Photography

Crop your photos boldly, crop them proudly

(First published 4 January 2017.) 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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24 thoughts on “Crop your photos boldly, crop them proudly

  1. DougD says:

    Been there! Although the main lesson of Kylemore Abbey is that status and wealth are no shield against disease and death, a second lesson is that yes it’s okay to crop your photos.

  2. Way back in journalism school and later in newspaper and publishing, cropping was expected. Most publications simply couldn’t always run full frame, 2:3 (or other original format) images even if they wanted to, and photo editors would always crop for content anyway to make a stronger image, altering both the aspect ratio and content. Shooting with that process in mind meant the end result was indeed closer to your vision looking through the box than if it were an afterthought.

    Having said all that, in my personal artwork these days, I really try to get as close to what I want as possible (outside of my product advertising work—which is my full-time job—where anything goes). But I still miss a thing here or there, like frequent crooked horizons in landscapes or slanted lines in general—despite using a grid focusing screen and often a tripod. I straighten those images, which involves cropping, but I generally retain the original format. And since I shoot a Nikon D850 with a huge sensor, I often shoot macro with a 300 PF lens and a 1.4x teleconverter which creates a de facto 420mm macro lens, which, together with a little cropping, can give me some incredibly detailed bugs that retain a high resolution.

    • Andy Umbo says:

      Ditto…The “reverence” for shooting to format, and having the format be sacrosanct to the process; is a total construct of 70’s era art/photo schools, which is the first place I heard it. Prior to that, it was expected that you’d using cropping in the darkroom process to eliminate extraneous things in the frame you couldn’t get out while shooting. TLR’s were even marketed with the idea that you could crop horizontal or vertical without moving the camera, it was a “plus”! Hasselblad marketing in the late 70’s and on worked on making the square a “thing”. Crop away!

    • In a Facebook channel for “history of” my hometown, someone has found a bunch of photos that ran in the local newspaper – the original photo and a clip from the paper. It’s fascinating to see how they cropped!

  3. I photograph to make prints. My “small” prints that I mail to family and friends are 4×6, regardless of the aspect ratio of the negative or digital capture. This is the small paper size I stock and the size of readily available frames if the recipients want to frame them. With a suitable subject they can look pretty good matted with 2 inch borders in an 8×10 frame too.

    I have standardized on three sizes for my “big” prints and have a stock of mats and frames to fit them. The square prints are 11×11. The landscape orientation prints are 8×12. The portrait orientation prints are 8×10. I will very infrequently use 8×10 for landscape or 8×12 for portrait instead.

    I keep these print aspect ratios in mind when I take pictures. I can’t remember doing any cropping except that needed to fit the image to the aspect ratio I choose for the print. (I occasionally print 35mm or digital images square and 6×6 images rectangular.)

  4. I crop when necessary. If my vertigo flairs up, I find that sometimes I will shoot a little crooked…not hold the camera completely level. Most noticeable on shots with a distinct horizon. In those cases, I level everything up in post production. Sucks to get old. LOL

    • I didn’t realize you suffered from vertigo. I struggle to hold my camera completely level even though I don’t have vertigo! I correct that in Photoshop all the time.

  5. I’m with Evans and you. The ‘purist’ argument on this seems absurd to me. Of course you do the best you can to get the image you want at the time of shooting, bu that’s not always possible. In those circumstances cropping is just one more tool in the photographer’s toolbox to achieve the desired end result.

    I not only crop pictures to get the image I was aiming for, I will also crop pictures to get an image I did not even know was there but only saw when I had the time to look closely at the original image on a large screen.

    Maybe if you are shooting in a studio or directing a scene it is appropriate to believe you should not be cropping, but no matter how skilled the photographer a lot of photography is down to luck because it involves things over which we do not have control. I appreciate HCB’s work as much as the next person but perhaps some of his pictures could have been even better with a little judicious cropping.

  6. Another issue where someone’s personal beliefs intrude on another’s personal beliefs. Why would one care when it is no skin off their nose anyway. So crop away when needed. Besides who would know anyway since all I have ever seen regarding a photo is camera, lens, film, exposure, and possible development method, but never I cropped it.

    • I don’t generally share that I cropped either. Who cares? But I have read some criticism here and there about cropping and decided to write this in response.

  7. Back in the 70s when I was in college all the rage was filed out negative holders to show the full frame of a 35mm shot … over the decades I ended up tryig to compose as best I can and then cropping if needed!!!

    • Andy Umbo says:

      BB58 see my comment above. Somehow the concept of using as much of the film as you could for quality, so you weren’t blowing little sections of the film up, turned into never cropping at all; which of course, is ridiculous, especially if you’re a professional photographer anyway, since you are cropping to fit a layout all the time, and “leaving space” around the composition for the art director to make decisions! I have to laugh about the filed out film carriers tho. I had my commercial studio above a machine shop, and paid for them to precision cut out my Omega film carriers for 35mm, 120 square, and 120 6X7 to show the entire frame. This way they were also able to make sure there was no roughness or metal burrs to scratch the film. You couldn’t do it with 4X5, as there wouldn’t be enough left to hold the flm flat, but there were spring-loaded contraptions that pulled sheet film flat and left most of the edge out, as well as printing in a glass carrier, which was a whole other mess. Boy, that black edged print thing went the way of the dodo with digital!

  8. I am team Evans all the way. I do everything in my power to make an image what I want it to be in the field. However, there are some instances when it isn’t possible or when I figure out what I wanted isn’t the best image after all. Not to mention- sometimes the zoom simply isn’t enough to get you where you want to be. I’m thinking specifically of a picture I made yesterday – my camera’s zoom lens wasn’t enough for a butterfly on a flower that was several feet away and I had no time to get closer without losing the butterfly. Cropping is my friend!

  9. I think we have to stop mythologising and worshipping long dead photographers. They did what they wanted. I think you can do the same. Bresson and Evans are as relevant to modern photography as a buggy whip is to modern personal mobility.

    • Strong statement there! I’m neither mythologizing nor worshipping. I’m just using these two famous photographers to create the point and counterpoint.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        Everytime I hear the “buggy whip” argument, I have to remind people that their are still buggies, and still companies making high-quality buggy whips! There is still a place in the world for those who like to make buggy whips and want to create the best of those. I used to hear this mostly from people who jumped into computerization and digital imaging far before it was even close to film quality. and were hell-bent on destroying conventional film imaging to ensure their own profit; and yet here we are, 20+ years later, on a web site celebrating film photography and vintage cameras!

        I remember making a similar statement about Alverez Bravo in college because I couldn’t see the value of his work, and mostly because I was yet to be decently educated. I pretty shortly got my hat handed to me by not only the instructor but many of the students. Evans and HBC are as valid to modern imaging as anyone, and if you don’t understand their place and why, that’s on you.

        All hail the buggy whip and what it represents!

  10. Darts and Letters says:

    Jim, I work pretty hard to compose what I want out of the camera but I’ll crop with no compunction. It’s strictly a matter of how cropping might affect the quality of the final image. There’s usually no issue because I tend to make just very minor crops, if at all. But once in a very great while, I’ll try something drastic, usually only for family pictures.

    • Some of the labs I use to process my color film return scans of small enough dimensions that I am reluctant to do more than a minor crop. But when I do my own scans that’s not a problem!

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