The digital revolution has certainly increased the popularity of photography. It seems that almost everyone who can afford it now owns a camera and consequently there are millions if not billions of images made every week. This means that the subjects that you choose to photograph may well have been photographed many times before and unless you can come up with a different approach you may stand accused of perpetuating a photographic cliché.
So what exactly is a cliché? A quick search on Wikipedia yields the following (slightly amended) definition. “A cliché is an element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel”. The “element” in question here is not just the subject matter you choose but can also apply to some approaches, techniques and even post processing options. The key is that at some point in the past an original thinker was the first to produce something “meaningful or novel”. This inspired many others to attempt to reproduce it to the point where any further attempts are likely to be met with a despairing groan.
The idea that all clichés are bad and should be avoided is not necessarily true. However, many clichés have been done to death and should be avoided at all costs.
Many of the following can be done well and actually be considered wonderful images, but if they are overdone, used in excess, or become too random and unnecessary, then they will attain cliché faux pas.
1. Unnecessary Black and White
Black and White images have a great quality and can really make people notice details that might otherwise be lost in a cacophony of color, but if the image is not interesting in and of itself, changing the color image to black and white will not make it a good image. Use black and white sparingly and when appropriate when “less is more”, not simply because you can de-saturate an image in your post processing application.
Okay, this is one we just don’t like, and we’re not going to beat around the bush. Because everyone sees landmarks, they’re already a cliché before you press the shutter button down. Some photos of landmarks are interesting and unique, but it’s going to take a lot of extra work to get there. Millions of people photograph landmarks every day. That’s a lot of competition.
The photo that bothers us the most is the “here is proof that I made it to the Eiffel Tower” photo. We get it. You went to Paris. But that’s not the worst of it. We’ve seen people taking pictures of commemorative plaques and not even bothering to stand in front of them. How does that do anything for anyone? It’s just some random plaque at some famous place. Millions of people photograph that plaque every day.
3. Unnecessary Selective Color
Many people have been very successful with the creative use of selective color in images. However, because of the impact that some of these photographs have had on many people, others take it to the extreme. How many prom pictures, wedding shots, portraits, and children’s shots have you seen that use selective color to try to make something stand out in a photo? The key to using selective color properly is to compose the shot so that your intended subject stands out whether it is full color or black and white. If you can accomplish this, then you might consider using selective color to make the shot more impactful, but do not use it as a means to ‘repair’ and otherwise poorly composed or exposed image.
4. Capturing flowers, pets, and sunsets
In photography, choosing a subject can basically make or break the appeal of the final photo. With this said, most amateurs are tempted to use flowers, pets, and sunsets as their subjects primarily because of their innate beauty and charm. However, photography experts, advise people to not overuse these subjects. Yes, they may be beautiful, but capturing a photo of an unpleasant sight and turning it into an artistically attractive scene is much more rewarding in a photographer’s point of view.
5. Watermarks and Borders
So many people out there want to make their photos look “cool” and make sure that everyone knows who took the shot. What you end up with is a gaudy border (usually a heavy Gaussian blur or “grunge” borders) and a large obstructive and invasive watermark of the photographers (so called) name. There is nothing wrong with applying some creative bordering to help frame the image from time to time, especially if it is going to be displayed digitally. There is nothing wrong with having your name on a photo, but when they become the focus of the image, then you are moving away from the art of photography and into the arena of graphic design. Remember, simple is always better, and less is more in this case. Allow your clients to choose a frame they like and use a tasteful watermark to keep you name on the photo. If you are really concerned with protecting your work from being stolen, track your photos with TinEye to protect yourself.
6. Dutch Angles or Tilted Shots
There is a time and a place to use Dutch Angles. Typically, titled shots are not a problem if they angle of tilt is not too severe. Dutch angled shots are used to convey certain emotions or “feels” to the viewer. Sometimes they are used to convey the sense that something is “not quite right”, and other times they are used to draw more attention or interest. However, when people misuse the “tilt” is when they are simply trying to get more information in the frame and therefore tilt the camera to achieve this and end up ruining their image. If you find yourself tilting the camera to include more details in your shot, then you should stop yourself and reconsider. You might change the focal length on your lens to a wider angle to include more of the details or simply move farther away from the subject to achieve more detail. Simply tilting the camera because you have seen some really neat shots that use the technique is not a good reason at all.
At the end of the day, photography is not entirely about shutter speeds and apertures but about thinking outside of the box to tell a story that photographers want to share with the world. If photographers take this to heart, they will be able to avoid clichés and truly start making their mark in the competitive yet rewarding industry.