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What is photo cropping?

When we think of cropping photos, we usually think about cropping to fit a certain size print. 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 cropping is important

The moment you view a scene through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen of our camera, you make the decision on how you’re going to crop the image. 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.

Consider what is 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 cropping a photo, 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 branding photography.

Unlike normal portrait photography, a personal branding photographer creates images with enough room around the main subject to enable the client to use the image in various formats in social media: square for Instagram, landscape for Facebook and vertical for Pinterest.

Instagrammers are another good example. Their images appear as a square crop most of the time. If they don’t have, or have and don’t use, the square crop feature in camera, they should be thinking about leaving space around the subject to crop later so that the photo looks good in their feed.

But it’s not just the online world that uses different crop ratios. What about traditional portrait prints? The most popular small frame size here in the UK 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 show photo cropping at a 3:2 ratio, which is the ratio you get with a DSLR, and the second is a 5:4 ratio, as you would have if you printed it at 8×10 inches.

How to crop an image

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

  1. Framing directly in camera
  2. Cropping photos in post processing

1. Framing a scene in camera

It is easier to plan your composition when you frame a scene in camera. At the time that you take the photo you have the greatest choice about what to include and what to exclude. 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

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.

The problem 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 rules for where to crop a person.)

Further reading: Cropping portraits for flattering results

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

If you can’t get close enough to your subject, 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.

Cropping a photo artistically

I don’t think it is overly dramatic to call cropping an art form, because it is 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 is about what to include or exclude in an image. If a people running to catch a bus, that is the story. 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.

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. A dustbin in the distance behind a couple 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.

Another composition technique when framing your image is using leading lines to draw your viewer’s attention to your subject.

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