS

Miguel Quiles
Ever since I picked up a camera, I’ve been inspired by the images that I see in magazines and on posters. That inspiration fueled my early work and to this day challenges me to push my creative and technical abilities. I often tell aspiring photographers that if you’re going to test shoot do so with a purpose. With that in mind I recently had a test shoot and took the opportunity to attempt to recreate one of my favorite portraits photographed by Kurt Iswarienko. With just one light and a salt shaker off my dining room table, I attempted to create a similar photograph and add my own unique touch, which ended up being the reflection of my model’s face in the salt shaker. While I used many elements from Mr. Iswarienko’s image I also added my own spin on things just to make this image my own.

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Portrait By Miguel Quiles

JD Land
The first few years I was shooting weddings, I actually tried to avoid looking at other wedding photographer’s images in an attempt to remain as original as possible. Instead, I found myself primarily looking towards other genres of photography for inspiration. However, over the past couple years, I have started to realize that I was making a big mistake in eliminating my own genre from my inspiration pool. Turns out, that in trying to remain “original,” I had actually backed my own creativity into a self-imposed box. Since then I’ve begun to follow a few amazing wedding photographers quite regularly and find them to be a great source of inspiration for my own work. I’ve also realized that it is a very fine line that we walk as photographers to be inspired by others and to still remain creatively original by our own standards. In walking that line, though, you can find ways to push yourself technically, reinvigorate your own creativity, and most importantly, deliver amazing images to your clients (that is what this is all about after all).

A favorite photographer of mine is Sam Hurd. I recently attended one of his workshops and not only is he an amazing photographer to learn from, but he is just a flat out awesome guy. I was introduced to free lensing through following Sam’s work and I was always a big fan of the other worldly feel that he was able to give to his images using the technique. I created this image when I was asked by a Groom of mine for a particular shot that is done over and over again in Philadelphia, “The Broad St. Shot”. I’ll be honest, at first, I secretly cringed and as we made our way to the location, I was racking my brain for inspiration in an attempt to make this fundamental shot somehow different from everything else this couple had seen. It was mentally wading through that inspiration pool in my mind that I remembered the free lensing technique from Sam and I reached into my bag for the glued together 50mm. If I had never started looking towards other wedding photographers for inspiration, this image would not have been created for this particular couple. That image ended up being the Groom’s favorite image out of everything they received from their wedding.

Two Fifteen Photography 600px

Freelensing Shot By JD Land

CONCLUSION

What are your thoughts on this and do you agree with all that I have written? This can tend to be a touchy topic as there are clearly different views on the subject. The bottom line is: honesty and being true to yourself is the safest route to being good, but knowing how to use inspiration and the work of others to enhance your craft will lead to greatness.

~ Jay

About

Jay Cassario is a fulltime photographer from South Jersey, and owner of the wedding, engagement, and portrait photography studio Twisted Oaks.

WEBSITE: Jay Cassario
Personal Facebook: Jay Cassario
Business Facebook: Twisted Oaks Studio
Google Plus: Jay’s Google +
Twitter: @JayCassario

Comments [19]

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  1. Francisco Hernandez

    “You don’t want people to look at your work and know exactly who you are trying to replicate”

    When I read that I wanted to give you a high five. I see this way too often with certain photographers. I understand helping other photographers learn, but I don’t see many photographers doing so in a way that those learning grow a style of their own. It’s becoming a way of creating replicas of that photographer instead of giving them their own feet to stand on. Great article!

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  2. Basit Zargar

    Nice Article !

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  3. J. Cassario

    Awesome comment David, thank you for taking the time to write that out, I always appreciate it. Glad you liked the article, I plan to write more like it.

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  4. David De Fotograaf

    I’ll try and explain my point of view on this article, in my own not so complicated use of words. ;-)
    First of all, in this day and age, where sites like Flickr (*shudders*), DeviantArt, 500px and even Instagram (topping over Twitter now) grow with thousand of pictures every day, it’s hard not to have some similar style of picture as someone else does.
    You almost have to!! look to someone elses work to make something of your own. The concept of moodboards was made out of this very fact I think.

    Now, the way I do it, is something of a more unique way. I view the stuff that I do as a musical term: a remix.
    When I see a picture I like, I don’t go around searching on how it might have been done or where or why… I save the picture and then, when I’m in the mood I can listen to one song and that song inspires me to take that picture/concept/subject and place it in a whole other context.
    – Look at a picture and get a first impression
    – Now put it into your mind, pour it over with some music of your taste
    – Blend
    – Let it rest for awhile while adding some salt, uhhhm, I mean some new details.
    – serve on a hot plate. x]

    That being said, one picture of a mask and the music of Florence And The Machine inspired me to put that mask in an urban environment at night with the added touch of special lenses. :o

    Great article! It will hopefully help some people out there to know what to do and not to do, and comfort others about the way they work, so they no longer have to doubt/feel guilty.

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    • Scott Pacaldo

      I work like this too! Whenever I’m processing a new batch of photos( I pp by batches), I open my ipod, either have it on shuffle or tune in to a specific artist/genre/album or playlist. The mood from the music definitely adds to the creative process. :)

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  5. Frank Carrino

    Good article and interesting question of inspiration vs plagiarism. I think there is a danger in assuming someone stole our work. Often we find the same inspirations and the possibility of two people independently creating the same result is higher than we would assume. I have been shooting since 1975 and I have seen many things come and go in my time. That includes “free lensing” and the use of prisms etc. All of those techniques existed long before my time as well. So at what point do we say someone copied our copy of the past and therefore they stole from us??? Sam Hurd seems to be at the forefront of inspiring people to bring these techniques back to the future, but he wasn’t even born when I first experimented with such things. If I shoot with a prism did I steal from Sam or learn from my 10th grade photography teacher? I know many times it is very obvious that someones “inspiration” was a little too similar and of course imitation can lead to out right copycatism but it’s a tough line in the arts. I really like your method of giving credit to who taught you, that is a very respectful way of handling things. Thanks for getting me thinking and keep up the good work

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    • JD Land

      Very well put Frank. From talking to Sam at his workshop, I’m pretty sure he would actually reiterate what you said in the fact that these techniques have been around a long long time. It’s nothing new, but with how accessible other photographers work is these days I think that it may seem new to a lot of folks. Personally, I believe, that is where finding inspiration in other photographers is a great thing though because if you bring back every technique that has every existed you will start to see some amazing work out there and there will be a lot of very happy clients. Assuming of course that everyone adds their own creative twists and nothing is too similar haha.

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  6. Jon McMorran

    Great article, and it really got me thinking. Maybe its because I’ve been doing science-y stuff lately, but I can’t help but compare this to similar issues that arise in more traditional academic areas. There, research is often designed to build on some work that has already been done. You incorporate ideas/theories/concepts from previous works into your own, and you add citations to give recognition where due. You don’t (typically) just copy and paste directly from someones already published work, because that would be a waste of time.
    The idea is to add to the already available material on a topic – to enrich it and add depth.
    I think you can apply this sort of thinking to almost any topic – in this case photography – but to most other art forms as well.

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    • J. Cassario

      Jon, I agree, this can definitely be applied to a lot of different fields and forms of art. I appreciate the comment and glad you enjoyed the article.

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  7. Jim Johnson

    I would say that the “problem” has increased recently simple because of access. If a wedding photographer in Phoenix was inspired by something he saw (either knowingly or unintentionally derived, or just having a similar idea) his work and the original would never be seen by the same people. Now, I can look up the work of every wedding photographer in the country… in the middle of the night… in my underwear.

    So the question is, is plagiarism a bigger problem, or is it more noticeable?

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    • J. Cassario

      I definitely agree Jim, and your question is a valid one. I would say that its not only more noticeable, but because its more noticeable, its much easier to do.

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  8. Dre Rolle

    1,000,000% agree with you, give credit where it’s due especially if your presenting it for more than personal use. When I reference a image for a project I just tag my shoot in Lightroom with the photographer/artist name so I won’t forget where that look came from. Although it can get tedious its a lot easier than forgetting and having someone claim you ripped them off.

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  9. Steven Hlavac

    Great article. In the immortal words of Billy Joel, “Nothing lasts forever, and it’s all been done before…” Now, I’m not negative or cynical by nature, but I think these lyrics ring true. I also think it’s good for us to remember both these things from time to time.

    With that in mind, one of my mantras is “REDISCOVERY is INNOVATIVE if its new to you”, meaning, trying something that’s been done before (even many times before) can be a crucial part of the learning process if it leads you down a new path from where you were.

    So yes, IMO nearly everything we do is a copy of something that’s been done before. To me, what makes the measure of an artist is how OFTEN we copy another work, how CLOSELY we copy it, and whether we CREDIT the source, reference, or inspiration or not…

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  10. Elena Wolfe

    Such a great article and so many wonderful insights! I really think this article helps bring us back to the ground and always remind us that there is always room for improvement and inspiration and although information and copying is so easily done today with the Internet, copying is taking risks and chances to learn something new. Every time we take a risk and challenge ourself, we evolve as an artist. It’s so important to be open minded but respectful of boundaries, “the good, the bad and the ugly”. Thanks Jay for putting this together!

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    • JD Land

      Very well said Elena!

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    • J. Cassario

      Glad you enjoyed the article Elena, and nice to see your thoughts reflect the same ideas I wrote about. Thank you for taking the time to comment

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  11. Alexis Lavoie

    Completely agree with you Jay. The line is always tine between plagia and copying. Great article!

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    • J. Cassario

      Thank you Alexis! I appreciate the comment and nice to see that you agree

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