On Cliches and Photo Ideas

Feb 27, 2016

Stefan Kohler

Stefan Kohler is a full-time retoucher. He’s from Germany and likes bacon. In the last years, he built up a broad community around his retouching classes at the Infinite tool’s website.

On Cliches and Photo Ideas

Feb 27, 2016

Stefan Kohler

Stefan Kohler is a full-time retoucher. He’s from Germany and likes bacon. In the last years, he built up a broad community around his retouching classes at the Infinite tool’s website.

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Credit: Kevin Browne, Fotolia #17039046, slightly edited

If you go through Flickr galleries and popular photo, model mayhem or Facebook photography groups, some photographs keep popping up. You see them again and again to the point you just want to scream. Not necessarily because they are bad, but rather because they are lacking any clear photographic idea.

As deeper you dive into the world of photography the more you recognize this sad truth: one photographer is creating something, 100 others copy that idea and absolutely 100 of these copies are worse. give it some times, and these things will pop up as “ideas”. Models will writing: “I want to do a powder shooting“, make up artists come up with “let’s do some extreme makeup with chocolate on the lips and honey in the face” and photographers are buying ringlights with bad CRI in Home Depot for the catchlights.

This is then sold as “image idea” – but is it really an “image idea”, or are simply copied and served clichés?

We asked some photographers and retouchers the following question: “What’s the worst cliché, what is the worst picture idea that keeps coming up.” Here are the results as an unsorted list:

  • Throwing long hair in water while backlight to create a circle of water
  • High heels and string (see cover photo)
  • Jack Daniels bottle as a screen for genitals
  • Black and white Body Parts with water drops
  • Model sitting on a track
  • American Beauty with rose petals
  • Ring light while rolling in some sort of wrap
  • throw flour on Model
  • Burka covers everything but model’s eyes
  • In front of a car standing
  • The Hand in panties
  • girl, sexy in bed without a defined mission
  • in a wheat field (both yellow or green)
  • In Poppy Field
  • In sunflower field
  • keep things in front of the lens
  • with horse
  • Shoot naked girls for the sake of… naked girls
  • With empty picture frame
  • Umbrella as background
  • White vignette
  • Color Key
  • Levitation shooting
  • Model in the lake before sunset
  • Fake rain while being ankle deep in water in the studio
  • Crashed look without black
  • Indian jewelery
  • Bleech bypass Presets
  • Lost Places / urban decay
  • Graffiti & brick wall
  • Sprinkles on her lips
  • All blood and teddy bears
  • Tattoos and nuns outfit
  • Flour on the tushy with a missing hand print / cookie mold
  • middle finger
  • Naked & Oil Smeared
  • gas masks
  • making heart with fingers
  • USA – or British flags as clothing
  • Softbox as background
  • In the forest / forest with leafs
  • Colored smoke
  • Toilet shooting
  • emergency blanket
  • Gummy bears on baby bump
  • Underwater shooting in cheap clothes
  • Sexy model against the Japanese small cars – often combined with a settlement in the background
  • Sitting in lingerie at the window
  • Mounted in a snow globe
  • Attractive in bathtub
  • Bath with milk water
  • Plastic flowers as decoration
  • peacock feathers
  • colored light

These are the most hated “picture ideas” that we were sent. We tried to bring order into this random list. We asked ourselves, “What’s so bad about all the things in this list”? Is nudity always difficult, or are there exceptions?

Here is the thing, every image is a statement. A naked model, for example,  can go under the wide umbrella of “Fine Art” or as “When you extend this statement it becomes a visual idea.  (No, writing captions in a black bar under the image does not count as extending the statement). Some photos are just made because a photographer want to make a photo, and have no deeper motivation for it, then anyone who watches the photo will have very little impact. The deepest impact is achieved when the viewer recognizes himself in the photo, otherwise it is best if the photos evokes an emotion with the viewer.

The list above is a great example of things that on their own are not “image ideas” they are just elements that can be used to convey an idea.

The next time you shoot or busy planning, just ask yourself  this question: “What do I want the people who see my photo to feel and what are emotions I want“. One can certainly put a model in a bathtub full of milk and one can certainly put a model under a colored smoke curtain. That will surely make any photo more interesting. I mean, a model in a bathtub is interesting, a model in a bathtub with milk, is more interesting, and a model in a bathtub filled with milk in a urban decayed location is even yet more interesting. However, the visual message is can only be complete if you can answer these questions:

  • Why would the model sit in a bathtub with a milky substance?
  • Why is the bathtub in such a Lost location?
  • Why is there colored smoke?

And this is the tricky part. These questions are almost impossible to answer in a way that makes sense.

How to break down ideas to elements in the final image

It’s always good to start with a statement. An example:

The aim is to provide a socially critical photo. The viewer should see how communicating via Facebook leads to missing real communications

What is a strong form of communication?

The stronger the element, the clearer the statement.

So, sex. The couple have sex, which is one of the most intimate and closest forms of communication. If sex is too explicit, then lets have them in an otherwise very intimate and ‘suggesting’ setting. Closely entwined and at least partially undressed.

Where are they?

An answer that makes a lot of sense would be: In bed. Okay – what about the rest of the room? how does it look like? What are the other elements we should have?

Actually, it does not make sense to show anything other than the couple in bed. (and definitely not placee the bed in a desolated location). You can however, include a small side lamp to get the light motivated.

How do I get the statement in the photo?

The couple sits or kneels ever so entwined on the bed; the two table lamps encompass the room in a beautiful, warm, orange light; perhaps we have a nice side-light on both models. But – and here’s the twist – both models look over each other’s shoulders into their smartphone. This is also a great setting to include some colored lighting. The blue pale glow coming from Facebook’s app on a smartphones would make a good contrast to to the Orange in the room.

But I want to shoot in an urban decayed location!!!

Well, maybe the idea is simply not a good fit for an urban decay themed shoot. Contrast is always good. You can put a knitting girl in a lost place in front of a fireplace. Or you can have a sitting girl in swimwear with a floating ring on the edge of a dry pool – it will create another dimension … I think you know what I want to say.

Why should I not do a teddy bear and a zombie girl photo?

Because Peter Brownz has already made this photo and it is AWESOME. I doubt that it can be done any better.

Now, this may sounds stupid, but it is a deep truth. The wrapped naked lady lit by a ring light is already done by by Jens Burger. It is a great “eye candy” photo and it has no statement. It will always be nice to look at it, because it is aesthetic. But it is done, and done well. So the original will always trump anything else that you can do.

If one wants to redo old concepts, one should ask, can I bring anything new and pure of my own? 

The theme of shooting with “exploding flour” is another good example: This has been done over and over again for years; sometimes better, sometimes worse.

But just a little while ago, Jay Philbrick shot a dancer with wings made out of flour. That was great, he had an idea, a finished thought.

You have to admit that this is significantly better than just throwing flour with no purpose.

What to do if the customer wishes so cliché-shoot?

This is a hard one to answer. On one hand every photographer is fighting for his existence. So it’s hard to say no to a customer. on the other, you should also think about where you want to go. Every decision you take should strengthen your brand, and take your vision further away. Even if there is a closer goal of paying bills, you should be aware of that. If all you shoot is clichés, you will quickly end up in the a certain bin and attract more cliché-wanting customers. The truth is that the high earning customers, and the good advertising agencies, are not those kind of customers. They are looking for original thought and original work. You will ahve to put yourself on the line with YOUR ideas.

But you can’t really turn down anything cliché that customers want. That would be stupid. What to do than?

  • Keep your portfolio largely free of clichés
  • Always make a counter-proposal, based on the customer requirements. If the customer wants a meal shoot, then sit down and take your time for a non-cliche idea. Mostly half an hour would do. Bring necessary elements in if needed. Help the client stand out with a more emotional image.

“But I am not a creative man”

There are no creative and none-creative people. You have to “be creative” through learning to move away from the efficiency “I have so much to do” mood to “I play with my thoughts” mood. Both moods are important and you can (and should) learn to turn either of them on or off as needed.

The creative person can easily dance in this world of fantasy right off the bat. He can move to abstract thinking and stay there for a while.
The “non-creative person” is focused on purposeful thought process and getting things done.

There is a third category and this is where successful creatives belong. Where you can switch between the two worlds at will.

This theory is not mine, it comes from the talented John Cleese. There is an entertaining (though very thorough and informative) speech:


Where do you stand?

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Stefan Kohler

Stefan Kohler

Stefan Kohler is a full-time retoucher. He’s from Germany and likes bacon. In the last years, he built up a broad community around his retouching classes at the Infinite tool’s website.

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24 responses to “On Cliches and Photo Ideas”

  1. Darren Eagles Avatar
    Darren Eagles

    Cliches mean nothing to the client. The client who doesn’t spend their life pouring over photos with an eye to tearing them apart and finding faults and reasons not to capture. Shoot the cliches. They became “cliches” because the eyes of many clients liked them.

    1. Axel Sunstrom Avatar
      Axel Sunstrom

      My thoughts exactly. I’d bet good money a majority of these photos posted were either cliched because the client saw work like it and requested the same thing, or the photographer doesn’t bother coming up with genius level concepts for every single client, which would be unreasonable if you have a lot of clients.

      That being said though, is it worth posting? We’ve all made unoriginal works, ideally we are posting our best, realistically we are posting our most marketable. You can’t blame photographers for posting work that their clients want to see.

      1. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
        Kay O. Sweaver

        You mean photos that get Likes on 500px and facebook, which let’s be honest, is where most of us get our sense of validation these days. Hence all the half nekkid girls.

  2. Emma Jones Avatar
    Emma Jones

    I get asked for the heel and thong shot a lot. I’m hired to do what the client wants plus a dash of my creativity so that’s what I do.

  3. Mark Niebauer Avatar
    Mark Niebauer

    Picaso said it best – “A good artist imitates and a great artist steals” . .

  4. Steve Avatar

    You hit the nail on the head. “What do I want the people who see my photo”. Yes clients want to jump on everything they believe is trending, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean a photographer can’t rub their own stink on it to make it original.

    Of course, there is also the fact that many of these “cliche” shots are being copied by camera owners who only call themselves a photographer, because they don’t know how to come up with a concept.

  5. Ian Hecht Avatar
    Ian Hecht

    Counterpoint: Shoot whatever the hell you want and don’t listen to anyone who tries to stop you.

    1. Heikki Avatar

      Shoot what you like and copy what you like!

    2. captaindash Avatar

      Unless they are paying you.

  6. Jeff Soto Avatar
    Jeff Soto

    Shoot what you want, how you want and where you want.

    1. captaindash Avatar

      So long as you are footing the bill.

  7. John Flury Avatar
    John Flury

    Originality means work, a lot of work, often to the brink of desperation. We all have lost the capability to be patient with ourselves and keep developing an idea until it’s matured and everything falls into place. Inspiration today, sadly, means looking at other artists’ work on Pinterest until we find a concept, we would like to copy. The best and most personal inspiration however is around us, if we are willing to keep our eyes off the screen for a bit.

  8. Darrin Neuer Avatar
    Darrin Neuer

    What an absolute rubbish article. I abhor when someone tries to impose their “rules” on things like this. It’s just so disappointing to read. Not to mention limiting to the art itself.

  9. Michael Clark Avatar
    Michael Clark

    How many millions of photos are posted on the internet every *hour* of every day? And every single one is supposed to be unique and in no way resemble any of the rest? That’s not to say you shouldn’t put your own personal stamp on everything you do. But honestly, everyone has at least one doppelganger somewhere that looks just like them and the overwhelming majority of creative types in general and photographers in particular are going to have their artistic doppelgangers as well. It’s just the law of probability.

    Even among well established working professionals the post-information age explosion of image glut has completely changed the rules. What you write may have been more true in an age when access to wide audiences of discriminating buyers was the domain of a privileged few. But that age is long gone.

  10. Jeffrey Dull Avatar
    Jeffrey Dull

    An idea is an idea, how you carry through on it how well executed, and how you conveyed your personal vison is what truely matters not how cliched a photo is.

  11. Justin Rabin Avatar
    Justin Rabin

    Everything is a remix

  12. Gregg Hasenjaeger Avatar
    Gregg Hasenjaeger

    Isn’t it cliche to write about cliche’s just because you have nothing else important to contribute?

  13. Dean Farrell Avatar
    Dean Farrell

    Don’t forget sunsets, wildlife drinking, flying birds, babies dressed as flowers, stylized to look like graphic art, dead trees, women in bikini on beach, etc. Everything has been done, and done a lot. Our job as photographers is to try to do it better than the usual.

    BTW, the links to he actual photos and not just the photographers would have been nice to see the version you said was a great example.

  14. ed chircop Avatar
    ed chircop

    Oh get over yourself and shoot what the hell pleases you. I personally love a photo of a pretty girl-man-people in a field of beautiful sunflowers any old day. By the way, so excellent ideas in that list, thanks.

  15. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
    Kay O. Sweaver

    Looks like you struck a nerve with a lot of these commenters. Personally, I’m glad to read this. When I look at 500px or flickr these days I see a lot of beautiful, technically amazing and yes, even creative images, but rarely do they hit me in a way that sticks with me. Pretty, but not profound.

  16. Colin Fibiger Avatar
    Colin Fibiger

    I do agree to a point. But,the majority of photographers out there are not yet famous. In fact some quite a few steps below. Often we will encounter something and think wow, that’s awesome. We then try to re-create that which we have seen. That in itself is inspiration and creativity at work. And once that has been mastered, only then do we move on add other dimensions. Not everyone can be the first but that does not diminish the efforts of those who follow. Why not then write off every rennaissance artist other than the first?

  17. matt Avatar

    I love the covershot. I could look at 20 copycat images and appreciate each one for it’s beauty.

    The thing is, even if an image has been done before, each new one still offers something new to look at. Lucky, since if it didn’t, no-one would need photographers anymore since the images of the world would be all done.

    Imagine if we applied this logic to cooking: “Well I would have really enjoyed a steak tonight but I won’t have one because I had one a year ago…”

  18. Conrad2k Avatar

    Agree with the list of clichés, and there are certain some to be added to the list. However, I would note that for some of us there is a lot to learn. Photographers and models alike may find some of these clichés to be great ways to learn. Imitation is not only a high form flattery, it can be learning too.

  19. Simon Pole Avatar
    Simon Pole

    So, basically everything, you missed Schindlering! ;)