Photographic Cliches (and How to Avoid Them)

As you will have seen from this and this post I have recently visited two of possibly the most photographed locations in the world – San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. When visiting places such as these it is wonderful to actually experience first hand what I have seen thousands of time in postcards, magazines, on television and at the cinema. As a photographer however how do you take photographs of such places which avoid the cliches that often populate the aforementioned sources but still capture the essence of the place?

According to Michael Freeman in his book The Photographer’s Mind the following makes a cliched photograph:

  • An inherently attractive subject with a conventionally attractive viewpoint.
  • Established points on the tourist trail (that fit the above).
  • A strong stylistic technique (that is past it’s use by date). HDR images come to mind here.
  • Any subject or style that becomes so popular and so reproducible that it is taken up by many photographers. Cross-processing film or doing the equivalent in Photoshop is an example of this.

Avoiding cliches in places like San Francisco and Yosemite is almost impossible. Some ways this can be done are:

  • Avoid the tourist trail altogether (or at least avoid taking photographs on the tourist trail) but visit lesser known places that nonetheless still capture the essence of the place.
  • If you do take photographs of classic views then try some different post-processing techniques (and I don’t mean just applying an Instagram filter). Even applying good black and white post processing can make a difference.
  • If you want to follow the tourist trail and also take photographs at least attempt some different points of view or different times of day. Even crouching (or lying) down or getting up high can be enough to differentiate your shot from a thousand others.
  • Carefully consider the four things that photographer Ming Thein defines as being essential to understand when making an image (these are: light, subject, composition and the ‘idea’) and try to use these to create a different image.

To illustrate this here are some pictures I took of probably one of the all time most photographed bridges in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge which spans the 1.7 miles between the San Francisco and Marin headlands. Let’s see how I tried to capture (to me at least) something a bit unique and different about this bridge trying to avoid the photographic cliche.

First off is pretty much the standard image everyone takes of this landmark. Having walked across the bridge we climbed up the Marin headland (at least avoiding the main throng of tourists on the East side of the highway where most of the coaches and cars park for a view over both the bridge and the city). There’s some quite nice cloud formations to add some interest to this image but this is definitely bog standard stuff and complies with pretty much all of the criteria for making a photographic cliche!

Golden Gate Bridge

Next is an image from essentially the same viewpoint but zoomed in to just get the North tower and more of the city in the background. I thought making this monochrome would emphasise the structural aspect of the bridge by deliberately removing the iconic orange colour. A slight improvement but still fairly standard stuff.

Golden Gate Bridge

By the time we had walked back across the bridge to the San Francisco side the sun had gone down and the lights were now on along the bridge. Resting my camera on a handy wall by the visitor centre and increasing the ISO to 1600 I was able to get the next shot. This at least complies with the “different time of day” approach but overall this is still an image you will see on lots of postcards (if not the average tourists photo album).

Golden Gate at Dusk

The next day we took the obligatory boat trip to Alcatraz to have a look around the infamous prison island in San Francisco bay. There is a path which takes you down quite close to the water and you not only get a spectacular view of the city but also if you look West a nice view of the bridge in the distance. Although Alcatraz is very much on the “tourist trail” this particular part of the island was surprisingly devoid of sightseers so certainly afforded a slightly different viewpoint. Again I prefer a monochrome rendition of this image as I think it brings out nicely the granite cliff side and white foam in the choppy sea. I think this image is quite pleasing and a little different but still not quite cliche free. It feels like just another view of the bridge, albeit from a non-standard viewpoint.

Golden Gate from Alcatraz

Finally we went inside one of the now abandoned warehouse buildings on the island. The windows are still barred and partly obscured by years of dirt and weathering. Looking through one of these windows the Golden Gate bridge was visible through the dirty glass which I thought would make an intriguing photograph with something of an ‘idea’ behind it. Alcatraz was opened as a prison in 1935 around about the time the Golden Gate bridge started construction (it was completed and opened to traffic in 1937). I imagined how the prisoners may have looked out that window as the bridge was being built and imagined the freedoms it represented, something many of those prisoners would never experience again. I like to think this image goes some way to capturing that ‘unattainable freedom’.

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