Friday, August 21, 2009

Food For Thought Friday - Are You Stealing Your Material?

Good Morning Everybody,

The Vail Lodge Well, today we head out bright and early to fly into Denver Colorado and then on to Vail for my wedding celebration this weekend at the Lodge At Vail – a gorgeous location.

We've got about four days of shooting, but Sunday is the big day where we be cranking for about 12 hours at 8,000 feet shooting the wedding for some of my favorite clients.

This will be the fourth shoot for me with the family.  I photographed the Bar/Bat Mitzvahs of both children several years ago, and photographed the daughter's wedding just a few years ago.  This weekend I am photographing the  son's wedding.  Vail is one of their most favorite places in the country.  I was thrilled to get the call to shoot the event for the them. 

Anyway, I'll fill you in on Monday. Hey, let's get on with today's post. Here we go...

Food For Thought Friday - Are You Stealing Your Material?

Last Friday I posted a piece about how to be a good student when attending seminars, workshops, and classes. I thought it would have generated a bit more "comment" activity. Thanks to those who did comment, I always appreciate hearing your thoughts and insights.  Maybe the article was too long to read, but I felt strongly about it and thought it was an important post.  If you want to give it a quick read, you can find it right here.

Theif2 - iStock_000004755173XSmall Anyway, what I learned that week with Rocky Gunn was not the end of the story.  Here is the rest of the story. During that week, we had a beautiful couple who was posing for us or rather Rocky. Each of the class was going to receive Rocky's top 50 images for the week.  That was like a really BIG thing - we got a chance to take a bit of Rocky home with us so we could study his images, refresh our memories and eventually take our own photography to the next level. 

Sure, everybody was shooting over Rocky's shoulder to try to capture the shot. Everybody had their cameras blazing taking photographs of the couple. I remember at one point Rocky found a spectacular location, posed the bride and groom into a beautiful composition.  Next, he grabbed a 40mm Distagon lens super wide angle lens and placed it on his Hasselblad.

Wow! In my camera bag I had the identical lens - a $6000 optic that only a few photogs even owned. I quickly attached it to my camera. I watched how Rocky framed the shot. I framed the image identically and I took the shot. I thought, “Wow that shot will make a great sample print for me when I get home.”

Here is the rest of the story. After getting back home, I couldn't wait to get my film off to the lab.  It would only be a few weeks till I got the proofs back I was able to see my results.

Anyway, they finally arrived and I started looking through MY (emphasis on purpose)  images.  There was – the shot – the most beautiful shot that Rocky had done all week. Yes, I was holding a nearly perfect replica of Rocky's gorgeous shot in my hands that I had taken! 

My intent was to have this negative enlarged to a 30” x 40” photograph, frame it, and hang it in my studio as the example of MY (emphasis again) work. Don't ask me exactly what happened at this point. Maybe it was my photographic guardian angel sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear saying, "But David you didn't take that shot.  Rocky set it up and you copied the shot. It wasn't your original creative thought. Why do you think making a large wall sized portrait is representative of your work - it's not.  It's still Rocky's shot!"

Well, the words my little photographic guardian angel in my head hit me in a profound way.  It was at that moment that I realized that I had indeed copied the shot. It wasn't my original idea or composition. It was not my shot at all.

I quietly reinserted the negative back into the negative glassine and placed it back into the envelope with all the negatives from the week. I never printed any of those negatives up for samples. They were filed away. And to this day I have no clue where those negatives are.

If I had decided to make up the samples, I would have been stealing - I guess the correct term is plagiarizing Rocky's work.  What credit is that to my own creativity and ability as a wedding photographer - the answer is none. What was important to me that special week was that I learned what Rocky was doing. I was able to take his lessons and let them mix with my own creative juices.  That combination of creativity has allowed me to create an image that I could call uniquely my own.

There are lots of students out there shooting over the Masters shoulders.  Many students think they are there for the Master to set up the images so they can shoot the shot  to what - call it their own for their "portfolio" images. Folks, nothing could be more unethical. 

It's not about copying the work of the Master.  It's about learning the techniques from the Master, blending and mixing them with your own creative processes, and then truly producing an original work on your own. 

My best advice to every "student" reading this is to, with the teachers permission, time sync your camera to his/her camera and shoot wide-angle overall views of whatever they are doing. In my classes, I always give the students a class CD with all the my favorite images I shot from the week. Their time synced overviews with my favorite shots gives them a wonderful learning tool whereby then can revisit the week anytime they want and study any of the shots I've put together.

What an efficient way to ramp up learning if indeed you are trying to emulate the work of somebody you truly admire in the profession. When I was attending classes - back in the film days, we never had that kind of luxury. In today's digital world, every student today has the luxury of learning more quickly, the ability to fine-tune our techniques, and become a much better photographers in your own right if you make the effort.

It's not about copying the master, it's about you becoming a master.

Food for thought--

Hey gang, we've got a plane to catch bright and early today.  We land in Denver about 10 a.m. and then head to Vail for Sunday's wedding. I hope the snow pixels are ready to boogie this weekend!  I can't wait to get there and get shooting.  I'll keep you posted on how things went next week.  Until then, have a wonderful weekend and I'll see ya' on Monday.  -David


  1. Thank you David for this blog. I am so glad that you have highlighted listening to that inner whisper, the conscience. It's so important to be reminded of this, especially as most pro trainers, that I have come across, tend to focus largely on 'making money' and rarely talk about the ethical side of the photography business. Thank you also for sharing your skills with us. I have learnt a lot from your blogs and techniques and am grateful to you.

  2. David -

    I think we all look to better ourselves by looking at images online, in books, at seminars. The ideas may come from someone else, but we're still the ones doing the composition and taking th picture. So I don't think that is stealing. What is it they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? If people want to share their images with the world, they should expect them to try and reproduce those images themselves in their own work. You aren't taking the picture, just guiding us, like you do during your seminars. What we do ourselves is up to us.

  3. David - I find this a very thought provoking post. I have participated often in photowalking in the last year+, in which the shared photographing experience is both entertaining and social, but also very educational. I find some of my best learning comes from seeing what others are composing, and the general sentiment from those involved is to share and share alike.

    That said, we are not out there typically trying to produce portfolio pieces at these events. Some may take photos from those events and put them in their portfolios though. From this type of atmosphere I seriously doubt any of the attendees that may be viewed more as the masters feel like others are stealing their content within this context. So, to me, it does come down to exactly that, context.

    In the photowalking and even workshop atmosphere, there is an implication of sharing. We expect to take photos using the ideas of others, if nothing else to capture the idea for future reference and a reminder of what we have learned. Yet your point in the personal experience you shared is very valid, publishing this in your own portfolio is something that should be weighed carefully as to not only ethics, but whether it validly represents your personal abilities. On the other hand, the post-production of a similarly composed image can be a unique, personal creation as well that merits portfolio inclusion. As you so aptly display on this blog, the initial canvas of a well composed and exposed image is the important first step, but what happens later is a very personal, creative process.

    Perhaps a little food for continued thought.

  4. I dont disagree with the post from D & R Photography when we are talking about reviewing photos on line and getting inspiration from them. But when you are at a seminar or working with someone else and they set up the shot, shooting over their shoulder and creating the same shot is plagiarism.

    As we all know, there is so much that goes into creating a shot. Seeing just the final shot and getting ideas is one thing because you will probably not have all the pieces to the puzzle. Being there in person... I agree with David. I know this for certain, when I hire a 2nd photog for a wedding, I cover this subject specifically.

  5. D-
    Thanks for the though provoking post. I would agree that there is a sense of "stealing" when shooting over another person's shoulder. There is also a benefit to having the muscle memory of that perspective, as well as the EXTIF data from your "copy" to refer to when studying the composition. The "it's all been done" line I feel is a cop out to individual creativity. That said, I think people who go to workshops with the hopes of generating lots of "portfolio" images are doing themselves a dis-service. Using lighting and or skills that you don't have or have not yet mastered is a recipe for trouble. That said, bringing your own vision to the mix is and should be encouraged. I always get a kick out of the wide angle shot of the "leader" and all the students crushed around them trying to shoot over their shoulder at the model, I tend to look for the folks with a different vantage point/focal length, exploring the subject from a different angel, or simply looking at the "mentor" and watching how they work. I have never looked but I would think after a student returns and posts their new found "portfolio" images on their site, that it would look much like the mentor's.

    As far as the negative you slipped back into the sleeve, I would encourage you to look for it. If I had the opportunity to shoot behind a well known successful photog, and captured an image off their shoulder, I would feel free to use it, after all, I pushed the shutter, right? With one stipulation- I would label/or in some other way identify the image as shot at so-and-so's workshop. Clearly not purely my work, but captured with some nuance that I brought to it (framing, exposure...). If we shoot a model who has a signature pose they worked out with a photographer at the beginning of their career, are we stealing his or her work?

    It's a blurry line, and I think in the end it's up to the photographer to determine if they can live with the decision they made. You were obviously enriched by the workshop all those years ago, and I am sure in some way, that photo affects how you shoot today. Perhaps only by .004%, but it's part of the big gooshy thing between your ears that drives your trigger finger. Or maybe not, I have never seen a blind photographers portfolio.

  6. Thank you for this post. As a student, it is really important that I remember this.

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  8. I think in today's digital world there is quite a significant difference. I would not merely copy the shot per say but would perhaps look to put my own thought into the processing. Use my own creativity to maybe turn it into a high key or a Black & White image. Surely by doing this it is now my creation of a very well produced canvass?

  9. You raise interesting questions in this post regarding the creativity and the ownership of this creativity.

    On one side, there is little that hasn't been done. And in some way we are all shaped by the things we've visually consumed over the years. And as such there is in my mind not a black & white answer to this.

    Because if you wanted the pure white answer in terms of creativity, then you would have to live on an island separated from any other visual artist, and other photographer, any print and online medium, and arrive at your art through years of experimentation and learning.

    Clearly that is not what any of us are doing. We are shaped by the work and experience of others to varying degrees. So a different test has to be applied.

    The test I find most appropriate: if someone where to hire you because they saw that image and fell in love with it, could you produce that same shot or even better in the absence of the master? If you can unequivocally say yes, then I think it's ok to display it. Though I may avoid showcasing it in your portfolio because of the potential controversy it could create.

    If on the other side there are elements in the shot that you have not yet mastered, and you may only be able to reproduce it with luck, then it's best you discard the image, it does not represent what a client may get from you.

    That said, I'm not sure I totally buy into the shooting over the shoulder of the master practice. The purpose is to watch and learn from the master, not be distracted by ones camera, if you don't end up with images that are of any use.

    Where this practice all to often comes into play is early in the career when the portfolio is entirely empty and one is facing a bootstrapping problem. One cannot find ways to practice and participate because there is no work to show. And there is no work because one didn't practice. There is a use case for workshop photos to help folks get on the road. But even then, it's best in a mentor type setup rather than an over the shoulder setup.

    On the original question though: I think the PPA got it right - no print is eligible for competition when made under the supervision of an instructor. So if you see your displayed work as your own little competition with the world at large, then you should apply the same rule.


  10. Thank you for writing this post. It meeds to be told and shared. An important lesson!

  11. I think in the midst of the jungle, you did learn something from shooting over his shoulder. You also learned a greater lesson.

    In a moment of clarity without hype, you let integrity speak to you. The honest sense of truth was your guide into the fact, you pressed the shutter release on your own gear, but the brainchild and setup was done by someone else. Sharing the photo would not have been a problem. But not at the moniker if the entire product was your creation.

    Client view our images in their minds of us creating the entire photograph, they dont know any better. Showing with the intent of saying "this is a beautiful shot, look at what I learned from this man" is acceptable. Sharing to the extent of "yes, I created that photograph" would have been a lie.

    Thanks for the integrity Mr. Ziser, I dont see how it could be viewed any other way.

  12. This post really made me think...

    If we just try and emulate the same shots as someone else then we will be lost in the crowd. I see my photography like food the client wants something fresh and exciting. If it tastes or looks the same as everyone else then you will lose them. We can all learn the technical aspects from mentors and masters but we must add in some of our own creative spices if we want to create something unique for our clients.

  13. David,
    Thanks for sharing from your heart and you have a good heart. I have studied (week long classes)under at least 20 PPA Master Photographers over the 15 years and I have found personally that watching and listening and taking goods notes and buying the master's CD or DVDS has been a great teaching aid for me. I have found if I could see/understand in my mind how the instructor saw the light or background or pose then I could make an image that would be very sell able and it would be mine own not someone elses.
    On the subject of being a difficult student in class I would have to admitt I am/was guilty also. It is hard to sit still and be quiet when the instructor is chasing rabbits and wasting class time. The EGO is so hard keep in check. I say that from the stand point of the instructor sounding and acting like a photo god and the student wanting to teach the class. Photographers are so lazy these days and I think the digital movement has made a lot of the young shooters lazy in their mind/thinking department that is why they shoot over someone's shoulder in the class room setting. I like your idea of "hot shots" it reminds me of what Dean Collins sold long time ago.
    David, please keep up the great work you are doing. People don't realize what a great person you are along being an outstanding photographer teacher and a world class photographer. Cheers LW

  14. Another excellent post. I actually had come over here because I read your "good student" post back when you posted it, and I wanted to link to it on my blog sometime soon.

    You have a lot of great points in both of these posts. When I have time, I love looking at the images you take, and reading about how and why you took them.

  15. Everything you said is very true, I hope other people come to realize this as well.