What Are the Worst Photography Fads of the Past and the Present?

What Are the Worst Photography Fads of the Past and the Present?

As with any creative medium, there are blips of unfortunate comedy. Photography has had more than its fair share, and let's be honest, many of us have tried them. So what are the worst fads of all time?

As is the case with literal taste, your eye for photography and what constitutes good and artistic, and moreover, what doesn't, alters over time. When I look back at my earliest photographs, I often wonder what I saw. It seems almost unthinkable that what I see today and what I saw all those years ago could possibly be the same. I have noticed a real trend in my older photography: the more I leaned into a fad or a style that was in vogue, the worse the image aged. This is true of many other creative mediums too. Think Britney and Justin in double denim or how "busy" the decorating was in your grandparents' house.

When I think of photography fads, a few instantly jump to mind, and many of them I have tried. Let's kick this off with my own mistakes from the very early days with a camera.

The Famous Three


The graffiti isn't wrong: "burn" it.

This has to be the most common answer to that question: HDR (High Dynamic Range). Admittedly, the above image is on the extreme side of things and HDR — when used subtly — can be effective. But 10-15 years ago, there was a craze for this brand of over-saturated, over-sharpened, contrasty abominations, filled with halos. What's worse is this above image was a highly calculated outcome. After photographing a dull piece of industrial architecture, I opened the file in Photoshop and with a magazine open next to me, I followed their guide for achieving the punchiest HDR.

Spot Color

A beautiful classic Porsche at least.

This trend has been around for far longer than HDR and has admittedly dissipated from prominence in recent years. This style seemed to be exclusively saved for red things. Armistice Day would forever yield poems over the top of spot-colored images of poppies, but that much I could stomach. Where my tolerance was exceeded was London. Living in and around London means you have to see spot color images of busses and telephone boxes on every corner and by every hobbyist photographer on holiday.

Soft Focus / White Vignette / Vaseline Lens

One of the few repugnant trends I hadn't tried, so I heartlessly ruined an image I quite liked for illustrative purposes.

Like many things, the 80s ruined this effect. I've combined a number of techniques that essentially walk the same "creative" line. The white vignette is still occasionally observable by outdated wedding photographers. The soft focus/Vaseline lens is much rarer to spot in the wild however. You might find it on occasion in high street photography studios that have been lurking around for 40+ years. Outside of that, if any woman in her 50s or 60s has portraits done in a cheap studio some time in the 80s or early 90s, you're likely to get a simulation of looking at someone while having cataracts. 

Current Fads for Future Cringes

This is the most interesting part of this discussion for me. As is often the case with fads, at the time they're popular and in circulation, they aren't seen (by many) as dreadful. If history has taught us anything, it's that it repeats itself where possible, and so you can safely assume that current trends will one day be openly mocked. So what present day editing and photography styles will not age well?

Personally, I think there are two prime contenders. What makes me reticent to name them is that I quite enjoy both techniques, but I obviously liked HDR at one point many years ago, so I can't be trusted.

Orange and Teal

So cinematic... so cool.

This color-grading technique is more common in and made famous by cinema. One benefit it has over a great many trends is that there is at least some color theory behind it, and complementary colors can make an image. That said, it's being used a lot. Whenever you think of eras of cinema in particular, there's usually a "look" associated. For a few decades after a trend, it will become desperately uncool before sometimes returning to the limelight in the cyclical nature of fashions. I wouldn't be surprised if in a decade from now, the teal shadows and orange highlights aren't seen as dated and undesirable.

Crushing the Blacks

It was difficult for me to find a good example of this from my own work. Not because I never crush the blacks, but rather because I do it often and subtly. There are a lot of explanations on how to do this effect and what exactly it does, but for me, I just enjoy the uniform and distraction-free shadows. That said, the above image was for a band and pushed much further than my normal tastes. The term again originates from cinematography, and the technique is commonplace there, but it has crept into photography far more over the last decade or so. It's typically a staple of many filters and presets that can be downloaded, and VSCO practically built a business off the back of that.

It seems that weddings are often the harbingers of trend death. Several on this list have been a staple in wedding photography at some point or another, whether it's white vignette or crushing the blacks and making an image look matte, or sometimes just flat. An interesting area of debate is if you ought to follow trends, avoid them entirely, or create your own look and run with it. There's no simple answer from an artistic standpoint, and I believe the water gets muddier from a business perspective. Catering to what is in vogue at any point in time can be lucrative, though how you make transitions from style to style organic and keep a cohesive portfolio is a key problem with that approach.

What Say You?

So what are the worst photography fads in your opinion? Which current trends will be the source of shame and mockery in the years to come? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Lead image (which is beautiful and not at all part of a fad) courtesy of Moose on Pexels.

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Previous comments

That's not HDR as much as excessive tone mapping. The blurriness is a bit distracting.

Michael Holst's picture

No disrespect intended here but HDR to this level distracts to the same level that a signer who obviously autotunes their vocal tracks. If content needs extra heavy treatment to become consumable then was it worth it?

David Pavlich's picture

You bet it was worth it since part of the reason I bought a printer and make my own frames is to sell prints. This 'distracting' photo sold enough copies to buy more ink, paper, and wood. Like I said, I get a lot of negative reactions to this sort of image and expect it, so it doesn't bother me.

But with that, I have the satisfaction of knowing that there are people that enjoy this enough to buy my prints. And...it was intriguing enough that the judge at the first exhibition I entered gave it third place.

One of the comments I get quite frequently is that I've turned a chaotic scene into art. Subjective, for sure!

Michael Holst's picture

Not knocking you for doing what's bringing in money. Sometimes we need to pander to what puts bread on the table.

I make the comparison to other popular things like movies. The Transformer movies are just a pile of effects with very little in terms of consumable story, context, and meaning. They sell tons of tickets because some people are looking for (or can only comprehend) a shallow cognitive investment.

The point of the article was to invite photographers (people on the inside looking out) to comment on what they feel is tired. Not what audiences/markets (external) like most.

Boris Schipper's picture

Hey David, first of all I want to make clear that I am not criticizing your photograph, it is a matter of taste and that’s it.
What I do think is interesting is that you say that besides a lot of negative comments (which I think are redundant) people do want it in their homes and offices. My point is that having an audience doesn’t make it right. And I am not talking about your picture specifically.
I understand if you sell it like crazy and you just think about the money, but either you think something’s good, or you don’t, and ‘people’s’ opinions should not matter here is my humble point of view.

David Pavlich's picture

I agree with you. Right or wrong is subjective just like what you or I believe is art.

"... you just think about the money..." Yep! It pays for the ink, paper, and wood that I use to produce my prints. I'll never make a lot of money from the sales, but making enough to support what I enjoy is pretty cool.

Kirk Darling's picture

David Pavlich--At a certain point and for a certain market, work like that becomes art.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Absolutely. HDR is quite a broad term and the subtle blending of bracketed exposures — particularly in landscape — is often necessary for true-to-life images.

Jonathan Brady's picture

Neon white sclera and teeth, frequency separation (gone too far), importing raw files into Lightroom and then exporting them (essentially unprocessed) as jpgs.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Heavy frequency separation is a great example.

Boris Schipper's picture

Definitely number one on my list: overusing frequency separation

Jeff McCollough's picture

I don't understand the lightroom one.

Michael Holst's picture

I think I understand. Someone people are using Lightroom to convert raw files to jpgs without any real post processing which essentially means they should have just shot in jpg and saved the time wasted importing and exporting files. It would be an unnecessary step. Just my guess though.

Jordan McChesney's picture

I try not to judge people’s creative choices, but as someone with visual perception nothing offends me more than a nature landscape with a teal and orange tone. Reddit is full of people suggesting it to “improve” a photo.

Dark and Moody edits... Like, the ones that just look extremely underexposed.

Joe Baker's picture

I totally agree with this one. Especially since groups like "Looks Like Film" tend to salivate over it. I would bet more than 1/2 of them would not have a business or style if it were not for presets... SMH...

Michael Holst's picture

I think newbies to the "film look" find the muddy shadows appealing but a lot of photographers who actually shoot film regularly would be frustrated with the loss of detail (most of the time). I also think it's the influential hipsters who've recently started shooting film (keep in mind they like being edgy) and don't fully understand how to properly, in a traditional sense, expose on film posting their work all over tumblr and instagram. After a while of shooting many of them actually start producing good work. It's one of those growing pains I've personally gone through so I try not to harp on them too much.

Kirk Darling's picture

Joe Baker--Well, those "looks like film" newbies don't realize we were shooting with relatively low ASA film, often unavoidably underexposed and overdeveloped (i.e., "pushed").

We didn't actually aim for no shadow detail...particularly if you were shooting for a newspaper, because black shadows were the bane of newsprint.

Rod Kestel's picture

I actually like your crushed-black photo; it's a moody image that works - assuming that's the effect you wanted.

Overblown HDR...yick.

Orange & Teal? Looks good when well done (eg your sample) but like anything don't overdo it. Spot colour, ditto.

What about 'toy town' focussing, or whatever it's called. Fun occasionally, but a gimmick.

More frequent is overdone lighting where the photog's prowess with a flash etc dominates the image. Like good sound in a movie, it should not draw attention to itself.

Gerald Bertram's picture

"What about 'toy town' focussing, or whatever it's called." You are speaking of tilt shift. Recently I have even had a couple of my real estate agents specifically ask for this. McKinnon also just did a video on this look.

Rob Woodham's picture

Tilt shift lenses are used in real estate and architectural photography quite a bit, but not for the "miniature effect". I'm very surprised any real estate involved person would ask for that. Crazy.

Chad D's picture

well just look at instagram and %90 of it :)

Blue and red gel lighting? It does look good but is it going to be overdone (or is it already?)
Forest vertical motion blur?

I think any "fad" style can look good in the right hands and used correctly, but if you miss the point of when to use it then no amount of trendy style is going to save a bad photo

Dana Goldstein's picture

“Plastic skin” retouching to the point of zero texture or expression. That will definitely date it as “early Instagram” or some such one of these days.

David Love's picture

My biggest pet peeve is blurred skin and over sharpened eyes and that's instagram face apps and bad retouchers.

Rod Kestel's picture

Yeah, and this raises the question of setting an impossible standard of beauty.
Imperfections are part of us. Well, of you lot maybe.

Dana Goldstein's picture

Also: Huge scene / tiny people. Sort of the opposite reaction to “bokelicious.”


Agree with above, in addition to: tilt shift, strobism, ringflash.

michaeljin's picture

I'm not sure there's actually enough people doing tilt shift for it be considered a fad. It's pretty esoteric and aren't fads supposed to be popular?

Gerald Bertram's picture

Tilt shift may not be hugely popular right now but I did have a few real estate agents recently ask for this look for the first time in...well, ever. Fingers crossed this isn't on the rise!

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