Photographing Clichés

June 15, 2017
Peonies and coffee Instagram clichés

I often see Instagram criticised for being saturated with the same old clichés. I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories of people lined up in the street to take a picture of a certain blossom tree or a house with wisteria. People can be quite scathing of this, and undoubtedly when you see that blossom tree for the 10th time in one morning on your feed it can get a little much! Especially when there is no new “take” on it, no more interesting angles to work with. The money shot is always the same – the nice, straight, squared up, pink tree and house with the pink door.

Why do we do this I wonder? Why do we flock to take the exact same photos as each other? Well the way I see it is there is probably nothing new going on here, the Instagram culture has simply exposed us to “new” landmarks. Surely when visiting the Taj Mahal everyone tries to get that spot at the end of the reflection pool to take a selfie or a picture of their loved ones? It’s the most impressive angle and was designed to be so – it’s the infamous shot that we would automatically want to take. That view may be centuries old, but these days we all get to see the world through the eyes of our favourite Instagram photographers. We have become as familiar with the blossom tree on Portobello Road, as we have with one of the seven wonders of the world.

London houses with wisteria - Instagram clichés

If I said to you “that pink cafe in Paris”, “that flower arch in Dubai” or “that row of gingerbread houses in Amsterdam”, you would probably all know what I’m talking about wouldn’t you? Well in my experience when you are in one of these places and you see a scene in the flesh that is so familiar, you feel all excited like you’ve just stumbled across a famous monument. It’s almost impossible not to reach for your phone and take that picture for yourself.La Maison Rose Montmartre Instagram clichés

So where do I stand on photographing the cliches? Well I love a good cliche, and I am guilty of scattering them through my feed as much as the next person. There’s a reason why these shots have become “instafamous” – because they are good! There is a certain pink cake shop in London which is popular on Instagram at the moment, but you know what I flipping love it! And when done well it is simply the prettiest picture there is. The cliches of course extend beyond these modern “landmarks”, to styled images too. Like there is something undeniably charming about these spots, there is also something inescapably lovely about peonies, and something that just feels right about coffee with flowers.

I think through emulating these shots is how we all learn. By all means, take the picture of the blossom tree, and then compare it to your favourite image of it by another photographer and see what they did right and you did wrong! The best images usually were taken in good natural light, but soft light not harsh light. The perspective is usually bang on meaning there is no distractions to the eye. The editing will also be very good. Did the photographer alter the colours, lighten or deepen the shadows, or change the temperature of the image? A direct comparison like this can provide a very useful critique of our own work. Often you will realise just how good these photographers are, and that what they do is not easy at all 🙂

The same goes with styled photos. Marble tables, pretty lattes, a bunch of flowers casually strewn to the side. We are all inspired by the same images that we see over and over, and there are certain things that just work well in photography and on Instagram. Figuring out what these factors are is a skill in itself, and the very best photographers are not under any threat from other people who emulate their work.

lilac heart Instagram clichés

When I think back to my art classes at school, we would be asked to paint “in the style of” a certain great master. It may have encouraged us to think about how they used composition, their use of colour, their technique and materials. It was an “exercise” which has always been used by artists, and many great masters themselves started off in the studios of other painters reproducing their work.

I think this is the most important point though – in order to become the great master, you have to break new ground. There is of course no harm in taking the cliched images. They are beautiful, we all enjoy them, and when done well they are really something else, but don’t get stuck with them. Practise with them, try to interpret them a new and different way, try to make them the very best they can be, and enjoy them for what they are. And then try and push yourself beyond the cliche – apply what you have learned to a different scene or still life.

Peonies and coffee - Instagram clichés

My point is there is absolutely nothing wrong with photographing the cliches and being inspired by the work of others to go and take the same shot. We all start somewhere and the cliches are sometimes a welcoming and familiar sight for us all. However, learn the rules and then begin to break them. Push your compositions further, find unusual light conditions to work in, try and step outside of the box. This is when we truly find our own style and begin creating the work that other people will want to start emulating.

By the way, you can see my post of the infamous blossom tree of Portobello Road here. My no means the best shot of it, but my first picture ever to get over 10k likes! I’ve gone off it.. which is why I left it out of this post.

I’d love to know your thoughts on our well loved clichés! Thanks for reading! x

NB – all images in this post were taken on iPhone

flowers and coffee - Instagram clichés

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16 Comments

  • Reply Jules June 15, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    Ahh Hannah so much truth in this post! And yes I was at said pink café in London the week before last and had that exact excited feeling of being in the place I’d seen in allllll the photos and then of course I had to share a photo too! And agree re styles – I return to my own classic styles in the hope that I can count on them to get decent engagement and am always looking for inspiration as to how I can also change my flatlays up! Brill post lovely xxx

    • Reply Hannah Argyle June 16, 2017 at 7:02 pm

      Thank you so much Jules! Exactly, these spots are so lovely and famous for good reason! xxx

  • Reply Skye June 16, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    This is all so true, Hannah!! I’ve learned so much from comparing my own photos of those Instafamous London landmarks to the photos taken by others. They’re so hard to resist, because as you say, there’s a reason why they’re popular. But at the same time nothing beats the thrill of finding somewhere completely new or a totally fresh take on a familiar subject. Great blog post!

    • Reply Hannah Argyle June 16, 2017 at 6:45 pm

      Thanks so much Skye! Absolutely, I think it’s so important to do both, and to learn something from the classics but not to be blinded by them and walk on past equally good photos looking for the one you’re familiar with!

  • Reply Diana Birtwistle June 16, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    A lovely thoughtful post, I so agree with your ideas on copying another’s style, and then trying to push it into a new and original direction. Isn’t that how all new creative work starts, it has to come out of somewhere, nothing is created from a vacuum.
    And you can never have too many flowers or blossom pictures!

    • Reply Hannah Argyle June 16, 2017 at 6:40 pm

      Thank you so much, I’m really glad you enjoyed it 🙂 that’s so true, nothing comes from a vacuum! xx

  • Reply Rhoda June 16, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    Lovely thoughtful post. I think half the things I love about my favourite instagrammers is their photography skill over the subject, but we fall into the trap of thinking that if we have the same subject on our feed; flowers and cups, cafes and so on, our gallery will be as good. Of course we overlook the huge skill in the photograph and the editing and I think you were spot on, we start to see the woeful differences 😄 I’ve tried to start embracing where I live (even though sometimes I’d long to be able to nip in to London) and making my feed a reflection of me. It’s nice to post the cup and flowers shots though isn’t it? 😄💕

    • Reply Hannah Argyle June 16, 2017 at 6:37 pm

      Thank you Rhoda! Yes I agree, it’s hard not to fall into this trap completely, but these shots are great to take and learn from, and in the process try and develop our own style. You should definitely embrace where you live, it’s so beautiful and I always love seeing it! x

  • Reply Sarah Pettegree June 16, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    One of my friends was one of the founding photojournalists at The Independent newspaper (which for decades was known for its exceptional photography). He tells of a working trip to Tuscany with an equally well known colleague. They’d stop the car beside an isolated field, absorbed with shooting a beautiful scene of a temple or whatever from their completely different parts of the field and eventually they would always fall over each other in a comedy heap as they converged, trying to take essentially exactly the same shot from the same position. I’m not sure what this says except that Instagram didn’t invent photography or people queuing up for a shot. 😉

    • Reply Hannah Argyle June 16, 2017 at 6:35 pm

      That’s a brilliant story, and what an amazing job he had! I think that was my point too with the Taj Mahal, often the best shot is the most obvious and that’s why we all take it! I think Instagram has exposed us to new landmarks though.. I’m pretty sure 10 years people didn’t necessarily know about certain florists, cake shops or cafes around the world!

  • Reply Barbara van Zanten June 16, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    I always tell my students/clients to take the postcard or cliche shots first in order to get them out of the way and leave the creative mind clear for more original photos. If they haven’t got the postcard shot “in the bag” they are unsettled and it seems to limit their creativity.

    • Reply Hannah Argyle June 16, 2017 at 6:31 pm

      Thats so interesting! I think that’s absolutely true as well. I do think the postcards shots have a lot of merit in their own right though, when done really well!

  • Reply Makiko Hastings June 16, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    Thank you for this blog post, Hannah. I really enjoyed reading it and it reminded me what my mentor used to say. Over 20 years ago when I first got my Nikon FM (film one obviously!), I used to pop over to my local photographer’s studio. He always told me that it is ok to “copy” others first, as it helps you get to know what sort of images you are interested in, but then you will need to start evolving yourself. I think I did it for a while but stopped using much of camera after DSLR came out. Now I am going back to take some more for my Instagram but finding it struggling. I felt your advice was reminder of what he said and also gave me more encouragement to enjoy photography again. (although I’m more taking my pottery work these days) So thank you!
    P.S. I always enjoy your IG feeds, especially your boys with flowers! They are just so adorable!

  • Reply krissy of @oftheeveryday June 16, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    dear hannah, thank you for this. i so enjoyed pondering over this as it’s definitely something we all think about. it takes courage and confidence in your own vision to take a capture that isn’t what you consciously or even subconsciously used to seeing on your feed, no? i find it hard, but also liberating at once the rare times a different angle seems to work. the learning and the practising is definitely what it’s all about.

  • Reply Kathryn J June 20, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    I have enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic, Hannah! It reminds me of the quote: ‘first imitate … then create’ which I have found to be true of every new creative endeavour that I become interested in. The exercise of copying is so helpful as you learn the techniques of any craft and there is a great deal of pleasure in recreating that which inspired you, but the real thrill is in then taking those techniques forward to showcase your own ideas. Lovely article! 🙂

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