Remember when you were in grade school and you were taught that you should never copy someone else's work? The moral of that lesson was that you should learn the material on your own and the teacher had hopes that you would retain the information for use later on in life. That is still a great lesson today.
A perfect example of this lesson would be photographs. When I judge photographic competitions, I see it all the time _ an image that is a not so perfect rip off from a famous magazine ad or maybe a popular shot that had been shown frequently on the news. I've also often noticed it in the work of other less experienced photographers. As soon as one photographer posts a unique image on the Internet it won't be long until others follow suit and copy it, same location, same pose and same outfit right down to the last detail.
When this happens to me I'm flattered that someone would think I had an idea worth copying, but still it makes me sad that someone would circumvent the creative process, take the easy way out and miss out on the excitement of creating a new and unique image.
With that said there is nothing at all wrong with studying the work of other photographers and artists to get new ideas and learn from the techniques they use. I often check out the work of other photographers that I admire to study lighting patterns and posing techniques but I'm always very careful not to copy their idea.
Many times I've said to myself, "darn, I wish I had taken that." But I try to figure out what makes the image so appealing, learn from it and put it in my toolbox to use sometime in the future when the need arises. If you use someone else's ideas and don't put any thought of your own into it, then you won't learn anything about the left brain technical process that led to the image. More importantly you will miss out on the right brain creative process that leads to new ideas. Like a great recipe, if you put just the right amount of each into your image you might come out with a masterpiece you would be proud show off.
(Brent Kepner is the owner and photographer at Foto 1 Pro Photo in Elkins. He is a Master Photographer, Certified Professional Photographer and past president of the Professional Photographers of West Virginia.)