What is cropping in photography composition?
Cropping in photography is framing an image for the best composition and maximum impact. The three different types of cropping photos include:
- Photo cropping in camera at the time of taking the photo
- Cropping photos digitally as part of the editing process
- Crop a print to a different aspect ratio from the original image size by trimming the edges of a photo
Why photo cropping is important
When we think of cropping photos, we usually think about cropping to fit a certain size print. Or maybe you want to resize images for Instagram.
So we often think about cropping photos as a post production activity. But cropping photos is a photography composition technique and should be at the forefront of your mind every time you lift your camera to take a photo.
The moment you view a scene through the viewfinder, or on the LCD screen of your camera, you decide how to crop the photo. It should be a considered decision.
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 images has a big impact on both of these decisions.
Good image cropping is the first step to strong photography composition.
Crop out unwanted elements in photos
Consider what’s in your frame. Leave out what you don’t want in shot and make sure you include only what adds to the story of the image. Both are equally important.
Careful framing of a scene will 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 image.
However, sometimes you need to include negative space in an image to allow for text on an image. So this also affects the overall composition and decisions on how to crop photos.
1. Cropping photos for social media
Sometimes we need to shoot wide to cater for when standard aspect ratios aren’t used so that the image can then be cropped closer for different compositions. A perfect example is resizing images in a photo editor for the aspect ratio of the social media platform used.
For example, unlike normal portrait photography, a personal brand photographer creates images with enough room around the main subject so they can crop the photo for several different formats.
Not just different social media channels, each social media platform uses several different aspect ratios for posts, headers, reels and stories.
- Vertical, landscape and square images for Instagram
- Landscape format for YouTube thumbnails
- Landscape or portrait (vertical) for Facebook
- Portrait format (vertical) for Pinterest
- Panoramic format (with a lot of extra space top and bottom) for social media headers
Pro tip: If you don’t have, or don’t use, the square crop feature in camera, leave space around the subject in a horizontal image to crop later so that the photo looks good as a square crop in your feed.
The panoramic format cover photo on Facebook is a very skinny landscape photo. So when 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 most digital cameras shoot in a 3:2 aspect ratio.
This means that, 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.
This could affect the overall photo composition. Worse still, if you cropped too tightly around the subject in camera, you might not have much space at the edge of the frame for the specific aspect ratio you need the cropped image to be.
It’s easier to show you what I mean than to explain photo cropping ratios, so here’s the same image, but with different crop ratios.
Two cropping photography examples: The first image shows photo cropping at a 3:2 ratio, which is the crop ratio you get with a DSLR, and the second is a 5:4 ratio of the same photo, which you need for a 8×10 inch print.
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 two types of cropping in photography are:
- Photo cropping directly in camera when you create the image
- Cropping photos in post processing or print afterwards
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 a photo you have the greatest choice about what to include and what to exclude. It’s easier to plan your photo composition when you frame a scene in camera.
After you’ve taken the image you obviously can’t add in any important details that you didn’t capture. Well, not without mad Photoshop skills!
2. Cropping photos in post processing
Use the cropping tool in Adobe Lightroom, and other photo editing programs to crop photos in post production. Reasons to crop photos in post processing:
- Resizing an image
- Straightening a photo
- Getting in closer
Resizing images 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 isn’t the only reason for using the crop tool when editing. Cropping in post production is a great way to cut out unwanted areas of an image that shouldn’t have been included at time of capture.
Just be aware that the tighter you crop the more you’ll affect image quality, especially with digital cameras with a lower megapixel count.
Straightening images with photo cropping
If you’ve accidentally tilted your camera slightly, you can use the crop tool in your editing software to straighten the image.
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 better compositions.
Pro tip: use the horizon line in the viewfinder to keep an eye on your horizontal lines when taking the photo so that you don’t have to straighten the image when editing.
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 good portrait photography technique and meaningful art.
So, let’s look at four examples of cropping in photography composition.
1. How to crop photos to tell a story
In this sense, cropping a photo is about how much visual information to include and what irrelevant detail exclude in an image.
For example, 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’s space for the subjects to move into. Following this rule of space in composition, there needs to be space in the photo in front of the couple.
3. Crop out distracting elements of a photo
When framing a scene you can strengthen the image 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 in photography
When cropping for composition, you consider the framing, or placement, of your subject within the image. The aim is to direct your viewer’s eye and impact on how they interact with the image.
Use the grid lines in your view finder to place your subject with the rule of thirds photography composition in the image. It’s a classic composition cropping technique that can be done in camera. For better composition of a harmonious image allow breathing space in front of the subject if they’re looking to the side of the frame. To create tension, allow more empty space behind a subject looking out of frame.
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