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Here is the fine line between imitation and blunt copying

“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattering, it’s the sincerest form of learning” – G. B. Shaw. This is one of the quotes that open Sean Tucker’s latest video, and I find it to be a perfect description of the importance of imitation. Imitating other artists is an essential process of learning and growing. We’ve all done it, and maybe we still do. But when is it time to stop? In this video, Sean discusses imitation and its importance, but also innovation and the time when it should take over.

Beginner photographers often copy other photographer’s work, and it’s even advisable at this stage. After all, this is how we learn from the very beginning of our lives: we see what others do and try to imitate it. But don’t follow into a trap of following just one person. This way, you may become too much of a direct copy of his or her work.

Sean suggests that you find several role models whose work you’ll copy until you learn the techniques and start looking for your own style. This will develop a wider skillset as you learn and grow. But there’s another benefit of diversifying your influences. When you exit the beginner stage and start getting more attention for your work, you risk of being recognized as a copy of someone else’s photography if you only look up to one artist.

There’s another important and interesting observation Sean makes. If it’s easy to create exactly the same copies of your role model photographers – you need better role models. This means that they don’t have enough substance in their work and you need something more to strive for.

As Sean points out, it’s important for beginners to copy others’ work. Copy all you want! But it gets annoying when more established photographers try to rip off someone else’s style as a shortcut to get a similar sort of attention. So, when you start shooting, you have to be honest with yourself about the motivation behind copying someone else’s work. Is it to learn new techniques and eventually find your own voice? Or is it to gain attention as quickly as possible?

Sean hopes (and so do I) that you’re the first kind of photographer. If so, other photographers will be your influences, and you shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge them. However, you should do your best to exit the imitation stage as soon as possible and have imitation replaced by innovation. So, how can you recognize that it’s time to move on? If you’ve started to ask yourself “Am I copying too much?” it’s time to start searching for your own voice. It’s within you, and don’t be afraid to take a step forward and find it.

[Why Imitating other Photographers is Important, and when it’s Time to Stop | Sean Tucker]