Many photographers start off their careers focusing on wedding photography. I started my career as a wedding photographer in Charleston, and I still enjoy shooting a handful each year. Over the next few months, I hope to share some of my thoughts on wedding photography and how event photographers can improve their photos. Today I was reminded how important "In Camera Cropping" is for emotionally charged photographs. Read the full post to see two examples of how cropping can make or break an image.
First let me start of by saying that shooting events whether it be parties, wedding receptions, athletics, or street photography is no easy task. There are a lot of factors that go into making a great image including maintaining focus, building or finding good light, capturing the key moment, and positioning yourself to hide all non critical or distracting elements in the scene. But if you can quickly and efficiently work through all of these issues (and respond to them as second nature) then your images are going to resonate well with your viewer.
One area I see a lot of my assistants struggle with is being mindful of a tight and interesting In Camera Crop. Just to make clear, I am talking about framing your image and not altering pixels. Even though digital cameras now have 24-36 megapixels and allow for unlimited post cropping options, I still do very little, if any, post production cropping. For one it takes up a lot of extra time, and two it can really open the door for mediocrity and laziness if you get accustom to fixing everything you shoot (I first learned this with level horizons).
This first example comes from a wedding I shot years ago. I'm a big believer that people react the strongest to pure human emotion. If you can zoom in a bit, you can usually force the reaction you want out of your reader. People like seeing others engaged in interesting and emotional activities. Often times, cropping out non crucial elements like legs, sky, floor, surrounding people, and backgrounds can tell a stronger story than shooting wider and including everything. The first shot to the left was taken by one of my assistants. He actually had the better position since the kicker light was placed behind his subject for a touch of dramatic backlight. However, the light becomes distracting because it wasn't correctly hidden and placed behind his subjects. Also the focal length was so wide that in my opinion, much of the emotion is completely lost. This shot is great for documenting what actually happened but it's very poor in forcing the reader a personal emotion. So even though he nailed the key moment, the photo still fails overall and ultimately gets deleted.
This second example is a bit more subtle. The overall camera angle is pretty much the same and the lighting might be identical. The angle I took was a bit wider around 11mm on a DX camera and my assistant's focal length was around 24mm on a FX camera. By positioning myself just a bit closer and lower the the action, I was able to remove a lot of the background and focus only on the bride and her dance partner. My assistant's image isn't horrible (I really like the Groom's expression), but again it does not force the emotion of the bride as well. Of course the biggest flaw is that the back of my head is in the frame.
Now I don't want anyone to misread this post and think that tighter crops are always better than wider crops because that simply isn't true. If you really want your audience to respond to your work, the most important thing is to capture the human element as well as you can. Sometimes that reaction comes from a naturally beautiful scene with dramatic lighting, but more often than not a well received photograph will come from capturing a true human emotion in an unusually intimate way. Of course you probably want to deliver your client a variety of images that are tight and wide because they will both tell different stories; but for your portfolio or website you really want to scrap those photos that do not give people that "wow" factor.
So next time you go out and shoot an event, take a little time to slow down and really evaluate the environment you are shooting. Actually LOOK through your viewfinder and anticipate a solid crop. When something isn't working, take a second to think about how you can improve the image. So many photographers get into this mental state of bliss when something exciting happens in front of their camera. They do capture the moment but they capture it poorly or fail to take the frame they really wish they had taken. If you work with assistants or around videographers, take time to position yourself out of each other's shots. If you are working as an assistant, let the photographer who hired you take the risks and cover something else interesting he might be missing. And if all else fails, spray and pray....just kidding of course!