Maybe All You Needed Was a Good Crop

Maybe All You Needed Was a Good Crop

"Get it right in the camera", correct? But sometimes you can't and sometimes you won't on purpose, but it works out only if you know how and when to crop!As artists, we do not view our life through the constrictions of the available view each particular lens gives us. As photographers, we do, however, learn to see through our lenses and adapt our compositions accordingly. Each lens and camera combination that we use becomes an extensions of us and our eyes, and when shooting street photography, for example, we begin to anticipate how each shot will go from the moment of us seeing it with our eyes to us composing and shooting it. This is a skill that you can only learn the more you shoot, there are no shortcuts. 

The more familiar we become with what we know is possible with our equipment, the easier it becomes to photograph something that you know for a fact will not look "right" in the camera but can be adjusted in the editing process. We do not see life as a square but if you know the strength a square crop will give your image, then you will shoot it in a way that allows you to remove unnecessary space to reveal a strong image that would not work in any other ratio. As you learn more about post production in photography, experiment with different crops to see what works for you as an individual and what suddenly becomes more pleasing to your eye.

A cafe window with spices and a poster

Initially, I wanted to include the whole scene but realised the poster becomes too distracting and the image isn't about the whole of the window.

Condiments on a cafe table

For me, the image became about the strong composition of the bottled condiments that had opposite colours.

I found this to be very prevalent when I was photographing the streets of Budapest just a few days ago. I only brought my disheveled and old Fuji X-Pro 1 combined with a XF 35mm f/2 R WR to accompany me on these travels. I prefer a wider view than what this lens gives me but I have learned to use it, knowing the possibilities it gives me as well as the difficulties I may encounter. I have worked with this lens through a 365 project and the more you shoot with a particular lens, the less time you will need to spend consciously considering what the image can look like when it's finished. It will become an automatic process where you quickly evaluate whether this is the shot or not. Still, after all that I sometimes take the shot thinking it will work and it simply doesn't. The only thing you can do is try again next time.

Shooting with neither a wide nor a long lens, I knew the strengths of this lens lies in creating images with solid compositions and less so in getting close in on the action, such as groups of people. The latter is what I do with a wide lens but understanding what I can do with the equipment in my hands, helped me put my efforts into seeking out compositions that still carry my style and personality but are also in line with what I physically can create with this lens.

Bridge and castle in Budapest

The moment I saw the woman walking by on the bridge I knew I wanted to capture her and the castle behind but I only had a few seconds due to the traffic blocking my view.

Budapest castle and bridge.

I chose to exclude the distracting car, which also placed my subject in the right corner while the castle remained in the left corner, giving me a feeling of balance.

When it comes to cropping itself, the important thing is understanding that what you leave in is just as important as what you decide to leave out of the image. You may have been taught to capture images that are "right" in the camera but your distance from the subject or the scene, the angle you have chosen (or have been forced to choose) combined with what lens you are using will create unique variables that don't always lend themselves to being "right" initially. It may not be the case for heavily stylized shots but certainly applies to photographs that document the life and people all around us.

As with all things in life, less is more. If your image does not need to be cropped, leave it be. There is no need to give yourself unnecessary extra post production work just because you think you need to spend a lot of time on each individual image to make it "good". You don't. Your visual skills and experience will become more refined the more you do photography, and as such you will learn to recognize when the image is finished. What is the point of performing an hour long edit on an image that might just need a few adjustments? Don't fall in the trap of thinking that you need to have a contrived workflow to end up with images that please your eyes and soul. 

A man on a street in Budapest.

I waited for there to be no people walking by except my subject being stood still.

A man on streets of Budapest.

When I saw the image, I knew this will be a square crop. I removed the distracting right side of the image to create a square image that gives a sense of serenity and visual appeal by including three columns.

Cropping won't rescue an image that is beyond rescuing if the most important components are missing or the image is lacking any emotion but learning to crop can make your images more powerful. There is no reason why you should feel less of a photographer when you crop your images because you can't always rely on seeing the world the way your lens sees it. Same as editing out unwanted and distracting components, cropping acts as a tool to help you finish your image in a way that aligns with your vision. And sometimes that vision tells us it has got to be a square image.

Do you crop your images or do you prefer to leave them exactly as they were shot?

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Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

I think an issue is the photography community.
Some people look at photos too technically and forget to just enjoy it. This is true for me at least, sometimes the mood or intentions of the photos outweighs lack of technical perfection.

Deleted Account's picture

Technical perfection without meaning is boring. I'll take a blurry grainy photo of something that conveys a message or feeling over the most technically perfect image every single time.

Richard Kralicek's picture

Well, it all depends on your subject: When capturing a precious moment you simply don't have the time to get the frame perfect. Cropping then enhances. The best framing can't rescue a lost chance. In case you have time to frame try your best. Anyway, afterwards you still can find a crop suiting your image better than the original framing.
At least that's it for me. When I'm shooting I'm in a completely different mood than when I'm editing shots.
P.S.: My wife, who does our family albums, usually crops the hell out of my images, just to show details lost in my frames.

Deleted Account's picture

When I'm bored and don't have any new photos to edit, I'll go through my "non-keepers" and see if there are opportunities crop in on things that I didn't notice the first time or ways to create a more abstract visual. Like a picture within a picture.

Dave Terry's picture

#moreofthis #commonsense I totally respect anyone who wants to put limitations around their creativity or work within self-imposed parameters. I have always done that for myself in all the different creative mediums I work within. I think it's a great way to shape your work over time... almost as though your long-term output is a well formed Bonsai Tree or maybe a garden is a better analogy? I don't know, anyway... that said, I think it's an attitude that is best left a little loose, and not too strict unless you're really trying to focus. At some point, it's just sort of a shame to either reject an image or worse, present an image that probably has a better version of itself in a parallel universe, because you couldn't just fucking relax and do a little cropping. The multiverse may judge you! =)


Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

I think Bruce Barnbaum put it best. I'm paraphrasing here, but he basically said to try your best to fill your entire frame with the composition you intend to print.

And if you can't, or if you find later that cropping yields a stronger photo, then don't hesitate to crop judiciously.

As much as I try not to worry so much about technical aspects of photography, I still hate flushing resolution down the toilet by cropping when I could have just taken a few steps closer or used a longer lens to get it right in camera.

I have two scenarios where I leave extra space on purpose:

1. When I'm shooting 6x6. I never print square, so I just compose with the expectation of cropping off the top/bottom or sides of the negative when I print.

2. When I'm shooting portraits for clients, and I don't get to choose how they'll be printed. A photo that works well as a 4x6 often doesn't work well as an 8x10 unless you leave a bit more space so that both aspect ratios are printable.