Is Your Work Original, Can It Be, and Does It Even Have to Be?

Is Your Work Original, Can It Be, and Does It Even Have to Be?

Many creators hold originality to be one of the biggest values in their art, whether it is music, painting, photography or any other subject. Concerning photography, what is even original when billions of photos are taken and uploaded each day?

Originality is basically the aspect of invented or created works, which are new and can be distinguished from reproductions, clones, forgeries, or derivative works. It is neither copied from or based upon the work of others and is unique in both substance and style, at least according to the definition, I got from Wikipedia. Google continues with the ability to think independently and creatively, and the work should have the quality of being novel or unusual.

Being original comes with a lot of limitations and is one of those aspects of photography only few photographers master.

In our age, we are more social than ever, we exchange more information than ever, and we influence each other more than ever. Photography is arguably one of the easier crafts to learn, as all learning material is free online. On top of that, you do not even have to have a diploma to call yourself and work as a photographer. However, we are also all basically learning the same thing.

My co-writer here on Fstoppers, Jonathan Reid, put into words what I have been struggling with for some time in one of his newer articles: “Are You Guilty of Formulaic Photography?" It is a great read. I and many other photographers are guilty of exactly following the formula Jonathan points out.

The question is not if that is a bad thing in itself, the question is can you even be original when you follow a formula?

Before I went to England back in 2017, I did a lot of research on where to go and what to visit. Besides seeing what other photographers photograph, I like to have a look at tourist and community homepages. Here, there are often many natural wonders, which are more or less unexplored by the landscape photography community. One such wonder is the sea stack arch Blackchurch Rock along the North Devon Coast. Before going, I had not seen any typical modern landscape photographs of this rock, and finding any information on this location took me more than one Google search.

In this regard, or at least to me, it was an original location in the sense I had not seen anything but tourist snapshots from here. However, being there, I used the most obvious formula for composing the photo. Foreground, leading lines, symmetry and the strong focal point of the rock. Very unoriginal approach.

Is it an original photo then? Can we divide the photo into different aspects, such as foreground, composition, location, light, etc. and make some aspects of a given photo original, while others are not?

From my tour through western USA, I got a photograph from a very unoriginal location, Yosemite Valley, using an unoriginal focal point, Half Dome, yet I would argue the photo is fairly original.

My intention was to photograph the super moon above Half Dome (unoriginal idea), but just before the moon came into view from behind El Capitan, it threw some strong moonbeams into the valley, making a fantastic separation between El Capitan and Half Dome. The lighting was unique and created a unique moment in time, and I got a photo, which almost looks like graphical art. Unoriginal location and subject, yet original light. Original photo?

Another photo from my US tour is from Arches National Park. I wanted to photograph Landscape Arch with a sun star. However, because of the time of year, I could not get that photo. It had been photographed before, so the idea was not original. Being in the park around full moon, it dawned upon me that I could get something similar but with the moon instead. It was a technically hard photo to pull off, as I had to use a small aperture to get the “moon star”. The moon was also very bright, making the contrast between the foreground and the moon very big. I had to start the exposure when the moon was behind the arch and only have to moon come into view in the very last part of the exposure, as to have the foreground exposed correctly. That was hard, as I had to make a long exposure because of the small aperture. Timing was essential. Unoriginal idea, turned into something original using an original technique. Original photo?

Som what does it take to make original landscape photos? Is it enough to just go to an unknown location and use unoriginal compositional techniques?

Can you go to a famous and iconic location, take the “hero shot” and just wait for unique light?

Do you have to completely give up the formulaic approach and invent your own way of displaying what you see? Can the technique used or formula be unoriginal, yet the intention of the given photo be original, making the photo original?

In the photo below, I “just” found some interesting patterns and colors in the rock. I have never seen a photo like this before. Maybe I am just looking in the wrong direction? Does pointing your camera towards a random rock, which no one has photographed before, make it original?

Does photography even have to be original?

After all, originality is just a value, and values are by their very nature subjective and dependent on time, location, and culture. According to the same Wikipedia article I referenced above, originality, as we understand it today, is an ideal developed in the 18th century. The great Shakespeare himself avoided “unnecessary invention,” as it was a bigger value to appreciate similarities with admired classic work. You, of course, do not have to do original photos. It is solely something to strive for as it is valued by many creators in our age.

I am not sure there is an answer to the problem or if it even is a problem. In the end, I guess it comes down to you and your purpose. If your purpose is business and selling art or working for travel agencies, there are great arguments for being unoriginal and doing what works, such as following trends and making impactful yet formulaic photos. Let us not even start on the trends of Instagram. It certainly does not have to be original to work.

If you value original and unique photos, it seem to me to be one of the hardest aspects of photography to pull off. Yet, maybe also the easiest: just do whatever no one has done before you. But does that automatically make a great photo? Certainly not, just because you are unique does not make you useful. Yet again, does art have to be useful?

And can we even be original when we are influenced by other people in the amount we are?

So many questions. I know I am throwing a lot of balls into the air. I am very interested to hear your thoughts down below; it is something I have been thinking a lot about: originality, values in photography, etc. Let us exchange some thoughts.

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15 Comments

David Pavlich's picture

From a technical standpoint and according to copyright law (US. I'm not familiar with other country's copyright laws), if you take the picture, it is your picture, therefor, it is original.

Now we can argue semantics all day. Example from here in Winnipeg; the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. It's been photographed a gazillion times, including my efforts. But none of them are 'exactly' like mine, so that makes it a one of a kind, an original.

I understand your thought process, though.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I'd argue that most things are derivative of what has come before. Little steps, standing on the shoulders of those before you etc. The term 'original' is a bit too loaded, both legally and perhaps morally, at least for me. Can't wait to see everyone weigh in here!

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

You're right about that for sure. It's more like "pushing the limits" a bit :)

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

To paraphrase Bill Murray, “baby steps to the new idea, baby steps to the new art . . . “

Michael Jin's picture

No. Yes. No.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Very interesting thoughts Mads. As you might imagine, something that I think about a lot too. I won’t attempt to answer your questions as I have the same questions, but I will make a comment on your example images. The two US landscape images to me are a great example of creativity. The scene didn’t unfold as you imagined it would, so you used creativity to solve the problem. As such, I think you came up with something original.

Matt Simpson's picture

Excellent article. This is something I have tortured myself about for so long. I am slowly coming to the conclusion that with the amount of images taken every day it is almost numerically impossible to create an original photograph. And with all the aspects that you outline you always use at least one to make your image unoriginal. So maybe once we can accept that fact. We can go on taking photographs in peace with out the added pressure of trying to be original. And enjoy the art of photography again :-)

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Thanks Matt. Well, we, of course, do not have to make original photos so I don't think it is a pressure unless we so desire to put it on ourselves, but it would be nice to know what originality is in the first place ;)

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

You can be completely "original" within all those definitions, and still produce something which is an exact match to something someone else you've never heard of just did, on the other side of the planet. It's quite common for something like that to happen with inventions - whoever gets "first past the post" at the patent office gets the patent, but it doesn't prove the other invention wasn't equally valid & original.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

That is indeed very true, but even if that happened I'd argue both photographers were original, their image just wasn't unique ;)

Dave Terry's picture

That is very important point because this occurs ALL the time. A couple of years ago I was sitting with 4 other people in a boat designed for 3 floating into the Blue Grotto (cave) in the side of a cliff on the Island of Capri off the coast of Italy. After traveling around the small cave in the boat, we rounded a corner and I saw the beautiful blue water (which had been black a few minutes before when the opening was to our backs before we turned around) lit by the small cave opening leading to the open water outside. To me personally, it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and with only about 30 seconds before we exited the cave, with choppy salt water from the oarsman splashing up around the sides of the boat, I quickly decided to dig out my Nikon D800 (only a year old at the time) camera out of its safe, waterproof bag, put on my expensive 14-24mm lens, guess at the settings and snap exactly one photo before the chance was gone. I LOVE that photo. However, in spite of the risk I took fumbling with that camera in the dark in a tiny boat in a cave on the other side of the world from where I live, there is nothing artistically original about it. In fact, if you google Capri Blue Grotto, you can see dozens of near identical photos. But that particular photo still means a lot to me personally because I knew what it took to capture that image (a lot if you factor in all the money I spent on that trip). From a technical standpoint, the photo is quite good. I lucked out with my guess of ISO and exposure, but there is nothing original about it at all... but no fucks have been given to that fact. To me, that particular photo shot in that beautiful moment means more to me than all of the other identical shots taken by everyone else, who, probably like me thought, "holy shit, I need to take a photo of this!"

Larry Wynkoop's picture

I think finding your own voice is much more important than being "original." In my opinion, avoiding something just because other people are doing it / have done it, is not much different from *doing* something just because other people are doing it. In either case, you're not really being true to yourself.

Dave Terry's picture

"avoiding something just because other people are doing it / have done it, is not much different from *doing* something just because other people are doing it."

Amen!

Dave Terry's picture

It sure was a lot easier to believe in one’s own originality before the internet, that is for sure, and personally, I think bursting this illusion of originality is a good thing. I think there will always be a very small, select few who truly find ways to innovate their way to something that might be described as original in some way, but it will more likely be in terms of levels of degree rather than knocked-up-the-side-of-the-head, I’ve-never-seen-that-before kinds of originality, but it will still probably happen with varying levels of frequency over time.

However, I believe that 30 or 40 years from now (maybe even sooner) basic photographic skills will be ubiquitous and obligatory. Good composition will no longer be a sign of a skilled photographer so much as an expected bare minimum skill-set shared by anyone with access to a camera (which could very well be nearly everyone on earth by that point).

You think everything has been over-photographed now? Holy crap, just wait! All those complaints about Instagram cheapening photography as an art form or ruining the world’s most photogenic locations will be quaint. Being original by that point? Possibly not even a topic warranting any conversation at all. But only time will tell, I guess.

All of this pushes the art form forward and necessitates the need for innovative ideas from artists, but whatever those ideas “are” they will simply be built on the foundations of what came before just as we build our art on those same foundations.

To me originality is less about making something that never existed before so much as uncovering a path not previously discovered. In the long run, once the path is uncovered, everyone is welcome to travel it and the one who found it, although perhaps thought of as “original,” will matter less and less as the path gets busier and busier and memory of the founder grows less important than the path they discovered.

In that sense, originality will continue to occur as long as new paths continue to be revealed, but that requires there be some paths left to be discovered. A lot of ground has already been explored, charted, and mapped out for the rest of us, so finding those new paths will require more exploration into the furthest possible reaches, and probably discovered by some kid with a camera and too much time on their hands while the rest of us are still fucking around with a three-point light setup.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

This discussion has veered off stage left.

If everyone stopped doing everything because they had a panic attack and thought someone else might have done it already, we'd still all be sitting in caves, waiting from someone to invent fire.

LIVE your life - it's the only one you're getting!