It’s human nature to find something new and novel, then run it into the ground. We do it as kids with our toys and even as adults with our favorite songs. This also applies to photographic techniques. When you try something new and it works, the natural next step is to try it again and again until it stops working. That border can be tough to see when you’re deep in the creative process, so we have put together a few quick guidelines to help you find that limit without falling too deeply down the rabbit hole.
Important note: Before this post is inundated with comments about how we’re being too negative or suppressing creativity, I’ll make it clear that’s not the intention. It’s simply to provide some context and maybe help someone avoid looking back on their work in the future and regretting that slightly tragic “vignetting phase.” Use all of these techniques as much as you like.
What is it?
Darkening (or, less frequently, lightening) the corners and edges of an image to emphasize the subject matter in the middle of the frame. It can be caused by the optical characteristics of certain lenses or added in postproduction. How much is too much?
When you add a vignette to a photo during editing, it can be hard to get a sense of how noticeable the effect really is. Many vignetting filters tend to add a uniform darkening all the way around the frame, leaving an oval in the middle, which, when overdone, can start to resemble the extremely cheesy vignetted portraits that fell out of favor 30 years ago. It will also suggest to other photographers that you weren’t careful about the edges of your photo and you’re trying to cover something up. How to use it responsibly:
One way to keep things feeling organic is to let the natural vignetting of your lenses come out. Shooting wide open will typically give you the darkest edges, especially with faster lenses. If you’re going to add it in post, trying to mimic organic vignetting is not a bad idea. Apply the heavy-handed Vignette 2 Lightroom filter to every photo and you’re probably getting carried away.
Super Shallow Depth of Field
What is it?
The function of lenses with wide apertures combined with a larger sensor, shallow depth of field involves a small piece of the photo being in focus with the rest dropping off into pretty blur. How much is too much?
If the lens goes to f/1.4, the urge is often strong to shoot at f/1.4. You paid for that extra aperture, right? So it would be a shame not to use it. However, all that beautiful bokeh can obscure the fact that important parts of your subject aren’t in the plane of focus. Nailing the focus on the front eye of a subject at f/1.4 can look dreamy and great, but for a normal headshot the effect can be too stylized. It’s also worth noting that lenses are typically less sharp overall when shooting wide open. How to use it responsibly:
Feel free to crank up the bokeh, but it’s important to consider your subject. If there’s beautiful blur in the background, it’s not going to matter if the thing you’re actually taking a picture of is an out-of-focus mess. Shooting at a more narrow aperture for more depth of field will also make you pay closer attention to your backgrounds, which you should be doing anyway. (Image Note: The overall effect is rather pretty, but the tiny area of focus makes the whole thing feel blurry and chaotic).
What is it?
Combining several images of the same scene with different exposures gives the impression that the camera had the ability to capture things outside of its normal dynamic range. How much is too much?
This is the granddaddy of overused photographic techniques. A quick search on Flickr for HDR will turn up tone-mapped, neon monstrosities that are almost painful to look at. I once heard bad HDR described as making everything “look like World of Warcraft” and that seems like a pretty good description. How to use it responsibly:
If you love the neon-colored HDR, then more power to you, but the real power of HDR starts to show when it’s done subtly. You can make a scene look more like it did in real life, bringing back detail in shadows and highlights that might otherwise be lost.
Lifted Blacks and Muted Whites
What Is It?
There are two ends to a photo’s histogram and by keeping the graph away from either end, you can take away the blacks or the whites in a photo, thus altering the dynamic range. This sometimes offers a “vintage” look. You can also oversimplify things and call it “Instagrammy.” How much is too much:
Lifted blacks are still extremely popular at the moment, thanks in large part to the prevalence of film-emulation filters like VSCO, so this one is perhaps even more subjective than many of the others. That said, there’s a fine line between images that look “stylized” and those that look improperly edited and exposed. Going all in on lifted blacks and muted whites might earn you a lot of Facebook likes, but there’s a chance you’ll look back on those images and see them as extremely dated. How to use it responsibly:
Figure out your style. Lifted blacks are a little easier to experiment with because many people are viewing images on mobile screens, which crank up the contrast anyway, making it seem less jarring. When it comes to muted whites, though, it can make the overall image feel dark, which can be less appealing to the eye. If that’s what you’re going for, great! If not, it’s best to proceed cautiously. Don’t be afraid to tweak those presets to look just how you want them.
What is it?
In a simplified way, sharpening looks for the edges of objects in a photo and tries to make them crisper and more pronounced to make the image looks, well, sharper. How much is too much?
Adding too much sharpening to a photo can create very awkward-looking lines anywhere there’s a high-contrast edge in a photograph. You can also introduce a lot of very unsightly artifacts into the image if you crank the sharpening up too far. If your images start to look overly grainy or the subject starts to get odd halos around the edges, then it’s too much. How to use it responsibly:
We all strive to make “sharp” images, so the temptation to really crank the sharpness slider is strong. A strategy I find pretty effective with many of these editing techniques is to add too much sharpening intentionally and then walk it back. You want your image to have clearly defined edges without getting at all cartoony or littered with ugly little artifacts. Photoshop’s relatively new Smart Sharpening filter is also pretty good about letting you apply a reasonable amount of sharpening without the downsides. It’s also important to note that it’s very, very hard to use sharpening to “fix” an image that’s out of focus or suffering from motion blur. It typically just makes things worse. In the photo of the chicken above, the original was soft due to motion blur and you can see the sharpening doesn’t “fix” the blur, but rather makes it look odd.
What is it?
Similar to sharpening, the Clarity slider in Lightroom affects midtone contrast. So, rather than adding a global contrast adjustment, it just tries to emphasize the differences in areas of high contrast, which typically represent edges. How much is too much?
Clarity sounds good, right? Why wouldn’t you want your images to be as “clear” as possible? But, take it too far and you’ll start to notice that things get a little cartoonish and people’s features can start to look harsh and gritty. To my eye, they can also even look a little dirty. How to use it responsibly:
Unlike sharpening, I don’t personally find Clarity to be an essential adjustment for every image. The first step is really identifying the photos that would benefit from it. Things with a lot of texture or intricate patterns can often get a boost from a little clarity. When things start looking outlandish, however, it’s time to scale it back.
What is it?
A bright light source in the frame of the photo sends refracted and reflected light scattering throughout the lens, creating interesting objects and noticeable haze. How much is too much?
This is perhaps the one I struggle with the most. I’m a sucker for lens flare to the point where I have to keep myself in check. There are some specific things to look out for, though. Some lenses flare in a much more attractive way than others. Smartphone cameras, for instance, often have an ugly purple flare. You’re always going to lose contrast when you introduce lens flare, but losing too much can take important details out of your image. Since this is popular with portrait photographers, it’s also important to use it sparingly throughout a session. The subject might love the stylized lens flare photos you provide, but they also would likely prefer some photos where you can actually see what they look like. How to use it responsibly:
If you have to work really hard to get your lens to flare, it’s likely the conditions aren’t really conducive to it. Rather than getting a dreamy haze, you’re going to get a flat, washed-out image that looks more like a mistake than a creative choice. While the little reflections can look really cool in the frame, they can also fight with your subject, so take careful note of where the flare is showing up. It doesn’t need to be on top of someone’s face to ruin a photo, either. A big green or purple artifact can be very distracting in many circumstances. (Image note: As a single photo, I like this lens flare shot, but it’s very polarizing depending on people’s tastes.)
What is it?
Leaving the camera’s shutter open for an extended period while firing the flash creates a semi-sharp subject and trails of light from other light sources in the frame. How much is too much?
This is an extremely popular technique with concert photographers, often because stage lighting can be extremely difficult and colorful. That’s a great setting for it. Often the light trails will give an image away. It’s often clear whether the photographer considered the camera movement they wanted to employ or if it was more of a “shoot the flash, leave the shutter open, and wiggle the camera around,” scenario. How to use it responsibly:
Before you press the shutter, look at the light and figure out what it will look like with different camera movements. It can be the difference between light trails that emanate from your subject and light scribbles that obscure a person’s face. It’s also important to consider the frenetic nature of the effect itself. It can often make images feel hectic, which could be great for concert but less so in calmer settings. (Image Note: The streaks of light go in a good direction for this photo, but they also obscure the musician’s face and we lose a great expression).
What is it?
Ultra-wide angle lenses produce distortion at the edges, emphasizing the center of the frame and creating a unique and very intense look. How much is too much?
A good fisheye lens is actually a pretty substantial investment, so once you buy one, you naturally want to shoot with it a lot. The problem is that the ultra-wide look doesn’t necessarily lend itself to some kinds of photography, like portraits. And while the extreme perspective is exciting in some settings, it can get very overwhelming across an entire gallery of images. How to use it responsibly:
The first step in using a fisheye is identifying subject matter that really lends itself to the look. Skateboarding is a no-brainer, and extreme sports shooters in general have been using them for ages. They have become less popular in recent years, though, so even there it can look a bit dated. The best use, really, is when you want to fit as much of a scene as possible into a single frame. If you sprinkle in a fisheye image from time to time, you get the desired effect and don’t visually exhaust the viewer. (Image note: While this is a funny photo of the chicken, it’s very unflattering to the person in the frame and very extreme.)
What is it?
Special lenses with elements that tilt, shift, and swing to create a variety of visual effects in your photos. You can check out an explanation of the tilt-shift movements here. How much is too much?
This is a tricky one because you can do a lot of things with a tilt-shift lens. The most commonly used creative technique is to tilt or swing the lens, resulting in a thin band of focus that cuts across the image in either a vertical or horizontal line. If the focus effect starts to overshadow the subject, then it’s too much. It’s also very tricky to get the focus just right, so if you’re missing shots because you’re messing with lens movements, it might be time to lock it down. How to use it responsibly:
Check out this tutorial for some strategies for using a tilt-shift lens for portraits. But, on a basic level, you really have to pay attention to the lines in your frame. You want the shifted plane of focus to feel purposeful. That also applies if you’re adding the tilt-shift effect in post. It’s worth noting that fake tilt-shift has become very convincing, so if you’re looking for someone to give you credit for doing it in-camera, tilt-shift might not be the way to go. (Note: The image above is actually a tilt-shift portrait of mine I like very much, but it comes from my “tilt-shift phase” when I was doing several every session and it was too much.)