Composing for Crop: Start With the End

Composing for Crop: Start With the End

When do you start thinking about cropping? Although it is something most of us usually do in editing software after we’ve taken our photos, I’d suggest thinking about cropping before pressing the shutter.

Planning Crops & Aspect Ratios

A crop dictates the final boundaries of an image. It is the frame within which we see the picture. As such, it is an important part of the finished composition. So, when we are shooting, it is important to think about the outside edge of the image and where we might want to crop to when it comes to the final edit. But, I’d actually like to take you back a little further than the moment of capture to the planning stages, before you even pick up your camera.

If you have any intention of your image being printed, then your aspect ratio is going to matter. The aspect ratio is how the crop of your image is defined, e.g. 1:1, 2:1, 3:2, etc. It is the relationship between the width and height of the image. The left-hand number is the width and the number to the right of the colon is the height. So, say you were printing at 20 cm wide, a 1:1 ratio would be 20 cm x 20 cm square and a 2:1 ratio would be a 20 cm x 10 cm rectangle.

Some common aspect ratios used for print and online display

Starting at the End

Print labs and paper suppliers tend to have standardized sizes and ratios for their papers and other print media. Yes, they might be willing to cut to a different size for you, but you’re making things more difficult, so you’ll probably have to pay more. If you want to have a standardized set of print prices to sell copies of your landscapes or print products from your portrait studio, then it is much simpler if you can find just a few sizes that work well and stick to those. This can streamline the ordering process for the client, for you, and for the print lab. You can have standardized prices rather than having to get a fresh quote each time you do a print. So, it is worth shooting your images with this in mind and making sure that you won’t lose anything important when cropping.

As a commercial photographer, you might be supplying images for social media use such as Instagram or for a double page advertisement in a magazine. These aren’t going to be the same shape, so you need to know the aspect ratios required for the final images. The final crop or aspect ratio is ideally something you want to have agreed with your client in advance so that you know your images will be fit for purpose. I include it in my guide on how to write a photography brief to make sure it isn’t forgotten. Otherwise, there is the risk that a client suddenly asks for a different crop of an image only to find that you haven’t got a file that allows for the crop they want. Setting this out in the brief helps avoid problems further down the line. It also helps the client to plan more for how they are going to use the image assets you supply them with.

2:1 aspect ratio for a wide rectangular crop

Knowing what format we are aiming for helps us with the lens selection and focal length, as we will know how much space we want on each side of our subject to allow for the crop. It also helps with any styling or broader composition, as we can know that what we’re including won’t be accidentally cut off or chopped in half in post-production to make it fit. So, by the time we press the shutter, we should be confident that we can crop the file to the required aspect ratio for print or digital display.

Visualization Aids

Some cameras allow you to change the aspect ratio of the image captured, which can be helpful if you find it hard to visualize. A Nikon D850, for example, allows you to shoot square images as well as a couple of different rectangles. Experience will help you get used to anticipating how to shoot crops that don’t naturally fit the camera display. If you have trouble with this, then you could try, for example, cutting out some card templates to put in your camera bag to put over the screen to check the crop. When on a shoot, it is a good idea to take a spare image or two that is wider or closer than you think you need, just in case you estimated the crop incorrectly. You don’t want to be sitting at your computer later, cursing because you don’t have a good crop to fit what you need!

This might all seem like overkill if you are just starting out or if you only plan to use your images on Facebook or your own website. There is a lot of flexibility for displaying images in galleries online, so you don’t always have to fit a particular aspect ratio. Similarly, you may often get lucky by finding a decent crop when it comes to editing. But, if you want to increase your odds of having usable images and want to challenge yourself to become more precise with your composition, then I would suggest bringing the crop into your shooting stage at least, even if not when planning.

Composition using a 1:1 (square) aspect ratio

Try Something New

Deliberately shooting for different aspect ratios can be a good challenge if you find your compositions are getting a little bit too predictable. Placing your subject within a square or a portrait 4:5 crop, for example, feels nothing like putting them in a letterbox landscape 2:1 crop. You may find that you prefer certain crops as part of your shooting style. This can be helpful for drawing up price lists for clients and giving your work unity. However, it can still be worth breaking out of the rut and doing something new to stretch yourself from time to time.

The same image file can end up looking great or mediocre or worse depending on how you choose to crop it. The same composition doesn’t necessarily balance in every aspect ratio. Try not to leave cropping considerations until post. Your intended crop can transform how you set up for and shoot every image.

All images © Joe Lenton

Joe Lenton's picture

Joe is a qualified Fellow, Judge & Mentor with The Societies of Photographers. He is a freelance advertising photographer specialising in products & architecture. As well as working with local, national & international businesses, Joe loves passing on his passion for photography and helping others to develop their creativity. Based in the UK

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"Although it is something most of us usually do in editing software after we’ve taken our photos, I’d suggest thinking about cropping before pressing the shutter."

Actually, I'd suggest thinking about cropping before pulling out the credit card!

I can't believe people spend more money and carry more weight, just so they can throw away those expensive, heavy pixels during cropping, when they could be shooting Micro Four Thirds, pre-cropped!

"Yeabut, dynamic range and noise!"

You do realize that you're also throwing *those* away when you crop, too, right? If you crop 75% and then blow it up, your DR and noise are no better (and probably much worse!) than µ4/3rds.

If you need reach, cropping full-frame is the most expensive and heavy way to get it. Consider µ4/3rds.

Of course, if most of the time, you crop little (if at all), then buying a crop-sensor camera might make less sense.

You self triggered prematurely. You apparently did not read the entire post; or you did not understand it. He is basically saying get it right in camera in terms of aspect ratio. Plan for the crop.

I read the article. I know what he was saying. I'm saying, plan to NOT crop!

You might want to re-read your own post. That's not what you were saying. You were more preaching about equipment, how people spend their money, and hung-up on people cropping heavily in post. Hence, your little misguided tirade. This article has nothing to do with equipment. Doesn't matter if you shoot fullframe, APS-C, micro 4/3.

How many modern cameras create raws with these aspect ratios: 4:5, 1:1, 3:1, 2:1 . One would have to crop. Yes? Cropping is inevitable.

So basically your entire artistic vision is 4:3 ... got it. Not many successful photographers limit themselves to the biggest aspect ratio of their camera.

Works for me!

If it works for the kind of photography you do then that's fine. When you've got commercial clients to please who want images in different aspect ratios then it is a different matter

I see so many drone photographers using drones who don't even seem to think about the idea of cropping for emphasis after the fact, much less while composing. I can't keep from looking at all those 4:3 images and overlaying a 3x2 or 16x9 in my mind. Those same people will take stitched panorama and use it straight out of camera just to post to the web when they could have easily backed the drone up and cropped to the same aspect ratio.