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

Previous comments

I always smile when i see this specific lens flare in commercial images :)

David Dieli's picture

A photograph taken from above of a woman on her back surrounded by flowers.

In my short-lived food photographer career I learned one important thing: anything shot from above looks great, being that cake or human :)

chris bolduc's picture

I totally agree. My tagline has always been "creating images to last a lifetime." Fads come and go, but good images will always stand the test of time.

Jodi Frye's picture

Everyone will hate me for this one but I'm bloody tired of long exposure waterfalls. Every waterfall pic on the net is LE. They all look alike and I think that's what bugs me the most. No originality. I wish that fad would die. Maybe it's not a fad but it's like nobody wants to take a picture of a waterfall or water streams in real time. Other than that nothing else bugs me.

Xander Cesari's picture

I agree on one hand but I also haven't found a great alternative. Stopping the motion in time with a fast shutter doesn't look realistic to me and slightly longer exposures just look a little blurry and out of focus. I think it's one of those things where our perception of a waterfall involves some 'mental averaging' and visually averaging the shot with an ND filter is as close as I've been able to get. The superior option would be a cinemagraph to really convey that movement without the foginess but moving pictures don't translate to many mediums.

Jodi Frye's picture

Fast shutter I think looks more realistic than white foamy vertical blurred milk ... I think experimenting with different settings would be a nice challenge project. And of course every photo would look different as water never falls the same way. Unless you look at it in LE and then it all looks the same pic after pic. It is just my opinion which means nothing but the author asked and I felt compelled to express my thoughts on this. It has been bugging me for a long while.

Daniel Medley's picture

I'm hesitant to rail on the artistic choices of others, but ...

The orange and teal thing has just gone beyond ridiculous. As pointed out in the article, at least it's based on some semblance of color theory, and at sane, subtle levels it can even make a photo pop. But it's gotten to the point where it's like a race to the bottom; who can have the most orange and teal. You now see people mixing it up, as it were, by apparently, in the Calibration module pushing the Red Primary all the way to the right, the Blue Primary all the way to the left, and then taking it a step further by sucking all the blues out; probably in HSL.

Another thing that usually makes me cringe is heavily practiced by many wedding photographers; the completely blasted out skies or generally lacking in contrast. I have my own theory as to why it's a "thing" (beyond client demand), but I won't get into it.

Completely agree and the over-exposed wedding edit is an absolute horrible trend that I wish would dissolve. I think these wedding photographer types most likely watched one CreativeLive course too many.

Scott Haddow's picture

I went through a heavy HDR phase 10-11 years ago but managed to wean myself off it. When I look back at some of those images now I cringe. Somewhat related: I was heavily addicted to the tonal contrast effect in Color Efex Pro for quite a while.

I am currently guilty of orange and teal color grading and crushed blacks, but I've been trying to dial it back a bit lately.

Tom Jensen's picture

I often cringe when I see the "in thing" in food photography these days where they place crumbs or whatnot on the table around the food item to make it look casual and real life. You'll see it on most food ads, menus, and signs these days. (You won't be able to unsee it after. Sorry.) It's not that I don't think it looks bad at all. It looks fine. I just think it's a little unoriginal and too trendy anymore. And try-hard too, when you know they spent significant time and effort to make the perfect random and casual look.

Outdoor shots full of desaturated pastel colours. I have a particular personal reason: I'm sensitive to bright light and so wear glasses with photochromic lenses, which give a slightly saturated view of the world, and this reflects in my own post-processing (although not to extremes, I hope). Anything going the other way feels unnatural to me. YMMV.

Peter Blaxter's picture

christmas/string lights, lens spheres need to die a quick death in IG

Expressionless portrait subjects. Particularly kids. It's really noticeable in that heavily processed, ultra shallow DOF, stuff shot by, I guess, people derogatorily called 'mom-tographers'. This applies as much to guys as it does to ladies. There are legions of clones out there, all doing the same thing.

I'm pretty open but I have a problem with some mainstream practitioners of this genre who put kids in mature settings. Sorry, 8 year olds shouldn't be making out on a pretend wedding day or wearing cut offs too short for a 22 year old professional model.

If a kid isn't filling the frame with some sort of genuine expression, good or otherwise, it's just not a good picture in my opinion.

Replaced backgrounds and overlays for one. At the same time, the 'matte" finish, light leaks and flares. We spend thousands on gear to get the clearest, cleanest and most perfect images possible only to dumb them down...It's like taking sandpaper or a set of car keys to the body of a new car! However, if it makes economic sense (sales) for your business, then all is well. Oh...and don't get me started on the fake/cute puppy and kitten noses, ears and whiskers on social media apps. Just because they haven't really migrated into Lightroom or Photoshop actions doesn't mean that someone won't eventually make them....further reducing our photography IQ's!!!

David Moore's picture

Orange and Teal, for the gram!

God I got sucked into that, I admit, and I made a bunch of stuff I am sad about lol.

Neon seems to still hang around, but it dying. I did notice another studio in LA set up a "Neon room" though.

And yeah like someone said, I like that b&W image haha

David Moore's picture

Oh, a couple from automotive photography (even though I don't do it anymore)

Crazy sun flare, as I like to call it, nuclear explosions just over the horizon or out of frame.

And photoshopping ALL of the reflections off the cars, making them look more CGI than the actual CGI car ads.

Yavor Kapitanov's picture

I do like crushing the blacks a little just using the RGB curve, I just like it because it makes the picture less contrasty. I don't think this is a fad actually. It's only okay in street photography type of photos imo... the real stupid fad really is the bokeh madness. People buy overpriced lenses because they really think it will give them better bokeh, but in reality nobody ever will notice that, except the one who wasted his money on a stupid super heavy lens... which in most cases is a manual focus lens... the stupidity.

I do not want to post an example as I do not do this but going over to some sites that focus around automotive photography are doing this and it drives me insane. Lift the blacks and reduce contrast on everything. Do not worry about metering and averaging things out to gain detail where you want it to be. Just lift the blacks and reduce the contrast. It is terrible.

Yavor Kapitanov's picture

I don't know what you mean exactly but I do only creative edits, such as crushing blacks, if my photos have excellent exposure.

Go here: http://www.speedhunters.com/2019/02/hammer-down-to-hammertown/

These are ALL terrible, in my opinion. Every single one has the black values lifted to basically gray and the contrast all but eliminated. Then, terrible choices made in color grading.

Jay Jay's picture

You left out the #1 worst photography fad, the direct camera flash right on the subject, i.e. Terry Richardson's blown out flash look, with magazines thinking his 'bad is hip' concept was trendy and avant-garde.This of course, made worse by amateurs and everyone else not knowing his techniques to achieve the look, creating ever more bad imagery in the process.

imagecolorado's picture

Internet photography forums.

Juan carlos Chu Zhang's picture

over dodging/burning/frequency separation that makes model look like a plastic doll

Wes Jones's picture

Atomic HDR will stay the reigning champ in my book for years to come.

David Leøng's picture

Why didn't you upload an actual example of #tealandorange? it's probably the worst one

user-225853's picture

The next trend should replace HDR with FDR.

James Lee's picture

The worst fad is the everything-is-white-and-pastel-color bridal look. Yuck!

Uughhh... Glowing sci-fi alien eyes in portraits, plastic smoothed skin, dutched angles, “I only shoot primes, and only at f/1.2”...

The fashion for blurring any hint of moving water. Nowadays it seems that all waterfalls contain milk not water!!

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