Nothing Left to Take Away

In Creativity and Inspiration, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David53 Comments

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away.” I wouldn’t claim perfection for any of my images, that’s not the point of my quoting this, but I love the idea that a move towards mastery in photography is a move towards including the essential and excluding all else that doesn’t contribute.

I’ve spent the last 3 days working on images from Iceland and building the Iceland Monograph for the Craft & Vision Store, so these images and the things I learned about my own process are on my mind. If there is one thing I am constantly encouraging my students to do it’s to identify their intention for an image and then remove everything that doesn’t support that vision. If that’s a line, a person, a background, whatever, shoot in such a way as to exclude the extraneous. Use a longer lens, a different point of view, a shallower depth of field, a change in the orientation of the frame, or rendering an image in black and white, whatever it is, edit out the fluff until all I am left with is the photograph.

How did Michelangelo sculpt? He removed all the marble that was not part of the statue. While that over-simplifies the means of getting there, I think it well identifies the intent – to be so aware of what you want to say that you remove everything unnecessary to say it.


  1. Pingback: Capturing the Intent – Matthew Connors Photography

  2. I read this blog post a few days ago and have been thinking about this idea quite a bit. I do agree to a certain extent with the idea, but once you reach this point, where do you go from there? What is your goal once you can simplify a scene down to its base elements?
    At that point in a photographers journey, I believe the goal is to start adding complexity but still control the image. The more skilled the photogprapher gets the more complexity they should be able to control.
    Lee Friedlanders latest photographs are intentionally complex but still hold as compositions. This link is not the greatest example of his work but shows the direction he took his latest project.
    Also, Jens Olof Lasthein’s work shows a mastery of composition and a control of complexity above and beyond simplification.
    I think that control of complexity is the key goal in these guys work, not reduction of complexity.

  3. Pingback: Tuesday Newsday

  4. Pingback: Capturing the Intent « Matthew Connors Photography Blog

  5. Mitz – really I just mean that being a “pro” carries burdens and responsibilities that being a hobbyist does not. There is a freedom to not making this your bread and butter. I have no regrets at all, but sometimes wish I could return to those freedoms. In reality there is always a loss of one thing when gain the other. You said you thought you’d just remain a hobbyist and I was saying there were some advantages to that.

  6. David, thanks for your comment but what do you mean by this? Can you elaborate? As I’m assuming you mean that it was a difficult journey to the destination and you’d wish you’d have done something else. Or don’t count your chickens before they hatch, lol

    On the other hand, there are incredible advantages to not going down that road, and in some ways I’d love to return to those. πŸ™‚

  7. Great image David, but somehow I find myself looking for something red in it πŸ™‚ I don’t know why… maybe a red sail near the horizon or something…
    anyway, that’s just me

  8. Author

    Joseph – I’m planning to use this image for the next month’s wallpaper and if i remember I’ll issue it in iPad and iPhone versions as well. (If I remember. And have time. And, well you know the drill.) πŸ™‚

  9. Can I use this photograph as my phone wallpaper please? =]

    Simplicity might just be the means to training my patience..

  10. Author

    Ian – Thank, that’s kind of you to take the time to say so. Nothing makes me happier than knowing these books have helped, made a difference in some way.

  11. Author

    Mits – It is hard, but anything in life that you long for often is. If it’s what you want to do, then don’t let the challenges scare you off. On the other hand, there are incredible advantages to not going down that road, and in some ways I’d love to return to those. πŸ™‚

  12. David, Yep, I ordered all 3 books. I didn’t particulary like the visionmongers book, well you hit home hard that it is pretty difficult to break into this industry.

    I’ think i’ll just keep it as hobby;)

  13. David, slightly off topic, but just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed reading your ‘Vision & Voice’ Adobe Lightroom book – it is simply brilliant. In particular, looking at the processes you went through with the twenty photographs at the end including the generously provided DNG files to work along with (thank you!) really brought home your message about a vision-driven workflow… the ‘light came on’ in a big way for me’. Thanks for a fantastic resource.

  14. Can’t be mine either as i don’t know what “brevity” means πŸ™‚

  15. See, you illustrate the point perfectly – it took me a long paragraph to say what you did in a short sentence. And English isn’t even your first language! Apparently brevity is not my thing πŸ™‚

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    Eli – You’re absolutely right, but this is really not about simplicity, it’s about an awareness of what is, and is not, the core of your image. If your image demands complexity, then make it complex, but even then do it with economy – every element in the frame – simply composed or otherwise – matters. if it doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t be there. Wow, that sounds far too prescriptive for my liking but I think it’s a sound principle, even if it serves as a guide that then gets completely disregarded for the sake of anarchy πŸ™‚

  17. Simplicity can be a blessing. Like after a spring cleaning. But sooner or later it’s time for a refill. Adding complexity can also be fun.

  18. Cant wait to get my copy of the Iceland monograph. The images are incredible and for a time take my mind off of the 104 degree temp here in Oklahoma today. This is my favorite you have posted of this series. Beautiful colors and composition.

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    Tom – That quote is perfect, and a great contribution to the discussion – thanks!

  20. I’ve been checking the images you sent over Twitter. Couple that with the image you showcased today and it is confirmed that the Iceland monograph ebook is the one I have anticipated the most. Can’t wait to see it. Thanks for sharing these monographs!

  21. I’m really enjoying the softness to the color tones (the blues, the ochres, the greens) of the Iceland photos you’ve posted so far, David. Never having been there to see for myself, I don’t know how I would see things… but you’ve sold me that this is what YOU see! I’m looking forward to the Iceland monograph.

  22. Wow David. This is perfectly timed. You may not have realised it, but you were on holiday with me in my head recently…. as I was taking photographs, there you were. What are you trying to say with this image? What does this image need in it?

    On and on it went until the image had been pared down to the most essential things… and then it was just perfect.


  23. Great quote and great image, as always. I think I’m gonna stop a while and think what *really* is my vision that I want to capture and represent before hitting the shutter like a madman. Thanks.

  24. reading as much stuff as i do i knew those quotes for years. BUT it’s allways good to have a reinforcement. because even if this philosophy is deep in my heart (or head? where do philosophies dwell? …), i’m still not there yet. so i keep on working on it and i guess ’till my last shutter click … πŸ™‚
    so thanks for the reinforcement.

  25. Seriously…well, for a minute, anyway. That is indeed a beautiful image and it reinforces the adage about putting interesting things in front of the camera (not putt-ing, that’s golf) Kennehth, with an h, above, mentions that this may be his favorite photo of yours, while I am particularly drawn to the golden brown image from a day or so ago. That’s one of the things I absolutely love about art AND about humans….tastes, and the things that touch us personally can be as wide open as the Icelandic skies…or should that be the Icelandic chasms….either way.
    p.s. I have heard that the Icelandic women are cold…

  26. Josh & David, Icelandic women can be found between the hours of 1am-4am drinking beer with vodka in it – then you’ll be found 10am the next day, having missed your bus out of Reykyavik, still drunk, in the hostel.

  27. Thank you for sharing this quote as well as “translating” it into photographic aspects. Like they say- sometimes less is more.
    Beautiful photograph!

  28. Nice shot young man! BTW – Enjoyed your LR book immensely. Best down-to-earth “techie” book I’ve ever read> Scott K had better watch out.

    The Irishman

  29. Great reminder… Time to slow back down and only take the pictures that align with my vision. Fantastic photograph too, by the way!

  30. Author

    Josh – Keep that up and I’ll start thinking people are paying attention, my head will swell like a – well, like something that swells up, I guess – and then I’ll be completely unmanageable and demand my bottled water be brought to me by Icelandic women on unicorns. Do you know how hard it is to find Icelandic women?!

    Please keep your encouragement down to a reasonable level. πŸ™‚

    But thanks for this, always nice to know people are listening and that my babbling is helpful to some portion of the population. πŸ™‚

    Ok, I’m getting punchy. Been up way too long and the jet-lag’s not helping. Time to shut this laptop and go have a life. Goodnight, all.

  31. This echoes your thoughts during the CreativeLive weekend. Stunning photograph that applies exactly what we learned from that weekend and your books. Thanks for the inspiration…

  32. Author

    Long hard work, Randy, but much easier than simply using a lens with a tighter angle or moving slightly to the right πŸ™‚

  33. Well put. Identifying my intent prior to shooting is something I am constantly working on. I know something about an scene caught my eye, but I need to spend more time identifying what that was before shooting and work towards building that into the image.

  34. Perfect quote to post with this image. This photograph is stunning. May be my most favorite of yours I’ve seen since I started following your blog. Really beautiful!

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