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

HDR

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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133 Comments

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michaeljin's picture

Yeah... I'm going to hope that I don't get an agent asking me for the Mr. Roger's Neighborhood effect.

TIMOTHY HUNOLD's picture

It is fairly popular with a lot of younger shooters to get that miniature effect, aka Mr Rogers Neighborhood, like mentioned below. Lensebabies made this very popular.

Adam Palmer's picture

I am into half and hate half

You will never catch me doing HDR (HDR that doesn't look like HDR is fine)
SPot color
White Vignette

Never can get enough of
f.1.4

Good when done well

ring flash
Gels in complementary colors

Not a big fan of presets in general.

Adam Palmer's picture

I am into half and hate half

You will never catch me doing HDR (HDR that doesn't look like HDR is fine)
SPot color
White Vignette

Never can get enough of
f.1.4

Good when done well

ring flash
Gels in complementary colors

Not a big fan of presets in general.

Are you really talking about HDR, or tone mapping? The surreal colors and depths are a result of tone mapping (fake hdr) rather than actual hdr.

Nic Hilton's picture

I think the vsco look will fade out. At least I hope it does. I’m talking about the ones that don’t even look like film. Super desaturated, dark, overly orange skin.

Also the Video trend of crazy color grading just to say it’s color graded. I see so many videos on YouTube and Instagram with exaggerated teal-orange color grading thinking that the color grade alone makes something “cinematic”

Adrian Lyons's picture

Orton. Especially badly done Orton.

Yeah, and over tone-mapped HDR.

1)Seemingly random color gels on strobes- as though that alone will make your portrait cool/hip/artistic.

2)(a NY Times Style section favorite)- gaudy flash- often held below(!) the subject giving vampire ghoul lighting and deer-in-the-headlight look. Another 'look how ugly/amateur I MUST actually be hip and skilled' fad for those who cannot master the artful use of strobe...

M4/3 and the idea you don't need FF(APS-C is a good enough) but you do need MF.

Xander Cesari's picture

This might be specific to automotive photography but I'd say light painting. It's a decent effect if used in moderation but so much of it is wildly overdone. Very much like HDR and landscape.

Also all those lens hacks. Prisms, CDs, whatever. Like the vaseline lens, if you want to shoot a dream sequence then sure that makes sense. But it just looks weird in regular portraits.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Definitely agree on light painting. As is the case with pretty much every fad, if used in moderation it can be effective. Those long white streaks along body panels where the angle of the light brick is reflecting in the image ruin the shot for me.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Bought lightstickwand thing, going to use it on everything.

Xander Cesari's picture

Hey I bracket damn near every landscape I take so you do you boo.

Tom Weis's picture

Faux tilt-shift effect.

TIMOTHY HUNOLD's picture

Yeah, and even the lensebabies version

Crushed blacks looks good.

Patrick Wehrung's picture

As someone who shoots almost explicitly(near 95%) in black and white the only thing I relate here is the idea of “crushing the blacks”. Admittedly I am super guilty of doing this albeit in a subtle manner but for it stems from an addiction like need to create space black shadows in my image. I believe it draws your attention to the finer details of the “colored” portions of the image because your mind knows there’s nothing to gleamed from the blacks. My own opinions of course but still. I also tend to agree that it can very easily be over done and can ruin the emotion of the image.

In terms of what I think are over done fads... one stands out to me and it’s the idea that Photos need to be bright and full of color spectrum so that they invoke a happy emotion. Not every picture needs to appear positive and happy and I can damn well show the full range of emotions with my monochromatic addiction. IMO

Dave Williamson's picture

But what if your client likes one (or all of the mentioned effects), and is willing to pay for it? Do you refuse?

Robert K Baggs's picture

What the client wants, the client gets with regards to editing. That said, I won't be sharing it or adding it to my portfolio any time soon!

Boris Schipper's picture

I think that’s difficult, because later these pictures will pop up everywhere with your name next to it, so I don’t...
if the client wants something I’m not comfortable about, it’s better to move on
(unless it’s a 50k Coca Cola commercial or something, obviously i’m not thát stupid)

greg tennyson's picture

I always do what the client wants.

My job is to realize their vision, not impose my own.

Michael Holst's picture

Fake sun beams and fog are still popular... They shouldn't be.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Fake Flare is here to stay.

TIMOTHY HUNOLD's picture

Down vote in protest

Jordan McChesney's picture

Oh, oh, oh, adding fake snow, leaves blowing or cherry blossom petals blowing in the wind to “enhance” an image is bad when it’s used poorly, especially when it’s just thrown on top of an otherwise snapshot level image. It seems to be the popular thing to do in Japan these days.
Edit: oh, and fake birds.

Dude in hoodie and facemask, holding a smoke grenade...ugh booooring.

Titled wedding photos.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

oops

Rob Mitchell's picture

Selective colour.
Selective colour.
And
Selective colour

Robert you weren’t around in the 80’s when the god awful glamour shot was king! Trust me Photography has seen much worse than bad HDRs. I think it’s better to let people choose their trends and shoot whatever style sets you apart. We all started somewhere and grew or vanished.

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