How to Avoid Photographic Clichés

July 26, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

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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