Oct 13, 2010

Jane, Sally and Mary… The newbie, the amateur and the pro.

So when you’re done reading you may be thinking this image doesn’t really work… I know, I was stretching. This is actually from After Dark and that is SOOC. The camera is tethered to the laptop. Amazing right?!


We all get (or got) caught up in the glossy mystique of what everyone else is doing. It’s so easy to spend way to much time blog hopping and studying and looking to learn from what the established photographers have done. After all, they’re where you want to be! Don’t be thinking for a minute that we haven’t all done it, we have, we do, we may stop… We may not. It’s natural and it doesn’t have to be bad. But let me introduce you to 3 common traps that Sally, Jane and Mary fell into.

Meet Sally. Sally found an incredible photographer in her area named Mary. Mary seems so nice, so friendly, so stylish. The website and blog that Mary has created are both amazing! Sally is pretty sure she would have designed it herself if she’d only thought of it. Yep, Mary has got it going on, she even seems to only photograph gorgeous people. Sally can’t help but wonder how Mary did it. She’s star struck, it’s exactly where Sally wants to be… Mary’s side of the fence is white picket with beautiful exotic flowers climbing the posts and Sally’s is an old rusted chain link fence. Sally checks in everyday and admires every single detail of what Mary does. Soon, Sally starts to emulate, only emulation is really more like copying. But Sally wants to be just like her and she justifies “adapting” the ideas with the thought, ‘that copying is the most sincerest form of flattery… and … it’s not like she’ll be able to pull it off as well as Mary did… she . could. only. wish.’. Besides look how well Mary’s ideas are doing! Sally certainly is not going to hurt Mary’s flourishing business, is she?

Next let’s get to know Jane. Jane lives in the same town as Mary and Sally. Jane finds Mary’s website and is also in awe. Jane follows Mary on FB, twitter, her blog… and may or may not have even tried to find her house on google maps. But not in a crazy way – she just really, really admires her! Jane talks about her so much that Mary is talked about on a first name basis in Jane’s home and her husband knows Mary’s entire portfolio as well (but not by choice). You know we’ve all done this with someone. Jane is just sure that her and Mary would be BFF’s if she could just meet her. And why not? She’s a photographer, Jane’s … a photog.rapher.in.training. And the idea hit’s like the most genius bolt of lightening ever! Jane will just email Mary and ask to come along on a shoot. She knows Mary is so nice (from her blog and FB and twitter) that she’ll totally take her under her wing and help her. So she emails and asks if she can mentor under Mary. Mary never responds. Jane can’t help but feel crushed.

Now meet Mary. Mary has been working hard for 5 years to build up her business. It hasn’t been easy but she’s been determined and after checking out every book on photography in the library and investing in some fundamental educational workshops she’s finally feeling a taste of success. She worked hard to establish her identity and brand and for the first time she’s proud of it. One day Mary get’s an email from a friend who asks if she has seen this new girl Sally’s website. She goes to look only to see that it is uncomfortably similar to her own. It’s even got the same verbiage and… ‘is that my font too?’ she wonders? This doesn’t feel flattering at all, this feels like copyright infringement and Mary can’t help but feel violated. Mary isn’t sure what to do about it. In the end she really is as nice as her blog appears and she’s never like confrontation so she decided to say nothing. A week or two later Mary gets an email from Jane. Jane is so sweet in the email and asks to mentor with Mary. She says she wants to be just like her and she only lives 30 minutes away. Mary again realizes that she has another photographer who wants to take her identity. She doesn’t want to feel cheated again and she’s not sure how to handle the email (in the end she’s human too) so she presses delete.

I have had the question asked, why are some photographers nice and some so rude. I’m hoping this analogy might help us see things from the established photographer’s point of view. I’m certainly not discouraging role models within our industry!! No way! I have photographers who I love to check in on and who I think are doing incredible things, and I’ve even taken some of the ideas I’ve seen elsewhere and made them my own. But the key is that I try to make them really my own not a 10% difference from what there doing. And I’ll admit, that was a lot harder when I was just starting out!

Now if I had to guess, I would say that quite often the reason someone would choose to copy is because they are unsure how to take the idea as inspiration and come up with something original for themselves. In short, they don’t know how to get from where they are to where Mary is and because they genuinely feel lost, they decide to take the short cut.

They are hoping that if they copy… somehow that will catapult them into the same arena. For all the Mary’s out there, it’s probably liberating to hear that it won’t. And the reason is that there is a lot of different components that make Mary as successful as she is, not the least of which was a decision to be herself… And the fact is that I will never be as good at being Mary as Mary is. And that’s okay because I am the very best at being me! Do you see it now? No one will be as good at being you as you are – I want you to really embrace that fact!

I know what some of you are saying… “But I want to meet MARY!” Okay, so you’re just dying to meet Mary and see how she does things, and rightfully so! Education is power and learning from those who we admire is a wonderful and exciting way to go about that! So what’s the best way of approaching Mary?? That will come as Part II of this post.

I’m excited to hear your thoughts! This post has been drafted, rewritten, re-read – re-phrased and a few more “re’s” several times. I hope that we can each take a honest look at ourselves and be real about what we see. I did and I saw room for improvement.

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  1. Chelsey says:

    Excellent post Leah! It definitely is a lot easier to “copy” someone else’s work when you are first starting out. And its always in the back of my mind when I cruise my favorite blogs and think “I could so do that!”. But I feel like if I continue working really hard to learn new techniques, I will be able to creatively break the rules and develop a style that is truly unique.

  2. October says:

    OMGosh…can I just say you must have been in my head yesterday!!!! Seriously…there is a photog in my area that I just love. I don’t care for her post-processing style, but she is a great photographer. I wanted to send her an email…asking if maybe we could meet up. But…alas…I am too shy to do something like that. I enjoyed reading this post. There is one thing that I have noticed. The Sallys, after coping everything, will eventually give up the business because they have not invested the time and practice that the Marys have. I am still finding my style.

  3. jamie says:

    Hi leah, that’s so true, we are ally guilty of that at some point or another. I love looking at other photographer’s blogs to get inspiration and stuff, I emailed a few of these photographers to ask some questions, most of them reply back, and I adore them for it, some don’t…. but it’s never ever to steal there ideas, it’s always was about how to go about creating a photobooth, or how to get a certain type of image done, or sometimes it’s just to let them know how great they are, but I do understand how frustrating it must be, since I leave in a small town, i only have one major competition, and she sometimes steals my locations, but I figure she ain’t creative enough to find her own, and people will realize that by themselves….

  4. Megan says:

    Leah. I LOVE this post! I love that you wrote it from all different perspectives. I too fell into the trap of loving “My Mary” early on in my career. I thought my photos should probably look like hers if I wanted to be at all successful. But it wasn’t until I really understood who I was as an artist and that my own art and voice was just as beautiful that I was able to gain confidence in who I am…and with that the branding, marketing, positioning all fell into place. I was able to build a brand around ME instead of me trying to squeeze into a brand that didn’t fit.

    • Leah Remillet says:

      Megan… You said it so perfectly!! I especially love when you said, ‘I thought my photos should probably look like hers’. That is EXACTLY what I thought when I first told myself I wanted to make a go at it. I assumed that “she” was the bar so I was striving to reach to her but the amazing thing was that the closer I got to her the more I learned and with learning came appreciation for my own abilities.

  5. Lacey says:

    This really hits home for me right now as I have recently discovered I have two copycats. One was an individual that I did a consultation with and was shocked to check her blog a few weeks later and see that she had copied my branding completely! The second is a local “photog” that has been going to the same locations as me after I post on my blog and the real kicker is, she’s even composing her shots as close as possible to match mine in the same spot where I took mine. Infuriating!!! I take comfort in knowing that even doing that, her work isn’t comparable to mine.

  6. Very well said. If there is a photographer whose style I love then I STOP myself for looking at their pictures. The reason is I don’t want to unintentionally get in the position where I am emulating their style and losing my own identity. I will find bits and pieces of what I like but make sure what I do is my own.

    • Leah Remillet says:

      I do the same thing only with blogs. I know it’s weird… But with Go{4}Pro I’m trying really hard to be genuine and original.

  7. SP says:

    As I read the article and self-reflect, I am wondering where the line is. Copying fonts and styles of a published piece of work, that is obvious. But, pose inspiration, a fresh take on a catagory of your business, i.e. maternity or newborns, or using a certain template that you have purchased that another photographer uses, what about that? I mean isn’t that what those “inspiration” photography blogs are there for? I admit that I do check out photographer’s blogs occasionally, but in a little different manner. I look at a state across the country or in Europe to see what they do differently. I try not to do the same old thing, but sometimes I just get in a rut. So is that a “short cut”?

    • Leah Remillet says:

      SP – I feel you… Oh how I feel you! I too sometimes feel the line can be fuzzy. And I genuinely believe that there isn’t really such a thing and truly original anymore. Before everyone chops my head just realize that what I mean is that every idea must stem from somewhere, right? And if you trace it back it will originate somewhere outside of the latest source because the ideas that triggered it were founded somewhere else. Are you still with me?

      Another point worth making is workshops… Let’s use the newborn ones for example. They are teaching you to pose, to process, to do AS THEY DO! So when you go home from that and your images look strikingly the same is that a foe or a fay? And to take it a step further, those poses that you are now emulating, that were taught to you by today’s hottest were started 20 years ago with Anne Geddis and if we asked her she would probably let us know that her inspiration came from some something that she had seen.

      I don’t know the right answer? Except that the more we strive to learn and hone our craft the more confident we become. And with the confidence comes the power to realize that what we can create something pretty great!

  8. SP says:

    Thank you for your response. I wasn’t trying to be argumentative, in fact, my thought process is exactly as your response explains. Every idea originated somewhere, and if you look at photogs across the country, most are doing pretty much the same thing. I rarely see strikingly different shots. However, I do see better lighting, better angles, better expressions caught and better focus…it’s what differentiates the good and bad, the novice from the expert. It is why I truly believe the best inspiration can be the photo assignments and checking out EXIF files.

    And it’s funny, a while back I was admiring and showing my 13 yr old daughter a photographer in the same state as me. And saying how she is just so great, and how much I loved her style. My daughter asked me, “what’s your style mom?” , then she went into her diatribe of how each photographer has a style and I needed to find my own. That was the point when I had to think it through a little bit and move from “photographer’s blogs” to blogs and sites about photography itself.

    She and you are right.

    • Leah Remillet says:

      You have raised one smart cookie. And please know that I didn’t think you were argumentative in the least!! Your point is valid and I’m with you… I’m really glad you shared it!!

  9. Jill E. says:

    Leah, great article. its so funny to hear others say but this is something i constantly struggle with. i graduated college where i majored in photographer and moved far away to a 9-5 type of job but wanted to start doing custom photography on the side, any full time when money is a little better, so i started contacting photographers in the area, this was before i discovered blogs, most were friendly and nicely rejected my help, so i decided to just try to do my own thing but it would be so nice to be able to assist and see how others work with their clients. i can not wait for tomorrow i have been putting off emailing this photographer in my area because i do not want here another rejections.

  10. Veronica says:

    Great post!!! *sigh* … I am soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo Jane right now … hoping to skip the Sally part and end up a Mary 🙂

    • Leah Remillet says:

      Veronica…. I want to give you a HUGE hug just for being willing to admit that you’re a Jane! I was Jane BIG TIME for a long time and every once in a while I still catch myself doing it.

  11. Krystal says:

    I love this discussion! Just to add a thought… as I am moving forward, trying to find my style and develope my skill I do look at other’s sites. I find lots of blogs and pictures I love and I have been trying to stop myself and as a question every time I find myself saying “I love that!”. The question is “What is it that I love about that?” Maybe that sounds over simplified but it is what helps me grow from someone elses work rather than copy it. The answer often leads me to a skill I am lacking and helps me learn and grow.

    • Leah Remillet says:

      Not over simplified at all! How many times have we all tried to replicate something and been so bummed that our results were so different (and not in some creative good way either!). It’s because we (or at least me) forgot to realize that there was a lot more to the image than what they were wearing and the pose. It was the light, the settings, the processing… Great point!

      Everyone should ask themselves … “What is it that I love about this!!”

  12. Spanki Mills says:

    LOVE THIS!!! leah you are spot on! i do think saying to copy someone “is the best form of flattery” is a cop out of finding your true self! i think taking inspiration form someone is great! we all do it…i’d suggest not taking it from anyone in your town… there are great photogs all over the US… but do just that, take their inspiration and mold it into your own art! i love this article… may i share it on my blog please ma’am? maybe if it came from someone else it will make some of my copiers think about it! 🙂

  13. Morgan says:

    Leah- Thank you so much for this post. I am trying really hard to be a Mary. I want to have my own branding, but I just couldn’t design a logo that was original. I knew that I couldn’t do it without ‘copying’ someone which is why I signed myself to be on your waiting list for designing me one. I decided a while ago that I wasn’t going to look at local photographers blogs or websites. When I was first starting out I did, and then I decided that it just wasn’t good for me in a lot of ways. When I actually have the time to look at blogs, I make sure that I only look at blogs from people out of state.

    I am also a firm believer in workshops. I love them. I try to go to one or two every year. I recently decided that I wanted to learn something new. I found a website of some images that I really loved and realized what it was that made them so awesome. I tried to teach myself for weeks how to do it, and for some reason I just couldn’t. So, I found someone that taught a workshop on it, packed up my sweet family, and drove 10 hours to attend it. It has been one of the best things I have done. It was also amazing to see everyone’s final images. Even though we all we shooting in the same environment, every single one of us had different pictures. It really did make me realize that I am developing my own style.

    I did have a question though… a girl who grew up in my area, and then moved away, started up a photography business a few years ago. She comes back periodically to take pictures of families that she grew up with and mostly to do weddings. I am totally okay with it. I don’t like to shoot weddings, so she can have them all, and I am already as busy as I would like to be. I recently got really upset with her though. She came back to my area to teach a workshop on manual, photoshop, and business basics. Is it wrong of me to be upset about this? I know that I probably shouldn’t, but I can’t help thinking that it was just plain rude. I guess I was even more upset by the fact that one of her friends suggested that I go! What! I refused to charge people money until I could shoot in manual and knew the basics of photoshop. [sorry this comment is insanely long!]

  14. Tiffany says:

    This is a great post!! It’s very true though. I find myself as Jane wanting to assist and learn as much as I can. I am SO guilty of making my Mary a household name, and making my husband sit through Mary’s blog viewings. We all need inspiration every now and then. Thanks for this! 🙂

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