To Crop or Not to Crop? That Is a Loaded Question

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For many photographers, cropping is a dirty word. For some photographers, the very mention of the “C” word is enough to make them shudder. Me? I do it all the time, and I have my reasons… lots of them. But before we move on, let’s talk about the fact that the pictures we “create” are to a certain extent pre-cropped before we even press the shutter button.

Huh?” Yes. You read my words correctly. The photographs we compose through our viewfinders are a small central portion of a much larger circular image projected by the lens. The central portion of the image circle is the sharpest and least distorted portion of the image circle, and this is the portion of the image we see when we look through our viewfinders. To reiterate—the photographs we compose through the viewfinders of virtually all consumer cameras are the central portion of larger round photographs cropped to rectangles with 2:3, 16:9, or 4:3 aspect ratios. Unless you have a thing for round photographs with blurry edges, premeditated rectangles are something we should be thankful for. Also, every single time you decide to move to the left to take something out of the frame before you hit the shutter, you are essentially “cropping” the scene. Cropping happens all the time.

It’s worth noting, painters do not have this problem. When time comes to choosing the dimensions of a canvas, there aren’t any industry standards. The artist can make their painting as big, as long, as small, or as square as they want. Photography? That’s another story.

Get in Closer… Whenever Possible

Question: If I cannot, for whatever reason, get closer to my subject due to physical or optically imposed restrictions, is it OK to crop a photograph if doing so improves the visual or emotional dynamics of the photograph?

How many times have you heard the experts tell you, “You have to get in tighter to your subject. There’s too much stuff going on in the background—who needs it… move in… get in closer!”? You’ve heard it lots of times, and it’s rock-solid advice. But what about times you physically cannot get closer to your subject, or alternately, zoom in tighter? We’ve all been there. If cropping into a photograph improves the composition or otherwise better guides the viewer’s eye across the image field, why not?

I wanted to get in tighter than my lens would allow, so I cropped in a bit tighter, eliminating details that didn’t take away from the impact of the original photograph. By any measure, the cropped version is a bolder image.

When You Select an In-Camera Aspect Ratio, Are You not Cropping?

Question: Is changing the aspect ratio setting in your camera the same as cropping the image at a later date?

The default aspect ratio in my personal camera is 3:2, and I have the option of setting it to a narrower 16:9, which is ideal for widescreen playback. Other cameras I’ve used also give the option of shooting 1:1 square images, which can come in handy when taking pictures that will be used in a template or layout that requires a square image. Is this not cropping? And if it isn’t cropping, if I take a picture with a 3:2 aspect ratio and crop it to 16:9 or 1:1 later in the day or next year, have those pictures—heaven forbid—been cropped? The answer is “yes,” but I doubt if anybody would crop-shame you for not sticking with your camera’s default aspect ratio.

The same photograph captured at three aspect ratios: 2:3 (top), 12:9 (lower left), and 1:1 (lower right). Nothing has changed except for the frame lines. Aesthetics aside, is one “better” or “purer” than the others? And if so, which is the photograph that matters?

Cropping for Editorial and Commercial Applications

Question: What counts as cropping? Does cropping photographs under these circumstances compromise the integrity of the photograph?

I’ve yet to meet the commercial photographer who’s turned down an assignment because the layout would require cropping their original photograph in order to fit the layout.

The opening photograph of this Explora post is by design restrained to containing a photograph (or composite photograph) that fills an image area with a 16:9 aspect ratio. That’s how our templates are designed. When I produce an article for Explora, part of my job is to make sure I have a 16:9 photograph for a top-shot opener. I either intentionally capture my image in a 16:9 aspect ratio for use as the top shot, or I make sure I capture photographs along the way I can later crop top and bottom to fit the template. 

Cropping for print or online publication often requires a photograph be cropped to fit a layout or template. Nautical Quarterly was a marine publication I worked for that was designed in a square format (12x12"). I shot with Nikons, which meant I had to “think square” when shooting possible covers and interior full-page bleeds. To better ensure I would be able to previsualize cover candidates, I masked off the viewfinder in one of my cameras to show only the center square of the frame lines.
Nautical Quarterly was a marine publication I worked for that was designed in a square format (12 x 12"). I shot with Nikons, which meant I had to “think square” when shooting possible covers and interior full-page bleeds. To ensure I would be able to pre-visualize cover candidates, I masked off the viewfinder in one of my cameras to show only the center square of the frame lines.

Similarly, I used to shoot for a publication called Nautical Quarterly, which was a square (12 x 12") magazine that came in a square slipcase. The covers of the first 12 issues had square, full-bleed color photographs, and many of the interior photographs were also square. If I shot with a Rolleiflex or Hasselblad, composing pictures for NQ would have been a piece of cake. The problem was that I shot with Nikons at the time, which meant cropping was an essential part of my creative process when angling for a cover or full-page bleed. So, cropping for print or online publication often requires that a photograph be cropped to fit a layout or template.

Aesthetics: Cropping as a Means of Creating Better Photographs

Question: How about the shot that would be perfect if only the horizon line was level? Is straightening the horizon line in a photograph an act of artistic blasphemy?

The last point I’m going to touch on has to do with aesthetics. I can only speak for myself, but there are many occasions in which, while editing photographs, I look at a picture and discover a “better” picture within the composition I originally captured. If I crop in to pull out a better image, have I crossed the line of integrity to the craft? I think not.

The photo on the left is OK, but unless the photograph is going to be used in a layout in which the open spaces on the top and bottom of the frame are needed for text or headlines, a cropped version of the photograph is compositionally tighter and tells the story better.
The photo on the left has an angled horizon line. By straightening the horizon line and cropping into the image slightly, I was able to subtly tweak the image and improve it. Some people hold this should not be permitted for reasons of image purity; others do not.

Throughout this article, I have been asking questions, but not necessarily answering them. The reason is that most of the questions are subjective—there is no right or wrong. Regardless, many photographers consider cropping to be a sign of carelessness during the creative process, which is often not the case.

What are your thoughts and feelings on the topic? Do you crop? Do you crop for technical reasons or aesthetic differences? Let us know your thoughts on this somewhat touchy topic in the Comments field, below—we’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

9 Comments

How can any discussion centered on things proper/improper, right/wrong, acceptable/not, ..., proceed reasonablyin the absence of established criteria by which such evaluation might be resolved? 

If it’s simply a matter of competing preferences, so what? Maybe a potential buyer is an adherent to the No-Crop Policy, discovers that my pic has been cropped and decides against its purchase. In this case the dispute is resolved by the balance of power. No ethics or morality involved in the decision, just personal preference.

If, however, a photo contest judge rules against my entry because it was cropped, then that criterium needs to have been explicitly stated in the entry rules. Otherwise, isn’t that judge in ethical violation?

Now, for those who see some kind of ethics in things like the cropping of images, I must ask the following: 

  • What would be considered the grand objective in producing photographic images?
  • How might is this objective be ethically compromised?

The following anecdote exemplifies where photo processing choices might carry significant ethical involvement. In this example, the grand objective dictated that the reality portrayed in photographs not be “doctored “ to deceive a viewer. 

Early in my career I was involved in developing national security-critical technologies that were subjected to great scrutiny by very smart and influential people throughout the development process. As computer-aided graphics and image processing technologies emerged, we found that cut-&-paste images comprised of pieces from various images—of things that really existed and some that did not—could be used effectively to gain the confidence of those smart people. Needless to say, there were some pretty substantial ethical constraints we had to honor. Selling fabricated images as reality would be fraudulent at best. Presenting the same images as the fabrications they were, with the stated intent of sharing visions and concepts worked well.

There it’s actually great irony in this anecdote in that the core technologies involved were often electro-optical sensory arrays: precursors to the CCD and CMOS sensors found in today’s DSLRs. Suffice it to say that geo-political order was substantially influenced by the data these sensors reliably delivered: Their representation of reality—the product of numerous steps in energy transformation, signal processing and data transport—provided sufficient (and reliable) insight into nefarious and surreptitious activities that very large and meaningful changes were brought about in world order. 

I just cannot see how cropping my photos for optimal aesthetic effect is to be considered an ethical matter.

Wow... this is scary... I truly expected to get clobbered for this post. I've encountered more 'anti-croppers' in my years than I care to argue with. All I can say is despite the fact the world is topsy-turvy these days it's reassuring to know there are still sane, like-minded croppers around. Stand strong!

I say crop away!!!! life is too short to worry about it. If you process any photo in softer post fact you have no right to dismay those who crop.

I crop whenever it will improve the image including overcoming limitations of the lens zoom, improving the composition, or leveling the horizon. Cropping is simply one more tool available in post-processing. It is disingenuous for anyone that uses software to digitally alter their images to rail against cropping.

First I decide what's the topic or subject of the photo.  Compose in the camera leaving a bit of edge space to work later if necessary. Often this is so.  Both in initial composition and later crop, try to avoid peripheral distractions from the subject. Looking at photos, I wonder what's the subject? Where does the eye wander? What attracts the eye? Often I see edge distractions which compete with and diminish the subject.

Yes, I crop.  Both for getting the aesthetics correct and when my gear limits what I can capture with the camera.  I have been shooting some macro work with a 5x lens (very tight focal distance) that I find is difficult at best to get exactly where I what the framing to be for the best shot.  So I take the shot, knowing that I will place the point that I wish the eye to be drawn to after the fact by cropping.  I will say that digital photography has allowed me to shot fewer photos to get the desired photo, because I can see the results almost instantly.  With film, 36 shots and none were worth keeping.  Digital allows me to make those slight changes and shoot the shot again, adjust and shoot again, until I get what I rally want.  May still take all day, but I now know I have it.  So crop!  But keep the original, in case you wish to go back.

Many years ago I read an article that argued that the difference between professional and amateur photographers is that professionals are happy to see even one perfect image on a 36 image roll of film.  The unstated premise was that amateurs, generally, are happy with any recognizable picture.  I am an experienced amateur who realized long ago that there is no such thing as a "perfect" photograph.

I crop a lot, even if just to see if removing some elements of the image might improve it.  My results garner me a lot of compliments.  What many of those who like my images think is that I must have expensive gear.  I do now, but that wasn't always the case.  One coworker even thought that a portrait I made was shot with a flagship Canon or Nikon, not the entry level DSLR and old, old Maxxum mount lens that I actually used.  The difference was not the equipment used to record the image but the fact that I cropped it during the editing process.

In my 20 years teaching photography at the high school level I NEVER told my students not to crop. The only measure of their photographs was how successful they were as an image. To say "never crop" the image taken is a conceit that doesn't exist in other forms of 2-D visual art. the camera is only a tool for image making, to let technical limits determine what you do is to give up the artistry of photography. At the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona I saw a photograph by W. Eugene Smith from the series he did of jazz musicians at his apartment in New York City (I think it was of Thelonius Monk). You saw the contact sheet and work prints marked up with a variety of crop lines. The final (cropped) image was amazing. Don't let the tool dictate your creativity.

I agree with Scott, the camera is a tool to record light, but that is the first step in creating what was seen and felt at the time one presses the shutter release button. Cropping is but one tool used to create beauty.

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