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Ins and Outs of Removing Elements

26th July 2017

When processing photos, sometimes there is work more than just playing with the sliders and running it through a filter or two.  This post explains some of the guidelines I use when removing items during processing (while trying to keep true’ish to the photo).

Most photographs contain static and temporary elements.  A static element is an element that is present anytime you take the photograph from that location, while a temporary element is only present in that location of a period of time.

Any temporary elements are fair game to be removed.  The most common temporary elements I remove are cars, graffiti, people, shadows, and garbage.  This doesn’t mean that all temporary elements should be removed.  For instance, if there is a worker on the side of the train, they shouldn’t be removed since it adds a bit of story and scale to the image.

My rules around nature lean more towards treating them as temporary elements.  Common nature elements I remove include bushes, puddles, distracting vegetation, and the occasional tree.  The fewer the trees, bushes, and weeds cluttering up the image, the more powerful the subject looks.

Permanent elements typically shouldn’t be removed, but there are some notable exceptions.  The first (and most important) is power lines.  Power lines are like mosquitos, blood sucking insects that ruin everything and should be removed if they can be taken out in a reasonable amount of time.  Most railway signs should be kept, with the exception of snowplow signs (which are fine to remove unless you are shooting a snowplow train).  The best way to figure out which elements need to be removed is when you look at the image, is focus on the subject or are you distracted to another element.

Temporary elements on permanent elements can be removed.  If there is anything contained on a permanent element that was on there as part of its original construction, it can be removed.  So, in the example above, the radio tower was removed since I’m assuming it wasn’t part of the original construction.

It is important not to go overboard with this since you will end up with images that look to sterilized (and fake).  These aren’t hard rules, but rather guidelines that I mentally review and follow when editing a photo.

…Running Extra…

I was able to knock another image (see below) off of my bucket list of locations I’ve yet to photograph trains in.

There are only a couple of more on the list in the Ottawa’ish area that have public access and don’t require a plane or a boat.


  • Steve Boyko
    Posted at 10:12 pm 2017-07-26
    Steve Boyko
    Reply Author

    It’s interesting to see where everyone’s limits are regarding photo editing. Thanks for sharing yours! Your guidelines are similar to mine but your examples are definitely different.

    In the DMU photo I definitely would not have removed the track in the bottom left corner. That’s “across the line” for me as it is a permanent part of the landscape and tells part of the story – there’s a diverging track there.

    I also would not have removed the radio tower for the same reasons. However I might have considered “patching the pavement” at bottom left to remove the patch job, if it was a photo I felt was otherwise strong.

    I’ve spent a lot of time on certain images to clean them up because I felt the image was good but had a distracting element. One of my favourites “Fog Train” (, 2nd from the bottom) had a dumpster to the right of the locomotive. I spent at least 30m cleaning the area up to remove that and a few bits of garbage on the track because I believed in the image and felt it was worth the time.

    Thanks again for posting this and I’d be interested in any followup comments you or others have.

    • DaveM
      Posted at 10:41 pm 2017-07-26
      Reply Author, the removal of the diverging track was mostly because it felt as if the track was floating (and lead to distractions). If there would have been more of the line there, I would have kept it. But it was a small element, so I bent the rule and turfed it. 🙂

      The radio tower I also found too distracting. The conditions that I would have kept the radio tower would be if I had something on the right of the photo to help balance it out a bit. Now that you mentioned the pavement crack at the bottom, that is the only thing I see in that photo.

      The foggy locomotive looks great, cleaning up the garbage is definitely worthwhile, but can be time consuming if there are shadows involved. The only possible modification I would have done to the image is to remove the gravel on the bottom left and replace it with grass. I could justify it to myself by saying that the grass would eventually grow high enough to cover it.


      • Steve Boyko
        Posted at 9:23 am 2017-07-28
        Steve Boyko
        Reply Author

        You’re right – I should have removed the gravel! Now that’s all *I* can see . 🙂