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.
Hi Joel, thanks for reading, and for the comment! I actually agree with everything you said except one thing. In light painting photography you don’t get to remove the light painting tools/process out of the equation. Like, you can’t do that and still have it be light painting. I’m not knocking other photographers who are there at all, and shoot, only asking them to share the contributions of those involved.
On our trip to Belgium I didn’t throw any light at all, but I “remixed” other people’s light painting shots on my camera using a prism that I held in front of the camera. My product was vastly different from what the camera next to me captured. In that case, what was captured on their camera was exclusively their art. What was captured on my camera was very much a joint effort with both of us contributing to the final image with our motions. Had there been a third camera adjacent, they would have captured the same as the main photographer did and while they would have captured an amazing sight it’s not the same as if they had done the light themselves. I fully encourage them to be excited about the shot, and to share it, and to share the contributions of all involved. That’s all I’m asking for, an accurate representation of what went into a shot.
Some people have hesitated to call light painting “photography” because it’s not as straightforward as that. You can’t have light painting without the performance aspect. You can have long exposure photographs, and ten people all set up next to each other can capture the same image. In light painting, the quality and the magic of the shot comes from the individual(s) making all of the light happen. I love shooting with other people, but if they capture my light then I’d like that fact to be shared instead of there being a misleading error of omission. When I shoot with others I aim to credit everyone who touched the output photo in any way!
This post is also an opinion, and one I’ve formed over five years of being in the light painting scene, and having shot with some of the best in the world. All of my friends who are seasoned at this have put ego aside and just love working together to create something amazing, and everyone get credited. My post was geared more at people in their first year of light painting, where this type of teamwork hasn’t really been as common in their past photography. In the past it was just them, but in light painting it’s more than that.
Absolutely agree with your response. I guess the one thing that made me smile was the “Some people have hesitated to call light painting photography” sentence. I may be wrong, but doesn’t the word “Photography” actually mean “Painting with Light?”
You are absolutely correct, although I think “drawing” is used more than “painting”, but close enough to make no difference to me! 🙂 I had to wrestle with this one too, but I do allow for words to evolve over time. These days people generally think of photography as “the thing I can do with a camera while taking as short an exposure as I can, and hopefully I didn’t cover the lens”, where images are small fractions of seconds. We differentiate “long exposure” photography, and light painting is just one step past that. I mean, of course light painting is photography, but there is an extra element that’s not present in 99.9999% of all photos taken on the planet.
I guess, to some degree, I need to respectfully disagree, but hopefully in a way that is meant to start a civil discussion with well thought out debate.
As far as most of the main points of the article, I agree with you wholeheartedly and hope that I’ve given credit(s) to as many as I can for those involved in shoots I’ve been associated with. The above photo is a great example, in that I was there at this shoot, and when I posted a few of the shots on social media (which I personally dislike, but it’s part of our lives), I believe I tagged everyone who I had “friend status” with on those venues at the time, and invited others to tag those I didn’t know about. If not, I apologize. Absolutely, tag and give credit if you can. This is courtesy, hopefully, but in some mediums it’s hard to do.
My devil’s advocate counterpoint is the fact that because someone else was involved (or in the case of light painting had/controlled a tool), doesn’t remove the photographer own concept of “art,” or maybe their artistic “capture of other art” would be a better way to say it. Many of us run workshops, invite groups, or even just shoot with friends. The fact that someone originally had an idea in no way or form “excludes” the rest of the world from capturing or even emulating a similar idea and making their own art. Can it be derivative? Absolutely. Are they ass-hats for trying to pass it as their own idea, absolutely. But take the “tool” out of the equation…which I know this is a light painting group, but for semantics can’t be the point of this conversation. I do also know and understand that there are copyright laws that attempt to say copying someone’s idea for your own commercial gain is an issue, but even the courts can’t really agree on this, and I’d say that being at or inviting others to any shoot/event where there’s more than one photographer there capturing it somewhat negates an individual person’s “clam” unless it is made known beforehand (and agreed) beforehand.
I frequently run photo-training groups. This year alone I’ve taken numerous groups out on photo-excursions. In many of these situations there will be a group of photographers either following me, or shortly thereafter branching off on their own shooting photos of the same subject matter, making their own art. Because I run a group, I don’t get to claim that I’m the only one who gets to claim ‘artistic license’ on all photos taken of a baby goat who happens to wander into a shoot we were doing on the peak of Mt Evans (even if he DID break my D5 camera). If I end up teaching 10 people standing around me while I shoot a meteor shower, does that mean all shots of that specific meteor shower are mine? Same subject, one billionth of an arc-second different angle, right?
My counter to you would be this: I love going on photo group tours, working on workshops, and shooting with other photographers. When I run them, I’d hope people tag me and everyone else that was there (simply to give a nod of thanks – tagging is only that and nothing more). If they don’t though, the fact that they were there and captured whatever image, that’s still their image, and in a way their art. Now it may be “their art” in that they were then capturing “someone else’s art” in the performance of that piece. A famous photo of, say some pop star performing a show in a free open venue is still a famous photo taken by the photographer. If 12 other people capture a very similar photo, it doesn’t make it less “cool,” but circumstances do make it less unique – but that a simple adjustment of our lives when everyone has cameras on their hip everywhere these days.
For that matter, there are a lot of groups where people pay to attend a group led shoot. A lead photographer may find a location, hire models or actors, and has some intended subject matter for the attendees to shoot. They learn more about their gear, about the process, interacting with the subject, heck about everything involved. Someone else was very involved in setting it up, but that frame is still theirs (unless they’re somehow capturing it uninvited or nefariously). Heck, if I go down to the zombie crawl here in Denver and take a photo of someone walking on the street is a phenomenal costume, is that not my art? You could argue they did all the work and I just pushed a button, right?
I’d hope this doesn’t shut down people creating and leading groups, teaching others, and working together. This shoot as an example was a great learning experience for me. I have some of these shots on my own website just to show some really cool photography, and when people ask I tell them that it was done as part of a group and I’d be extremely hard pressed to recreate it without some serious gear and probably would need a few other people involved to do something similar. But none of that detracts from the fact that I was there, invited to take pictures, and happily posted the end result. Otherwise why would you invite others to that type of event (which I hope happens again soon!), and why would you even work to put them on?
Just playing devils advocate, and hope you take it as such. I think your work is absolutely awesome and I hope to continue to be involved with yours and many other shoots in the future.