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

Before HDR even existed, ‘eyecandy’ as it’s own aesthetic — when special effects filters became a colorful virus sitting on the surfaces of decent photographs.

Mr Reeman's picture

A glaring oversight was the number of graduated tobacco filter images from the film days. Mant a beautiful image was ruined by the overuse of the graduated tobacco filter.

calaveras grande's picture

I'm guilty of a couple of these sins. I did the HDR thing for a minute. But once I got a better handle on how to process through Camera Raw, I no longer saw the need to do this. I'm also guilty of sharpening a couple different ways. But I mostly do event and street photography, where you want those converging lines from ceiling tiles or sidewalk to be crisp. And every grotty cigarette and bottle cap to pop.
Crushing blacks I will not apologize for.
As you said, it's better than distracting shadow detail, or worse, distracting noise in the shadow detail.
The other sin you left out was the long exposure waterfall/traffic/public space shots. Water doesn't look like taffy.

THANK YOU for having HDR at the top of your list! I hate it! When it is used it is Overused to the point that it reminds me of those gawdy, over saturated, over sharpened prints you can win at traveling carnivals!! If people are going to use it, do it the right way. There is a local photographer around here that uses it for everything he does and of course way overdoes the effect (but gets huge raves from everyone on Facebook, LOL)

Pretty much agree with your other fads (and there are so many more our there) but all of them can be used when done correctly. The overdone effects are done mostly by "photographers" who really do not know what they are doing and just going after the "flash" appeal! I blame all the Phone apps for many of the overdone effects.

Alexander Lobozzo's picture

unless i missed it in the comments, nobody has mentioned LENS BALLS!!!! I guess i thought it was neat the first time i saw it, but every subsequent time, i just thought, "meh, again?"

Not one mention of the most glaring overused and usually poorly executed "sun flare"?

Tom Nelson's picture

Tilt-shift effect! When will it die???

Tone mapping is the component of HDR workflows that generates the distorted colors and weird contrast of 'HDR' imagery. HDR itself is just a multi capture technique that gives you more bits of resolution at the extremes. You can tonemap a single image to increase detail much like using the USM function in Photoshop with a large radii to improve regional contrast. I use the technique with landscapes and *carefully* layer it in with spectacular results. Again, if it looks tone mapped you've failed.

I spent years working with commercial photographers and pleading with portrait / wedding shooter to over -expose print film so I had enough density range to work with and avoid crossover in printing. Now the rage is nostalgia filters and retro looks that try to emulate terrible emulsions like VPH...under exposed at that.

Dragging the shutter with flash at wedding receptions needs to die.

Waist level TLR shooting with wide angle lenses so your group shoots look like human skyscrapers falling backwards needed to die.

Cross processing E-6 or using film emulators to get the look with models that always look like goth hookers needs to die.

Graduated filters for landscapes - die.

Crushing blacks with monochrome landscapes because the regular image lacks any interest needs to die. This is a far worse trend with artsy landscape shooters than with portraits

Glamour shots aka 90's style with milky diffusion filters needs to die.

I've not seen Teal and Orange color granding be a problem with still photography. It was very annoying in Hollywood for a bit. No, I'm not more likely to watch a movie because it looks like IronMan 2 or Green Lantern.

Current digital trend is under saturated images with sharpness turned up to show every zit and skin defect. Die.

Milky waterfalls. A little blur is okay, too much doesn't look like water, but rather like milk.

Jeff Richardson's picture

I’m done with orange and teal, neon signs and wire rim dad glasses.

Lens balls..

I despise the photos where the person’s whole entire head or a portion of the head is cut off. I also hate trash the dress - it is so dumb.

Timothy Gasper's picture

What I've always hated was those Cokin psychodelic 'sunburst' filters. You know, the ones which came in different designs, multi-exposure-look and other ridiculous crap. I never got into that. It just looked too damn fake. Well hell...it was.