The Art of Subtraction

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

Supposedly, when Michelangelo was asked how he had made the magnificent statue of David, he replied, “I just removed everything that wasn’t David”.

The Art of Subtraction

When I look at the work of other photographers, there are always a few exceptional images that really stand out. Most of the images that I look at get only a quick glance. However, when I come to one of those exceptional images, everything else seems to fade into the distance. I find my eyes roaming through the image, from point to point, taking in all aspects of the photograph. Often, I find myself going back to those same images to view them again.

I have often asked myself what makes those images so powerful. For me, the answer has become quite clear -- every one of those exceptional images communicates a strong emotion. I consider this to be the driving force behind the images. I believe that this is so important that I consider it the number one rule of photography:




If this is the most important rule in photography (for me at least), what is the next most important rule? For me, the next rule flows from the first:




So, photographers have something to learn from Michelangelo. To create great art, all one has to do is remove everything that is not great art. In terms of photography, all one has to do is remove everything that does not in some way strengthen the emotion. In essence, this is the art of subtraction.

Why is this So Important

A natural response might be to ask why this is so important.

Have you ever had some really great lemonade? A tall glass filled with ice on a hot summer day. The lemonade was great, and the ice made it even better. The ice complimented the lemonade; it seemed to strengthen the taste somehow. Have you ever left a glass of that icy lemonade sitting in the sun too long? By the time that you got back to the lemonade, the ice had melted. What did you have now? Luke warm, weak lemonade. And what did you do with that lemonade? Threw it out, most likely. Why? Because the water from the ice cubes had diluted the taste of the lemonade.

Similarly, items in an image that help the image communicate its emotion strengthen the image (just like the ice strengthened the taste of the lemonade). All other items serve only to dilute the image (as the melted ice cubes diluted the lemonade). In short, all things that do not strengthen the emotion of an image weaken the image.

Emotion and Composition

It all comes down to emotion followed by composition. Emotion is the driving force. Attempting to identify and capture an emotion is the one thing that should lead everything else in the photographic process.

Composition is what allows a photographer to capture the emotion. It is a matter of taking a viewpoint and framing the image in such a way that everything in the image strengthens the emotion.

Identify, Add, and Subtract

So, how does one go about creating an image that communicates an emotion? For me, it comes down to a three step process: 1) identify the emotion, 2) identify the elements that strengthen the emotion and add them to the image, and 3) subtracting everything else from the image.

Now, unfortunately, this is not something that one can teach like one would teach how to use Levels or Curves. Neither I, nor anyone else, can teach someone how to logically identify and analyze the emotional impact in a scene. In fact, this is contradictory. Emotions are something that we feel. Trying to teach someone how to logically analyze what must be felt is illogical. Each photographer must develop this ability himself. However, what one can do is show examples. This is the approach that I have chosen in this article. Three examples of how I applied the art of subtraction will be shown.

Bell Rock

Figure 1: Bell Rock
Figure 2: Bell Rock 

Bell Rock is one of the classic rock structures in Sedona, Arizona. While visiting, I hiked around the area and got the snapshots shown in Figures 1 -- 3. While the snapshots were shot under the midday sun, it wasn't hard to image the emotion that would be created under the appropriate lighting: gorgeous, saturated, red spires glowing in the last few rays of the setting sun -- all starkly contrasted against a deep blue sky.

The elements that supported this emotion were clear:


Figure 3: Bell Rock
The elements that did not support the emotion were also clear.

The subtraction process required a careful positioning of the camera. A hike around the mountain had identified a viewpoint that gave the rock its most symmetrical appearance. Once this viewpoint was discovered, the camera was positioned in such a manner that the other mountains could not be seen in the background. Furthermore, the image was composed such that the foreground, and most of the vegetation, was eliminated from the image. Lastly, the rock was cropped fairly close. This removed any distracting detail around the mountain. This subtraction process isolated the rock from its distracting surroundings and made it appear as a very dominating formation (which it is).

Once the subtraction process had eliminated the undesirable elements, the timing of the shot allowed the elements that supported the emotion to come to full force. The shot was taken during the last few minutes of the setting sun. This caused the rock that was directly illuminated to turn a very saturated red. This same light also caused the sky to become deep blue. This contrast in color made Bell Rock stand out. In addition, the shot was taken when the shadows had just reached the dividing line between the horizontally layered, lower rock and the vertical spires. This timing also put the moon in position just above the rock (as was desired). The final image can be seen in Figure 4. 

Figure 4: Bell Rock Final Image


Figure 5: Zion
Figure 6: Zion
Figure 7: Zion

Zion is another location that has beautiful rock. Figures 5 -- 7 show snapshots that were taken as I explored one area of the canyon. The emotion that the area elicited was one of an eloquent beauty. This was supported by:

It was clear that the best image would be a very simple composition, one that focused the attention on the graceful nature of the lines without a lot of extraneous detail.

However, there were a number of elements that did not support the emotion.

Again, the subtraction process required a careful positioning of the camera. An area of rock was located that had both graceful lines and an extremely clean surface free of plants and the moss like growth. The camera was positioned at a section such that shallow, S shaped lines flowed directly at the camera. This composition managed to eliminate all of the distracting elements from the image. Then, the camera was slightly adjusted to compose the image so that it included just a small amount of the rock debris in the corner. This rock broke the pattern of the lines and contrasted with them. This emphasized the lines and made them even a stronger element. In essence, the composition was set up to subtract out everything except the lines and the few rocks that enhanced the lines. The final critical element was the light. It was necessary to wait until mid morning when the sunlight reflected off the nearby red rock. This reflected light picked up the red color of the rock before illuminating the subject. This enhanced the red color of the rock that was being photographed. The final image is shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8: Zion Final Image


Figure 9: Waterfall
Figure 10: Waterfall

Waterfalls are a favorite subject of many photographers. The waterfall shown in Figures 9 and 10 was found in a canyon in the Sierra Mountains. The canyon was beautiful, and a number of different shots could have been taken. However, I was looking for something different than what is seen in these two figures. I was interested in creating an image that had a more up close and personal emotional feel to it. Three elements were needed:

Identifying what to subtract was easy. Essentially, anything other than the cascading water and the foreground element needed to be subtracted.

Some scrambling along the long series of falls (Figures 9 and 10 show only a small portion of the series of waterfalls) resulted in the discovery of a small waterfall that had just what was desired: beautiful cascading water and a great foreground element. The image was shot up close (the water spray was a challenge). The flowers in the lower right corner provide a contrast that grabs the viewer's attention. Normally, that might not be a good thing. After all, this image is supposed to be about the cascading water. However, the flowers are right next to the log. This log directs the viewer's attention straight to the water. Thus, the combination of the flowers and the log actually serve to strengthen the image.


What are not seen are all the distracting elements that surrounded the waterfall that were subtracted from the image. For instance, there is a fallen tree to the right of the waterfall that leans up against the rock formation that the water tumbles down. Had this tree been included in the image, it would have served to lead the viewer's eye out of the image. In addition, on the left side of the waterfall is a flat rock area with my photo partner sound asleep. The final image is shown in Figure 11.
Figure 11: Waterfall Final Image

The Power of Subtraction

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, when viewing other photographers work, I often see stunning images. The universal component of these images is that they have compositions where all of the distracting details have been eliminated. The photographers that created these images practiced the power of subtraction. The result is that all of the remaining elements in each image serve to strengthen the emotion of the image. Consequently, the viewer's attention is concentrated on that emotion to the exclusion of everything else.

On the other hand, I see many images that seem to communicate no emotion and that are cluttered with too many things. The interesting thing is that, sometimes, I look at those images and see that there was an opportunity to make a really good image -- if the emotion of the scene had been identified and the distracting elements subtracted from the image.

Many people, myself included, travel to locations hoping to find beautiful scenes to shoot. We think, "If I can just find that beautiful waterfall or grand scenic and include it in an image, I will have a great shot". The problem is, great images are determined as much by what is not in the shot as by what is. Photographers that have not learned this lesson are likely to be disappointed even when shooting in beautiful locations.

When we were in grade school, our teachers taught us how to subtract. Now, it is time for us to learn that skill all over again with our photography.