How much is too much? 5 popular photography techniques to use in moderation

Dyan Zarzuela
Dyan Zarzuela

In the same way that a clever turn of phrase can become a cliché through repeated, widespread use, certain photography techniques can also be worn out to the point of oversaturation.

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Photo by Matthew Payne

If you’re new to photography, take comfort in the knowledge that even the most seasoned photographers may find these familiar shots in their portfolio. However, a good photographer knows when the time has come to use certain techniques sparingly—if at all.

When this happens, it’s best taken as an opportunity to experiment, learn new techniques, and challenge yourself. Remember that part of good photography is making the technique work for you, not the other way around.

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Photo by Mark Kamalov

In the photos below, you’ll see that there’s nothing inherently bad about these techniques—they became incredibly popular for a reason—but these days, they're best used in moderation.

01. Bokeh

Named after the Japanese word for blur or haze, bokeh is the characteristic of the out-of-focus area of a photo, the smooth transition of which depends on the kind of lens you use. Used in moderation, this technique produces incredibly beautiful photos.

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Photo by Carlos Domínguez
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Photo by Matt Nelson

However, used too much and it can come off as gimmicky. It can also be distracting. If you are, for instance, shooting the subject against a rich, detailed background that tells a story, overdoing the bokeh effect spoils what could have been a striking photograph.

02. HDR

Commonly used to shoot scenes with a lot of contrast such as landscapes, HDR or high dynamic range imaging uses three or more photos taken at different exposure levels. This allows you to capture a wide spectrum of light to dark in any given scene. The photos are combined using a post-processing software, or automatically in the case of some cameras and smartphones. In the right hands, HDR can produce vivid shots like the photos below, which replicate what the eye, and not just the camera, can see.

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Photo by Joran Quinten
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Photo by Alfonso Navarro

In the wrong hands, the resulting photo can be almost painful to look at, unnatural in the way it manipulates color and even texture. HDR is best used for landscapes and still scenes, since any movement between each shot will make for a blurry photo once they are all combined. 

03. Vignette

Certain lenses naturally produce a vignette effect, where the edges of a photo fade to black. The effect can also be intentionally added or post-processed to create a gradual or dramatic fadeaway to black or even white, mimicking the way the human eye sees.

This makes for an aesthetically pleasing image that places the focus on the subject, such as in this shot of  the rainwater tanks underneath the royal palace of Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

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Photo by Stefano Zocca

That said, heavy use of vignette in the right context can also add drama and make for a dramatically striking shot.

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Photo by Stefano Zocca

Careless use of vignette, however, can come off cheesy, make colors dull, or even de-emphasize the subject. Vignette photos in moderation, using it enough to help draw viewers’ eyes to the subject or emphasize details and colors.

04. Macro photography

Plants, flowers, bees on flowers—these are just a few of the common subjects of macro photography, which is the close-up photography of tiny objects to make them look larger than life. It’s actually a great technique to have in your arsenal and whip out on certain occasions.

Part of what gives macro photography a bad name, however, is its ubiquity in stock photos and free wallpapers for devices. One way you can stand out is by thinking outside the box. For example, the photographer below re-imagines Star Wars dynamics by having opposing sides of the galactic universe in miniature form play nice for a change.

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Photo by Daniel Cheung

And below, instead of simply taking close-up photos of bow tie pasta, the photographer piles them up in a miniature basket to make for a more dynamic shot.

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Photo by RawPixel

05. Long exposure light photography

Leaving the shutter of a camera open for a longer period of time allows you to create and capture shapes that can make for whimsical images. You can paint the town red (or any color you prefer) with just a handheld light source, a dark location, and long exposure.  

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Photo by Rhand McCoy

Light painting is a fun technique to learn, whether you are alone or with a group. While it lends itself to endless variations, there are plenty of ways to creatively work with light in photography, so that it’s not just like every other long exposure photo out there.

For example, you can try light painting with steel wool. The idea is to put the steel wool inside the whisk, tie the string to the top of the whisk handle, and ignite the wool with the lighter. You’ll hold on to the string as you swing around the whisk in the air, producing stunning photos like these.

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Photo by Sean Pierce
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Photo by Ricardo Rocha

As these photos show, these techniques make for interesting and powerful shots, which is why they’ve been used time and time again. As they become increasingly commonplace, however, it’s important to remember that these techniques pack more of a punch when used in moderation and with a strong concept behind each shot.