In my workshops and online classes, I’m always amazed at how much students crop their pictures to get what they really want. Now before I get hit with the proverbial ‘rotten tomatoes’, let me explain that I’m talking about unconscious cropping. First, it’s a waste of money, since you paid for all those wonderful pixels that you’re now throwing away. Secondly, you might ask yourself why you are now trying to get the composition that you really wanted by cropping; why didn’t you get it in the field? If you simply forgot to move closer to include or exclude objects, then you were not focused with a clear vision of what you wanted and what would help or hurt the composition if included. And developing a clearer vision is part of mastering the craft of photography, and is not about mastering the use of editing software. I tell students to ‘zoom with their feet’ – move the body to get the composition they want, adding zooming when necessary. It will make less work in the computer later, and quite frankly, a crop after the fact often doesn’t fit a standard format and you end up with odd sized images. If there was a chasm between you and the subject, and your lens simply couldn’t zoom any further, it’s understandable that you may have to crop.
We are responsible for everything in the frame; nothing is neutral, it either helps or hurts. Working with slide film over the years, I had to get it right in camera so the editors didn’t get slides with silver cropping tape all over them! That forced me to refine my vision – to get clear on what I wanted to include, what I didn’t. But today, I see many people not worrying too much about that, saying ‘I’ll crop it out later in the computer.’ Certainly, you can do that, but is that really mastering the craft of good composition? Some things are OK to do that way – with less than 100% viewfinders, you’re going to get a bit more than you saw. But beyond that, “cropping” should happen in the field during composition, in my opinion.
Of course, as my blog images show, conscious cropping is fine. When you know you can’t get into a better position, or your lens is just a bit too short for what you want but there’s the Grand Canyon between you and the subject, you’ll have to crop. But because you’ve thought about that, you’ll hopefully try to get the best composition you can within the limitations, to maximize the pixels you have and to keep honing your skills.
Before I learned how to do panorama stitching, I was cropping my hi-res camera files to become panos when I saw that the scene lent itself more to that format than a standard 35mm ratio. In this situation, I could not get closer without losing the viewpoint I had – I stood on a mound to look across at the palette of colors. But to get closer meant getting lower in the wash and the scene was lost. When I zoomed tighter, I was losing some of the important color spread I wanted. So based on what I wanted and didn’t want, I knew it had to become a panorama. I knew I would have to crop, so I composed with that panorama crop in mind – imagining the crop in the viewfinder, to be sure that later I had everything I wanted within the area that I would use as the panorama.
Just say no to unconscious composition and save yourself from the urge to crop radically later on!
Brenda, your comments here are spot on. For years I shot mostly slides, which as you mention, makes cropping impractical at best. While there is a kind of ingrained magic to the standard format, it doesn’t always fit the composition. I would assume that CONSCIOUSLY deciding that the appropriate cropping will be needed is consistent with your message here. I’m curious to know how often you end up changing the format through cropping, and any words of wisdom you have about striving to work within the ratio of the standard format. I often recall the advice I’ve received from Steven Nestler more than once, to place the edge lines where they must be for the best composition.
I’ve also wondered for a long time why 8 by 10 prints are so common, since they don’t fit the standard 35 mm format. That requires a certain amount of cropping which doesn’t fit with the original composition. I tend to prefer 8 by 12 for this reason. How do you deal with this issue?
Hi Walter – good questions/comments. Yes, not all things fit neatly in a 35mm ratio, but we’ve learned to see that way. Consciously cropping for something that just isn’t going to fit was out of the question for the most part until I went digital, as editors hated that silver tape on the slides! But now I can plan for a different crop if it requires it. But I don’t often have to do that. I see quite naturally in the rectangle and 35mm ratio. I guess I like the challenge of finding how to make that work. There’s more than one right answer, though in a scene, and sometimes a squarish picture works, too. As for printing, it’s odd that the std is 8×10; I too print full frame/image, so 9.25 x 14 is my “11×14” and 8×12 my ‘8×10’ and so on. I have worked hard to fill the frame with what I want so I don’t like to lose any. Some people crop in camera with the idea that they’ll print 8×10 or 16×20, etc. but I don’t tend to do that – unless I’m making a picture that I think will be good for a notecard or calendar format that is 5×7 or 11×12, for stock purposes.
Good point, Brenda. I guess we have all sorts of reasons these days to be lazy.
I find in camera cropping much easier when shooting subjects that are stationary. Shooting moving subject makes it much harder for me to frame it precisely. One reason I recently opted for a camera with a lot of pixels is that I want to have a fair number left over after any cropping. Can’t have too many pixels…
Yes, that’s one reason I went for the higher megapixels, too, in that when I’m doing any sort of action photography, it’s dang near impossible to frame perfectly! So I give myself a little wiggle room for that sort of thing – parades, dancers, runners/bicyclists, animals on the move all justify that extra space in the frame.
computers can harvest vegetables now? crazy…
Well put, Brenda. Unfortunately, that (in)famous phrase “I’ll do it later on the computer” also makes people careless about exposure, even sharpness. I’m immune to that disease not because I’m such a good photographer (but I am working on it! 😉 ), but because I spend more than enough time in front of a computer screen at work already. Of course, I also add a little contrast every once in a while, but on the whole, I’d rather be out there shooting.
Yes, Christa – spending all day at computers often cures the need to do more work on images!! Even if one likes to use Photoshop, etc., I think people will agree that being in the field is far more fun.
Excellent article Brenda and I too see this happening quite often…
Thanks for sharing your insights!
You’re welcome – we can commiserate as teachers, eh? 😉