Cliches To Avoid

July 01, 2016

When starting out in photography, or looking to expand your skills, it is natural to try as many different techniques and effects as possible. In the search for inspiration, you will no doubt find images in books and on the internet that you like and wish to emulate. However, photography is also full of clichés, or visual tropes that everyone has tried at some point. If originality and creativity are your goals, then clichés should be avoided.

Naturally, any list of this kind is subjective, but if you want to make a good impression with your photography, the following are generally regarded by experienced photo enthusiasts and professionals as cringe­worthy clichés. Avoid them!

1. Selective Colour Photography

The red truck probably would have been just as effective in a full colour world.

We’ve all seen instances of this in films like S chindler’s List a nd P leasantville. While these films use selective colour for dramatic and emotional effect, the same can’t be said for your holiday snapshots of red tulips or of yellow cabs in New York. Selective colour is probably the most clichéd of photo clichés.

While it’s completely normal for photographers to give this effect a go, most grow out of it fairly quickly. Not all photographs produced with this technique are bad, but let’s face it, most are. If you absolutely must use this technique, then avoid using the in­camera selective colour modes (found in many cameras, even mid­range DSLRs) and alter the colour after

the fact using Photoshop or similar. Otherwise, you’re stuck with a selective coloured image with no original as a backup.

2. Extreme HDR

S o r r y i f y o u r e y e s a r e p a r t i c u l a r l y s e n s i t i v e . T u r n d o w n t h e b r i g h t n e s s . S o u r c e : W i k i m e d i a Commons

When High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography first became popular, it was everywhere. From pro photo magazines to Flickr, it was impossible to get away from the effect. HDR photography involves merging several photographs of the same scene taken at different exposure values in order to capture full detail in shadows and highlights.

When used subtly and judiciously, HDR photography can be very effective. It can bring greater detail and dynamic range to photographs, especially when captured in difficult lighting conditions such as high­contrast bright light.

However, as with any photographic technique, churlish overuse has rendered many viewers deadened (and, as some detractors have noted colourfully, with “bleeding eyes”) thanks to HDR. Bad HDR is tacky, looks awful and turns photography into cartoonish computerised “art”.

So, simply put, if HDR is necessary for your shot, see if you can avoid using it by adjusting lighting. If that fails or is not possible, use HDR or bracketing in order to support your artistic vision, but don’t go overboard.

3. Sunsets and flowers

Sunsets are more impressive in person, regardless of how good your camera is.

Serious landscape and botanical photography is a worthwhile pursuit, happy snaps of sunsets and flowers are not. Why? Because they are generally boring s ubject matters that have been photographed literally millions of times before.

Sunsets, for example, are visually spectacular in the flesh. The red and orange of a setting sun is often glorious to behold. Unfortunately most of our photographic skills and equipment are insufficient to capture these events.

While our eyes see sunsets as above, our camera often renders it like this. Overexposed and washed out.
Why? Well partly because our brains and eyes like to exaggerate what they see, and also because our camera light meters are averaging the entire scene, not just the bright setting sun in the middle. While there are plenty of ways to avoid this overexposure (by using spot metering for example), it still doesn’t change the simple fact that a sunset is regarded by many experienced photographers as a boring

cliché. Recommendation: put down the camera for a few minutes and just take the sunset in ­ it’s going to be better in person than in pixels anyway!

Similarly, flowers are much better in person than in print. Besides, it’s easy to take a photo of something p retty. If you want to improve your photographic skills, try to take an interesting photo of a boring object.
4. Bokeh

First photographers complained about out­of­focus images, now they design lenses especially for them!

Bokeh is an unavoidable by­product of using an optical lens. Especially obvious when using wide­aperture lenses, bokeh is the blurry, out­of­focus area behind the subject. Blurry backgrounds are often desirable in portrait photography where focus (quite literally) is intended to be kept on the subject. Unfortunately, bokeh has become a photographic subject in and of itself.

While there are some q uite evocative images that focus (but aren’t focused) on bokeh, the vast majority are blurry and indistinct images of nothing. Come on, you’ve spent the money on a super­sharp, aspherical lens, get something in focus!

5. Watermarks and Text on photos

Please don't do this to your beautiful images.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, adding a few more probably won’t improve it. Compounding mediocre photographs with your name and “business” watermark will make things worse. Although popular on the internet, text and watermarking looks unprofessional and tends to distract from the image. Although photographers' opinions differ on the best way to protect images, most will avoid overly prominent watermarks.

Most photographers watermark their images to prevent them from being stolen from the internet and used elsewhere. While image theft occurs regularly on the internet, watermarks do little to prevent it from occurring. Unless you make the watermarks as conspicuous as our example above, it is trivial for a determined thief to clone or crop out watermarks.

If you are so worried about the security of your photo on the internet, then the only way to stop theft is to not post anything online at all. Drastic, yes, but the only foolproof way of preventing digital theft.

For most photographers, the benefits of sharing your photos with the world outweigh the
r i s k s p o s e d b y m i s u s e . O r p e r h a p s t h i n k a b o u t i t t h i s w a y : w h y d o e s
t h e g r e a t e s t photographic collective in the world not use watermarks on their online galleries, yet Uncle Bob Professional Photographer does?

6. Extreme Vignetting

Another effect that can be effective, but not when it gives you tunnel vision.

Vignetting is another one of those unavoidable by­products of photography that has unfortunately become a subject in and of itself. Traditional vignetting is a result of light falloff at the outer edges of a lens. This is usually due to the optical design of the lens.

Although many manhours have been poured into the development optical designs and photo editing suites to reduce or eliminate vignetting, some photographers find it necessary to add their own vignetting in. This is particularly confusing given photographers like to spend much money on lenses that are as close to optically perfect as possible.

Like any filter, when judiciously used, artificial vignetting can be effective by drawing attention to the subject at the centre of the frame. Professional photographers (even documentary­minded photojournalists) do this quite regularly, although the a ppropriateness of such image p ost­processing is a topic of passionate d ebate within the photographic community. Ethics issues aside, vignetting can look quite awful. Tone down the digital vignetting ­ your lens can do it naturally!

7. Apps and Filters

I don't recall Elizabeth Street being this green...

Filters are the lazy photographer’s way of making a mediocre photo look good. There, it’s been said. Ok, that’s not entirely true, but there is a whole market of filters out there for Photoshop, Lightroom and mobile phones and many of them are garish.

Again, like any tool, when used judiciously and with a creative vision in mind, filters can be a good (even necessary) part of the photographic process. But all too often, a default “film” effect, or grainy black and white filter is used without thought given to it. Start using filters more thoughtfully and perhaps take a look at some of the very well­regarded filter sets such as VSCO, Nik Software and DxO Film Pack. Your viewers will thank you.

8. “Pro Photographer” Selfies

The surgical procedure to replace the photographer's head with a Canon 1D X did not go well.

Ok, these aren’t necessarily all “bad”, but they are a cliché. You know the one, you’ve bought yourself a new camera and decide the only way you can merge your personal identity with your newly­found photographic identity is to snap yourself and new camera gear in a mirror. Right, except nobody can quite see who you are and you now look like everyone else who has done exactly the same thing.

There are plenty of evocative and technically thrilling s elf­portraits out there, from amateur photographers to some of the greats of photojournalism. Make your self­portrait a symbol of your own creativity, not derivative of someone else’s.

Beware of Rules

This in itself is a cliché of rule lists. Orwell’s five rules for effective writing finished with “Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous”. A similar rule might be applied to photographic rules. Effective photographs can be made using the above “clichés”, but remember they are clichés for a reason. They have probably been used to death and when you look back at your photos in 5 or 10 years’ time, you’ll wonder why you didn’t try something a little more original.