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!