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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Old Cars

Carspotting 2021

I love old cars! Always have, probably always will. I’m excited to see an old car still on the road, doing what it was designed to do. I photograph them when I come upon them parked.

To make this list, the car has to be at least 20 years old. It’s crazy to me that cars from 2001 qualify! But such cars are becoming quite long in the tooth.

I encountered 21 old vehicles parked in 2021. Not bad for a second year in a row when COVID kept me home far more than normal. Here they are.

Old fire truck. I have no idea when this fire truck was made and I lack the energy to research it. I found it parked on South Meridian Street in Indianapolis.

1953 Dodge. I found this parked in Putnamville, Indiana, during my Ride Across Indiana. I’ll bet it doesn’t run, but I included it anyway.

1957 Ford Fairlane 500. I found this gorgeous car parked in someone’s driveway on US 40 during my Ride Across Indiana.

1959 Ford. Good heavens, but are these ugly. I found this in Putnamville, Indiana, near the 1953 Dodge above.

1961 Rambler American. I found this in Putnamville, Indiana, with the 1953 Dodge and the 1959 Ford. Who knows if it actually runs.

1964-66 Ford Thunderbird. I found this while riding my bike across Indiana, on US 40 in either Wayne or Henry Counties.

1969-75 International Harvester Travelall ambulance. Easily my favorite find of the year, I encountered this in the parking lot of the Red Lobster in Richmond, Indiana.

1972 Ford F-100. Spotted on State Road 340 in Cloverland, Indiana, on my Ride Across Indiana. SR 340 is an old alignment of US 40.

1977-84 BMW 633csi. The look of these still make me swoon. Spotted in Carmel just before Thanksgiving.

1982-87 Chevrolet El Camino. This ElCam belongs to a neighbor. He usually parks it in his driveway, but this day it was on the street and easy to photograph.

1984-85 Chevrolet Celebrity. The first time I encountered this nearly pristine survivor was here, at the local car wash. I’ve since seen it on the street exiting my neighborhood, so it’s just a matter of time before I find it parked somewhere on one of my neighborhood walks. This is my second favorite find of the year because of its rarity and condition.

1984-96 Jeep Cherokee. This is usually parked right across the street from where I work in Downtown Indianapolis. It’s the first of four Jeep Cherokees I found this year.

1984-96 Jeep Cherokee Sport. Spotted at my nearby Meijer, this is the second of four Jeep Cherokees I spotted this year.

1985-87 Ford LTD Crown Victoria. Finding a Crown Vic of this era in this condition is a big enough deal — finding it in the rarer two-door version makes it a hat trick. Spotted at my local Meijer.

1986-91 Buick Skylark. Spotted in downtown Zionsville. This might just be the rarest car I found this year. Buick built plenty of these, but most of them ended up as cheap-transportation used cars and then went to The Crusher. Very few of these have got to be left.

1986-91 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia. Spotted on the mean streets of Zionsville, Indiana, this Westie has clearly been very well cared for over the years.

1992-97 Ford F150. Spotted at my local Meijer. These are still plentiful and I don’t usually photograph them when I find them. I just liked the look of this one. I wouldn’t mind owning it.

1993-98 Mercedes-Benz SL500. Another Meijer find. It’s crazy what people drive to the grocery store.

1997-2000 Saturn SC2. I wasn’t a Saturn fanboy but I did like the looks of this coupe. Spotted at Meijer.

1997-2001 Jeep Cherokee Classic. Spotted in downtown Zionsville. I love the excellent condition of this one.

1998-2001 Jeep Cherokee Sport. For a minute, I thought I had found the one above again, until I got home and realized that that one was a Classic and this one is a Sport. Found parked on Mass Ave in Downtown Indianapolis.

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Essay, Photography, Travel

How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject

First published 3 June 2016. I suppose every American has some baggage around 9/11, even those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away.

While we were in New York I couldn’t figure out how I felt about visiting the new World Trade Center and the neighboring memorial. Ambivalence gave way to curiosity, which yielded to revulsion. Then ambivalence returned and stayed. But visiting the site was on the must-do list for Margaret’s teenagers, who accompanied us. So off we went.

World Trade Center

I took just a few photos, and only these two are worth a darn. Above is the new World Trade Center, and below is the waterfall in the north pool of the memorial site directly to the south.

9/11 memorial

These photos offer no connection to the place. This could be any tall building; this could be any man-made waterfall. I think it’s because I didn’t want to be connected to this place. And the memorial felt sterile to me.

We walked from there a couple blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel. Margaret knew only that it was a 1766 church among the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and that therefore she wanted to see it. We didn’t know its special, critical connection to the aftermath of 9/11.

St. Paul's Chapel

We learned that for eight months St. Paul’s Chapel was an aid and comfort station for everyone working the recovery. The building was open around the clock; volunteers fed and prayed with the workers and various doctors came to tend to their medical needs. Musicians even came to play for everyone.

Despite being so close to the collapsed towers, St. Paul’s survived without even a broken window.

St. Paul's Chapel

Even though this is still a functioning church with services every Sunday, memorial panels full of photographs line the north wall inside. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had hoped to get away from my feelings about 9/11 by just enjoying and photographing the architecture here. The only photos I took of the memorials are two photos of patches from police and fire forces around the world. They were sent here in a show of solidarity and mourning for their injured and dead comrades.

St. Paul's Chapel

The rest of my photographs were typical-of-me architecture shots, trying to record a solid sense of this building. Back in Indiana there are no buildings from 1766. It was a great joy to experience this one.

St. Paul's Chapel

It is a lovely church, perfectly maintained in every detail.

St. Paul's Chapel

We stepped out back and found a graveyard. In New York as in Indiana, churches used to bury their dead out back. It was surreal to see these very old gravestones amid the towering buildings all around. It was even more surreal to learn that in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel was the tallest building in the city. I loved imagining a time when that would have been true. Apparently, the church was surrounded by orchards!

St. Paul's Chapel

St. Paul’s Chapel is a stunning building. But I recognized that because I couldn’t escape 9/11 here, I wasn’t connecting to it in the ways I normally would. And then I came upon the bell.

St. Paul's Chapel

It was a gift from the city of London to the city of New York after the attack, a symbol of friendship and solidarity across the oceans. This is where it all connected for me: this tragedy had worldwide reach, and it affected everyone who heard of it. There’s no shame that my feelings about 9/11 remain unsettled, uncertain. I cried here for a minute, quietly.

I shot my Canon S95 raw, which meant a lot of post-processing in Photoshop when I got home. It takes a little time to tweak each photograph for its best look. It gave me time to process not only my feelings about our visit to these sites but also more of my feelings about 9/11 itself. While processing photos, I slowly reviewed the day and thought about each scene, including those I didn’t photograph. That time and space to think, alone in my quiet home office, let me find a little more peace.

One photograph I didn’t take was of one of the pews. A few years ago St. Paul’s removed most of its pews, replacing them with individual chairs arranged in a U. But a couple pews remained in the back. In this church so perfectly maintained, the pews were gashed and gouged and chewed up — by the heavy shoes and gear of the recovery workers who rested on them. These pews remain as a memorial.

It was emotionally difficult to follow the news stories of the recovery work in the months following the attack. I dealt with it by dissociating from it. But seeing those gouged pews made those people and their experiences real. And so I don’t need a photograph of those pews; I’ll never forget them.

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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Ride Across Indiana, Road Trips

Visiting Vigo County, Indiana, on the National Road and US 40

On my bicycle ride across Indiana, I had pedaled through Wayne, Henry, Hancock, Marion, Hendricks, Putnam, and Clay Counties when I reached the last county of the trip, Vigo. This county borders Illinois and was the end of my trip.

It began to rain steadily as I rode off State Road 340 back onto US 40, and thus into Vigo County. My front handbrake was useless, and my handlebars were too slippery to hold. My rear coaster brake still stopped the bike, albeit slowly; it made riding not completely unsafe. I knew I would not make it to the Illinois line this day. My friend Michael lives near downtown Terre Haute, so I made his home my final destination.

Before I reached Terre Haute I passed through tiny Seelyville. There you’ll find Kleptz’s Restaurant, which has been operating since before I went to college just down the road from here at Rose-Hulman in the late 1980s.

Kleptz' Restaurant, Seelyville, IN

As you can see, Kleptz’s is a big old house. Some friends of mine stopped in for a drink back in the late 80s and they described sitting in Kleptz’s as like sitting in someone’s living room.

I’m a big fan of old neon signs. There used to be a good one on this building, but it’s been gone since 2009. When I photographed it that August, I didn’t know it was doomed.

Kleptz Bar

I don’t normally photograph modern gas stations on my trips, but I did this time.

Casey's, Seelyville, IN

It’s because I remember the building that used to stand on this corner. Here it is from that August, 2009, road trip.

Downtown Seelyville

I photographed this building in the unincorporated town of East Glen because in 1989, freshly graduated from college and looking for an apartment, I considered renting one of the upstairs apartments here. The downstairs was a hair salon even then. (I’m happy I found the apartment I did; read that story here.)

Salon, East Glenn, IN

I’ve photographed this Clabber Girl billboard a number of times over the years. Clabber Girl Baking Powder is one of Terre Haute’s claims to fame. This billboard has been greeting people as they approached town for probably 80 years. Every so often, it receives a restoration.

Clabber Girl billboard

Just beyond the billboard lies Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, the number one undergraduate engineering school in the nation (according to U.S. News and World Report). This is my alma mater.

Entrance to Rose-Hulman, US 40 Terre Haute

Here’s where US 40 meets State Road 46 on the west edge of Rose-Hulman’s campus. Several years ago, US 40 was rerouted to follow SR 46 down to I-70, and then to follow I-70 into Illinois. The National Road, however, continues straight ahead.

US 40 at SR 46

In Terre Haute, I stopped in the rain to have a hot-fudge sundae at this Dairy Queen. It’s on the National Road on the east side of town. A handful of Terre Haute DQ’s had neon signs like this one. They were custom made; you’ll find them only in Terre Haute. This and one other location in town still have them.

DQ, Wabash Ave., Terre Haute

From here, I rode straight to my friend’s house. I really wanted to document the National Road in Terre Haute, especially where it originally passed by the Vigo County Courthouse. That will have to wait for a future dry day.

Margaret drove to Terre Haute to pick me up. My friend, his wife, Margaret, and I all went out for dinner and drinks before Margaret and I headed home. Back in my day, my favorite Terre Haute bar was Sonka’s, on the National Road near downtown. It’s still going!

Sonka's

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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Ride Across Indiana, Road Trips

The houses on the grounds of the Putnamville Correctional Facility

As you pass by the Putnamville Correctional Facility on US 40 in Putnam County, Indiana, you can’t help but notice the brick houses scattered around the property.

There are apparently 25 of them, although when I look at the area on Google Maps I count only 19. I must be missing the rest. They are rented at nominal fee, utilities paid, to key employees of the prison. That way, those people are always close by in case of a crisis.

I’ve long wondered if these houses were built with prison labor.

Houses on the Putnamville Correctional Facility
Houses on the Putnamville Correctional Facility
Houses on the Putnamville Correctional Facility
Houses on the Putnamville Correctional Facility
Houses on the Putnamville Correctional Facility
Houses on the Putnamville Correctional Facility

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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Preservation, Ride Across Indiana, Road Trips

Rising Hall, a true gem on the National Road in Indiana

Rising Hall on US 40

On the National Road in western Indiana, overlapping the Hendricks-Putnam County line you’ll find Rising Hall. It’s an Italianate home built 1870-72 by Melville McHaffie, a son of pioneer Putnam County settlers. McHaffie and later his son farmed the surrounding land.

In the decades after the McHaffies owned the house, it passed through several owners before being abandoned. It was in deplorable condition by the early 1980s when Walt and June Prosser bought it, completely restored it, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Here is its nomination application.)

Rising Hall on US 40

In 2000, the house and its restoration was profiled on television. The video tells the house’s story and shows the stunningly beautiful restoration the Prossers undertook.

As the video explains, the Prossers gave the home its current name, after all of the staircases (“rising halls”) inside.

Rising Hall on US 40

It’s not common to see a barn made of brick in Indiana.

Rising Hall on US 40

Walt passed away in 2010 at age 86. I am unable to find information about his wife, June, so I presume she is still alive. Here’s hoping the Prosser family continues to give this home loving attention.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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