Learn Photography Faster | Copycat Project

Seoul, South Korea: “COPYCAT, COPYCAT, COPYCAT!!!” Rember when your third grade desk mate screamed this to the whole class because you had also scribbled a dog on your loose-leaf paper? Most people don’t like being called a copycat, but copying another artist’s work can be one of the fastest ways to accelerate your learning in photography. So long as you’re totally upfront about it no harm done!

For today’s Copycat Challenge I’m encouraging you to copy a pice of work that you love right down to the last detail. I want you to reverse engineer it and create a perfect replica. You might be surprised how challenging the simplest photos can be to recreate, how quickly you can learn and how long these lessons will stay with you.

Copy Cat Challenge

  1. Find a photo that inspires and challenges you
  2. Do your best to recreate it
  3. Create a diptych with the original photo on the left/top and your copy on the right/bottom OR upload both photos OR link to the original under your photo.
  4. Share in Eat | Sleep | Photography
  5. Be sure to credit the original artist in the comments, if you don’t know his/her name tell us where you found the image and/or link to it.
  6. Share any challenges you faced along the way, how you over came and what you would do differently next time


Whether you are a portrait, product, or landscape photographer, you can choose to replicate an within your genera however you might far more enjoy trying something a little out of your comfort zone.

How diligently you “copy” is up to you. Personally I find this assignment most educational when you attempt to make an exact replica however that may neither be feasible or in your own interest.

If you want to emulate a landscape you need not despair if you don’t have the same exotic location or weather. If your going for a studio look you don’t have to have fancy flashes and modifiers. This is an exercise in creativity, overcoming challenges with what you have on hand. For example, if you don’t want to or can’t recreate a photo exactly you can choose to focus on elements of a photo you wish to replicate such as the way it was composed, lit or processed to name a few.

Benefits of This Project

  • Student Centred Learning: You get to choose a topic your most interested in. No sitting though irrelevant content
  • Clear Objectives & Limitations: One of the hardest things about photography can be choosing what to shoot. All too often we wander around LOOKING for shots. This project pushes you to have an end goal in mind before you even take out your camera. You may find yourself limited by gear, locations, weather, subject etc and this project forces you to adapt to those limitations.
  • Project Oriented Learning: You get to go though all the essential learning stages: inspiration, conceptualization, experimentation, reflection, sharing, and feedback.

Suggestions Before You Start

Be Reasonable: Find inspiration but remember to keep it within reason. You don’t want to become disenchanted when you can’t re-create that scene of three super cars in front of a Singapore Skyline because you live 200km from the nearest traffic light and everyone you know drives a pickup truck. Instead look to some truck adverts!

Impose Time Limits: I highly recommend imposing a time limit on yourself. It’s too easy to get carried away with perfection and that’s really not the name of the game here. Think of the 80/20 principal. You can spend one hour on a shot that gets you very close to the original or five hours on the shot that is identical. you will learn 80% of what you needed to learn within the first hour and spend four times that attainting the last 20%.

Challenge Yourself – One of my favorite things to do on any shoot, especially ones involving lighting setups is to see if I can nail all my settings, angles and setup on the FIRST FRAME. This pushes you to really think things through rather than click and peep a hundred times. You probably won’t get it on the first frame but if you keep practicing like this you eventually will.

Reverse Engineering Morhammed Al Sheikh Musaed’s Photo


First you have to choose a photo. You can look to the internet, flip though magazines, visit an art gallery or capture a bill board. The important thing is you choose a piece of work that excites, inspires and challenges you. I wanted something in print to mimic.

Short on time, I looked to my book shelf and settled on a series of photo books given to me by Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai – well not personally but rather on his behalf at a photo convention I worked a few years back in Seoul.

I flipped though all of the hipa award winning photos looking for something I could recreate in my home in about an hour. I love playing with light so I sought something that would give me reason to take out my speed lights. So many of the shots were shot in exotic landscapes like desserts or the slums of India and I just didn’t have access to such locations and I wanted to recreate something as accuartly as possible.

I gravitated towards the black and white volume. I’ve always wanted to get better at black and white processing so I looked forward to unlocking the secrets to this tonality in Lightroom.

As soon as I saw this picture of a hand pouring what looked like sugar out of it I knew it was the one.

I didn’t have any willing models to work with so this was going to have to be a selfie which presents another layer of complexity and challenges but I’m pretty used to using myself as a subject. I enjoy the process of selfies because I can work at my own pace and stay entirely inwardly focused rather than feeling like I have to interact with my model.

Sadly, my hands aren’t dark and stained with a half century of dirt and manual labor but that’s not the critical part here. If I can figure out everything else I’ll be that much more ready for the right hands when they come along.

Everything else about the photo was totally achievable, the posing, angle, lighting and props.

Three, two, one, GO!

My goal was to take no longer than an hour from setup to clean up. I allowed additional time for processing.


I assessed the photo and chose my workspace accordingly. I needed a counter if possible, and some space around it for lighting and props.

Like in any job, it’s always good to prepare your workspace first. I always use a remote to trigger my camera and my flashes. I’ve found light stands make the best stand ins. The stand in is used to lock down the camera focus (stay in manual focusing mode) and give me some kind of spacial reference for where my hand will need to be in the shot. The silver tray is to catch the sugar and the little glass vase gave me a bulls eye to aim for so my hand would be in the right area of the frame.

I took many shots without sugar until I was satisfied with my back drop, camera angle, hand positioning and lighting.

Hindsight Tip: Ensure all your batteries have a decent charge. My flash batteries ran out half way through, ecactly when my hand was holding a bunch of sugar and it was quite challenging replacing them with one handedly.

Lens Selection & Camera Angle

I examine how compressed the image looks when choosing my lens. This hand has quite a three dimensional look so I went with my Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art at f8 to achieve similar depth of field and give myself lots of focal leeway for my hand. The camera angle in this case seemed pretty simple, straight on.


You can learn everything you need to know about lighting by deconstructing the shadows and highlights in an image.

There is a single light source in this photo. The shadow on the thumb and the highlights on the fingernails are important clues as to where our light is coming from. Since it’s coming from behind, it’s basically a rim light (if you want to delve deeper into rim lighting have a look at this great article ShootProof put together) My guess is a large nearby window or door casting indirect light onto the hand towards the upper left corner of the frame, behind the thumb. The shadows are still quite dark and well defined leading me to believe the hand is a little ways away from the soft light source. Based on all these clues I figured my 26″ inch softbox would be the best fit, a bare flash is almost always to harsh and my giant umbrella would have been too soft.

Again I tried to nail the lighting in my first frame and I got pretty close! After that it was much trial and error moving the position of my softbox to get the right shadows and highlights at the right angles.


Probably the most challenging part of it all was trying to achieve the same hand position. Just the fact that the subject’s hand and my own were so physically different in structure, texture, size and tonality made it tough. Getting my nails to show, the thumb shadow and the pinky finger exposed was tough. I’m not a hand model. I don’t aspire to be a hand model. The purpose of this exercise IS NOT to improve my hand modelling skills. Thus when I was “close enough” with the hand position I called it good. Below is the frame I liked best straight out of camera.

Note there’s all kinds of crap in the frame and I left myself TONS of free space for cropping. That’s fine. If you can actively plan post production into your shoot that is going to save you time during the shoot then why not! I have 30 mega pixels to work with – I’d rather crop than end up with 30 frames where my hand was slightly ripped by trying to do an in camera selfie. I’m also not about to cut off my bracelet from Nepal thats managed to stay intact for 5 years – I can clone that out in a minute. The background is too small but that can easily be cloned and extended if need be. What you DON’T want to do is get in the habit of shooting without intention with the assumption that you can “figuring it out” in photoshop later.

Tip: If your reference image in in black and white then shoot in back and white in camera if possible. When you do this in RAW it’s color anyway but seeing the image in black and white helps you better compare your copy to the original.

Post Production

Again I set a time limit on post production, 30 minutes max. Here you can see my final selections. I wanted to see them all in black and white and reversed before making my final decision.
Always shoot a few extra frames. You may want to borrow some elements from one.

Now the image has been reversed, cropped and a standard black and white conversion applied. Note how lacking the image is in contrast, a pretty common characteristic of RAW files with standard Lightroom conversions.

Image 1: Standard Lightroom conversion by pressing “v”

Image 2: White balance and exposure adjustments, heavy contrast and clarity applied, blacks and shadows enhanced.

Image 3: Dodging and burning / exposure adjustments with brush tool. Note I added a lot of extra shadow to the palm of the hand.

Image 1: More or less finished processing in Lightroom.

Image 2: I like how the sugar is falling in this image so I applied the same adjustments via copy and paste and opened both images in photoshop.

Image 3: I overlaid the alternative image on top of my original image. I set my blending mode to “lighten” which means only lighter coloured pixels where exposed. I masked out everything except the sugar. Now we have the original sugar AND the alternate sugar together in the same frame. This sugar spill looks more like the original now. I also cleaned up the right hand edge of the spill making a stronger line like the original artist’s image.

After about 20 minutes of editing we’re here. one final check reveals I need to add a little more shadow under the wrist (not pictured) And voila, the final image!


So I have a confession to make, after shooting this back on Wednesday I had an engagement session and I formatted my cards without thinking, loosing the hour of work I put into this project. So last night I redid the project and not only was it easier, it was a whole lot quicker, this time it only took me 40 minutes!!! So it really does go to show practice makes perfect.

I learned some valuable lessons, triple check before formatting memory cards, strip light panels on my softbox are super narrow and don’t work for this kind of thing (I tried the strip light the first time). I became better at reading light and getting things right on the first go.

There is still a lot of room for improvement. The tonality, color and texture of my photo is still a bit off. I’m thinking I needed a slightly harder light. I need to work on my hand modelling skills.

Overall I’m happy with the outcome and am really looking forward to seeing what everyone in Eat | Sleep | Photography comes up with! Feel free to leave any questions, comments or samples of your work below!

ps. If you’re interested in seeing another Copycat project click here.

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