Is Photographic Imitation the Highest Form of Flattery or Just Shady Poaching?

Is Photographic Imitation the Highest Form of Flattery or Just Shady Poaching?

As photographers, we frequently find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with another photographer focusing on the same subject, but what if that subject is the other photographer’s model? Is it ok to stand close enough to take the same or similar shot, or is that cheating, or worse, theft? Just how much photographic imitation is ok? A member of a local photography Facebook group I belong to recently posed this question. A heated discussion inevitably ensued. 

For the shot in question, the discussion began with a story: Photographer A (our story’s narrator) was shooting a sunrise, when he saw Photographer B set up to photograph a back-lit cyclist. Photographer A was intrigued by the silhouette and started shooting. He then realized that Photographer B and the cyclist were working together to achieve the shot, communicating via hand signals. Realizing they were working together, Photographer A told Photographer B that he was “stealing his thunder” and taking the same image. B didn’t ask A to stop or object in any way, so A believed he was in the clear to keep shooting.

Seems fairly straightforward, but as is so often the case on social media, a wide range of opinions followed. Some believed it was Photographer B’s responsibility to tell A to stop. Others said Photographer A should have moved on to create something more original. Some said it would have been ok to shoot the same random cyclist riding by, but since the cyclist was essentially a model, Photographer A was infringing on Photographer B's intellectual property. Some commenters likened it to showing up in a national park to shoot a vista and getting upset that other photographers are there too. Photographer A introduced the discussion by arguing that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but is it so innocuous as that?

I photographed Mesa Arch in Utah at sunrise... like many photographers before me and many photographers since.

Let’s start with the commenter who compared the sunrise cyclist scenario to being angry at other photographers who showed up to shoot the same national park vista. Most photographers have experienced visiting a bucket list photo location and finding an oversaturated scenic lookout. Tripod legs intertwine as photographers stand practically shoulder to shoulder to catch the sun as it rises through Mesa Arch or some equally beautiful, well-known location. Do those photographers have a right to be mad at everyone else who had the same idea that day? Not really. There’s no expectation of exclusivity in a commonly photographed public location or an uncommonly photographed location for that matter. A public location is just that, public. You do what you can to hopefully make your images different from everyone else's via framing, exposure settings, use of filters, or any other tricks you have up your sleeve, but that’s about all you can do. There’s no sense in anger, because from the other photographers’ perspectives, you are the interloper.

This was the crowd to my left for sunrise at Mesa Arch, but I've heard of it being a lot more congested than this.

Years ago, I visited Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana and set up my tripod on the front lawn. Enormous, 300-year-old oak trees flanked me, forming a beautiful corridor (or literal alley) leading to the main plantation house. It’s a perspective you’ve likely seen before in tourism brochures, on Instagram, and on Oak Alley’s own website. Armed with a wide-angle lens, I centered my tripod perfectly and waited for the scene to clear just a bit. Lacking a neutral density filter strong enough to blur the midday crowds lit by the full sun, I relied on patience and luck for a clear scene to get the shot I had envisioned. About 40 minutes into my camp-out, the scene finally cleared of the last few stragglers, and I finally had my opportunity. Just as I was about to shoot, a random tourist kneeled right in front of my tripod, exclaiming “wow, you never see it this empty” and took his shot of the same perspective I’d been waiting for. 

A random tourist kneels right in front of my camera, because tourist.

Jerk move? Yes. It’s exceedingly obnoxious to step in front of another photographer’s tripod to take your own photo. Infringing on my artistic vision? Not so much. This is a perspective that countless photographers had recorded before me and I’m sure countless photographers have recorded since. Just like at a National Park or scenic overlook, I had no more right to that perspective than any other person with a camera out there, but what about when a photographer has specifically staged a scene for their shot?

The shot I'd been waiting to take.

Let’s say a photographer has arranged a model, paid or unpaid, and set up a photoshoot. Legally, if that photographer is shooting the model in a public space, that model has no expectation of privacy, so any other photographer or bystander can also take images of the model during the shoot. While the original photographer may have conceived the shoot, set up the posing, wardrobe, makeup, and all of the other components, the model is fair game while on public property. You would have a hard time arguing otherwise in court. 

That said, the question of if it's ok to shoot the scene comes down to one’s intentions and inner moral compass. While you may not be performing an illegal act to photograph someone else’s model, it still might be considered pretty obnoxious to attempt to benefit from another photographer’s hard work and potential financial investment. You could legally take that photo, but without a model release, what can you realistically do with the resulting image? Just because you have the right to click the shutter, does that mean you should?

Once on a photo walk, I saw a well-known photographer take a shot, only to have three people stand right where he just stood and attempt the same shot as soon as he moved on. I roll my eyes and think of it as shot-poaching, but honestly, there’s not much to be done about it, and most of the time, it’s relatively harmless. 

The Facebook group discussion eventually petered out, with most commenters maintaining their original stance, as so often seems to be the case, and with Photographer A feeling justified in their choice to photograph the cyclist. It wasn’t the first time this type of question was posed in this kind of setting, and it almost certainly won't be the last, because ultimately, these scenarios largely come down to one’s own opinion and intentions. Maybe imitation is the highest form of flattery, but it bears mentioning that there’s a little bit more to that commonly cited quote by Oscar Wilde, which serves to suggest that we try a little harder in the direction of originality: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Perhaps instead of standing shoulder to shoulder or mimicking a recently vacated perspective, we should all endeavor to find something a bit more original that we can call our own.

What do you think? Have you experienced another photographer poaching your scene? Are you a shot poacher? Sound off in the comments!

Lead image by See-ming Lee (SML), used under Creative Commons.

Jordana Wright's picture

For over a decade Jordana has been a professional photographer and photography educator. In 2018 she published "The Enthusiast's Guide to Travel Photography" with Rocky Nook Inc. Check out "Focused On Travel", her online educational photography and travel series on her YouTube page!

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Photographing a famous scene is like practicing and honing your skill. It’s probably not going to have much artistic merit unless you find a new way of doing it.

And that’s it. Simple.

On the topic of shooting a model another photographer has arranged. While you may be ok photographing the model as a third party, publishing it is another story. Probably that depends a lot on local country by country laws. But without a model release (which the third party does not have) they will have a hard time legally posting that to your IG.

It's not really that simple. You don't need a model release for editorial use which could be argued. They are't selling it in that case so easier to argue. Also it depends on if the cyclist is recognizable. As a side note I don't see anything in Instagram terms on model releases at all. My belief is that to use them you are agreeing to hold them harmless when you sign up and you are on your own if someone sues.

Was it a crappy thing to do? IMO yea. Bad form.

A scene is fine because two people taking a photo even from the exact same spot will NOT be the same. Taking a shot of a "model" as another photographer is taking their photo I think is crass. Imagine you posing for a friend and as you do, a stranger comes up behind and takes the same photo of you. That's rude. Maybe the two of you (or they) spent a long time discussing the shot beforehand.

I kind of follow an unwritten rule now, if a load of people are stood there shooting a scene I’ll turn around and walk somewhere else to find another subject. I shoot with my girlfriend quite often and we manage to get completely different shots whilst walking around together so I don’t see an issue in the same applying for other photographers too.

There's merit to "shot-poaching". Taking the same shot after a more experienced photographer, or one of a different genre, is a way to learn. It is often difficult to see what caught their eye unless you shoot from their perspective. Whether or not you immediately understand why they took that shot, reviewing the imitations later is worthwhile.

I mostly shoot with strobes so I look at things in a particular way when out and about. I like dogs, don't have one, but think dogs are cute and take any chance to photograph them. (And pet them. Petting is good.) I do the standard eye-level shots with interesting framing. Though flopping completely on the ground and using a wide-angle or telephoto lens and playing with the perspective of pooch to person didn't occur to me until I started going on nature trail walks with a friend. He does it all the time with mean-ass geese and structures or people walking by the lake off in the distance. I've seen those types of shots before; everyone has. In doing them I'm now more likely to get my clothes dirty to get a good one. This type of shot-poaching expanded my eye.

Shooting someone else’s model is not flattery, imitation or anything else. It is an move that I cannot describe without using words that violate TOS. When Herbs Ritts was shooting agency models on his rooftop or the beach and a guy with a camera thought he would take pictures of the supermodel, Ritts had his assistants use reflectors to aim the sun into the intruder’s camera. Is photographer A going top pay the model’s rate? A is not only infringing on photographer B but also the model who is not working for free and did not give photographer A permission or sign their model release.

Regarding sunrise, sunset and other landscape or public street scenes. No photographer owns them however I have given shit to jerks who jump in front of my tripod with an expensive camera and pro lenses on it, especially if they are shooting with a smart phone. Seeing a photographer who knows what they are doing and is choosing an interesting vantage point and being inspired to copy is fine so long as you do jump in front of their vantage point. That is just plain rude.

Photographers that rip off the images of contemporary photographers without permission or credit, such as Tyler Sheilds, are stealing other’s intellectual property.

Well I can't claim a landscape as my own, so if someone else wants to take a shot from my location (or close to) I can't stop them. But.... it's often far more the way others act that is the problem in my eyes.

In my case, it was in Iceland. I was shooting icebergs and a mountain. Sitting on the edge of a lagoon, tripod and everything set up. Taking my shots, 3 tourists walk by. They sit down about 1 meters behind me (personal space is not a thing I guess) and one says "excuse!! you move now!"... uuuuuhm.. WHAT?! I obviously told them that I was busy and was still taking pictures, which did not seem like a reply that they liked. The only thing that probably prevented them from just walking into my shot and setting up shop in front of me was the freezing water ahead of me of the lagoon.

Similar things happened at the crashed DC3 on the beach in Iceland. I had 2 tourist come to my location (again, tripod and everything setup), they look, they take a quick shot of the plane from my location with their phone and just walk into my frame to head back to the plane.. A little later I was taking closeup shots of the plane. Apparently I stepped into their frame, and instantly the same tourist that were more than happy to fill my frame "Excuse!! you move! move please!"..
mmmm let me think about that one..

I have no objection against taking the same shot as other photographers, especially not at large tourist locations or landscapes. (models are obviously a different story).
but....... behave....

Such a good article and great comments. I appreciate this post!

Coming up behind someone and photographing their model is rude, plain and simple. I would have told him to fuck right off tbh. Would you come up behind someone at a restaurant and eat off their plate because it looked good? No, get your own damn food and models.
Maybe if A engaged in conversation and asked to join in it would be different, but he butted in like a jackass and then berated the person with the model for stealing his shots? I just don't understand this mindset at all, reeks of entitlement and narcissism.

"A random tourist kneels right in front of my camera, because tourist."

I am sure Adobe has a healing-band aid-AI fix or something for those cases.