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I believe that photos are best created from subtraction. Just like how a sculptor makes a statue.

A sculptor starts with a rough piece of stone. And the sculptor’s job is to carve away, and subtract until he uncovers the beautiful statue beneath.

I feel the same is in photography. You start off with messy reality. You need to figure out what to carve away, or what to subtract, to uncover a hidden, beautiful image.

What to subtract?

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A list of some potential things to subtract:

  • Distracting cars
  • Distracting trees
  • Distracting poles
  • Superfluous or unnecessary subjects
  • Distracting leading-lines
  • Distracting bright (or dark) light

When I’m shooting on the streets, I’m always thinking: “What can I remove from the frame?” Rather than thinking about what I can add to the frame.

What are you trying to say?

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Also when it comes to your photography, you want to figure out what you’re trying to say.

When you see a scene that is interesting to you — what exactly about the frame do you find interesting? Do you find that one subject that is interesting? Do you find a certain gesture interesting? A certain patch of light?

I think that every photo should have one central focusing point. You need a primary “visual anchor” for your photograph.

This means you need to make a “visual hierarchy” in your photos. What is the first thing you want your viewer to look at? Then what is the second thing you want your viewer to look at? Then the third, fourth, and perhaps fifth?

Always try to focus on the primary thing in your photograph. Then figure out what is not the primary thing in your photograph — and keep on subtracting the fat from your frame.

Start with a blank sheet of paper

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I read in design that there is nothing more beautiful than a white sheet of paper— because the possibilities are endless. If you start off with a blank canvas, anything is possible.

If you want a fun assignment: start off with a blank sheet of paper as your background. Then figure out how you can add subjects to it. Put a simple object in it, and try to photograph it best you can.

Then try to add other objects. Figure out how you can add additional objects into the frame, without adding clutter. Try to avoid over-lapping subjects, and things sticking out from the corner of the frame.

Also when you’re framing a photo, look at the edges. Make sure the edges are clean. Try your best not to crop your photos afterwards — this will help improve your composition.

Simple is hard

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To make simple photos is hard. Especially in street photography— when the world is all chaos.

Subtract the chaos. Find tranquility and silence in your photos. The less you’re trying to say in a photograph, the clearer your message.

Focus on the one central subject in your frame. What is the #1 thing you’re trying to say?

The more distractions you remove from the frame, the more focus your “visual anchor” can have.

How to sculpt David

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To end this article, there is a story about a person who asked Michaelangelo: “How did you carve the David?” Michaelangelo replies, “It was simple. I simply removed everything that wasn’t David.”

To learn how to make better photos, check out Photography 101 >