Ethics, Etiquette and Credit
(featured image, above, on my camera, Magilight by Russell Klimas, sparklers by me, model Ariana Gradow)
It can be hard to be a solo light painter. Having to work the camera yourself, do all of the lights, maybe have a model to coordinate with… it’s hard work! That said, one thing that shooting alone brings with it is that it’s easy to know where all of the credit lies for executing a shot. The shutter opens, the solo light painter waves some lights, the shutter closes. It’s that photographer’s picture, it’s also that photographer’s art.
Execution of an Image, and Sharing it
In the United States, and in many other countries, the person who pushes the shutter button on the camera is the person who owns the copyright of the image captured. For typical photography this enough to make “my picture” something I accomplished myself, but in light painting it’s not that simple. In light painting, owning the copyright to an image you captured doesn’t really make it “your art”.
I often describe light painting as “performance photography”. The shutter opens, significant stuff happens with lights while the shutter open (the performance), then the shutter closes and the picture is done. This process describes what happens when a single photographer is shooting and doing their own lights, but it also describes what happens when a second, or third, photographer has a camera next to the first one. The main light painter does the performance, everyone there with a camera gets their own picture. But is it really their picture? Yes and no.
When you are sharing on Instagram or Facebook you have the ability to tag participants. When you are doing a collaborative piece you should do just that. It’s your camera? Fine. But tag the model(s), tag the guy that capped your lens mid shot, tag every participant that added light to the shot. Don’t let people think you were the architect or light-executioner if you weren’t. People don’t team up on this stuff to be left out of the credits.
An interesting side node is that on rare occasion I shoot using my own camera, and where I do all of the lights, but someone else might push the shutter. Legally in the USA they would own the copyright (unless otherwise agreed to, probably in writing) but the shot would, in reality, be completely mine. In my experience this sort of distinction doesn’t come up often in the light painting world, but it’s an interesting thought, no?
The Contest Scenario
It would be bad form to enter the sort of image described above into a light painting contest and to represent it as your own. Is it your picture? Yes. Is it your own creation or light painting? No. Contests don’t generally allow for descriptions crediting the team, so submitting something like this implies that you are presenting this as your own work, your own creation.
If you’re entering a contest then you shouldn’t enter a group shot unless it was your idea and you are responsible for bringing it to life. It’s possible that you directed someone to do a small part of the lighting, but this is still your shot, and that’s a truth that should be behind any image you submit as your own work. To piggyback a camera on someone else’s shoot, where it was their idea, they did the lighting, and then to submit that shot in a contest or competition is disingenuous. Be proud of what you do, but either share all of the credit appropriately or, at the very least, don’t mislead people into thinking that something you could never recreate again yourself, is fully yours.
Sharing or Using Ideas
When a light painter shares an idea and gives you explicit permission to use it, go for it. Even in this case it’s a nice courtesy to drop their name when you share it. After you’ve done a few images with the same technique it’s up to you whether you want to continue to share your inspiration, but please do this at least on the first couple.
If you are discussing someone’s own pet project, something they are working on, and it’s something you’ve never done but then you choose to go and do it without talking to them first… that’s just not cool. The only thing that’s good for is burning bridges. Don’t do this.
Likewise, if someone releases a technique to the world, then it’s good form to give them a shout-out if you emulate the style. Do you need to? No, no you don’t. But it’s a nice touch and it helps with the sense of community that exists in the light painting world. That said, if you create a tutorial based on someone else’s moves, treat them with respect and give them credit for being there ahead of you. Information wants to be free, but it can be free while still respecting the people that helped get it there. Pitching someone else’s techniques in your own tutorial without homage to the person you learned it from is not cool.
Business Ideas and Networking
When doing business it gets a little trickier. It’s a big world and in general light painters aren’t patenting their tools, largely due to the expense involved with that. Additionally, patents are granted on a territorial basis, so even if you protect your idea in one country it’s apt to find its way to new individuals in other parts of the world.
The Light Painting Brushes Universal Connector is an example of this. It’s a great idea. I had built my own (far inferior) version of it before I knew of LPB, so obviously I’m on board with the tool and its need. For North American stores it’s the only commercial one that I’ve seen, and I believe Jason Page actually did go through the process of getting a patent on it. But I also see variations of it in European web stores. They are slightly different, but close enough that they might lose a patent battle here in the USA. It’s a good idea, one that several people had (whether they produced commercial tools or not), and I don’t know the history of who created which versions in which order, whether Jason’s was first, or concurrent with the couple out of Europe. This is the curse of being an innovative leader, in that your research and hard work paves the way for others to more easily follow. Acrylic blades is another area this could apply to.
Video light painting seems to have spawned heads, more or less concurrently. This one doesn’t have a clear-cut first, and I don’t feel like anyone involved in this is doing anything that requires additional credit. Doing photo booths is another one that doesn’t feel like anyone needs to credit anyone else.
On a local front business respect is even more important. Networking is good, taking other people’s contacts or business opportunities is not good. Light painting is a hard sell, and when doors open it’s usually because someone put a lot of legwork into making it happen. Stepping on someone’s toes, specifically without advance discussion, will only serve to alienate whichever friend was adversely affected by this. We’re a small enough community and there is room for all of us. Schisms due to shady business practices, or unresolved miscommunications, are detrimental to the whole, and only serve to fracture community.
So there you have it. The best way to not piss people off is to give credit where credit is due, or to try to steal someone’s idea or business opportunity. The minimum is that which is legally required, but if you want to continue shooting with people then it’s a good idea to credit pictures accurately, and to give credit to whomever gave you the idea in the first place.