Cutting the unused or extra area away from a photograph is called cropping for whatever reasons. My neighborhood barber now has ‘hair-crop’ rate list. Cropping must be a new word which incidentally I did not study in school. Anyway, coming back to photography, cropping is a really powerful tool and something which can easily add impact to your photographs. Cropping can also create drama, change your composition, add an element of surprise or it may just make the photograph look beautiful.
(Nikon D200 with Nikkor 50mm at f/5.6 with some amount of cropping)
Every photo editing program has a cropping tool and thankfully it has the same name across all of them. No more confusions here.
So, is there a right way to crop? Yes and No. Cropping does not have any set guidelines. Photographers from their experience have come up with recommendations which usually work. Here is a list of things that I have learnt over the years.
If you are cropping to print through an external printing service, crop the photograph in a manner than maintains the standard photograph dimensions. If possible resample the image to the desired size as well. Avoid cropping to weird shapes like ovals, hearts, circles etc. These look very unprofessional. Do not crop extensively as it will also reduce the picture size and overall image quality. If you consistently feel the need to do that, consider a longer focal length lens or start getting closer to your subject.
Anything that is not contributing to the main image should be cropped away. This helps a viewer’s mind to focus on the main subject without any distractions. Anything which is contributing to the image should not be cropped out. Remove all the unnecessary details. A tight crop empowers the main elements in the photographs. It creates drama. Remember that each photograph tells a story and the purpose of cropping is to bring that story out and not to destroy it.
Try to follow the rules of compositions when in doubt. Avoid placing the subject in the center unless you have a strong reason to do so.
Portrait cropping has its own set of rules. A close-up portrait looks good when the placement of eyes follows the rule of thirds. For a portrait where face occupies a relatively small area, the face can be placed in the same manner. When the limbs are getting cropped, do not cut them at the natural joints. Do not crop out only the appendages like fingers, ears, hair etc. It looks terrible. Use negative space where possible to give some breathing space and to add drama to the portrait (Negative Space).
Most photographs have some sort of horizontal lines running across the image. Horizons make the most powerful line in landscapes. While cropping do not intrude beyond these lines. The whole concept of the image changes when this happens and photographs can end up looking awkward.
When cropping a series of photographs, keep the cropping consistent. The photographs should look like that they were captured in the same manner as they look after cropping. Any inconsistency in cropping of even a single image can make the whole series look bad.
(The photograph above of the empty beer bottles does not look as strong and attention grabbing as the cropped image below. In case you are wondering – I did not finish these off).
(Cropped image with greater emphasis on the subject).
Some more tips for great cropping –
- Never crop in your camera. Always do so while post-processing when the details are clearly visible.
- Crop the image after adjusting for basic exposure tweaking but before further editing. This will reduce the load on your computer’s memory when you work on the image further (depending on your image-editing program).
- Crop tool can also be used to rotate the image and also for perspective correction but I recommend using the dedicated tools for these operations, if your favorite program has them.
- Always keep the original un-cropped image intact. Do not overwrite the original file. The cropped image should always be saved as a new file.
When not to crop –
- For panaromas, capture multiple images with a normal lens and stitch them rather than cropping a single image clicked with a wide angle lens.
- If you are planning on selling photos on stock image sites, leave them un-cropped. Let the user decide how the image can be used (Selling at Shutterstock).
(Panoromas have better image quality when multiple photographs are stitched)
These are generally what photographers do but that doesn’t mean that you too have to restrict yourself to the same. Crop as you feel looks good. The photograph at the end has to tell your part of the story. Go ahead and play around with the crop tool. Compare photographs with each other and understand what makes them weak or strong. There is no set way to crop. Go ahead and experiment.
“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” – Ansel Adams