Creativity and Copying

In previous posts I have talked about the issue of what I call "chasing icons," the inclination of many of us to chase after existing images already taken by other photographers. I want to talk about this subject some more, and to introduce the discussion I will start with a picture of my own - my version of Tom Mangelson's iconic "bear eating salmon" from Brooks Falls in Alaska. I would venture to say that virtually every photographer who has visited that legendary bear-viewing platform in Katmai National Park has made an effort to capture their own version of Tom's picture. I am no exception.

I took this a decade ago (on Velvia!) and have rarely published it, largely because I felt it was essentially derivative, e.g. a conceptual copy of Tom's image. I never really felt that this was my own original creation, but essentially a copy. Yes, it represented a personal challenge - the challenge of coordinating timing, light and technique to capture a "decisive moment." And it is substantially different from Tom's image. But it was not something essentially new. No one can look at my picture and not think of his, or of his priority.

The issue, then, is this.  Is a "copy" of a legendary photograph an homage, plagiarism...or a legitimate exercise of creativity? You will likely find as many views on this subject as there are people posting comments online (and I look forward to seeing more here). Some consider the idea of "copying" a classic Galen Rowell photo (like "Sunset on Horsetail Falls" - a picture I consider so perfect as to repel improvement) simply a learning experience, much as fine artists may copy the work of the Great Masters to learn something about their technique. I don't fully buy this argument, since it seems to me that there are vast numbers of other subjects in which you can test your mastery of depth-of-field or exposure other than by trying to replicate a well-known David Muench landscape.

However, in discussing this subject with a friend of mine, a talented and hard-working amateur photographer, I gained another point of view. In his opinion, this issue is directly linked to the photograph's end use. As an amateur shooting for his own pleasure and for a "hang-on-the-wall" image, there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to capture an icon for himself. It is an excuse to chase, not just a picture, but a beautiful location, or a beautiful moment, in nature.

The problem, then, is when photographers try to pass these images as original creations and offer them for sale, as prints or in publication, knowing they are entirely based on someone else's original work. We would not condone copying a chapter from someone else's novel - so why do we give photographers a pass that slavishly copy someone else's picture? It seems unethical, but more than anything ,it lacks creativity. And in a creative endeavor like photography this, in the end, is the greatest crime.

In the end, the best, most exciting images will continue to push visual boundaries, to show viewers something new and exciting and different. Yes, this is getting more difficult than ever, with the vast numbers of photographers prowling our parks and refuges. But I cannot help but think that there are still plenty of thrilling images still to be taken, pictures that show us something, or somewhere, we have never seen.

I welcome your thoughts on this subject.


    If that’s the case than there would never be a need for a photographer to go to Yosemite Valley as that location has been captured every way possible, millions of times over. These places are icons because of their inherant beauty and not because Ansel Adams captured it first, or made it famous. It was beautiful before the invention of photography, just ask the Native Americans who were run out of the Valley and who did not know photography. As a photographer, I would love to venture upon an unknown valley with such beauty as to stamp it an iconic location for others to follow, but I must live in today’s world. It is perfectly fine for anyone to photograph, market and sell these iconic locations as their own, but they will be competing against those that made the location an icon.

    If that were the case than there would be no need for any photographer to venture into Yosemite Valley, as it is the poster child for being over done. Yet places like Yosemite are iconic not because of Ansel Adams exposing them but because they are inherantly beautiful on their own. Just ask the Native Americans who lived there before being run-off by the US Government. Being first does not grant exclusivity, it does; however, set the standard for which future images will be compared.

    Hi Kevin,

    I don’t agree with your statement or stance on “copying”.

    If THAT is your true belief, then you must have taken very few shots’ because 99.99999% of “things” have already being shot by someone before you.

    If I could, I would taken over your skills and equipment, because your shot of a bear catching salmon is MUCH smarter than that of Tom Mangelson – truly!!!! – maybe he was just a better “marketer” than you and I.

    Also see some opinions here:

    Keep on shooting – you have talent – don’t undermine it !!!!!



    Thanks for your comments – and your kind words. I completely agree that it is hard to take a picture that hasn’t been done before. With so many photographers out in the field, including many talented amateurs, it is hard to get a shot of something “new.” So much so, in fact, that esteemed nature writer Bill McKibben wrote a serious article some years ago arguing -0n essence – that nature photography was largely unnecessary – it had all been done already. I don’t agree with that; there is still enormous room for creativity and original vision, even with often-photographed subjects. My argument is simply that we should all be looking for those new images, not chasing after subjects and angles that have already been well-covered. Why, for instance, take yet another shot of Mt. Whitney through the arch in Alabama Hills? Those hills are FULL of pictures, yet 99% of us search out that arch, and that viewpoint, to copy a picture we have seen before.

    All the best,


    You said: “And it is substantially different from Tom?۪s image. But it was not something essentially new. No one can look at my picture and not think of his, or of his priority.”

    If yours is “substantially different” then how is it a copy? How different does an image have to be to not be a copy?

    What is “essentially new” as compared to new? Where exactly is the dividing line between different, substantially different, essentially new, and new?

    I am a long time nature photographer and I have never heard of Tom or you. If I were at that location and shot a picture of a bear catching or trying to catch a fish I would consider the image new and unique. It may be similar to a million other images from the same place but it would not be identical to those other images.

    There are millions and millions of photographs of innumerable subjects that are very similar. I’m sure we all would like to think that all of our images are totally different from anyone elses but that just isn’t going to be the case. For personal use it doesn’t matter at all, and for commercial use the only thing that matters is whether anyone wants to buy an image, regardless of whether it’s very similar or substantially different from other images.

    Hi Kris,

    Thanks for your comment. You bring up some good questions – e.g. where is the line between copying and creativity? I guess my point in bringing up this subject is to encourage us to find our own subjects, and angles, and creativity without slavishly going after pictures that have already been taken. Do you know Galen Rowell’s legendary Horsetail Falls picture? Is there any reason whatsoever to take it again? I have been a photo judge at NANPA and for the BBC, and you would be amazed how many images we have to see of iconic scenes like Yosemite or Mt. Whitney – and virtually nothing from 99% of the rest of the country (not to mention the world).
    Yes, the issue is very different for professionals like myself and for people who take pictures for their own pleasure. (There is simply no point in my shooting subjects that are widely available.) But I would still argue that there are huge numbers of pictures out there that have never been taken. Let’s go find them…

    All the best,


    All the best,


    Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention that perhaps Galen Rowell’s photograph of a Grizzly catching a Salmon preceded Tom Mangelson’s photograph. Do you know which came first? This is a perfect example of why there has been so much debate. You cannot copyright an idea. Therefore, anyone can photograph a Grizzly catching a Salmon. In my opinion, your image is different, and especially striking with the Sun hitting just a bit of the waterfall, the head of the bear and the fish. Tom and Galen’s photographs are more like each other, though perhaps they are in different locations for all I know, perhaps you do…?

    Hi David,
    Thanks for your comments. I am delighted know about your blog, which often seems to tackle issues as well as just pictures. I will follow it from now on. As for your question about Galen’s bear/salmon picture vs. Tom’s – I’m pretty sure Tom took his first… but would have to do more research than I care to be sure. I do know that both of theirs – and mine – were all taken in exactly the same place, a platform at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. In either case, my point was simply to broach the subject of creativity and encourage all photographers to look beyond the obvious. Judging by some of the comments, I struck a nerve. Fine with me.
    Take care,


    p.s. You remember, I hope, that I was a major fan/groupie of your father. His was a completely original vision.

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