on the importance of being original

This post is the first in an upcoming 4-part ‘On’ series aimed at professional photographers.

The four posts are:

• on the importance of being original

• on competition

• on starting and operating a photography business during a recession

• on valuing your time and your worth

My hope is that if you are a photographer you will find them useful, and if you are in a different industry, they will apply to your life in other ways. These are not easy topics to talk about, but I think sometimes it’s necessary to wade through the yucky stuff in life in order to make true progress. And I promise to do my best to spin these in a positive way so they are more helpful than negative. And if you feel that this information would be helpful for *your* blog audience, feel free to repost with a link back. If you need help doing that let me know and I’ll be happy to help. Warning: this is a VERY long post, so get your work done first and settle in with your drinks and munchies before reading. 🙂

Because I am a teacher in a relatively young industry (pet photography), I am always keeping tabs on what is going on around the country (and even world), with regards to what other pet photographers are doing, the work they are producing, the new websites that launch, new businesses that launch, etc. I have seen a lot, and because of this have become quite knowledgeable about the industry.

One thing I notice time and again is mimicry. Ok, let’s be frank. Mimicry is too soft a word. Copying, I notice copying. Sometimes subtle, sometimes downright blatant.

This started about 3 years ago when I started doing google searches for my tag line “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Woofs” and also my company mission statement. I found handfuls of websites that had appropriated my mission statement verbatim, and another handful more who copied entire paragraphs of text from my website. One pet photographer’s entire homepage was copied from my homepage, with just a different image. Another had copied my ‘about’ page if you can believe it. LOL. Actually, wait, she copied my entire website! Ha, I forgot about that! It was shocking and infuriating at the time, and sadly now it has happened so many times that it doesn’t affect me emotionally *as much* anymore. I have also put things in place that make it harder for people to copy, which also helps. (More on that in the upcoming competition post). I grew irritated enough by people stealing my mission statement that I recently removed it from my website altogether. Now I pick my battles, and most of the time when I see something I go “eh, whatever- that’s on them, not me”. I don’t have time to get caught up in every little thing anymore (just the big things, lol). BUT, I still care about it, and still feel it’s an issue.

During my forays into pet photography marketing research, I also stumbled upon a pet photography website that had stolen images from two of my colleagues. I emailed one of them immediately and they pointed out that the 2nd image belonged to another pet photographer here in Seattle. And that is how I met Emily Rieman of Best Friend Photography (*love* Emily!), who has since become a treasured friend. Hers was the 2nd stolen image.

Although the stolen image issue was extreme, and I like to think rare, I have seen wording, designs, branding styles, and unique compositions that define a particular photographer, copied from one photographer to another, with such regularity that it almost seems like it is becoming the norm. I know this is also true in the portrait and wedding photography worlds as well. Anyone who has been following Ron Dawson’s blog recently is well aware of this.

Here is my opinion on these things I mentioned above. It is NOT OK to copy someone else. (without giving sincere credit anyway, more on that in a minute)

You may disagree with me and say:

“But Jayymeee, what does it matter if I use someone’s wording on my website if they live far away??”

Living far away doesn’t make it ok. The internet is a great equalizer, which means that anyone, anywhere with a computer can view both websites. To assume the only people looking at your website are local potential clients is naive. People notice things, people are very smart, and they also remember. What’s worse is the impact your actions have on the other photographer.

“But Jayymeee, they will never see it!”

Oh yes they will, I guarantee it. Especially in an industry as small as this. Here is the thing, pet photographers network with other pet photographers. We watch each other’s backs, we support each other. Just like in the case of the stolen images we let each other know when we see something that isn’t cool. I have received and sent many an email to photog friends about plagiarism issues.

Here is the thing folks, PLAGIARISM IS ILLEGAL. (It’s a form of copyright violation). I put that in caps because of the importance of that statement. You risk not only getting a nasty email from the photographer whose work you stole, but you also risk getting SUED. I don’t know a single small business owner who wants to get sued. That is serious business.

“But Jayymeee, I didn’t copy the text word for word”

Guess what, to circumvent that excuse, the courts have something called ‘substantial similarity‘. Text doesn’t have to be word for word to be considered plagiarism, if the two bodies of writing are ‘substantially similar’ in a court’s eyes, it is still considered plagiarism, which is a copyright violation.

“But Jayymeee, there is only so much you can say about pet photography”

I’m sorry but I think that’s a cop out. I regularly see pet photographer’s websites that are filled with really unique text that is clearly written very authentically by them, and not copied from someone else. When you see enough plagiarism you can start to spot it pretty easily, and also spot the original writing. It is hard, HARD work to come up with text that is original and unique. It takes time and many rough drafts to develop web content that really expresses who you are. Copying someone else is just a way of getting around doing that hard work. Laziness is not an excuse.

“But Jayymeee, they don’t have a trademark on their web design”

Believe it or not, the design of a website is also protected by copyright. You will notice some people’s websites have a copyright notice at the bottom that says ‘all content, text AND design are protected by copyright’. This is often seen on graphic or web designer’s websites. Ha, I just remembered something else. I recently stumbled upon a photographer’s website that had extensive plagiarism from mine, and they had ALSO copied my copyright notice at the bottom of my site. Ahh haa haa haa, that is too funny.

So no, you can’t copy a person’s website design either. And if they have special unique elements in their design, like floating word bubbles or little chirping birds or something you can’t copy that either.

“but Jayymeee, the person whose site I borrowed from won’t really care. They are really busy and have a great successful business. I can’t see how that would hurt them”

And here I want to talk about something I have never seen mentioned before. When you do boatloads of hard work, and sweat blood and tears into something, like a website, or your web or promotional copy (text), when someone else blatantly copies it, it hurts. Emotionally, it’s painful. And depressing. (Those who have had this happen to them know exactly what I am talking about). It gives you a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach. You have to keep in mind that if you do this, it’s not unlike saying to the person you are copying “I don’t care about you or your feelings, you are meaningless to me”. Ouch. It’s another human being on the receiving end. Do unto others as my mom says.

ALSO, and this is important, you really don’t know WHO did the work you are copying from. It may have been a copywriting agency or design firm that did the work, in which case you would not just be dealing with a photographer but an entire company. A company who might even have a legal team to protect their designs. And/or that photographer may have paid $5000 or more for their website, making that a pretty steep investment that they wouldn’t be too keen to have ripped off. Of course, that’s extreme, but you really don’t know. Scary!

You may believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but the other person might not feel the same way. Some people agree with that, and some people don’t. You can’t take the chance on knowing which direction that person’s opinion swings. Plus, there is a huge cavernous difference between copying something and being *inspired* by it and doing it differently and better. More on that in a minute.

“But Jayymeee, I’m not creative enough to come up with these things on my own!”

Then what on God’s green earth are you doing trying to work as a creative professional? Your clients are paying you for YOUR creative ideas, not those of your competitors. Yes, I get that not all people are writers, or web designers. BUT, they have services for these things.

Here is a great example of a copywriter who does work specific to the pet industry:

Rachel Monroe

Do a google search for copywriter and you get loads of results

Here are a couple more:

Tina Writes

High Impact Copy

Save the money, or get a loan if you have to, and pay a professional to do your copy for you if you don’t have the time or the skills to do it yourself. You will never have to worry about it again, and probably end up with some pretty stellar text. 🙂

In terms of web design, if you don’t feel comfortable with the process, that can also be done by experts. Or, if you are really stuck without ideas and you don’t even know where to start you can get one of the many affordable flash website templates that are offered to photographers, and then customize the colors to fit your branding. OR, if you are intent on designing your own website, I suggest looking to non industry sites for inspiration. Go to the Webby Awards website and look through past winners to get ideas that you can incorporate into your photography website.

I strongly discourage people from looking at competitor’s or colleagues websites when designing their own, whether it be looking at pricing or design or wording or branding style. What this does is it diffuses who YOU are, and ends up creating a confusing message for your clients. The clearer a picture they have of who YOU are, the more likely they are to want to work with you.

Take the time to sit down with a pen and a piece of paper, and sketch out ideas. Even if they seem silly at first. Make rough drafts of wording for your website, describe elements you want on it, colors, designs. Even create an inspiration board like fashion designers do. Clip pictures of whatever you like to put on it. Things in colors that you like, things that make you happy. Things that can help you define the way you want your site to look, the message you want it to say, and how you want it to make people feel. And don’t even look at the internet while doing this.

Once you have done some hard work, and you can see the bigger picture, you will have produced something you can be really proud of. It will be a unique expression of who YOU are, and really speak to your audience because it will be authentic. And by doing that you will increase your chances for success, because you will be more appealing to your audience.

When providing a personal service like photography, authenticity is key.

I also feel it’s important to try and be unique and original when it comes to actual photographic style and composition. I think most photographers look at other photographer’s work- their blogs, their websites, some even go to their colleagues’ gallery shows. I see nothing wrong with this, and it’s awesome to look at really good work and go “wow, that is amazing” and get happy and inspired. But I think all too often people see other work and either try and emulate it, or it just plain makes them feel bad and they end up trying to be someone they are not.

In terms of compositions, I see compositions that one photographer started begin to carry over onto other photographer’s blogs. Of course, it’s often hard to determine who started a ‘look’, but you can go back to early masters like Elliott Erwitt and see where the now-popular dog + feet shots came from, or to Amanda Jones to see where the clean white studio dog photography came from. Some styles are easy to determine in terms of where they originated.

Along with entire photography styles I also see really unique image compositions, like a dog photographed in a tree for a fictional example, that is a trademark of a particular photographer’s work, start to be copied more and more and more. I think it’s a problem, and it’s not something I support. Read my 2nd conversation below to see why.

“But Jayymee, there are only so many compositions I can create with my camera”

Really? Hmm, I don’t know about that. Because it seems to me there are an infinite number of ways a subject can be viewed in terms of settings, positioning, light, colors, expressions, etc. It’s up to you to create something really unique to who you are and your perspective on the world. AND, if that statement were true, then no one anywhere would be creating anything original, right?

“But Jaymeee, this goes on in every industry and has been since the dawn of time”

Yep, you are right!! I totally get that, and it will continue to happen. But does that mean it HAS to happen? Or at least, has to happen with the regularity that it does? I know in any industry there will be natural born leaders and those who follow. I personally believe that everyone can be a leader just by being who they are. Who they authentically are, without comparing to others, without insecurity or fears. Just- them.

Like I say on my workshops website, every single person on this planet has something unique and special to offer, and the reason why I am writing this post is because it is my dream to see people use those gifts and really be the unique creative individual they were born to be. Unrelated to anyone else.

Diversity is beautiful. Sameness is monotonous. DARE TO BE DIFFERENT.

“But Jayymeee, are you suggesting that I never use another photographer’s ideas??”

As I mentioned earlier, I think there is a huge cavernous difference between being *inspired* by something and outright *copying* it.

Here is the first example I came up with off the top of my head:

Early last year Rebecca of ArtPaw started posting images to her blog of graffiti and public art with dogs in it. Random photos she found on flickr from all kinds of photographers. I was instantly enamored because I love graffiti and I love dogs. Instead of going out and doing the same thing- taking photos of dog graffiti and posting them to my blog, I took it one step further, and was inspired to photograph live dogs *with* graffiti. I took an idea and changed it up, to create a 2nd idea that I loved even more.

Take a concept, or a look, or a style, and put your own spin on it, and use your creativity to make it different and better.

Seek to outshine, not imitate.

“But Jayymeee, I’m not creative enough to come up with my own ideas for types of shots”

Ok, and this response may be pretty harsh, and some of you may disagree with me, but if you are not creative you should not be asking to be paid as a professional photographer. Part of our jobs is to come up with shoot ideas, and that is what our clients rely on us for. I can’t tell you how many times I show up to a house or a park, and the initial consultation goes something like this:

Me: “what would you guys like to get out of our shoot? Are there any special types of shots you’d like me to capture? Any certain expressions or body positions or locations? What would you like to see in the way of images?”

And my clients say: “we are pretty open, we just love your work so just work your magic”.

There is little if any direction given. Which is great (!) because I love having creative freedom, but it also means that I have to be really thinking about what I am doing, and work hard to produce a session that is unique to that animal and setting. I have had shoots where I have been feeling creatively dead for some reason, and those are so. much. harder. I really think you need to be creative to be a professional photographer.

“But Jayymeee, can I look at another type of photography for ideas?”

ABSOLUTELY!! If you are a portrait photographer look at fashion photography, if you are a pet photographer look at landscape photography, if you are a wedding photographer look at lifestyle magazine photography. I also look at shopping websites for inspiration. Pottery Barn or Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie. You can get all kinds of creative ideas from things that aren’t directly related to your industry.

I’m also not saying don’t look at your colleagues’ work. But be very aware of how it affects you emotionally and mentally when you do. For me, when I see something really amazing and it makes me feel bad or insecure, I stop looking at that person’s work, because it’s unhealthy for me. If I see something and want to do it myself, I don’t, I just don’t no matter how bad I want to. For me it’s about principles, and respect.

Plus I find it personally far more interesting and rewarding to rework an idea and create something new, than to just do exactly what the other photographer did.

I say look at your colleagues’ work if it uplifts you or you just enjoy it. If you get jazzed seeing really great creativity and it makes you feel part of a community, go for it! If it helps make you want to be a better photographer in your own right, go for it! If it’s a positive thing for you, awesome!

But if another photographer’s work makes you feel bad or insecure, just. don’t. look. at. it. It’s just not worth it.

“But Jayymeee, are you saying that it’s never ok to use someone else’s idea?”

No, in fact, I think if it’s a really great idea that you don’t think the other person would mind if you used, what you can do is give a link-back and a special shout out on your blog to the person whose idea you are using, giving them much praise and making it clear that you got the idea from them. Make sure you always always include a link. A shout out on a blog means nothing without linking *in that post*.

A good example of that is when I saw Joyce Smith’s Photographers Q & A on her blog. I thought “now there is a GREAT idea!” So I used it, but not without giving her credit first and linking to her site and making it very clear to my readers that it came from her. She replied with a very sweet reply, and I had a warm happy feeling inside and I hope she did too.

When you DON’T do this, and people- either other colleagues or industry professionals or just the general public, notice that you copied someone else, you immediately lose credibility in their eyes. It can be a very damaging thing over time. And like I said earlier, people are smart, they DO notice things. And you may not think that they are following your AND the other photographer’s blogs, but they are.

If copying is hard-wired into your DNA, it will make it much harder to create a successful business.

Being unique and original and setting yourself apart from your competitors increases the chances that clients will want to work with you, which will result in a more successful business and greater chances of profitability. It will garner you more respect and people will look up to you more, you will receive more praise and be more of an inspiration to others. Doesn’t that sound so much more appealing than the alternative? (Let’s see, more work, more money, better relationships, yeah, that sounds pretty good!)

So to sum up this tome, I think copying is wrong, and hurts both the person who is copied AND the copier, dilutes overall creativity in the industry resulting in a monotonous sameness, and on principle, is wrong.

I think there are many many things each photographer can do to be original, and express who they uniquely are, without comparing and without copying. I think the importance of being original can’t possibly be overstated.

I think we all have a duty as creative professionals to challenge ourselves to produce the best work we possibly can, and express ourselves, both through our marketing efforts and web presence and through our photography, in the most unique and authentic ways, and give the very best to our clients. Be the very best YOU that you can be! There is only one of YOU in this world and that is what we all want!

Thanks for reading! Next post: competition. Should be interesting! 🙂

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30 thoughts on “on the importance of being original

  1. Hi Jamie –

    I’m fairly new to photography as a business, though I have loved it for over a decade. This post is a great resource as I am trying to move from hobby photographer who does a little paid work on the side to “professional” photographer. Your work is beautiful. Your candor in writing is inspiring. Thanks so much for posting this series. I’ll be plowing through it over the next few days.

    Emily Grace

  2. LOVE this. Love love love, it. I had my entire site copied, including the about me section TWICE. Once by a man (which made it actually kind of funny) and once by someone else who claimed they were just using ALL OF MY TEXT as a “placeholder.” It’s funny because you look at it and say, well it’s “just words.” But it’s not. It’s so so much more. It is your heart and soul there on the page. Something you worked on, stressed over, possibly cried over, spent late nights on, crafting changing and then changing again. And when someone steals that from you it’s like they are stealing a part of you.

  3. I just started doing pet photography back in Feb. and just found a site for a new pet photographer in my area who has used wording that is unique to my price list. Bit frustrating, but I guess I must be doing something right.

  4. Great Post…It’s oh so important to be original while having a good attorney just in case 😉 Some people really just don’t understand what they are doing is wrong. I don’t agree that ignorance is bliss…it’s stupidity. Thanks for posting this!

  5. I guess i’m going backwards cause i just read your post about competition and i must say this is another fine fine post!! brilliant in fact! 🙂

  6. Great post! I felt for a while that I was not creative enough and through the winter I took art classes and art photography classes..my eyes are now more open than ever I see so much more. I truly recomend it to others art of seeing is the way to go!

  7. Oh Jodi I am so sorry that happened to you. It always seems like it’s the biggest people with the coolest products or branding that have the most illegal acts pulled on them. Stay tuned for my ‘on competition’ post today for some tips that might help you in this respect. I hope it gets resolved for you painlessly. At least after my ‘on competition’ post you will have links you can send to your perpetrator. lol 🙂

  8. Not sure where to begin or what to say other than I agree 100% (or more if that is possible).

    They say to be flattered if someone copies you. It is NOT flattering when your hard work gets STOLEN! I am in this situation right now. I have been keeping this super close to my heart as I am not sure I want to publicize the person/company who blatently stole from me. They took a few of my products (photoshop actions) and renamed and made a few light changes – the sets this was done with are unique and the oly thing out there like this – so it was ultra obvious to me. I have proof that they own them too.

    They are selling them on their site – and they even had the audacity to “tag” them with the brand name of my sets – so they come up in search engines when people search for mine. Copyright violations everywhere!

    It is criminal and frustrating. And I am torn. I am a positive person and just not sure it is worth letting such an evil person get to me. KARMA!

    My attorney is looking into it to help me decide what to do. I will not say the name of the company that is copying them as then it gets their name out there more. But wow!

    Anyway – had to vent this as it fit in perfectly. As much as I LOVE this article and want to link to it, I better not at this time because of the above mentioned situation.


  9. This was a great post and I hope many others come and read it! I know I have been influenced by it. It can be hard to come up with what to say but you’re exactly right when you point out that there are professionals who can come up with the copy for you. One of the problems is people feel entitled to take things when they’re on the internet. I hope that people will read this and think twice!!

  10. agreed, it is one thing to be inspired, take an idea, and make it your own, another to try and be a copy cat photographer (no pun intended there BTW)

  11. Yes, yes, all warm fuzzies here. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Well said. SIgned, a photographer whose former life included ferreting out high school and college lit paper plagiarists. Sigh. 🙂

  12. Wooo quite a long post but worth the read 🙂 I guess I’m still too far down the food chain to have suffered any form of plagarism yet.

    “Me: “what would you guys like to get out of our shoot? Are there any special types of shots you’d like me to capture? Any certain expressions or body positions or locations? What would you like to see in the way of images?”

    And my clients say: “we are pretty open, we just love your work so just work your magic”.”

    I love those kinda clients too but yea I hear ya when you have to really scratch your head if the space is small and dog timid. Those are the shoots you really make or break 🙂

  13. Hey girl thanks for the shout-out. I really love the work you have done with dogs & graffiti. I actually had played around with graffiti and dogs in my own digital artwork a few years prior to my blog postings but never really pursued it to the degree you have. That is the cool thing about inspiration, when someone is really talented they can take an idea to a brand new place. Right now I am playing around with placing words under the glass on my fine art mosaics and when other artists ask me what glues I use or how I do what I do, I will freely tell them. It is a look that is pretty new in mosaics and my inspiration for it came from looking at tempered glass mosaics where paper collage is used under the glass. There is no way I can own the concept of “words” under glass in the mosaic world and so instead of worrying about competition I just put it all out there and look forward to seeing what others come up with.

    People that can only mimic will always be following and never leading. On the other hand artists that can take it all in and then put it on the spin cycle, repeat, wash spin again, well those artists will always come up with clean fresh ideas no matter where they find their inspiration. I’m doing laundry today …sorry for the goofy analogy.

    As far as out right plagiarism goes I would really think that the vast majority of your readers are beyond that. I too have had entire portions of text lifted from my website and when I see it I call people on it… it is theft, and it is pretty easy to deal with. Yes, I have also seen my actual art images resold on auction sites that I won’t even mention here and you are so right, the discoveries are often pointed out to me by fellow artists. So yea, that is the other perk to being original in your work, you will find yourself among very good company that will not only respect you but also watch out for you.

    Great Post, looking forward to part2.

  14. @nichole- you and I are living proof of what can be accomplished through respect and mutual admiration. You can bet you will be linked to in my next post. I also recall what you said recently “why would someone try so hard to be someone else when they are already doing it better?”. @pammy- thanks for the RT! @jill- oh wow, that is really brazen. hope it was resolved. sorry for your friend. @kristen- yes, whiny artist elements needed! let’s see, who do I know who can make things like that? hee hee @john- yeah, I figured I should have a warning about length in there somewhere, lol. you can pretty much bet with me I will always tell it like it is. honesty is my greatest gift and my biggest weakness! 😉 @mark- I am so sorry to hear that happened to you. yeah, I think the internet somehow makes things impersonal enough that people do more bad stuff than they would ‘in the real world’.

  15. Love it. I can only laugh at this too. I have had a number of my pieces stolen by strangers and FRIENDS who tried to pass it off as their own. What makes it truly comical is some are not even capable of using the programs I use to create the art.

    I think many people just live in a fantasy world where appreciation blurs into perceived ability and the web spinning begins.

  16. WONDERFUL post, Jamie! This is definitely something to think on over and over. I can’t wait until the next post! You rock! 😀

  17. Thanks for linking to me and my elements, pretty lady. You are spot on! Forceful without brow-beating, and I heart your whining artist voice…it needs some whining artist drawings. 😉

  18. Nicely put Jamie. One of my photographer friends had numerous photos stolen and the thief even wrote blog entries on how “he got the shots”. It was crazy. Almost laughable how people think they could get away with it.

  19. BRAVO. Well said. Standing ovation to you. This not only applies to pet photographers out there but all specialites of photography. Girlfriend, I am definitely going to twitter your thoughts and observations.

  20. SO, so, so, so true my friend. That’s all I can say about that – you nailed it. Besides, why would you want to alienate the few people in the world who REALLY understand your job and the pressures associated with it? We are lucky to have each other to turn to. No web site copy or creative shoot idea could be worth losing the respect of the pet photography community at large. Fact. 🙂

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