Photography News

Is Imitation the Best Form of Flattery?

January 8, 2014 by Leanne Cole

Happy New Year everyone, hopefully you all had a great time over the break and are ready to get stuck into the year ahead.


Back in November I did a post on Finding What Inspires You, I talked about many different ways to find inspiration, and one of the ways that artists are taught to find it is to look at the work of others.  We try to get inspired from what others are doing and see if we can put some of that into our own work.


When I was at art school we were encouraged to copy the work of others and try to do exactly what they did, so we could learn.  I did some of that, though much of what I did never came off as well as the masters.  It was a great way to learn.  One lecturer used to say it to us all the time, copy, copy, copy, but only as a learning tool.  Never pass off the copies as your own original work, as that would be breach of  many copyright laws.


I tried to copy a Brooke Shaden image, see below, hers on the left and  mine on the right.

3597180848_63ed2cbbe8_z leannecole-scalannah-4760-4


What happens when you simply copy the technique of someone you admire?


In theory technique can’t be copyrighted, so you can copy anyone’s technique, but does that mean you should?  I know myself that I have been asked many times on my blog how do I do certain things and I’ve always been coy about it.  An artist friend said, no don’t tell them how you do it, or they will steal your ideas.  I have to admit that I am also afraid of that, because if I let people know how I do things, then they might also do them better than me, or they might become more successful with my technique than I am.


When I first went back to study a girl in my year saw that I liked doing black and white flowers, so the next thing I knew that is what she was doing.  All her photos were similar to mine.  It made me angry and I stopped doing them.  It was hard having someone openly copy what I was doing.


Though, I do admire people like Brooke Shaden and Joel Grimes, who have no issues whatsoever with showing people exactly how they do their images, and how to achieve their look.  I found this intriguing, and I asked Brooke about it, she said something about how she enjoys showing she works and teaching people, and if others are going to copy what she does, well there isn’t a lot she can do about it, she implied it would upsetting.


Joel Grimes was on the internet recently and he said a few things which I thought were interesting.  He said “Get inspired by other people’s work”, a similar idea to what you learn at art school.  He thought that people who copied his work exactly was a little too much.  Taking parts or bits and pieces of other people’s work was fine, but don’t do exactly the same picture.  He said he doesn’t feel bad when people do it, because that person hasn’t gone out and explored their own creative ideas.


These are interesting ideas I think we can learn from.  I know for myself, I do things that Brooke does in her work. I know that I have just recently learned some new things from Joel that I want to also try.  My process is a jumble of techniques that I have learned from many people.  I don’t want to copy, but I try to find that aspect in their work that really catches my attention and then see if it will work in my own.


So, if you are trying to come up with your own style, just copying someone else’s work is just that: copying what they do.  You don’t want to be known as the person who copies what another artist does, you want to stand on your own and have your own unique style.  Sometimes copying what another does will help you find that, but it is important to work out what style is yours and follow your own creative path.


My style for architecture


Leanne Cole is a Melbourne based fine art photographer who specialises in Architecture and landscapes.  She has over 20 years experience and has a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Melbourne, faculty VCA.  Leanne also writes her own blog and has been doing that for many years now, she writes for anyone interested in photography.  You can find Leanne at her website, or her blog, she is also on Google+ and Facebook

43 Responses to “Is Imitation the Best Form of Flattery?”

  1. […] is the title of the post I have written for today, Is Imitation the Best Form of Flattery?  Looking at when you can and can’t copy other peoples […]

  2. Paul says:

    I think it is part of learning new things to try and do what someone else has done. I do not think I would directly imitate an image to learn the technique – I would just apply the technique to my own subject matter. I think with a direct imitation that will be published one ought to acknowledge what has been done and why. If it is just for one’s own use then imitate away happily in the interests of learning, I think.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I totally agree with your Paul, I know my own work is a combination of many different techniques, it is a bit of this and a bit of that, but hopefully it all comes together to be my style. Well that is what I hope. Thank you.

  3. Nia Simone says:

    I am definitely influenced by other photographers. A couple in particular. But I don’t think I copy. I think it’s good to keep coy about how you do things.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      There are always going to be aspects you copy Nia, but it is how much you do, like that image I showed above, I was trying to copy, or see how I would go copying it. It would be obvious if you were. Thank you Nia.

  4. trees says:

    Hi leanne, beautiful image….I’m always grateful and in awe of those who share their knowledge, expertise and experience. I’m always fascinated with people’s process and creativity and if there are bits that resonate with me , will take on board and try and incorporate. But as for copying I would feel really weird trying to produce someone elses image, except maybe as a practice thing. Also feel strongly about acknowledging where my inspiration might come from..

    • Leanne Cole says:

      Thank you Trees. I think I feel exactly the same way as you about other people’s process, it can be a great way of learning.

  5. Eryl Shields says:

    It’s a tricky one. I agree that copying as a way of learning your craft is fine, but until you have your own style, ideas, and techniques you can’t call yourself an artist.

  6. Copying a combination of techniques so that it is a direct copy of your target subject is definitely copyright breach, but when I have a look at the two photos, yours and the original, the only aspect of “copying” is the composition of the shot and the fact that the subject matter is a young girl with medium length hair. The two photos are very different in their colour, texture, exposure, clothing and the feeling that it imbues. Your photo is darker, and the switch of the cat for a doll and the shoes makes your girl look like she is having a tumultuous time, rather than the more dream like and cleanliness of the original. For me they are two different photos, with a common composition.

    The critical thing to remember is that new work should take into account all that is learned before it and introduce something new. With a lot of your work, the introduction and settings you use in HDR is something that I haven’t seen too often and therefore progressing photography. Anyone could have taken a photo of the MU building composed like that – but it will not be the same photo unless the sum of the techniques are all implemented.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I’m not sure about the copyright thing, I think if you copy everything exactly, then probably, though technique not so sure about. I was trying to copy the image, but just goes to show how hard it can be. I was trying to copy the idea, though I wasn’t totally concerned with an exact copy. I like how Brooke does a lot of things, though I would never put the one I did on my website, or up in a gallery.

      You make some great points there Christopher, I really agree with you, I think it is good to do what others do, but you have to come with something that makes it yours. That is a nice thing to say about my HDR’s, I’ve worked hard on them, though that image did start being a HDR it has also had a lot more work done to it as well. I think that is more my style of architectural shots. Thank you Christopher, you have made some great observations and points.

  7. Steve Abbott says:

    In my other job I’m a screenwriter. We treat concern about idea theft as the mark of a novice. It’s a pretty rare occurrence in the industry as the legal backlash is a bit severe, not to mention damaging to your future career. Though there does seem to be parallel scripts that make the rounds from time to time.

    I’m always interested in exploring new technique but only as it applies to my own subject matter. I’m not interested in copying what somebody else has done note for note. I’d like to play my own variation of the tune. I see a lot of post work done on some shots in Photoshop where it moves the image past the point of being a photograph to the realm of a digital construct. Something that makes me lose all interest in the image.

    I don’t see a problem in talking about the nuts and bolts of a technique. If a person has an ounce of vision in their soul, they’ll extrapolate that information into something that serves them and their needs.

    If they’re really just copying the work outright, sooner or later they’ll become frustrated with their lack of advancement with their talent and equipment and you’ll get a good deal on their gear on Craigslist down the road.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I can imagine what the legal backlash would be. I like the idea of it being the mark of a novice, I tend to think it is the mark of someone who really isn’t creative, but wants to be, and can’t be.

      I think I am the same it is good to see what other people are doing, see if anything they do can enhance your own work. If you don’t like digital images, then you won’t like mine, I love Photoshop and I love what you can do with it. Though, I think it is important to remember that manipulating images is not new to digital, and is something that photographers have been doing almost since photography began. There are certainly things I don’t like, that many people do, some photos can look too weird. I guess I still like my photos to look like photos, I like to think I enhance.

      I love that last part, I must keep an eye out on Craigslist. Haha. Thank you for you thoughts Steve.

  8. Sonel says:

    I totally agree with you here Leanne. It is fun trying out the techniques other photographers have and some are so kind as to tell you how they did it and it’s inspiring, but in the end it’s more fun developing your own style and technique. It’s a learning process, just like life. Great post and thanks for sharing. :D

    • Leanne Cole says:

      Great comment Sonel, so true, I think in the end you will be remembered more for your own technique than because you copied someone else’s. Thank you.

  9. Ed says:

    I know I see things and sometimes wonder, “how did they do that?” Youtube partly exists to answer that question. What I wonder about more often than not is a processing effect. Think about when you first saw a tilt-shift photo, or a cinemagraph. Didn’t you want to know how they did that? I see other post processing all the time and wonder how’d they do that. I’m contemplating “Leica looks” right now and wondering how to achieve more of that look without spending $10k.
    If people are asking about how you do certain things, or how you achieve your look it means you’re being successful. I mean, who asks to copy something that’s not working? If they end up doing it better than you, it just means you’ll have to figure out why and improve your own work.
    Nothing stays secret and everything is derivative. You’ll just frustrate yourself if you don’t accept that.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      You aren’t alone there Ed, I do the same all the time, “how did they do that”. Though wanting to know how to do it and then copying it are very different. Though often you will see how an artist works, and realise there is just a small part of it that you actually really like. I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing that, it is what you do with the knowledge afterwards that matter.
      I still have to get past that people asking me how I do things, I am working on it more.
      That is true, though I do hope my style is always improving and changing.
      Thank you Ed, you have some great thoughts here.

  10. Linda says:

    Great article, Leanne. It’s given me much to think about. I’m not sure if I’ve copied exactly the work of others, but I know I’ve seen images I love and have tried to recreate something similar of my own. If it’s for personal use, then I don’t feel bad about it. If I was publicly displaying or selling the photos that would be different.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      Thank you Linda, I think as long as you aren’t trying to directly copy someone you will be fine, it is when someone develops a style and then others just copy it, that is what annoys people. I think what you are doing is fine.

  11. Caren Taylor says:

    Great post Leanne, I totally agree!.
    I am very much for creating my own thing and do not ever recreate someone’s work, though to say we are not inspired by others would be also very wrong. One of my recent posts was of a rose which I had painted (or should I say revealed) with bleach on black card and the inspiration for painting that rose came from a photograph Jackie Brooks had put on her new site ‘Fun with Filters’, which I told her about and sent her a copy of my image. What I am trying to say is very much the same as you, ”Yes look, be inspired, then put your own twist to it and make it original”
    That way there is much more satisfaction in the end product!

  12. Elton says:

    Some interesting points there, Leanne. I find it very difficult where I live not to capture an image that doesn’t look like somebody else’s. Here in North Wales, Snowdonia there are many photograph capturing it and trying to find your own niche is difficult.

    I take a lot of inspiration from others, but I often think ‘hmm, great perspective’ and go out to find that spot, look at it and see what I can do to make it different, my own. I’d like also to start capturing arcitecture and I would aspire to produce images like yours; the above image is fantastic I really love DOF and THE HDR.

    I don’t think you should copy people’s work directly, but
    there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to it.

    Thanks Leanne


    I’ve recently become quite addicted to HDR, and whilst this isn’t always ideal for landscape shots, it certainly makes them stand out from others; so not copying.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I agree Elton, and I do the same, I will see an image of Melbourne and think where is that taken and how can I get something similar. I think when you are taking photos of something like an area you are going to end up with photos similar to other people, that is just what happens. Taking inspiration from other people is great, I love that people find me inspirational, and I am not concerned that they are copying me.

      I have to say, I don’t have a problem with copying work, as long as it just for learning, and you never try to pass it off as your work. It can be a great way to learn and think outside the box, though I tend to copy things like photoshop techniques and then work out how to apply it to my own work.

      Thanks for your idea Elton, and good luck with your HDR photography, I think many of us understand the addiction.

  13. Jessica says:

    Great post and I echo your sentiments!

  14. Thanks, Leanne. A great article. When I see work that inspires me it gives me a starting point. After that I’m on my own.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I think that is a great way of looking at it, I often look at how they process, and that is where I get my inspiration from. Thank you.

  15. Robert says:

    Another thought provoking post about photography and creativity…copying artwork is something that has been around since the first cave drawing – albeit there wasn’t any monetary loss in this for the original artists. People will copy, people will steal – we have to understand this as artists, but if we are really on our game then we remain artists and the people who copy are the hacks – of course this is easy to say if your livelihood is not impacted by the theft. I do not believe that there is a fixed definition of what a copy is – as at what point is the work your own. As far as technique, I tend to agree with Ed (above) in that you should be doing it better if you though it up, if not, then learn from your “student”.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      I think copyright laws have some definitions Robert, though, there is what is considered copying, and that can depend I guess. I knew an artist who was suing another artist because the first thought the second was stealing her idea and ripping it off. I don’t know how she went, and of course there is the inevitable, how do you be original when nothing really is anymore, especially with photography. Nah, still not there on the Ed one, I will probably keep it to myself for a while longer, though maybe one day I will have the courage to tell people what I do, haha. Thank you Robert.

  16. Gilly says:

    A thought provoking post Leanne. There’s nothing new under the sun is there? and since the internet it’s very easy to copy. Not that I’m condoning it any way.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      Thanks Gypsy, you are right nothing new here, but hopefully some people will think about what they are doing.

  17. Tiny says:

    Great article Leanne. I fully agree with you. I think that getting inspiration and learning new techniques from others is fine, but one has to have his/her own creativity to lean on in applying those techniques.

  18. Richie says:

    To copy “exactly” shows no creativity at all. If one was to copy a technique or even a look to use in their own personal way is fine. Joel Grimes has no problem showing his techniques because he truly is a master of his craft and his talent lies in the whole process from beginning to end. To truly copy somebody, anybody that is at Joel’s level, one would have to be at his level. With my photography & photoshop work I never hold back, if asked I will show and tell anything that is asked of me. If your talent is dependent upon keeping secrets you are truly not an artist. Well maybe a secret keeping artist.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      They are harsh words, I don’t think not wanting to tell people how you do your work mean you aren’t an artist, it can be because you are insecure, or because you have experienced someone taking what you do and calling it their own. So they protect themselves. I know a photography who has totally ripped off the Joel Grimes look, it would be difficult to tell the difference, there may be differences, but not enough for normal people to tell the difference. I think it shows it a lack of creativity, as well. I also suspect that it is much easier for someone to share their technique when they are successful, I’m not that successful, but when I am, and I am known for a particular style, then I would share what I do, but since I am still developing it, I don’t see any point. Thanks Richie.

  19. Leah Jlyn says:

    I have found like a small town so is the creative community. a lot of us use the same inspiration and come up with same ideas at the same time. I had a friend that was a writer and she and I would come up with similar story lines, or we had similar past experiences that we’d write about at the same time. Both us being self adsorb thought the other took the other’s idea. Later on we just realize we had similar ideas and come up with similar conclusions, that was begat from the same artist, book or movie.
    So, this subject is tricky and frustrating regardless.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      You see that sort of thing all the time, how often do a string of movies come out where they all have similar ideas or the same themes. I know that happens, but there is a difference to having similar ideas, and someone making exactly the same images as you. I have seen photographers who have images that a direct copy, not much difference to another photographers technique, they aren’t similar, they are exactly the same. Almost hard to tell who took them. That is what I have a problem with. To study what another photographer does and then use that technique to make yourself successful, I don’t like that. If your friends story was exactly the same as yours, not just similar, you would wonder. I think there is always going to be similarities, none of us are ever that original, but to come up with exactly the same as someone else is something else indeed.
      Thanks Leah.

  20. elpadawan says:

    I would say “having inspired others” is the best form of Flattery. Imitation is one thing, Plagiarism another, and inspiration yet another. It all depends on how the imitator presents their work as well. If I were to try and reproduce a shot from someone else, for example, I would only do it for learning purposes, and definitely would credit the original inspiration. I believe that respect is the key factor between “imitation” and “plagiarism”.

    • Leanne Cole says:

      That is a lovely way of looking at it. I think you have made a great point there. I do the same, I would never try and pass off someone else’s work as my own, it is good to do it for learning, but that is all. I like that idea of respect. Thank you.

  21. Hi Leanne! In my opinion, if somebody wants to copy you as an artist, trying to use your technique or concept it really is a form of flattery! This will probably shape an ascendent path in their road, at the beginning, but if they keep on copying only, without adding a touch of their own style, sensibility, and creativity they will be lost along the way anyhow! Even if one shares all the secrets with them! Technique can be learned if studied hard, originality and creativity no! In the end, it all comes down to this!

    • Leanne Cole says:

      It may be that, but as you say does show a complete lack of originality and creativity. Though I think the issue I have with it is when people hang a shingle on their door saying they do photography and all their ideas are stolen from someone else. I think that is what I really have a problem with. People/customers think they are being so creative, but really, they have stolen their techniques. Not much we can do about it, but I do like what you have said, thank you.

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