Let me start this article by saying that it’s just a light-hearted dig in the ribs, not a serious academic article on originality. Hell, take a look through my portfolio and you’ll find my fair share of cliched photographs in there – I photograph sunrises and sunsets which are not the most original subject matter in the world! Often though we have to work with what we’re given and it’s not always possible to fly to the Maldives and photograph bio-luminescent starfish under a dark sky during a comet shower. In truth I do beat myself up about how original (otherwise) my photos are and I do strive to do better. So anyway, here’s my top ten list. What would you add?
1. Burning Steel Wool Night Shots. These shots are everywhere. Stick a bit of steel wool on a string, light it and have your friend twirl it in circles down at the local abandoned brick-works. Here’s me burning steel wool in a tunnel. Here’s me burning steel wool on the beach. Here’s me burning steel wool at the Grand Freakin’ Canyon. Remind me again what it adds to the photograph?
2. The Northern Lights. (Small gasp from readers). Yep, I’m going to put it out there. I’m pretty sure I first saw a photograph of the northern lights in some 1960s edition of National Geographic. I was impressed. Now it seems like every landscape photographer seeking to prove they’re a proper landscape photographer has to make some sacred pilgrimage to Iceland or Norway so they can shoot ‘the lights’ and add breathy captions about how privileged they are to photograph it. I think I probably get more shots of the northern lights in my news feed than I do shots of sunsets. Or lonely trees.
3. Star Trails. This is one cliche I’ve managed to dodge so far – the venerable old star trail. Originally taken by astro-photographers to calibrate their telescopes, they’re now everywhere. You know what would impress me? Star Trails over Las Vegas!
4. Sunset shot with another photographer hunched over their tripod to the side of the frame. Quite specific, yes, but think about how many times you’ve seen one of these? Yes, I’m guilty of this one too. In my defense I took the shot because I was frustrated the other photographer was standing in a better location than me.
5. The Lonely Tree. Here’s a venerable photographic cliche that shows no signs of fading in popularity. The old lonely tree in a field/on a hillside/in the mist. I have a couple of these in my collection. It’s the photographic equivalent of putting Dire Straits on at a wedding reception.
6. The Deliberate Black and White. And by deliberate I mean ‘it looked shit in colour, let’s see how it turns out in black and white’. This is an age-old way of trying to save a shot. If you have to resort to converting it to mono, it’s not worth saving.
7. Bevels, Embossing and Frames. Okay, not strictly speaking a photo cliche, but a presentational one, but still. I have yet to see a photo ‘enhanced’ by a drop shadow, bevel or frame that improved the image in any way, shape or form. It’s the photographic equivalent of sticking a crocheted cover on your bog roll. Stop doing it.
8. Nuclear-Grade Saturation. Nobody likes vibrant colours more than me – most of my shots are sunrise or sunset and taken with a polariser to make the colours really pop. But I try and leave the saturation slider alone when I’m processing my photos because they cease to look natural and because I don’t like doing my post-processing wearing a welding mask for retinal protection. Increasingly it seems that acid-trip style saturated photos are the go. I can’t say I really blame photographers for using it because for some god-forsaken reason they’re the images that do best on Facebook and Instagram.
9. Inside the Wave. Ten years ago it would have cost you about $10k just for the underwater enclosure for your camera, but in this era of Go-Pros and $400 underwater cases and waterproof point-and-shoots, anyone can get out in the surf. Which means a deluge of shots taken inside a wave. The problem here is that 99% of them are not epic Clark Little shore-breaking barrels, but one foot tricklers taken by someone standing in knee-deep surf, firing off hundreds of click-and-pray shots in the hope that one of ’em turns out okay!
10. Over-blown HDR. Here’s one I’ve been guilty of in the past, but I’ve seen the error of my ways. I’m sure you know the kind of HDR I’m talking about, where every tiny indentation in stone is like a high contrast grand canyon, where all 16million shades of colour are present, where it ceases to look like a photograph and instead resembles an electron-scanning microscope’s close-up of bacteria. HDRs were never intended to look like this and they’ve become one the biggest photographic cliches there is. For pity’s sake, think of the children!