Trade Secrets: How Much Knowledge Are Photographers Obligated to Share?

Trade Secrets: How Much Knowledge Are Photographers Obligated to Share?

Trade secrets exist in every industry known to man. In most industries, trade secrets are common, expected, and understood. No one gets all bent out of shape about Coca-Cola keeping their formula a mystery. No one stops using Google because they don't share their search algorithm. Without these secrets, a vast number of companies wouldn't even exist. The whole primus of having a trade secret is having the ability to do or create something no one else can recreate. With that being said, are we as photographers allowed to have trade secrets or are we obligated to share our knowledge with everyone?

Sharing Is Caring

The photography community is known for being open to sharing. There are thousands upon thousands of tutorials, how-to's, and step-by-step guides all over the internet. I absolutely love that about our industry, however I have noticed there is a great deal of backlash when someone doesn't want to share.

I partake in a few photography based groups on Facebook and other social media sites. Most of them are are all centered around the same idea: People share their work then other people offer constructive criticism, shower them with praise, or verbally tear them apart. It's the nature of the beast, but it serves its purpose. From time to time I will see an amazing image that really gets people talking. It is usually these images that stir up the "how did you" comments. For the most part, people are very open to sharing their camera settings, their lighting setups, or even their post-processing. But when someone doesn't "give away the milk for free," the tone of the thread can shift in a very negative direction. I think the fact that the photography community is driven so much by sharing and free advice that it sometimes causes us to feel entitled. It seems as though many people think it's selfish to keep any knowledge to yourself. Why is this the case? Is it wrong for us keep secrets? For many of us, this whole photography shindig is a business. Is keeping secrets what we have spent hours, weeks, or even years to develop wrong? Is it our civic duty to the photography universe to educate our "competition" on how we are gaining the business we are getting? Where does the line begin and end, or is there even a line at all?

My Point Of View

This topic takes me back to the early years of my photographic journey. When I discovered Dave Hill, I was mesmerized by his work. His post-processing blew my mind. I barely understood how to work my camera, so I didn't even know where to begin. I started finding different articles and video tutorials on how to create the "Dave Hill Effect." I watched tutorial after tutorial. Some of them were decent at best and some of them were awful and left me feeling like I had wasted ten minutes of my life. No matter how many of them I watched, one thing remained the same. None of them were actually created by Hill. I remember feeling let down and discouraged that I could never find any information about his personal techniques. All I wanted was for Hill to tell me his secrets so I could create images just like him. Looking back now, however, I am so glad I never found what I was hoping for. The reason being, I was forced to figure things out for myself. I started taking bits and pieces of different tutorials and trying them out. I would mix one technique with another. I would mix a lighting technique I learned from one source with post-processing from another. I would play with different plug-ins, blending modes, layer mask, a little of this, and a little of that. Eventually, without even realizing, I had created something unique. I had developed my own style (a style still evolving I might add). I had found something that worked for me and set me apart. I had found me.

I knew there would come a day when people would start asking me how I "do what I do." To be honest, I welcome questions and I am open to sharing knowledge and advice on general questions about photography. I write tutorials on a regular basis for magazines such as "Advanced Photoshop Magazine." I have always thought that it is better to look at other photographers as friends rather than competition. I love sharing information and helping photographers grow and reach their potential. The only questions that ever really bother me are ones where people basically ask me for a step-by-step guide to creating my images. That is just something I don't want to do. The biggest reason is the simple fact that I'm not trying to make carbon copies of myself. I honestly feel people should put work into developing their own style. Though there may be other photographers out there whose style may resemble my style, I can guarantee that I am the only person in the world who creates images using the steps that I do. I think that is a beautiful thing!

What Are Your Thoughts?

There are a lot of extremely talented photographers out there who absolutely love sharing their knowledge. Von Wong, Aaron Nace, Joel Grimes, Calvin Hollywood, and many others like them put out some amazing free tutorials. The way I look at it is if someone wants to share what they know, then that is amazing and we should be thankful and grateful. On the flip side, I think we should respect when photographers have certain things they want to keep to themselves. I don't think there is anything wrong with having a few tricks up our sleeves, but that is just my opinion of course.

What are your thoughts? Are we allowed to have "trade secrets" or should everything be shared? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter. As always, thanks for reading.

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86 Comments

Mujtaba Sayed's picture

I really believe that with the abundance of tutorials out there, that nearly any technique can be learned, and a technique alone can't determine a photographers style, vision is so much more important.

I don't think vision, from the paying public, is appreciated as much as it used to be.

Mujtaba Sayed's picture

Unfortunately thats probably true, but business skills seem to be more important than photographic skills, granted you have a grasp of the basics of creating an image.

Brandon Cawood's picture

That's very true

It isn't just related to photography. Young people, especially, today feel entitled to many things they shouldn't feel entitled to. It explains why so many of them are OK with stealing music, TV shows, and movies.

I think any active professional photographer that shares his techniques is naive and foolish. No sane businessperson would give away their trade secrets. Give it away when you no longer care about it or need to earn a living from it, but not when you are trying to run a money making business.

I think most active professional photographer shouldn't have to worry. If you're always booked and choose your clients, another client isn't going to steal your jobs because you showed what goes on behind the scene.

If someone is looking for the information. They'll figure it out. If you want to keep the selfish lenses on, just look at the recognition you get from it. Just look at Von Wong, Michael Woloszynowicz they're smart and have the chops. Their careers grew insanely fast because they were putting the information out there and got respect and recognition from inside the industry which seems to be giving them lots of opportunities (including selling educational material). Established photographers like Vincent Laforet, Chase Jarvis, Zack Arias and David Hobby seem to have gotten a lot more recognition (hopefully opportunities that go along with it) as a result of putting info online.

It has nothing to do with being selfish. Unless you are running a charity then business is about earning a living. You don't help your business by helping your competitors, especially within your own city, if you are local.

If your business is helping other photographers then clearly my words don't apply to you, but that's not the business of most photographers.

Most people are "looking for the information" and never find it.

My experience is absolutely the opposite, I have never bean afraid of sharing my skills/techniques with other photographers and other in the business. It has always paid off in terms of goodwill or karma in the long run. If you share the technique you are only helping the profession and then what is important is the visual language or style that you are the only one to contribute with. I think the none sharing is actually slightly selfish since it will not advance the art of photography and also the clients and viewers skill in making a qualified decision. I tend to say to people that everything g has been done before its just not done by you before and that is what counts, your view, your language and artistic vision. Not everything about being a professional photographer is about the business.

I'm going to just say it, but a good chunk of those guys are not just sharing information out of the kindness of their hearts. Its part of their business model, they are doing it to make a profit, either directly through tutorial sales/workshops or as indirect marketing.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

100% on point. Some of the really popular speakers / "photographers" just teach all the time. It's easier to sell the dream than to work for it. I met one of those "sharing" photographers & they said they spoke 50 times the prior year! 50 times!!!!!!!!! That's nearly once a week. If you're speaking/teaching that much, you're not a photographer, you're a teacher. I'm not hating at all, more power to you. I got nothing but love for anyone getting money. But just be honest and don't pass yourself off as a world class photographer. You're a world class teacher which is a great thing too.

With that being said, I don't mind sharing. The only problem is that it's time consuming to either make a video, write out a blog post, or reply to e-mails. I remember I made the mistake of thoroughly responding to an email asking me how I did what I did and I didn't even get a thank you back.

Brandon Cawood's picture

That is true but they also used created a source o income from sharing. I eventually plan to do workshops where I will share more about what I do and know. Thanks for your thoughts!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Chris, even if you don't share things, people still copy. Just look at how much Jill Greenberg was and is copied. No one gets hired just on technique alone. That's just a SMALL part of the process of photography. Go look at a magazine stand & look at all the covers, 95% of those covers can shot by an average photographer. It's nothing breakthrough or stunning most of the time. In fact, it usually something really basic like 1 light and white background (look at Rolling Stones & Men's Health covers). You also have to be good with dealing with people, problem solving on the fly, marketing yourself & be able to pull an emotion out of your subject. Techniques can easily be replicated and reproduced over and over. Concepts and ideas can't, because those come from your mind. Not sure what kind of photography you do but I've spoken with photo editors in great length on their process for hiring a photographer. And the work they do is only a fraction on the deciding process.

cheers!
-Alexis

I have no idea who that person is? Why would you think I would?

People trying to copy a look and actually being able to, are two different things. Even if eventually they could, why would I help them? There is no logical reason to do so.

I also disagree on your claim that "techniques can easily be replicated and reproduced." The market for tutorials, plugins, and other image editing software, besides Photoshop, should be a clue to that.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Chris, you have no idea "what that person is"?? Are you referring to Jill Greenberg? I just stated her as an example because she doesn't do tutorials but was and is copied a lot.

If you look at the market for tutorials, plugins, and other image editing software as you stated it's mostly basic techniques they are selling, just packaged really nice or with some new hot shot, smooth talking photographer. The principles of art haven't changed much if any at all, just the medium switched to digital in the case of photography & video. Also, A LOT of things are available to everyone for free, but [the majority of] people are just too lazy to look them up or do the research themselves. Or they just don't want to take the time to read up on it.

Copying a look & doing it are the same thing if the end visual results are the same regardless how you got there. If you talk to anyone who knows a lot about lighting and/or knows their craft really well, they can easily replicate & reproduce anything they see or anyone's work. But why would that? If you know your craft well you want to spend time executing your own vision. The reason why there's such a large market for tutorials as you stated is b/c a lot of people don't know their craft really well, or don't want to take the time to learn, or they are sold by really good marketing. Everyone wants to learn fast and find shortcuts, and when you package it really fancy and slap the words "secretes to ________" , you have a large market of potential buyers.

Again, I'm not sure at all as to what field of photography you're in b/c you're portfolio is not linked to your profile. But for advertising and editorial jobs, even, retail photography (e.g. weddings, senior portraits) you're rarely hired on your technique. In fact, there's plenty of full time assistants out there who are much more knowledgeable about lighting then photographers they assists, but you don't see them booking jobs or taking any work away from photographers. That's because lighting or technique is just a small part to being a photographer. You don't see every single person that assisted Annie Leibovitz becoming the next big photographer even though they see her work & her technique. Even Martin Schoeller who assisted her and is one of the biggest editorial & advertising photographers today has a vastly different style than her.

Everyone is certainly entitled to their own beliefs and how they go about things. Having the mindset of "why would I help them? There is no logical reason to do so." is something you have every right to believe and practice your lifestyle in that manner. And for people who think the opposite, they have every right believe that as well. Both ways of thinking will take your career and life certain places. There's no right or wrong answer and it's a personal choice.

cheers!
-Alexis

I said I have no idea "*who* that person is." You quoted me wrong.

No, I don't know who she is. I'm also not a fan of the idea of tossing out names in any profession as if others should be expected to know who such people are. The arts are really bad for that.

As you said, people are too lazy. I will not help them along by being their crutch.

I said "*trying* to copy a look." You misread me again.

A person that "can easily replicate & reproduce anything they see or anyone's work" clearly wouldn't represent the average photographer, professionals included. That said, and as I said, I would not help anyone in the process of trying to copy me while I'm still trying to earn a living from applying that information. No sane person would.

I wasn't talking from the perspective of someone trying to sell tutorials. If someone wants to do that, that's fine. But it has nothing to do with what I wrote.

You often don't see talented and deserving photographers getting jobs and recognition because like in all of the arts, unfortunately, you are dealing with a lot of snobby, cliquey, phony, mean spirited, and nowhere near as openminded, people as they like to portray themselves as.

I don't earn a living from photography; I'm retired.

I never said or suggested a photographer doesn't have a right to do whatever he wants in regards to running his business. I addressed something specific, someone *applying* a certain knowledge as their business, not someone being in the business of *selling* that knowledge. Those are two different things.

No, it is "right" to not give away trade secrets when you are in business. No for-profit business does that without at least getting something in return. For example, technology transfers between technology companies, or a sharing of patents. A person that makes a living selling photo editing tutorials is clearly not in the same business as most photographers.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi Chris,
I'm trying to understand and get your point of you. What you are saying is anyone still shooting shouldn't teach and share any information or their way of doing business/"trade secretes"? and if they do, then they are "naive and foolish".. and only those who are no longer making a living from their craft should share how they did things?

"I never said or suggested a photographer doesn't have a right to do whatever he wants in regards to running his business." btw, I never said you said that. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

Everything I said was very clearly written and simply explained.

You wrote: "And for people who think the opposite, they have every right believe that as well." There was no point in writing such a thing based on what I have said. My response made sense; your response did not. That's all.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

I wasn't stating that to argue. Sorry if it didn't make sense to you.

cheers,
-Alexis

I didn't say you did. I was merely correcting you.

Dan Ostergren's picture

If you disagree with Chris, there is no debating with him. Just give it up dude.

Why not be respectful and adult about the matter and allow people to think for themselves, rather than trying to stir up juvenille trouble by trying to get others to ostracize posters simply because you obviously have a petty issue with them?

Dan Ostergren's picture

I'm simply commenting based on what I've observed in your responses here, as well as in trying to have discussion with you prior to this, and seeing how you debate with others as well. You refuse to acknowledge that you could ever be wrong, or that your view on something is simply an opinion and not fact. You're condescending toward those who don't agree with you and and look for minute reasons to discredit their personal opinions, and act as if you and those who agree with you are the only ones who could ever be right. Just my observation, but in my experience it's impossible to have a discussion or debate with you without you having to be right about the topic at hand and for you not to be highly condescending about it.

No, you are being a troublemaker by posting such nonsense. It's the kind of behavior you see in the worse of forums, where people not only flame and ostracize, but encourage others to do the same.

You are letting cynicism, obsession, and an intolerance of others having a different point of view, get in the way of reason, maturity, respect, and discourse befitting any respectful forum and web site.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Strange, because I feel the exact same way about the way you behave here.

And you would have no logical reason to do so.

I'm not the one trying to convince others to ostracize people on this site, you are! Last post. I reported you already.

Dan Ostergren's picture

Just like you, I'm free to have these views. Like I said, I'm simply responding to the nature of which you interact here.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi Daniel, thanks for the reply. I was just trying to understand his point of view and be understanding... and now he just voted down every single one of my comments. Guess I offended him? I wasn't trying to debate but somehow it turned into me being incorrect & unclear. None the less, I'm not debating w/ anyone or attempting to.

cheers!
-Alexis

David Vaughn's picture

You seem fun.

Jon Clayton's picture

lol, just what I was thinking!

This isn't YouTube guys.