Credit: Kevin Browne, Fotolia #17039046, slightly edited
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.


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 byJens 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.

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