Have you ever wondered when, and why you should crop a photo? In this post I'll explain how using the crop tool effectively can hugely improve the storytelling abilities in your photography. I'll also show you how cropping a photo can take your shot from average to great by allowing you to follow some key rules of composition. Cropping a photo is never easy. Which parts to leave in? Which parts to take out? Should you crop at all? Knowing why you should crop can go a long way in helping you decide what to crop, or what not to crop. That's why I want to take you through my thought process in getting the before and after shot below.
One great reason to crop a photo is to improve the storytelling in your photography. Of course, not all photos necessarily have to tell a story and I don't subscribe to the idea that photography is always about storytelling. I think too many people get hung up on this idea and repeat it just because they think it's the right thing to say, but there are certain times when photography most definitely is about storytelling.
One of those times is when you have people in your photos, or when people are the subjects of your photos. When that's the case you're often trying to tell some kind of story through your shot or evoke some kind of emotion from the viewer. And cropping parts of a photo out can often help you more accurately portray your message.
We all know that photography is all about capturing split-second moments. And that's especially true when you're shooting people. But when things are moving and changing so quickly in the scene you're trying to capture, very often you might not get things exactly as you want in that fleeting moment of taking your shot. Or it might not perfectly convey the feeling you had at the time you pressed the shutter button. That's when the crop tool can save you.
In the photo above, I wanted to encapsulate the feeling a surfer has when he leaves the certainty of life on land behind and first enters the water at dawn. It's almost a spiritual awakening as you gaze into the unknown abyss of the ocean around you, feeling its power and beauty rush around your ankles, knowing you're completely at its mercy. It's an isolated, reflective experience full of fear, wonder, anticipation, and awe that is special every time you do it.
However, when this guy walked out at sunrise I was a long distance away so I had to quickly set up and use my Tamron 150-600mm on my Canon 7D Markii. I knew I only had two or three seconds to get the shot before he dived under that oncoming wave and started paddling. So I made sure to put him towards the center bottom of the frame, knowing that I could crop the top of the photo later.
And when you look at that original shot straight out of the camera, the lights in the background and the hotel in the top left corner don't really convey the emotion and spiritual nature of a surfer entering the ocean. By getting the surfer towards the bottom of the frame I knew I could crop those unwanted elements out later and more accurately tell the story that I wanted to.
Another reason to crop a photo is that it allows you to follow some standard rules of composition if you don't get it right first time in camera. Good composition will always improve a photo and using the crop tool can help you turn average photos into very good photos simply by allowing you to reposition the subject and remove extraneous distractions.
You can see in the first crop above I removed the hotel in the top left corner and the bright lights along the top but in doing so I placed the surfer in the center of the frame. As a general rule, you don't really want to have your subjects smack bang in the center of the frame because you want the viewer taking in the whole composition. Having a subject right in the center often means the viewer doesn't really look anywhere else.
As a starting point for better composition, it's always good to use the rule of thirds. That's when you divide your frame into a grid of three equal columns and three equal rows. Most cameras will actually allow you to display the 3x3 grid on your viewfinder if you wish. Using the rule of thirds will very often help you improve the position of your subjects and lead to more pleasing and powerful photos.
As you can see in the photo above, by using the rule of thirds I was able to crop this photo and put the surfer on the intersecting point on the bottom right of the 3x3 grid. Doing this also added more thought-provoking detail to the composition because it has the surfer facing the open ocean surrounding him.
Cropping the photo this way also allowed me to remove the shoreline and convey the idea of man against ocean and entering into the unpredictable unknown. When the shoreline is only a few yards behind, it doesn't really give that impression!
I should also point out that when you do crop a photo make sure you do the cropping first. There's no point spending a good amount of time editing your photo in post-production only to later crop out parts you've spent time on editing.
You can see in this photo that I didn't do any editing at all while I was cropping. First, you crop and get the composition that you want and then you begin the editing process.
To sum up, cropping photos can really amplify your storytelling ability, particularly when your subjects are people or animals. Using the cropping tool can help you convey the message that you want and help evoke the emotions you want from the viewer. Moreover, cropping a photo can help you get the composition you want even if you're not able to at the time of taking the shot.
The cropping tool is very powerful and can help you turn average photos into great ones. Let me know your thoughts about cropping and other examples you can think of where cropping can really help make photos come alive.