Photo: Water flowing over granite rocks in Cascade Creek, Yosemite National Park, California

Whose image is it anyway? When does inspiration or imitation of a landscape photo cross the line or go too far?

Photo Above: Water flowing over granite rocks in Cascade Creek, Yosemite National Park, California

Recently a few things came up that makes me ask if or when does the idea of copying someone else’s photo go too far, or is it just a form of flattery derived from a source of inspiration via the route of imitation? In the commercial photography world, this can have an impact in real dollars and sense (yes, that’s the word I meant to use), especially if you get caught deliberately copying someone else’s work. This was brought up in a recent article on PetaPixel, When someone copies your photo for Commercial Purposes, where the question was raised whether someone who (may have) copied many elements of a photo went so far as to push the boundaries of what’s right and permissible or was it a violation of the original photographer’s copyright? When there are things like models, props, studio lights, camera angles, etc., that gives the court leeway in deciding what elements of an image are protected expressions of copyright. There is a poll on this article where more than 2/3rds or the respondents felt what was done was unethical.

But the line seems to gray a bit in the world of landscape photography, although it’s not limited to this particular genre. Photographers often see so many great shots taken in great locations with great subjects, great lighting, and great composition. It seems to be a natural part of the learning curve to copy and build upon what has been done before. Now it’s almost expected that when someone gets a great shot, posts it on social media sites where it garners lots of ‘Likes’ that people will be inspired by, and want to get their own version of that same shot. But this goes beyond just going to the same place and then taking your own shot. It’s trying to get the *exact same shot* – with similar angles, composition, and lighting. So if you go to extremes to make such an exacting copy, have you crossed a line, and is the resulting image really yours, is it the person’s who originally shot it, or is it in some nebulous in-between landscape? When, if at all, does imitation due to inspiration go too far? Is there an acceptable line, or is there a point where someone can go too far, or does the ‘nature’ of landscape photography negate that line?

This week, the middle of February is a time when it seems hundreds of photographers now head to Yosemite Valley to get their own version of a shot famously captured by my old boss, Galen Rowell, in his iconic image, Last Light on Horsetail Falls. Weather conditions dictate the variability of this phenomenon from year to year. While thousands of photographers may have been first inspired by Galen’s shot or the subsequent thousands that now fill social media newsfeeds every year, very few are probably standing there with a copy of Galen’s image trying to exactly recreate his shot verbatim. Even when someone comes up with a remarkably similar shot taken in nature, there’s always a reason to believe someone else could come up with a similar composition on their own. But I’ve also known photographers who’ve taken books out in the field to make an exacting, or as close to a complete copy of someone else’s image. So again I ask, where’s the line? Is there one? (Image: Horsetail Falls by Steve Corey; CC BY-NC 2.0)

The featured image above is a great personal example of this quandary when just today I saw a similar image in my Facebook newsfeed posted by Charlie Cramer – and I was immediately struck by just how similar they were. Now to be fair, I’ve seen Charlie’s version of this image dozens of times, including at the Yosemite Gallery, as well as those by several other fellow professional photographers. (Edit: To be fair, ‘Dozens of times’ is an overstatement. Let’s just say I’d need more than one hand but less than three hands to count.)

I actually included my image among My Favorite Landscapes of 2016.  I’d shot Cascade Creek a number of other times from different vantage points, but on this occasion, I leaned over a rail at a certain point, pointed my trust Nikon D800 camera with my 24-70 f/2.8 lens, and framed up a quick shot. A quick glance at the LCD immediately felt ‘familiar’ — like in an “I know this shot” sort of way. I then proceeded to bracket my exposures to have various shutter speeds so as to have a varying effect on the motion and texture of the moving water. When I got home, I picked my favorite shot and processed it the way I would with any other shots, without any direct comparison or reference to Charlie’s shot. And yet I remain struck by the similarties. It makes me wonder about the depths at which subconscious memories or inspiration played in this since I didn’t set out to make a direct imitation. Yet still – there it is, and looking at them… I wonder, is this *my* shot, is it Charlie’s shot – but taken by me, or are these simply our own respective shots? I guess the real question is, once I looked at my camera LCD and had that ‘familiar feeling’ – should I have then decided not to take the photo, or was I Ok to go ahead and make my own version?

My own personal feeling is that it’s in that muddled gray area. Yes, it’s my shot; but in a way, it’s also Charlie’s. He obviously shot his many years ago, and I’ve seen it numerous times before. I like this shot. I’m proud to have it in my collection, but in reality, I just don’t feel quite the same personal or professional attachment to it as I do with many other shots. So… I’m curious, what are your thoughts; whose shot is it? Is it an ethical shot with mere inspiration caused by another photographer’s work, or is it an unethical copy because it crossed some invisible line?

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Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.

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Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • Richard Wong says:

    Landscape photography is primarily a “found” subject so unless there is deliberate treatment to the presentation I don’t see how anyone can really stake a claim to a specific composition.

  • Guy Tal says:

    I think it is ironic that most people who refer to Oscar Wilde’s observation on imitation and flattery conveniently ignore the latter part of it (the full sentence reads: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” In the end, the greatest victim of (deliberate) copying is the person making the copy. Not only do they concede that their own creative skills are inferior to the original, but they also forfeit all the inner rewards of discovery and creative expression.

  • Kyle Jones says:

    I don’t have an ethical problem with people trying to copy compositions. As Richard noted above, the landscape is there to be shot. Frankly some compositions seem to create themselves.

    I may be inspired by someone else’s image, often that’s what encourages me to make the effort to visit an area, but I do try to avoid studying them too closely. In the end, I feel less proud of something that I feel comes too close to copying.

    • Why can compositions create themselves and I am still waiting for my espresso to make itself? ;o)
      You feel less proud and yet you have no ethical problem… maybe you should study things more closely. In fact I find I learn a lot with studying other people’s work closely, it is a visual solution that they created to make a new photograph. But I do not have and will not copy it (unless for myself as “apprenticeship”… and keep it to myself), it is just a visual solution that I have in my tool box and that I can associate to others I already know (either because I saw them or created them), to become a better, more creative, more sophisticated photographer (I do not have to spend my life re-inventing the wheel when it has been done, I just try to improve it if I can; if I cannot I leave it alone or at least do not claim it as mine… there is the ethical problem: claiming something as yours which is not [there are even laws against that… so many others than me have acknowledged it IS an ethical problem (as well as a commercial one for the ones that care more about dollars and cents than ethics, it will also kill them in the end).

  • Diane Barros says:

    I personally love Landscape with all its beauty, different colors, so natural, it’s there to be photographed. How many times do you think a person has read and studied Ansel Adams photographs, and were determined to replicate them. I do not believe that no two pictures are alike. I am a true fan of Ansel he was my inspiration, I have been to Yosemite many times, and spent hours photographing its natural beauty, however, the images were a part of me, the way I saw and wanted to capture. I may love Ansel’s work, but what good is having copied someone else’s image, how could I be proud of my image. Everyone sees an image in different ways which makes them unique.

  • Vince Kranz says:

    Copying is part of the learning process in photography as well as other forms of art and life. Where a photographer may cross the line is if they try to pass off the copy as original. I guess its possible for people to see the same image in their minds eye and want to capture it with their camera without realizing the image may be a virtual copy of something the’ve studied in the course of their development as a photographer. I know I study others images to learn composition and identify areas to visit so I can capture my own version of what others see. I think landscape photography is one of the genres of photography that is susceptible to copying, but whether it is copying or influence is only in the mind of the photographer.

  • Ced Bennett says:

    I suspect, whether it is okay or not is related to intent. There are examples from other art-forms for which deliberately copying something is simply part of the learning process. For instance, those learning to paint will often copy other works as a part of their training. On the other hand, copying something with the intent to claim the result as something original and their own creation is at least immoral and possibly illegal,

  • Monica says:

    Copying an image with computer technology and actively taking a similar photograph of the same scene or subject matter are two totally different things. I have had similar questions come to my mind when photographing famous sites in Ithaca, NY. Thankfully I am not a professional photographer where I would need to be concerned about infringing on any ones copy rights. When I see the potential of creating a similar image , I then try to look at the same site from a different perspective, from a different angle, and maybe even a different time of day with different light. These are my own creations, with my own thoughts and feelings becoming imbued into an original image captured on paper. If they remind the viewer of similar images they have seen from another photographer, then it may be a message to the viewer … … Go to that site and become inspired.

  • A nice article, Gary. I’m not entirely sure where I stand which is ok. Gives me something to think about.

  • Richard Cofrancesco says:

    I found your blog about being ethical interesting but I find it hard to defend someone stealing a image because they took it from the same spot as you or me. Point is most iconic photos i. e. Yosemite, Grand cannon, Big Sur have been photographed by the likes of Watkins, Adams, Rowell etc. that so many photographers almost stand in the very spot as them to capture a image. If someone copy’s another composition and try’s to sell it to the same magazine, ad agency etc. then I think that crosses the line.

  • I have a kind of funny story about the Cascade Creek twin rocks scene. I’ve photographed from that location, too — who hasn’t!? A few years ago I began calling that little tree “Charlie’s Tree,” since I had first seen it in my friend Charlie Cramer’s photograph of the scene. I made a decision to _not_ photograph it, instead finding other subjects in that spot, since I sort of felt it was a bit too obvious for me to photograph that exact same thing.

    A bit later a print of mine (not this subject) was in the annual Yosemite Renaissance exhibit, and there was a beautiful Bill Neill print of the same tree and rocks. I loved it, too, as much as Charlie’s version. I mentioned something about this online somewhere. If I recall correctly I said something along the lines of “I always thought of it as Charlie’s tree.” Next thing, I hear (again, I hope I have this story right) that Alan Ross had photographed it even earlier!

    Now I no longer know whose tree it is!

    Or was. The tree on the rocks was apparently washed away this winter. Farewell, brave little tree!

    But beyond that, the fact of being influenced by someone else’s photography or even specific photograph raises lots of interesting questions. As you point out, some photographers (especially early on) actually aspire to _duplicate_ the photographs of those who came before. Many of us feel that while this can be a useful learning tool that it has little value if one is aiming at some kind of personal esthetic expression through one’s work.

    At the opposite extreme are those who imagine that it is possible to be utterly original and unique in all ways, with a vision the is purely one’s own and unaffected by anyone else’s work. I happen to believe that this is, in fact, impossible. We have all seen — and cannot unsee — a lifetime of visual imagery, and we draw on that every time we look at and photograph the world.

    What we can do — and I think should try to do at some level — is find our own way of seeing the world photographically. In fact, when I look at your photograph of this scene and think of those by Bill and Charlie, while the connection to subject is obvious, none of the photographs actually looks exactly like the others.


    Have you seen the humorous take on this that one of Charlie’s friends created? If not, I’ll share.

  • Didier Verstichel says:

    I recently bought the ebook “Photograph Like a Thief”, available on Rocky Nook.

    It promotes imitation and inspiration as a way of creating great image. As photographer, we all (at least most of us, I think) aspire at developing our own style., which is not easy. Imitating famous photographers may be part of that process as it helps us to learn how to look better.

    • Yes but in that case it should be kept private, for the photographer’s own growth, and never shown unless for comparison, and definitely not advertised as original (that is where and when the ethical line is often crossed. The “if it sells, it is good enough” or “my friends like it” is missing an opportunity to educate your audience and relinquishing an opportunity to grow beyond what is known or has been done. Monkeys seem to photograph too but accidents or copies advertised as originals are just lazy and low and both the photographer and the audience lose.

  • Greg Russell says:

    I enjoyed this article, as well as the comments that followed, Gary. I agree with Guy’s comment in that the “robber” is really depriving themselves one of the great joys in creativity when they copy someone else’s image.

    Early in my photography career, I chased the icons, mostly because–as you stated–I wanted my own shots of them (even though today I don’t really believe they were my own at all), but also to hone my technical skills, learn to recognize different types of light and to learn about my own shooting preferences. As my skills developed so did my ability to see.

    Two stories, both from Joshua Tree. A few years ago, I was walking around the Jumbo Rocks area one afternoon without my camera looking for new compositions, and mostly just to walk. I met a photographer near a very well known composition of a few rocks who had actually printed someone else’s photo off the internet and was using it to compose his shot. We talked for a minute and he said he was getting “stock images.” I smiled, and kept on walking.

    Again, a few years ago, I spent a night in Joshua Tree and made a star trail image at the well-known Arch Rock. I had never seen one like it, but had seen many images of Arch Rock. I figured that since I had the night I’d mess around with some star trails. Fast forward a few months, I picked up a copy of one of Art Wolfe’s books, and what did I see in it? Almost my exact star trail composition of Arch Rock. Damn. I guess, that a corollary of robbing yourself of the creative experience, you can also say that there are no original images to be made of the icons. But that’s probably for a different blog post.

    Great article, thanks for the read!

  • Justin Black says:

    My thoughts on this are that while there is nothing particularly unethical about simply making a landscape picture that is a rough knock-off of a picture that the photographer has seen before, it isn’t anything to get excited about either. Inexperienced photographers who are learning composition, craft, and technique can benefit from understanding how the photographs they admire were made, so I suppose that to that extent copying the work of those who have gone before can be educational. The point of doing so, however, should be to apply what is learned to the photographer’s own original photographs, and not to make knock-offs to present to the world as one’s own best work.

    Personally, I seek to make only original images, and I would never include an image in my portfolio if I were aware that it is knock-off of a photographer who had made essentially the same image before me. There are too many original images to be made to bother putting my name on knock-offs.

    Beyond that, true copies made with the intent to exactly duplicate another artist’s copyrighted work (particularly to be exploited commercially) are simply copyright infringements, but in the case of nature photography, it seems to me that a rather extraordinary set of conditions would need to coincide in order to rise to the level of demonstrable and legally enforceable infringement.

  • Ron Calvert says:

    If you capture a moment in time at a location then that moment is gone and the next person may do the same thing at a different moment in time. I have gone to places and have captured images in locations that well known persons have also made an image. When comparing the images you see that the light has changed the plants have grown and other conditions have changed. When comparing the two images they are different.

  • The more I see this debate, which is certainly useful, and the further I go in photography, the more I intend to do something different in my work overall and in each image. Otherwise the work is not interesting to me, but more of an exercise. I tend to agree with Guy Tal in general, but also notice that close copies happen from time to time inadvertently. Among many, one reason I am now steering away from solely or even primarily making landscape photographs is that the excitement and interest has gone elsewhere in the medium. In the landscape genre, people are repeating the same clichés over and over to the extreme. How many nearly identical sunset photographs do we need in the world, even if they sell well to the uneducated public? Too many people too often are relying on the shock value of color alone. The further I go, the more I feel that you are either an original artist doing something unusual or not, period. All the excuses about learning, emulating, bla, bla, start to run together like a broken cassette speeding up just before it breaks. How about something new, for a change?

  • …All of that said, the great masters all borrowed from those who came before them. They took various elements, recombined them, certain subjects and presented them differently, twisted or reversed, rearranged, and many times by incorporating certain parts of what came before them, they gave tribute to their predecessors and mentors. This is very different from copying and just about anyone and everyone can tell the difference between the two right away.

  • […] When Does Inspiration Become Copying? – Enlight Photo […]

  • Paul Grecian says:

    I do think that there is a certain intellectual property aspect to the making of a photograph the same way there is in writing a poem or making a painting. To say that these images naturally exist in some form is to belie the human creative aspect of photography. No image exist naturally, nor do they just ask to be made. That’s not the negate the fact that as humans we have a shared sensitivity to a subject sometimes, but the first person who creates a piece has always been the owner once they have so declared (copyright). Didn’t Galen test this point? Can two almost exact images both be registered by different makers for copyright? It’s a very difficult subject, but it’s difficulty is mostly that we all think we have the commercial right to an image we make in nature or studio just because we made it, and regardless of whose idea that image really is. To work in a style is one thing, to re-create an image rather exactly and knowingly, certainly feels like thievery. It’s probably no less difficult a problem though than is the “sharing” of music.

    • Yes Paul. Legally There is a “certain intellectual property aspect to making a photograph” and it is strictly the same as the one making a problem or a pancake recipe, or a new technical improvement to a motor. It is acknowledge as such by international law (Berne) and so by people who have spent far more time on this issue than the two of us combined! ;o) And I think it all amounts to respect (for others, original photographer and audience included, and for oneself), and ethics often reinforced by law.

  • Hi Gary,
    Yes, there is a line between infringement and outright plagiarism, it is not such a gray zone though. Photographers usually know when they cross it, especially in landscape: getting in the right place in the Arches Nl Park to take that shot under one arch at the minute when sun rises. I am sick of that shot. What was an enjoyable image has become trite and even revolting because of unscrupulous, unethical, unimaginative and in the end stupid photographers. Yes one can take this shot, again, but should use it as training/apprenticeship (the way apprentices copied their masters) and never show it but to themselves (even that is arguable if it is not to study it and see what can belearnt from it). People taking that shot and advertising it, showing as theirs, not giving any credit are just a low type of unscrupulous lazy and unethical photographers shooting all others and themselves in the foot. It often done as a low ego-boosting or low commercial strategy: to sum it up, it is just low. But, in all cases… we probably get the audience we deserve.
    Thank you for your thoughts.
    [I am leaving my email but please no ad! Thank you]

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