The Importance of Cropping

'Fountainbleau Oaks, 2011.' (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

'Fountainbleau Oaks, 2011.' (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

CROPPING THEN AND NOW

I find that the longer I work as a photographer, the less sure I am, the more relative things seem, when it comes to image cropping. Although I always work to find the best composition possible when out in the field, it’s interesting to me how sometimes things change once I’m back with Photoshop, my ‘digital darkroom.’

Early in my career, the fashion was to file out the edge borders of your negative carrier and print the resulting black border, thus ‘proving’ that you had printed the entire, uncropped image. This was deemed as a purer expression of artistic intent…or maybe we just really, really liked the black borders! I’m not sure. I still like black borders as a way to set off an image edge and give it definition, only these days I add the border in Photoshop. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I view image cropping as a part of the creative process of image-making. Sometimes it’s a vital part of the process.

A CASE IN POINT

The lead image for this article is a good example of how cropping can improve an image. The original composition is below.

The original, uncropped image. I liked the way the trees lined up parallel to the cement post barrier, foreground. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

The original, uncropped image. I liked the way the trees lined up parallel to the cement post barrier, foreground. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

I originally was attracted to this line of trees, and the notion of lining them up parallel to these concrete barriers. It seemed like a decent, not great composition. I shot it and moved on, not feeling particularly strongly about the shot. Then while doing the initial edit from this shooting trip, I saw the other possibility: by cropping the image up and making it a square-vertical, I could emphasize the foggy ‘tunnel’ through the trees, with the glowing light out in the distance:

Here's the crop I ended up using. The other possibility, not as strong, was to crop in close to the three front posts, back around the trees, as a horizontal. Didn't create the same 'light tunnel' effect. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Here's the crop I ended up using. The other possibility, not as strong, was to crop in close to the three front posts, back around the trees, as a horizontal. Didn't create the same 'light tunnel' effect. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

This was powerful and attractive. I also really liked what reducing the barriers down to the single center post did for the foreground. I now had essentially two main trees with a foggy light tunnel beyond, with the center post leading your eye from the foreground to the tunnel (that, at least, is how my brain is processing this image). I also brought the contrast up and spent some time toning the top rail of the cement barrier, making sure it would become a bright highlight and of a similar tonal value to the distant foggy highlights.

CONCLUSION

So with cropping and some time spent ‘reimagining’ the scene in my digital darkroom, a throwaway photo becomes a keeper.

What about you? Do you spend enough time in front of your images after you’ve shot them? Do you try more than the first crop that occurs to you? Of course it’s nice to not need crops, but when that’s not the case, how hard do you work on this part of the process?

Food for thought.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

25 Comments on "The Importance of Cropping"

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  1. Gareth says:

    I agree with you that cropping is vital, but I have to disagree with you about this image. The original is far superior to the cropped one.

    The crop is very unbalanced, and it looks lopsided. You say you’re emphasising the misty tunnel, but due to the lack of symmetry that is not the dominant feature of the image.

    Also, your black boarders are very disconcerting, and really draw away from the images. Either have a single, even, black boarder, or better still none at all. They don’t need it.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Gareth! I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

  3. Philip says:

    That crop completely destroys the lines of the image.

    You have two very strong horizontal lines, parallel to each other in the lower half of the image.

    By cropping, you completely destroy the relationship between the fence and the trees.

    Also you have lost the highlight detail, as well as some shadow detail.

    And there is much less to actually look at when you crop.

  4. Philip says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you, Gareth

  5. Wow. Okay, interesting….but although a bit unconventional, I still like my crop.
    Thanks for the comment Philip!

  6. John Bottomley (mightygoose) says:

    Then uncropped arrangement has a much bolder sense of foreboding. The cropped image does looks very classically cropped, you see alot of tree images like that. the original or perhaps even a square crop using the two left posts would be less conventional and perhaps preserve some of the dark turmoil that the subject suggest.

    I do understand the importance of cropping, but i think you have picked a bad example.

    regards
    john

  7. Nick says:

    I much prefer your new cropped version Andrew. It turns a very normal photo into something with great atmosphere. I think you did the right thing here.

    Obviously this is the good thing about art and taste – opinions will differ.

    Good job!

  8. Thanks for commenting, John. Like I said in the post, I just found the original image lacking in something…

  9. Thanks Nick! It’s nice to get at least one vote! Appreciate you taking the time.

  10. Gareth says:

    The post in the foreground is out of step with the trees. In the wide image this works as a sort of parallax effect, and actually gives the trees some movement. The fence is holding back the approaching trees. That’s the sense of foreboding. The fence really sits down in the forground, and your eyes pan across the trees. The space above the trees in the original makes them look much more dynamic, and reduces the scale, impact, of the fence posts.

    Your cropped image is all about the fence post. It’s far too strong an element, and completely takes away from the trees. It does not like up to draw the eye through the centre, and the eye stops on the post. The unbalanced trees exacerbate this. The whole structure of the image is lost.

    In the cropped version there is a lone tree trunk on the right hand side, set back. It cuts through the mist and really dominates that space. The eye is drawn to it. There isn’t really anything in the misty tunnel with the same presence. If that lone tree was set right back, in the middle, then maybe, but it’s not.

    The other thing is you’ve completely changed this image with a crop. The orientation, and the focus of the image. Well, you’ve lost that, if anything.

    Cropping like this is fine, but quite rare. If you do it often then you should consider what you’re capturing in camera.

    It would be much better to show something where subtle cropping has removed visual distractions, or enhanced the structure of an image.

  11. Great stuff, Gareth, thanks. I agree that it’s a radical crop (not a usual one for me). That’s one of the reasons I picked it for this post. But I guess my eye responds to the composition differently….one of the things I love about photography is how we each bring our own sensibilities to the table when we look at a photograph.

  12. Greg says:

    I’m gonna weigh on pro-cropped version as well. The original seems “too far away” if that means anything. The bright white above the trees diminishes them for me. There’s no power to them. I barely notice the fence because it so dark and a small part of the image overall. When I do see it, it keeps me away from the trees (or them away from me).

    The cropped version makes the trees much larger and prominent. There’s an oppression I feel from them. The fence stands out more and doesn’t seem adequate to keep the trees from advancing on me. The single post points to the light tunnel between the trees and escape. The middle of the picture becomes the most interesting place to be. The original version seems to either lift me over the trees (looking up) or keeps me out from below (the fence).

  13. Greg says:

    I now find myself curious what a 16:9 crop would look like with the top getting the majority of the cut.

  14. Was that taken in Louisiana?

  15. Yes Christopher, it was. That’s over in Fountainbleau State Park on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

  16. Fiona Young says:

    I also prefer the cropped version. The crop adds a distinctiveness and atmosphere that the original, although a good image, lacked. I’m relatively new to digital photography, but as cropping was one relatively easy thing I could figure out intuitively on Photoshop, it’s something I’ve devoted some time to working on. Frankly, I think playing with the cropping is something I’ll do first, even when my Photoshop skillset has broadened. It makes a difference as to how everything else will go.

  17. Tom says:

    The crop one is far better! It almost sucks you into the picture, especially the bright spot in the middle of it behind the trees. Inspirational!

  18. Thanks for your thoughts, Tom!

  19. Chris A says:

    Isn’t it great that in this digital world you can easily maintain a cropped or un-cropped version. Bottom line is, get the shot. It doesn’t matter how you get it and it doesn’t matter if you “see it” after the fact. Photograph what you find appealing and present it the way you dig it. In this case, i lean towards the original composition but I get what the photographer sees in the mist. This presentation was a solid example of examining your digital shot in detail.

    I’m primarily a music photographer andI have to work very fast, ridiculously to get my stuff out quickly. I may take several hundred images in the course of the seven or so minutes I have in a photo pit of some guitar player or singer. Once I get the stuff out of the camera I have to quickly grade the shots for what I think are the strongest photos. I do my edits and send it out. Typically I’ll revisit these concert photos a day or so later before I decided what to keep in archives and what to discard. I’m often very surprised by the gems that I find when I have more time to examine my photos.

  20. Going back and looking later–sometimes much, much later–ends up being as much about your thought process as it does what comes up on the screen (or darkroom tray, back in the day)…

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