It has been argued that no idea is original. Somewhere, at some time, someone else has done it. I am proud to acknowledge that a lot of my photography ideas come from the work of other photographers. Some ideas I try to replicate as closely as possible whereas others I simply adopt a theme and change it by adding my own personal interpretation. While some artists strive for total originality, I do not, and for several good reasons.
First, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If I am copying an idea of another photographer, it is because I am blown away by their work. The funny part is, if I dig deep enough I usually discover that the photographer I am copying got their idea from someone else as well. I have a long list of ideas that are born from images I have seen from other photographers. The list has been generated not by the name of the photographer, or the equipment they use, but rather by the finished product.
Second, you can learn a lot by simply trying to reproduce someone else’s work. If you are trying to duplicate an image perfectly, you have to account for lighting, depth of field, noise levels, shadows, etc. Trying to get all of that right, isn’t easy, especially if the image is already complex and complicated. If you’re lucky enough, the photographer might have a behind-the-scenes explanation or video where they explain what camera settings they used and how they set up their gear to capture the shot. This typically is not the case for most images, but search for details on the picture anyway. You may be surprised. The more you attempt to recreate others’ work, the quicker you can realize how certain images were created. You will be able to look at a simple portrait and fairly quickly figure out how many lights were used and where the lights were generally located. The more you try this duplication process, the better you will become at photography in general.
Lastly, by repeatedly trying to duplicate the work of others, you will start to develop your own style. You will start to combine ideas from different sources to create ideas that come from you. Even then, your ideas may not be completely original as someone has probably already done something very similar. That’s ok. Do an image search for ‘egg photography’ and you will find some very interesting images, but after a page or two, they all start to take on some similar themes. This isn’t to say that the first few images you see are more or less original, it just means the different variations on the same subject (an egg) tend to start to blend together such as broken egg images, eggs with facial expressions images, colored eggs images, etc.
So, have I ever had an ‘original’ idea? Sure! I've had several ‘original’ ideas that usually plague me right before I go to sleep. It’s only later in the morning that I discover the idea has been done before in some form or another. If you’re new to photography and want to develop your own style, as odd as it sounds, plagiarize as much as you can. Even if you’re a seasoned photographer in a certain style and want to branch into other styles, try re-creating images of others whose work you find interesting. True photographic plagiarism is taking someone else’s picture and putting your name on it. Sadly, this happens all too frequently. But if you adopt the philosophy that photography is about capturing moments that can never be re-created later on, it becomes literally impossible to plagiarize anyone’s picture by simply trying to re-create it. So if originality is undetected plagiarism, be an undetected plagiarist!
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.