10 Photo Clichés Found in Every Photographer’s Portfolio

10 photo cliche

My lucky guess is it somewhat irks you that these days every other person with a camera calls herself or himself a photographer.

Seems unfair that some spend years learning all those cool tricks and techniques while others just take a few mundane cliché photos, start promoting their art right from the get-go, and get popular in narrow circles.

So, is all the time and effort one has to put in to become a professional photographer worth it if others get an equal share of “fame” without the struggle?

My answer’s a definite yes. To start with, photography is so much more than the climactic button press. It’s a form of art, a new language with an alphabet you need to know in order to read and speak freely and comprehensively.

Only then will you be able to formulate new concepts in the language rather than just going on repeating the same idiomatic sentences from times long past.

And, in fact, it’s pretty easy to differentiate between a photographer and an imposter after a brief glance at the portfolio. You’ve probably noticed how the same topics, same kind of shots with different watermarks show up in portfolios all over the web.

So, let’s discuss cliché photography, the kind almost every other photographer’s portfolio already has, and find out whether your portfolio needs a makeover.

  1. Flowers, fall, pets
  2. Railroads and landscapes
  3. Heavy editing
  4. Being on the nose
  5. Patterns, street art, frames
  6. Romantic love
  7. Selfies or text in photos
  8. Splashing hair, making hearts with hands
  9. Dutch angle
  10. Empty music or concert halls
  11. Too much HDR

1. Flowers, fall leaves on the ground, pets, even pets wearing sunglasses.

Okay, so your gram has a nice garden with roses, leaves do turn yellow in the fall, and you love your dog. I’m not saying these are not good things, humane and warm things, but think about the potential audience of the shot.

Most people these days are bombarded with images every day on social media. Some even complain that they intentionally don’t Google the country they’re visiting because oftentimes the photos of the place are much better than reality, which takes away some of the joy from traveling. So, do you think they haven’t seen roses or fall leaves or dogs?

The truth is those interested in your grandma’s rose garden are people who know you. The photos of your dog Mindy will be much adored by your friends who know Mindy and have played ball with her. This type of photography only becomes cliché photography when you try to present it as something which it isn’t: an image universally interesting.

Of course, it’s all very sweet and in good fun but ultimately, like my first photography teacher Albert used to say, we need to distinguish between “photo album” photography, that is documenting your memories, and the professional kind.

2. Railroads or postcard-y panoramas and landscapes.

For Leo Tolstoy, trains were a real issue, symbolizing the death stare of urbanism and the inevitable collapse of technological innovation.

For us, well, it’s not that serious. Besides, we all had our hipster times, those misinterpreting Frost’s “the road not taken” times. It may be time to move on.

But in actuality, the real issue I take with landscape photography – and this is what makes it a photo cliché –  is that there usually isn’t much else going on. To me, good photography is all about layers.Yes, the sunset is beautiful but it’s not enough anymore. There also needs to be some “event,” another occurrence. Maybe two horsemen riding off into said sunset would contrast the train and bring back some of those Tolstoy motifs. Even better if there’s a third layer.

3. Heavy vignette (this includes white vignette, too)

When a professional photographer sees this, his or her brain immediately labels you as an amateur who just found out you can play around with brightness and saturation. And same goes for Bokeh.
To avoid cliché photos in this case, just keep in mind that most of the time editing is not meant for altering reality until it’s unrecognizable. Quite the contrary, its main purpose is to bring the photographed reality closer to the way the human eye sees.

Of course, there are exceptions: fashion photography, for example, is all about the fantasy world of Birkins and mohawks and recreating glamorized versions of Marie Antoinette’s court. But even in those cases, the viewer still knows what he or she is getting into and willingly surrenders to the retouched and overedited fantasy. If you’re photographing real life, there is no reason why you should heavily edit your photos lest they become cliché photography.

4. Selective coloring on a B&W background.

We all have those subjects or objects that brighten up the sordid environment of the everyday but taking the sentiment so literally verges on tacky.

Great photography is all about subtlety. In fact, the main difference between visual modes of expression and textual modes of expression is the freedom of interpretation. Text narrows the ambiguity of meaning down to something more manageable, acting as a guide, giving you a clue. Image, on the other hand, is a free flow of associations, references, and meanings. And maybe that’s the main strength of it.

When you’re being so on the nose with your photography, you’re intentionally impoverishing the medium, nudging the reader, like, “Hey, you, get it? Get it though?”

5. Abstract patterns, street art or frames.

First, let’s talk about patterns. All photographers love them and almost all use them. They’re pleasing to the eye, always say something about the routine existence of most humans (“Life is a loop!”) and say more when they break at a certain point (disruption, freedom, possibility). It’s almost a classical genre of photography. So why shouldn’t you shoot patterns like the white one up there in the picture?

The answer is, they’re boring. Bear in mind though, not all patterns are photography clichés. Sometimes you see a woman in a dotted dress and another one in the distance in a dotted blouse and there’s also an ad for something also all in dots and you just have to take a picture. A pattern is great when it’s coincidental, momentary. Not when it’s on a wall somewhere or on a building.

As for photographing street art and frames, though they say everything is a copy of a copy, your photos don’t have to be images of images. Shoot something dynamic, real-life, raw. Something worthy of filling up a frame.

6. People jumping or running hand in hand, footsteps on sand or snow.

There’s this quote from the movie, it goes: “A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one: me fixing grapefruit, you sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we were in love.”
Same goes for love in photographs, they have to be about something other than what melodramas taught us love looks like. One of my favorite photos of love was incidentally taken by a random paparazzi. It was when Kate Moss at the height of her career was dating Pete Doherty all up in drugs, and they’re in a car and the paparazzi are after them and they are looking back at the camera from the hind window, Pete waving, Kate smiling and smoking. And, of course, they’re not mad because “the world was built for two” in a Toyota Land Cruiser.

7. Selfies, your own reflection or text on photos.

It’s a part of the photographer’s job description to pretend to be void of mere mortals’ narcissism. You’re supposed to be the eternal peeping tom, selflessly documenting the ordinary oddities around us.

Also, adding text to your photos may not be the best idea either. Again, images are an act of defiance against the particularity of text. If you can’t express yourself through photography, write a brilliant book instead.

8. Splashing water or sand back with your hair or making hearts with hands.

The first 10 times you see something like that you’re like, “Oh, cool”. The next 50 times you go, “Oh, ok”.

The 100 times after that are usually just a tad less interesting. You got the point.

And showing a heart with fingers is something The Beatles did a long time ago, except more expressively.

9. Dutch angle.

Unless the shot specifically questions the photographer’s level of inebriation that is, which is a good genre, if you ask me. 

10. Empty music halls.

Those raise too many questions about the circumstances under which the photo was taken and almost no question about anything else.

Tell us if you’re friends with the music hall’s management and we’ll leave you alone.

A BONUS cliche, just for you: Too much HDR.

I know you came to object, “But HDR was invented for a reason, right?”

Sure, but the same goes for sleeping pills. Don’t swallow a whole pile of them. Trust your sense of measure, reader.

To prevent accusations of radicalism, here’s a disclaimer: Sometimes each and every one of these definitely works in a shot.

In all other cases, hope this article was helpful enough to prevent your future “sins.” Speaking about passion for photography – you might be interested in checking out exactly why you need a photography website or how to build a photography portfolio website.

 Any other clichés you’ve noticed? Feel free to share those in the comments below.  

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Gayane Vardanyan
Majoring in Computer Science and having a creative soul of a poet, Gayane found her balance as a content writer at 10Web, where she mainly creates articles about technology, WordPress, marketing, business, publishing, photography and blogging success. Photography, literature and music are her biggest passions.

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  • Sandy

    Hi there! Such a wonderful short article, thanks!

  • Reggie Parsons

    Thanks for sharing