Photography

Crop your photos boldly, crop them proudly

Walking down this street in Galway City’s shopping district, this scene felt interesting. My Canon PowerShot S95 was on and in my hand, so I framed quickly and shot. Yet the shot turned out not to be interesting at all. My eyes saw the interesting part of this scene, but I lacked time to move in closer or zoom my lens to frame it exactly. I shot knowing I could crop.

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This is what I saw: a man walking apart from the crowd, strong and purposeful, on a tight, busy, colorful street. I really like how this photo turned out, despite needing to crop. I’m very happy I acted in that moment. I’m less happy that cropping reduced the image from 3648×2736 pixels (about 10 megapixels) to 1739×1391 pixels (about 2.4 megapixels). It looks good at 100% on my 23-inch, 1920×1080 computer monitor. But given that digital prints look best at no less than 300 pixels per inch, this image would start to go soft when printed at larger than about 6 inches on its horizontal edge. That’s not big enough to hang over my fireplace mantel. I may not ever want to hang this photo there, but I do like having the option.

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Many photographers feel strongly about cropping, for and against. The subject doesn’t rise to Canon-vs-Nikon holy-war status, but the subject generates a fair amount of heat in the photography forums.

Two well-known photographers are the argument’s poster children. Walker Evans, who is perhaps best known for his photos of Americans during the Great Depression, cropped liberally to get at an image’s heart. Pioneering street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, on the other hand, cropped but two of his photographs, and only with great reluctance. He felt that a photographer compromises his or her vision upon altering composition in the darkroom.

I lean more toward Evans. Yet I work hard to compose the photo as I want it to be before I click the shutter. I prefer it, actually. It sharpens my skills to always compose carefully, and it’s deeply satisfying to nail it in the camera. And post processing is not a reliable substitute for good composition. I’ve taken scads of lousy photos, and a judicious crop has rescued only a small number of them. When it happens, it’s just good luck.

Yet I can’t always get what I want in the camera’s viewfinder or screen. Sometimes a moment presents itself and I must shoot now, even though I’d rather be closer. Sometimes the camera’s default aspect ratio doesn’t lend itself to what I want to do with the subject. In those cases, I shoot intending to crop, the end framing and aspect ratio in mind when I click the shutter.

I knew that when I photographed the chapel at Kylemore Abbey that I wanted the chapel to fill the image. The camera’s default 4:3 aspect ratio made that difficult. And to fit the chuch in the frame I backed up until I was noticeably downhill of it, which created wicked keystoning.

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I fixed (maybe overfixed) the keystoning in Photoshop and then cropped the image square. This is more like what I saw in my mind when I shot the image.

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The S95 offers aspect ratios other than 4:3, and changing it isn’t all that hard. But when I’m composing, I usually forget which menu it’s on. So I skip it and crop in Photoshop. When I shoot film, of course, I’m stuck with the camera’s aspect ratio and must crop in Photoshop.

When I move in close to small objects, I frequently want to bring more attention to the object or deemphasize an uninteresting background.

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I frequently crop to 5:4, and once in a while to 1:1, to bring the object more front and center. At 5:4, the effect is usually subtle. It’s more pronounced at 1:1.

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When I shoot broad landscapes with my digital camera, the 4:3 aspect ratio usually leaves too much uninteresing stuff at the top and bottom. In this photo at Slieve League in Ireland, the flat ocean just lies there in the foreground. Bleh.

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Cropping to 3:2 emphasizes the cliff, which is the interesting part of this image. Additional Photoshoppery punched up the cliff’s colors and brought out detail in the sky.

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Once in a great while I crop even more deeply. While in New York City last year Margaret and I cruised the Hudson River. When we passed the Statue of Liberty on that relentlessly gray day, I zoomed in to the max. Yet the images were left with a lot of uninteresting sky and water top and bottom. This frame even caught the top of a buoy.

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I cropped to 3:2 first, but it wasn’t enough. So I cropped again, to a cinematic 16:9. As you can see, I also corrected white balance, neutralizing the photo’s blue caste and making Ms. Liberty pop. This crop narrows the photo right down to its interesting elements, such as they are. It’s not a great photograph, but it’s far better than how it started.

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16:9 is my last-resort aspect ratio. It looks strange, at least to me, at typical blog resolution (as above). I find 16:9 works better on screen at larger resolutions. Also, on those rare occasions I want to print and frame the image, I have to send 16:9 files to a pro lab for printing and get custom framing and matting. I don’t always want the hassle and expense. A handful of my photographs hang in my home, and I printed them all at Walmart. I bought their frames (already matted!) on my way to checkout. They look great. But they’re 8x10s, which Walmart handles easily.

Notice that I crop to standard ratios: 1:1, 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 7:5, and 16:9. These are ratios in which we expect to see photos, and most of them correspond to standard print and frame sizes. I crop to other ratios when specific application requires it. The small road photos in this blog’s masthead, for example, fit a 7:3 ratio driven by the WordPress template I use.

I’ve become staunch about my approach of trying to get it right in the camera, cropping only when I must, to fit the vision in my mind when I clicked the shutter. But I’m a live-and-let-live guy; if you feel differently, we can still be friends!

Where do you fall in the cropping debate? Closer to Evans, or to Cartier-Bresson?

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8 thoughts on “Crop your photos boldly, crop them proudly

  1. Normaly I use the photographs out of the cam. I think it’s often easier to get a better picture by croping it, then compose it by camera – but I don’t like it very much.

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  2. Michael McNeill says:

    Cropping never used to bother me, but it does more so now the more time I soend in the darkroom. It’s not the fact that cropping means throwing away negative real-estate, it’s just I ask myself why I didn’t take a bit more care before taking the photograph. But it’s not life and death – some people on the forums seem to get all hot-and-bothered about the issue. If it improves the final print, I crop.

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  3. Jim, thanks for pointing me back to this post, I’ve followed you a few years, but I must’ve missed it at the time.

    I’m firmly in the no crop camp, as you know.

    My primary reason is to keeps things simple. All of my cameras now use 3:2 – 35mm film cameras, Pentax DSLRs, Ricoh compacts. When I use (increasingly less) Hipstamatic on my iPhone I use the 3:2 aspect ratio 95% of the time.

    Sometimes, (maybe 2-3% of total output max) I use 1:1, as it’s so different to 3:2 to be very interesting, and is a unique aspect ratio as it’s square. And this is virtually always with Hipstamatic, though the Ricohs have the option too.

    I couldn’t comprehend how, when lining up a shot, I would try to decide whether I wanted to the final image to be 1:1, 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 7:5, or 16:9, to use your ratios. Too many decisions – it adds six times times the complexity!

    I very recently got an old(ish) Sony CyberShot, which is a lovely little camera, but only has the options of 4:3 and 16:9. I just can’t get used to 4:3 after a few years of shooting film – there’s always too much at the top and bottom of the frame! So for this reason above all others it’s likely I’ll sell it on soon. I could’t be bothered to always shoot with the intention to crop a little top an bottom afterwards to make it 3:2, when I have a bunch of great cameras that are native 3:2.

    By the way, what’s going on with that church? The way it leans in the original image happens naturally due to perspective (like looking down a long road and it narrows to a point), but I can’t imagine a situation like in the second image where the two tallest parts lean away from each other. It’s not physically possibly, and kind of looks like the photo has been printed on flexible material, then been bowed inwards, if that makes sense. Why did you distort it like this and not just leave as it was naturally?

    Anyway, great topic, and it shows how we all have our different preferences and “rules” in how we photograph. : )

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    • “I couldn’t comprehend how, when lining up a shot, I would try to decide whether I wanted to the final image to be 1:1, 3:2, 4:3, 5:4, 7:5, or 16:9, to use your ratios. Too many decisions.”

      That’s not the way to think about it. In the moment of the shot you realize that there’s too much noninformation left/right or above/below the subject and realize that at crop time one of those ratios will work.

      Annnnd about that church. I overcorrected the keystoning. I find keystoning to be generally awful in images and correct it most of the time. I am better at getting it right now than I was when I overfixed that particular shot!

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      • I see, I did wonder how you could hold all those aspect ratios in your mind and superimpose them on the scene in front of you!

        I think if I can’t get the scene to fit (holding the camera either portrait or landscape) I just don’t take the shot.

        I kind of like a bit of distortion from a wide angle lens. I guess it depends on the lens as well as your tastes. If the lens isn’t that wide and your getting major keystoning it’s probably not very appealing. But on something say 22mm or less, for me it’s part of the “appeal” of wide angles.

        How does the correction thing work in Photoshop then, are their gridlines overlaid so you can bend it back until it lines up straight? The wonders of technology!!

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        • Photoshop has some automatic perspective correction tools. I use those to start and tweak. It’s very fast. There are times when skewed perspective from a wide-angle lens is the look I’m going for but usually I don’t want it.

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