Do You Follow Trends or Strive for Originality?

Do You Follow Trends or Strive for Originality?

More than ever, people are trying their hand at photography and with it comes a lot of photos meant to emulate the work of others. Do you strive for originality? 

With the availability of entry-level DSLRs and the advancements of cameras in phones, just about everyone can take a decent photo. When you factor in social media, trends in photography have never been so strong. Just this year, an article stated that Instagram will bring about the death of original perception. Multiple articles from last year address this very phenomenon: the first introduces the Instagram account @insta_repeat which highlights the repetition of some photos, another article also states Instagram has killed originality, and the third article highlights the growing prevalence of trends and copycat work while making a case for why copying can be good.

Difference Between Copying and Emulating 

Not all work inspired by the work of others is bad. In fact, I would argue that the best way to get started in photography is emulate the work of others. In pursing the recreation of work that inspires you, you can learn new techniques, push the boundaries of your skill level, and open your eyes to different styles/approaches that are better in different circumstances. In the accumulation of those skills, you can apply them to new pursuits and in the best case scenario, assist you in finding your own style. 

The concept of emulating other’s works is not specific to photography. Indeed, within music, food, culture, etc… there is almost an expectation for great work to be reproduced in recognition to the original. I would think that just about everyone knows of one or two songs they thought were originals but turned out to be covers of another artist. Take for example, Eric Clapton. The man has dozens of songs that are covers – some of which are among his biggest hits. Don’t think so? Just look up J.J. Cale and Robert Johnson. So did he “steal” them? I think not. 

The distinction lies within the recognition of the original work. In academia, referencing or replicating the work of another is expected but plagiarism can end your career. Again — failing to credit other’s contributions/work and taking credit for it can end your career in academia. In fact, you’re not even allowed to copy your own previously published writings without finding yourself trouble. The key, as it happens, is to not take credit for work or ideas that are not truly original. Simple, right? Perhaps this is straight forward in academia but does not appear to be so in photography. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be an Instagram account and multiple articles about the subject of copycatting work. 

Going through the examples of overdone work, I know I’ve found some examples where I’ve unwittingly fallen in line with a trend. Not a single time did I even realize that I had seen that work so many times that I was subconsciously following a trend. Given the sheer number of trends out there, it would seem almost difficult to come up with something genuinely unique so why even try, right? The fact of the matter is that many of the trends are so common because they do not require much talent to imitate the work. Often times it’s about getting yourself to a particular location. 

At What Point Does “Imitation” Become “Inspiration?”

I expect that just about everyone who reads Fstoppers reads for the education or inspiration. I know have for years and it’s made me a better photographer for it. Regularly introducing yourself to new thoughts, opinions, and techniques will ultimately make you a stronger photographer. Of course, regularly seeking out this material results in finding something to inspire. As a result, when you find work that inspires you, it’s only natural to emulate whatever inspired you to test your own abilities. 

For me, I have found myself inspired by an approach/method to achieving a photograph more so than attempting to replicate any one particular photograph. Prior to making a trip to Banff this past April, I read all about where to go, what to see, etc… and rarely felt compelled. I did, however, feel inspired by a completely unrelated photograph in a completely unrelated context. With all of the pictures of Mt. Rundle out there (and there are a lot) it seemed almost impossible to get a photograph that wasn’t just another run of the mill photo of what is probably the most photographed mountain in one of the most photographed parks in the world. Ultimately, I decided to pick up the longest telephoto lens I could find for my 645 medium format camera and I was off. While I doubt very seriously my photograph was entirely original, I’ve not seen another like it. Although, perhaps I have and I’m just in denial! 

Can Emulating Be Just as Creative as Original Work?

Yes. Andy Warhol did not design the Campbell’s soup can but he made it his own and built an entire career out of abstract reinterpretations of well-known things/people. In photography, I think we can all agree that the post processing can be just as much a creative endeavor as the taking the photo, if not more so. Several years ago an Fstoppers article highlighted the concept of a unique fingerprint of an individual on the post processing process. This article illustrates that given the same or a similar photograph, it is still possible for the outcome to be distinct from its original source. 

While some might argue that in cases where the only unique qualities pertain to how the photograph is treated in post is not “just as creative” as taking a different photograph and editing in a different manner, I think that is unreasonable. I think that most people would agree that their work is intended to be viewed only in its complete form. For example, if you collaborated with someone only to find they quickly and haphazardly slapped a filter on your edited shot, you would probably be a little sore and with just cause. Your work comes with your style of editing and anything else that deviates from your work, takes away from it, right? As such, I think it is only appropriate view all work in only in its complete form rather than the pieces.

Conclusion 

Emulation is a very powerful tool for learning and inspiration is needed for every creative to thrive. There is nothing wrong with attempting to imitate the work of someone else so long as you recognize that the origin of the idea is not your own. I cannot think of a single situation in which pursing a new creative interest does not begin with following in footsteps of someone else. Be it learning to play a song, cooking a meal from a recipe, or learning by instruction in literally any other situation. Learning by example is a powerful thing and should not be judged. Furthering already exhausted trends purely for the sake of jumping on the bandwagon is without taste. 
 

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13 Comments

Blake Aghili's picture

There is an EXCELLENT interview with Greg Heisler, he also talks about this. His example was when a student practices his music playing Eric Clapton guitar ... It is somewhere on youtube, worth watching.

James Madison's picture

I just watched a couple interviews with him this AM but didn't find the one you're talking about. Do you happen to remember the title?

Blake Aghili's picture

Gregory Heisler On Having a Vision was the title I think ... used to come up ... don't know where it went lol

Julian Ray's picture

I would argue that to follow a trend or striving for originality are one and the same thing. Both are expressions that are reactions to the pressures of the outside world.
Being "original" is basically saying 'they are doing that, I will NOT do that.'
Following the trend is saying 'they are doing that, I will do that.'
Both expressions, reactionary or conformist, are entirely driven by outside pressures.
I tell my students that, yes they need to study and observe what has gone before them, but in the end they have to do what is in their own heart. Not be directed by the endless noise of social media.
When they start creating work that is coming from deep within themselves is when they will be free from the noise of outside pressures. That is when they will become, truly become, unique.
Good article James, lots of food for thought.

James Madison's picture

Eloquently put, Julian. I am still learning how to create more meaningful work in that way.

Julian Ray's picture

We all are, James. Keep on creating and sharing with us!

I think that the author is talking about 2 sides of the same coin. The difference is how you use influences of others. It does not matter if you are using how Mapplethorpe framed and lit to how the 20 something street photo catured the moment shooting from the hip. It all in how you incorporate the influences into your work. Then it becomes a part of your originality. Going around trying to make tbe exact shot that others have made leads to stagnation . I want my work to be recognizable as mine. I tend to draw influence from alot of works and from others past and present . Is my work the same as theirs? No, but you can see where I was drawing from and mix from to become original .
I tend not to follow trends. Because they are fleeting for the most part . With the advent of social media sharing we are inundate with images that for good or bad look basically the same . This is where originality suffers. When you are just copying someone else. Trends I feel lead to over use and improper use. One only has to look at the overuse of bokeh in pratace and terminology in being appled incorrectly. Or how some are abusing street photography . I am sorry but sometimes a bad image is a bad image and will we be fawnig over blurred backgrounds in 5 years from now.

Mark Harris's picture

Instagram will not kill creativity. The creatives will keep creating. All it's doing is giving exposure to the less creative people.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I've never paid any attention to this until I read this article. I have never 'followed a trend' or 'strived to be original'. At least not in a conscious way. For nature and landscape I always try to find a beautiful or moving scene. I have been influenced by many Masters and stand in awe at some of their works, but have never tried copy it or what have you. As for fashion, street or other work....trends never enter my mind. When I have a story to tell or want to 'speak' provocatively, I follow what is inside me.

Brian Jones's picture

I may use trends as inspiration, but you will always find me away from others when im out making images. I prefer to tell and share a different story. Not the same one told over and over again.

This is the problem with Instasham and others. Improve your craft and shoot for YOU, not for Likes or followers just because a particular image has been shot hundreds of other times. Tell YOUR story!

David Pavlich's picture

I take two types of shots; one that is supposed to please me and the other to please those that buy prints. Sometimes these cross over, but not always. My selling experience tells me that generally, people enjoy good wildlife shots as attested to by my two best selling prints (deer).

The long and short of it, whether your are copying someone or emulating someone or some style or doing your best to be individualistic, a good photo is a good photo. I've seen a ton of shots of the Eiffel Tower and now and again, one will really grab my attention. It shows that someone found that special something that differentiated their shot from hundreds of others. So, is that copying, emulating, getting lucky? Hard to say.

It doesn't matter to me if someone is copying or emulating. It just matters if it's a good image.

Dennis Williams's picture

Following trends is pointless because by the time it's a recognized trend the next season begins and it's on to something else. I do not "strive for originality " because calculated manipulating to be something never plays.

Also, so many people make a big deal about a trend or being a trend setter when if they bothered to learn they'd recognize blatant similarities to their "trend" in work created five or ten or twenty years ago. Not so ground breaking after all.

New content and different light always combine to create something at least somewhat original - no conscious effort required. I am the only ongoing constant.