How to Avoid Photographic Clichés

July 26, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 13 Comments |
How to Avoid Photographic Clichés Image

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.

How to Avoid Photographic Clichés

On my first visit to Antelope some 10 years ago, I took a number of images that were exactly like all the ones I had seen by other photographers. A straight forward eye-level view looking along the canyon.

How to Avoid Photographic Clichés

It was only on my second visit a few years later that I was able to look for something that was all my own. In this case lying on the floor with my Ebony camera pointing vertically upwards. I'm sure that others have taken this view, but I haven't seen anything similar either before or since.

Of course, we are all inspired by the work of others and there is an understandable temptation when arriving at the location of an image that we have studied in awe to try and recreate it. There is nothing wrong in this. A lot can be learned from working out why, when and how our unseen mentor distilled the myriad of possible options to the one that captivated us, but we should never fall into the trap of collecting such views, like trophies, and claiming them as our own. There are indeed photographers that spend an enormous amount of effort travelling the world and seeking out the tripod holes of their heroes without ever searching for something that is truly their own.

How to Avoid Photographic Clichés

Every tourist who visits Cuba gets tempted to photograph the old folk in traditional costume smoking an enormous cigar. Many photographers will actually pay for the privilege. I find the Cuban people captivating and feel that this image of a little boy completely absorbed with simple fun of flying his kite is far more representative of the people than those clichéd tourist shots.

This doesn't, of course, apply to your own work. Revisiting a location or subject that you have attempted before that is "all your own" can be extremely beneficial. I often carry a small compact camera and use it as a notepad to record works in progress. It may be that I feel I have discovered a great composition, but I am waiting for the vital ingredient of special lighting. It could be many years and multiple attempts before I finally feel that I have "cracked it".

Camera club competitions can also be a breeding ground for repetition. Judges look for the same things time and again and as a result photographers repeatedly make images that they think will comply with the "rules".

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photos, photo, photography, how to, technique, avoid, photographic, open, cliches, viewpoint, cliche, locality, icons, personal, difference, vision, different

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#1 Peter Ogilvie

An interesting read.  Could we compare music to photography.  In the 1960s along came something new (well new to most people) - The Beatles - they had a sound - that was like no other.  The result - many bands copied them - some well - some not so well.  For the Beatles to keep up the standard - they had to evolve their sound - just like Photographers have to do today.

And yet it was the Beatles - would themselves copied from 1950’s American rock n roll and a few ‘swooners’.

Photography is like music - once you know the rules - start to bend or break them - and you never where you may end up.

We see lots of prints and paintings every week at Cadremont - and the old sayings are the same - dare to be different, immitate is good but innovate is better.

Great article by the way.

11:43 pm - Monday, July 26, 2010

#2 Peter Ogilvie

Sorry - I forgot to add my blog to my previous comment

11:46 pm - Monday, July 26, 2010

#3 James G

One of the current clichés in photography which I’m becoming increasingly tired of is the high-contrast, low colour saturation images which seem to dominate so much of flickr. Too often it seems to be used as a shorthand for creating a ‘moody’ image.

That said, I can’t exactly criticise others for cliché. While I do try and put my own spin on images, I’m still prone to taking the more obvious shots.

1:09 pm - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

#4 John Pryere

Great article, thank you.

2:28 pm - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

#5 Willoughbys

There’s a lot of photography cliches.We are speaking here of overused images in photography. Whatever is the topic of your photos, what’s best is that you captured it perfectly and though its a cliche, what counts is that it is what you want to get a picture of and you are happy with the outcome.

7:34 am - Wednesday, July 28, 2010

#6 hagen

All very excellent comments. Cliches can also extend to trends as James G mentioned, that have been “over used”.

It is hard to differentiate and find your own style: to me that is a journey worth taking. While on it, I’ll hop of and thrill in the excitement of a good image even if it’s derivative or cliched.

Happy shooting.

11:14 pm - Monday, August 16, 2010

#7 ivane Beoulve

this is interesting indeed

11:07 pm - Monday, August 30, 2010

#8 Whitey

As a relative new comer to photography I’m constantly looking for ways to really open my eyes and see what’s around me, but then when I visit the myriad of “critique” sections on photography forums I come across the same remarks of how people do not conform to the rules of photography, and wonder how people can be creative and yet stick to such rigid unwritten rules.  Is there only one way to shoot any subject? Does it have to be either right or wrong?

11:53 am - Saturday, October 9, 2010

#9 Bryan

thank you   a much needed article if i see another picture like the original antelope pic i might puke

7:35 pm - Monday, November 1, 2010

#10 wa

this picture is soooo cliched

3:22 am - Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#11 TillyBee

There is nothing new that hasn’t been done before. That being said, my pet peeve’s are photography cliche`s such as selective saturation/desaturation (particularly wedding bouquets and baby blue eyes), overuse of the “draganizer” effect (high contrast, grungey images with low saturation), photos of sunsets that are less than spectacular, photos of family pets that are just gratuitous (haha taking photos of your mums dog doesn’t make you a professional photographer, lol).
People need to take a fresh approach and try and find their own unique style, that will eventually be their selling point.

10:31 am - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

#12 Sourav Chakraborty

Trying out different view points is actually the best advice a novice photographer can get. We see everything from normal eye-height- there is not much novelty to that. Trying out different angles and positions can give some truly unique photographs.

2:43 pm - Wednesday, November 16, 2011

#13 daniel

Very good article thanks. However, in my humble opinion, I believe that if everybody start laying down on back or belly and shoot, those images would be worse then present day eye level cliches.

5:58 pm - Monday, March 5, 2012