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Two Great Reasons Every Photographer Should Crop Their Photos

Two Great Reasons Every Photographer Should Crop Their Photos

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.  

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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Another reason to crop is so you can straighten the photo. So many people I have talked to don't want to crop because they "don't want to lose megapixels".

Yes the 'lose megapixels' is a valid point but in reality, if you're cropping a photo so much that you're losing THAT much, then your composition was probably a bit off to begin with. Common sense should always prevail

That’s why I shoot with an A7Riii

I’ve cropped so far in that it’s ridiculous but when I see something at a wedding or an event that needs to be highlighted and I can crop without caring, that’s a win.

Same here. Used to shoot with Olympus EM-5 II, but realized that sometimes I have so-so full body shots but they could be cropped to great portraits.
Switched to A7RIII and now I'm happy :)

While some will disagree, I wholeheartedly concur with cropping photos to enhance or flat out correct a composition.

There isn't anything wrong with cropping as it is just another tool we can all use in post processing.

"cropping photos can really amplify your storytelling ability" - Well said because composition is the first thing we all notice consciously or not.

Some people see cropping as though they're cutting off their daughter's gorgeous, long locks. As you said, it's simply another tool to enhance our original intent. No cropping is always ideal but sometimes you just gotta cut stuff out!

The only part I disagree with is when to crop during the editing workflow. Cropping can definitely be done at the beginning to figure out the composition a little better (especially if it's going to be zoomed way in, more than just trimming the edges), but I always undo the crop before I start retouching. If you retouch a cropped image, especially with local adjustments like brushes and radial filters, and decide later that you want to zoom back out a little, you may need to go back and add a bunch of extra brush strokes / local adjustments to the parts you're reintroducing to the picture. It's usually easier to just retouch a little more of the image up front and then crop. At that point if you decide to zoom out a little later, the image is still "finished" and you're just cropping, not doing a bunch of new editing.

I was about to say the exact same thing. Keeping your initial crop in mind during editing can help reduce time spent editing parts that you wont use after the crop though.

Yes it is within context for me. I shoot a lot of surfing so in my mind's eye I know what I want. If I don't get it right in camera then I immediately know what I'm looking for in Post. Thus my workflow. However, I often see some of my students spend 10-15 minutes editing one specific part of the frame and then going back later and cropping it out! That's what I hope to help people avoid :)

Absolutely not. The ideal is to never crop, you're right. But when you don't have the luxury of a tripod, and delayed shutter, and zero movement around like you might have shooting landscapes, then you don't always get it perfect in camera. High action sports is one such time. I find the crop tool is a big help on those occasions.

sometimes, you get everything right but the exposure. other times, you get everything right except the composition, especially outside of landscape, architecture and the studio.

spontaneity doesn't wait for composition.

only a sith speaks in absolutes.

the title of the blog post is really click-baity and could (should?) be worded better, but integrity and blogging seldom mix.

Agree with most of your points except the part about the title. I think it's worded pretty accurately - 2 great reasons to crop a photo....1. To help your storytelling. 2. To improve your composition.

Life would be pretty boring if we all agreed :)

Yes that's true, cropping should only be done when absolutely necessary. And you should never cropnso much that you lose mass pixels, but as I said in the article, there times when you absolutely need to.

Of course cropping when not necessary isn’t helpful. The pixel thing is funny. Imagine someone telling you your picture is dull but they’re impressed by the file size.

I think cropping comes down to common sense as well. If you need to get rid of 80% of your frame in ordr to get something good then you’ve obviously Missed the mark in camera...

Waiting for Jared Polin to show up in comments and say he doesn't crop his photos, and also shoots in RAW.

Who doesn't love a bit of controversy. But the RAW part...that's a given - most times :)

I’m worried I’ll forget Jared shoots RAW, I’m glad he wears those t-shirts.

I can't agree, when you take the shot, you should consider that never crop it, but sometimes when we must crop it, we do it then

I’ll challenge you to keep that in mind next time you’re down the beach shooting surfers :)

As a young man shooting documentary-style work I printed my negatives full frame. It helped me to be disciplined and critical of composition. During my career as a newspaper photographer I embraced careful and precise cropping to make images stronger and to meet the needs of layouts. Often, editors were anything but careful and precise. Cropping is simply another opportunity to make compositions strong.
I’ve always believed that everything in the viewfinder, enlarger easel, or computer screen is helping or hurting the image. Sacrificing strong composition to preserve pixels is nutty unless the ideal image is simply too small to use.

Couldn’t agree more. And as i’ve said in other replies here, if you’re cropping so much that you’re losing so much of the original that pixels become a genuine concern, then critical reflection needs to kick in and tell you that perhaps the shot’s not a keeper and needs to be scrapped. Of course, you can’t say “shoot it again” as the context will be different, such as in the example here with the surfer

With a 150-600mm, you obviously did all you could to crop in camera, which is obviously the best solution and what I try to do. But I agree that often I'll see something after shooting it and find I can improve it by cropping in post.

The other thing is that cropping can give you an almost completely different photo. I've shot for magazines where I end up with a great horizontal for an article, and a well-cropped vertical of the same shot ends up as the cover. Most readers don't even realize they're the same shot.

Yeah the guy in the shot was a good couple hundred metres away and with the 7Dmkii it becomes a 225-900 give or take. When you’ve only got a couple seconds you get what you need in the frame at the time and work on the end product later. Great point about the horizontal/vertical too!

It seems that those disagreeing with the article seem to be speaking past those who support the article. I don't think the writer is saying that you should ignore composition when shooting but rather when life gets in the way don't be afraid to crop in post-production. Use it as a tool to improve upon the raw image that you may have in front of you. We should all strive to get the composition right in the camera but it's not always possible. I know that over the years I have gotten better at composing my shots and I don't doubt that some of that skill comes from the cropping that I've done on the computer. That is a time when you can sit back, take your time and perfect the composition... and hopefully learn from it.

Haha someone actually read it!

Great photo and I agree cropping is a powerful tool in the creative process but I don't agree with cropping out the distant lights in this particular image. They seem such an interesting and ghostly compositional element.

Cheers Hoag. That’s the beauty of having the crop tool at your disposal, and having the ability to crop a photo isn’t it? The possibilities are almost endless, and it comes down to what you, as the photographer, are trying to do. For me, I didn’t want the lights. For you, they add to the composition and the strength of the shot. But we both have one thing in common - we cropped the photo to make it better :)

In school (back in the 80s) we were taught to compose in the viewfinder and then we would have to print the photograph (after developing the negative!) with the black border caused when printing the entire negative.