Is it ethical to reverse engineer great photographers’ composition styles?

It’s easy to detect plagiarism when it comes to writing. You don’t really have to try all that hard. You only need to take a snippet of whatever a person wrote and plug into a tool called Copyscape. In fact, if the original is very short, you can even plug it in as a search string into Google.

Regardless of whether you use Copyscape or the Google search box, you will end up figuring out whether this person lifted that text or not. In most cases, you get a score. It would turn out that this person wittingly or unwittingly stole a certain portion of their text or the report would come out clean.

This is a big issue because we live in a digital world where you can take snippets of web content, images and other creative products and get away with it. Content theft has become so much easier in the digital age. In fact, as more and more mobile devices become popular and people find themselves always connected to the internet, theft has become rampant.

Honestly, there is so much intellectual property theft that a good argument could be made that people don’t even think that they are stealing somebody’s work. They are under the impression that since they’re surrounded by digital content on a 24/7 basis, that this is the normal state of things. Their understanding is this stuff must be free.

It doesn’t dawn on them that somebody actually owns this stuff. It doesn’t quite register with them the ownership of this digital material brings all sorts of legal rights. This can be bad news. For example, if you own a company and you make it a regular practice to pass on somebody else’s digital work as your own, you can actually get sued for millions of dollars. This is not a joke.

This is why it’s really important to get a clear understanding of what you can and cannot do when it comes to composing photographs. Obviously, it’s illegal and unethical to just copy and paste somebody’s photos. I think most people would agree on that. That’s not much of a controversial thought.

The gray area, however, is when you take a well-known photographer’s composition style and come up with your own version. You reverse engineer the composition style and you come up with something that is technically new. For example, if you like Ansel Adams and you love taking outdoor photographs, you can easily come up with your own Ansel Adams-type photograph.

Does this mean that you ripped off Ansel Adams? Absolutely not. Why? Well, you may have taken a picture of a mountain range or some sort of natural formation that Mr. Adams never had a chance to photograph. In the eyes of the world, this is brand new stuff, so it’s not like Ansel Adams’ heirs or legal successors can go after you for a big fat million-dollar lawsuit.

The bigger issue is one of ethics. Since you know that these people have devoted years of their lives to come up with a distinct compositional style, does it make sense for you to lift it? It’s one thing to give credit to Ansel Adams and say, “This is an homage to Ansel Adams.” I don’t think most people would have a problem with that.

The problem is if you’re going to pass this off as your own style. Do you see the point here? This is an ethical gray area and that’s why I would suggest that if you truly take your photographic art seriously, steer clear of reverse engineering composition styles.

It’s one thing to be inspired and it’s another to lift and steal. If you take somebody’s composition style to come up with something new, you can still be stealing on an ethical level. I know it’s not the kind of answer a lot of people would like to hear. It can get downright offensive or uncomfortable because hey, nobody likes being accused of being a thief.

If you look at the time, effort and energy they put into all the trial and error that they went through just to come up with their own unique style, maybe you’d understand why this is a bad thing.