Learning from Your Crops

Cropping to change aspect ratio for a print (like 8x10) is totally acceptable.

Cropping has been part of photography ever since there were darkrooms. With digital cameras, cropping is an easy and effective way of improving composition. In fact, with the newer high-resolution cameras available now, you can crop into your images as never before. If you’re a crop-aholic, you might want to step back and ask yourself why you’re cropping the image in the first place. This is a good exercise to do for improving your own skills and refining your creative eye.

There are many “old school” pros out there who say you should strive to never crop post-hoc, and always try to crop with the camera. But that approach breaks down for certain subjects, especially moving ones. Let’s tone the rule down a little and say you should try to avoid getting shots that require you to crop after the fact. But there are valid reasons to crop.

Top Reasons to Crop an Image

  • Change aspect ratio
  • Remove unwanted items from image borders
  • Strengthen composition

Of these reasons, only the first one is absolutely necessary. A DSLR with a 3:2 aspect ratio isn’t going to produce a natural 8×10 image. If you find yourself repeatedly trying to improve your composition by cropping, ask yourself what you could have done in the field to get a better shot in the first place. Even if you have a 36 megapixel D800, wouldn’t you rather be able to put as many of those pixels on your subject as possible?

Fixing your mistakes before you shoot: an a priori approach to cropping

Let’s consider some common crop situations, and think about how they could have been improved in the camera during image capture.

Placing the subject according to rule of thirds

The dreaded "bulls-eye" composition...

Sometimes getting subject placement is hard, especially with birds and other wildlife. In nature, things happen fast, so  you need to be ready. We’re often taught not to “bulls-eye” the subject by placing it off-center in the frame. But we all still do this more often than not. Why? Consider your camera’s AF system. If you use the center point (which tends to be the most accurate), you’ll often find yourself inadvertently centering the subject. That’s ok if you’re really close-in, but for wider shots this can lead to bad composition and subsequent cropping.

The lesson: Get in the habit of using the off-center AF points in your camera.  Learn to anticipate your subject’s movement and place it in the right part of the frame from the start. Knowing how to lock your camera’s AF system during a shoot can also help with composition, especially if the subject isn’t moving too much. Consider learning “back-button” AF technique for locking focus while using continuous servo AF.

Placing a moving subject off-center means knowing how to use your camera's AF-system

Making vertical crops from horizontal images

I have many images that I’ve shot, come home, and then realized that the composition would be better suited for a vertical (portrait) orientation. If you see this in your own shots, ask yourself why you didn’t just rotate the camera? Telephoto lenses with tripod collars make rotating the camera really easy. If you’re shooting on a tripod and have to “flop” the camera on the head, shooting can be uncomfortable. That’s one reason why I prefer to use L-brackets on my cameras and a lever-release clamp on my ball-head. It makes changing camera orientation much more convenient (and comfortable) in the field.

The lesson: For every shot, think of two shots; one horizontal, one vertical.

If you think cropping this vertically is the answer, why didn't you just rotate the camera in the first place?
Here, the orientation is correct (vertical), but I used the center AF point. Fail.
Here, I've got just about everything right. Orientation is correct, and I framed the subject to fill the frame.

Removing unwanted edge clutter

That little tree branch or blade of grass sticking up into the edge of your image is annoying. So you crop it out, right? Of course. But what if you saw that blade of grass or tree branch in your viewfinder first? Maybe you could change your position ever so slightly to remove it from the frame. Something happens to us when we start looking through the camera viewfinder. We get tunnel vision. The corners of the frame disappear from our minds as we intently track our subject through the lens.

The lesson: Check the corners before you pull the trigger. It’s not always easy, but it’s a habit you can teach yourself in time.

Cropping to get close-ups

This one is related to the previous example. If your subject is small in the frame, just crop in to enlarge it, right? Well, sometimes this works, but most of the time you’ll be disappointed. The quality of an image is related to the number of pixels used to capture the subject. Even if you have a high resolution camera, shouldn’t you try to get closer or use a longer lens before you resort to cropping? While a 6MP image might be OK, imaging how good the subject might have looked if you’d put 12 or 16MP on it!

The lesson: Try to get closer to your subject whenever possible. If you like to photograph small animals and birds, shoot from a blind or invest in a longer lens (or do both). When getting close isn’t possible, know that you probably won’t get the kind of image quality needed to print at 12×18″ and have fine details.

Here's a 12MP image of a bald eagle in flight.
By cropping in, I turned a 12MP image into a 1.4MP image. That's fine for sharing, but not for serious work.

Conclusions

As it turns out, the “old school” pros have decent advice. I won’t say that you should never crop (I crop, too), but aggressive cropping to cover up poor technique is not the way to be a better photographer. Learn from your efforts and make even better shots the next time out!

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