Cropping photos for maximum impact and better composition

What is photo cropping?

When we think of cropping photos, we usually think about cropping to fit a certain size print. Or maybe you want to resize an image for Instagram. So we often think about cropping photos as a post production activity.

But cropping photos is something that should be at the forefront of your mind every time you lift your camera to take a photo.

Why photo cropping is important

The moment you view a scene through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen of your camera, you make the decision on how to crop the photo. It should be a considered decision.

cropping photos for better photography composition

You shouldn’t just point your camera at something and take the shot without thinking about what you’re photographing and what you’re saying with your image. How you crop the photo has a big impact on both of these decisions.

Consider what’s in your frame. Leave out what you don’t want in shot and make sure you include what adds to the story of the image. Both are equally important.

This is how you take your photography to the next level, but more on that in a moment. Before we get into the details of how to crop photos, we should first talk about how the intended use of an image impacts how we frame it.


How are you going to use the image?

We don’t always plan how we intend to use an image in the moment we raise our camera to take a photo. Most of the time we frame the scene to be used as a whole.

However, there are times when we need to shoot wide so that the image can then be cropped closer as desired. A perfect example of this is personal brand photography where an image is resized for various social media channels.

1. Cropping photos for social media

Unlike normal portrait photography, a personal brand photographer creates images with enough room around the main subject to enable the client to crop the photo to various formats in social media:

  • Square for Instagram
  • Landscape for YouTube thumbnails
  • Landscape or portrait (vertical) for Facebook
  • Portrait (vertical) for Pinterest
  • Landscape (with a lot of extra space top and bottom) for social media headers

On Instagram photos appear as a square crop most of the time. If you you’re photographing with Instagram in mind and you don’t have, or have and don’t use, the square crop feature in camera, you should leave space around the subject to crop later so that the photo looks good as a square crop in your feed.

The cover photo on Facebook is a very skinny landscape photo. So if you’re photographing with that in mind, you need to think about what it will look liked when cropped and leave a lot of space above and below the area you want to use.

2. Cropping photos for print

But it’s not just the online world that uses different crop ratios. What about how to crop photos for traditional portrait prints?

The most popular small frame size is 8×10 inches, which is a 5:4 aspect ratio. Yet DSLR cameras shoot in a 3:2 aspect ratio.

This means that, in order to create a print for a frame that is 8×10 inches, instead of 8×12 inches, 2 inches of the image has to be cropped away.

It’s easier to show you what I mean than to explain photo cropping ratios, so here you go.

how to crop photos in camera

cropped photo to 4:5 ratio

The first image shows photo cropping at a 3:2 ratio, which is the ratio you get with a DSLR, and the second is a 5:4 ratio of the same photo, as you would have if you printed it at 8×10 inches.

How to crop photos

There are two ways of thinking about cropping photos and they’re completely opposite, but there are very good reasons for using both. They are:

  1. Photo cropping directly in camera
  2. Cropping photos in post processing

Further reading: Cropping in Lightroom – essential cropping, resizing and straightening tips

1. Photo cropping in camera

When we talk about photo cropping in camera, we’re talking about framing a scene.

At the time that you take the photo you have the greatest choice about what to include and what to exclude. It’s easier to plan your composition when you frame a scene in camera. After you’ve taken the image you obviously can’t add in what you didn’t capture. Well, not without mad Photoshop skills!

2. Cropping photos in post processing

Reasons to crop photos in post processing:

  • Resizing an image
  • Straightening a photo
  • Getting in closer

Resizing with photo cropping

As discussed, sometimes we need to change the aspect ratio of a photo for use online or in print.

However, resizing images in post processing is not the only reason for using the crop tool when editing. If you’ve accidentally tilted your camera slightly, you can use the crop tool in your editing software to straighten the image.

Straightening with photo cropping

As with resizing, the problem with straightening comes when you don’t leave enough space around your subject for a pleasing crop. Sometimes straightening the image cuts into the scene and ruins the composition. For example, in portraiture, you could end up cropping out a foot. (In portrait photography there are strict photo cropping rules for where to crop a person.)

It’s a tricky situation, because a skew image is not good composition either. So, you might have to consider straightening and therefore cropping in tighter for a more pleasing composition.

Moral of the story – keep an eye on your horizontal lines when taking the photo so that you don’t have to straighten the image when editing.

Further reading:

Cropping portraits for flattering results

How to use horizontal lines in photography composition

Getting in closer with photo cropping

If you can’t get close enough to your subject when taking the photo, you can crop the image in post processing so that your subject fills the frame more. The more you crop an image, however, the more pixels you lose.

This results in less resolution, which in turn limits how big you can make the image without losing quality, even if you shoot in RAW.

Cropping a photo artistically

I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to call photo cropping an art form, because it’s a key element to the composition of the final image. Considered composition is central to meaningful art.

So, let’s look at four examples of what I mean by cropping a photo artistically.

1. Crop photos to tell a story

In this sense, cropping a photo is about what to include or exclude in an image. If people are running to catch a bus, that’s the story. So it wouldn’t be much of a story if you cropped out either the people or the bus.

2. Cropping photos for moving subjects

Keeping with the same scenario. When you crop a scene of moving subjects, you need to frame your composition so that there is space for the subjects to move into. Following this rule of space, there would need to be space in the photo in front of the couple.

Further reading: Why the rule of space is so powerful in photography composition

photo cropping tells story of couple running for bus

3. Crop out the ugly bits of a photo

When framing a scene you can strengthen the composition and overall aesthetic by cropping out untidy or unnecessary details in the background.

For example, a bright red dustbin in the distance behind a couple catches the eye and probably detracts from the feeling you want to create.

4. Cropping photos for composition

When cropping for composition, you’re considering the framing, or placement, of your subject within the image. The aim is to direct your viewer’s gaze and impact on how they interact with the image.

Using the rule of thirds for placing your subject in the image is a classic composition cropping technique.

You could also fill the frame by using a tight crop when framing your shot to emphasize your subject and bring it closer to the viewer.

Click to see 19 essential composition techniques for creating photographs that wow!


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