The Essence & Value of Originality

· 23.October.2021

At times it can be hard to be truly original, although with photography it really does pay off.

It may not be the most accurate of gauges, but you only need to flip through Instagram or even the more photographically led social media sites to sense that there is sometimes little in the way of photographic originality around, or at least it can seem that way due to the profusion of images we’re bombarded with and ‘expected’ to produce these days. Producing original images is not something any of us can achieve on a daily basis.

Sure enough every now and then something jumps out at you as being different to other ‘content’ that we see. It may be something that you’ve never seen before or a completely different take on a familiar subject ­– in other words, something original. Needless to say, when it gets shown online within days, everyone and their iPhone will be out there trying to replicate it, which is a curse of the modern era. This can make you question the wisdom in both posting and consuming images online, at least on a regular basis, as original images take time and passion to produce, and should be savoured not consumed.

Imitations are just that

Unfortunately, photographic imitation is inevitable, relatively easy and commonplace these days, and is not just a social media scenario. It’s also prevalent in both the professional and enthusiast photography spheres.

Be it intentional or sublime, trying to replicate the style or work of another photographer is not something I can resonate with and in the long run, it trips up short of the finish line. Despite the plethora of YouTube photographers out there who actively repeat, without any forethought or depth, that you should study and then try and replicate the work of others, in my experience, it simply is not a good way to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve in photography unless that is to be just another imitator.

Harsh words, perhaps, but true, in my opinion.

Naturally, there is worth in studying the work of masters and others, but only if you use it as just that – a technical or creative reference point or for inspiration. Finding your own distinctive originality is far more worthwhile.

Strangely enough, some people still think that someone blatantly copying your work should be seen as flattery, whereas in reality it’s nothing short of irritating and can even be derogatory in a professional environment, much as it is in any other arena of life or business.

Art over tech

It’s all too easy to think that photography is about technical mastery and gear. Yes, that is a part of it but the true art of photography lies in how you see things, in how you approach, frame, visualise and then choose to capture a scene.

What sets photographers apart is how they achieve this. Some simply record things in a factual and even clinical way, which is fine for many scenarios. In a professional sports shooting situation, for example (where there are usually many photographers), that generally means a bunch of photographers all using the same cameras and lenses, mostly also shooting with the same settings and standing in the same place to get that crucial winning shot. This, after all, is the ‘money shot’ and be it boring or not to shoot, that is the image that will sell and earn – that tack-sharp, race-winning or game-defining image.

On the flip side, there may be one or two out there taking a completely different view of the same scene – photographers who have completely thought themselves out of that same box and who clamber beneath barriers, up trees or who face things in completely the opposite direction.

This approach may not appeal to everyone and it may not make commercial sense at times, and yet it is different and original, and has a different kind of return and response. You don’t need to actively go out there just to be different. I believe it’s something that should come naturally and willingly, and is probably something that runs through most other aspects of your life, although you can also learn to think differently at times.

Coming away from a scene with something completely different to everyone else may not go down so well with the other 90% of photographers – those who have gotten the same shots between themselves. However, it does prove that there is room for originality and a different take on even those clichéd shots, which makes you stand out from the crowd in a creative sense.

Ideally putting in the forethought and work to achieve the essentials and something unique is the way to go.

Mirrors & shadows

Working in a relatively niche field, over the years I’ve also had several scenarios when either being the official event photographer or just shooting an event of having certain other photographers shadowing my every move, often going to incredibly annoying lengths to do so.

When you have 200km of open road to shoot a bike race, there’s more than enough room for every photographer to get their own original shots (plus the essentials) and yet some just don’t, as it takes those extra few steps or creativity and work.

I’ve even had a couple of photographers go out and buy the same gear I use (the same Fujifilm cameras and lenses, and then running a Canon alongside them). They’re also the same guys then try to replicate every image and then try to poach your clients – business maybe, original no.

Different takes

During the past 20 months of the pandemic, I’ve been extremely restricted in terms of photographic opportunities. Not being able to shoot my regular action material and being confined to a small area has forced me (or rather I should say encouraged me) to go out and to shoot the same few scenes over and over again, and to try and do something different with it each time.

This is something that I would recommend any photographer do (but maybe not for this long), no matter your chosen genre or experience level. Wrapping yourself up in something that you’d perhaps never even considered and then re-imagining it is a great creative learning exercise.

Doing this may also show you that there are far more ways than you ever thought possible to shoot even the blandest of subjects creatively, as it has done for me.

At the end of the day, it is, of course, a case of each to their own. If you simply want to capture the same images as everyone else or to replicate  Salgado with each click, then that’s your choice. However, in slowing down and trying something completely different at times you may well find your unique originality in the most unexpected of places. You may well fail at times, but the satisfaction that comes with knowing it’s original could well prove far more rewarding in so many ways.