Photographic cropping and composition

Flowers offer lots of opportunities for composition and cropping practice. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Flowers offer lots of opportunities for composition and cropping practice. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

I’m still shooting flowers. If this isn’t for you, you might want to check back in a few weeks when the explosion of blooms has slowed down; right now it’s still a rocking party out in my yard and I don’t try to resist the shooting opportunities.

We had a heavy afternoon shower yesterday and this morning there was still a heavy coating of moisture on everything, combined with an enticing coolness to the temperature. It seems like 20 different things are blooming and as I started, I found myself thinking about how we go about composition and cropping.

Composition is something we do on-the-fly, in-camera, as we photograph; cropping refers to after-the-fact decisions we make during the editing process. I’ve written about both of these topics before, but here are a few of the relevant things that run through my mind as I’m out shooting:

Composition is all about trying to make order out of chaos, isn’t it? We start with the visual chaos that is the world around us and try to simplify it into something elegant and beautiful when we compose a photograph.

This bunch of yellow wildflowers is a case in point.

A tangle of yellow wildflowers along a garden path. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

A tangle of yellow wildflowers along a garden path. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

They are fantastic, splashing color in an unruly tangle of in this small triangle patch that we have along a gravel path. Beautiful but not really much of a photograph. But by getting in close and singling out a single flower, then letting a few others serve as reference in the out-of-focus background, I get something I like quite a bit:

A single flower isolated out from the rest, with other blossoms out-of-focus in the background, providing context and color. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

A single flower isolated out from the rest, with other blossoms out-of-focus in the background, providing context and color. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Now here’s another example.This day lily is a beauty and not a bad photo here:

Overall photo of a day lily in the garden. These grow here in a multitude of colors. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Overall photo of a day lily in the garden. These grow here in a multitude of colors. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

But isn’t it much more striking in this second version? Incidentally, you could crop this out of the first version, but you wouldn’t get the background as out of focus, lessening the impact of your result.

A day lilly, cropped up tight into an interesting composition. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

A day lilly, cropped up tight into an interesting composition. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Finally, a squash vine growing in the vegetable garden. The focus point is on the blossom, but the  young squash fruit provides context and visual reference which adds interest and understanding to this image.

Photo of a spaghetti squash plant growing in the vegetable garden. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Photo of a spaghetti squash plant growing in the vegetable garden. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

Even the yellow wildflower image above-the third photo in the post- is strengthened with a crop. I have  a bit of ‘dead space’ at the bottom and right sides of this photo of the yellow wildflower. Cropping these out makes this a better image:

The final, cropped version of the yellow wildflower. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

The final, cropped version of the yellow wildflower. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

These are all in-camera decisions,but cropping can improve an already-good photograph.  Going back to the squash photo above, simply tightening up the composition improves the result, even if subtly.  The crop moves the flower and the squash fruit closer to the corners of the composition, creating more visual tension and a stronger diagonal between the two interest points of the shot:

The same squash photo, but improved by cropping. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

The same squash photo, but improved by cropping. (Copyright 2012 / Andrew Boyd)

So think carefully about not just your compositions, but also about keeping a critical eye out for how you might improve your images with some judicious cropping. These two skills can work hand-in-hand to make you a better photographer. Happy shooting!

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. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter 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.

1 Comment on "Photographic cropping and composition"

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  1. Yes, your simple unadorned style of teaching is so profound. Can you think of any tutorial site for PS CS5 that is similarly simple and easy to understand. Most of the PS teachers that I encounter skip steps or to to fast and those basic points are important to the new user of such a complicated program.

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