by Gilly Walker
The world just does not fit conveniently into the format of a 35mm camera. ~W. Eugene Smith
Something I’ve noticed while teaching photography workshops is that a lot of people never think about cropping their images and don’t realise what a difference it can make. A very ordinary photo can be transformed with a judicious crop, and a good one can be made even better.
I know there are plenty of purists out there who announce with great pride that they ‘never crop’ but I believe they’re missing a trick. If you adopt this view then you’re limiting yourself to the picture aspect ratio your camera happens to have, whether that’s 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, or something else. Just because the camera you have won’t shoot in square or letterbox format, why should you let that stop you creating your photo in that shape? My view has always been that the camera is there to serve you and not vice versa.
Another problem with never cropping is that you only see about 95% of what you’re actually shootingthrough the viewfinder, so it’s going to be very difficult to frame everything so precisely that no cropping at all is needed. There is one big downside to cropping of course – you lose pixels when you crop and a dramatic crop will restrict the size of print you’re able to produce. But most recently manufactured cameras have more than enough pixels to be able to spare a few to the cutting floor and will still give you nice big prints.
Cropping to remove distractions
This is the most common way to use a crop – simply to eliminate parts of your photo that are unnecessary or distracting. The trick of producing good photos is to simplify as much as possible and only include those things that actually help you say what you want to say. There’s no point in keeping any part of the picture unless it contributes to the whole effect. I was happy with the following image except for the fact that the area to the left was distracting, ugly, and unnecessary. Because I could safely lose a little of the right hand side too, I cropped it into a square, taking a bit off the top as well to get rid of some of the boring black shadow.
Cropping to improve composition
If your composition isn’t quite working, cropping can do a lot to improve things (although obviously it’s better if you can get it right when you take the shot). The following image was OK, but when I took it I hadn’t noticed the way the telephone pole was sticking up right in the centre of it—to me it just didn’t look right and spoiled an otherwise decent shot.
I tried three different crops to solve the problem, all of which worked pretty well. In the first, I changed
the crop to a square, which had the effect of moving the pole onto a third (as in the Rule of Thirds) and
giving a better balance. In the second, I cropped to a letterbox shape which chopped the top of the pole
and the sky off so that it became much less noticeable. In a third version I cropped the house out entirely
to both solve the problem and create a more abstract look. The resulting images all have quite a different
feel about them.
Sometimes your image might not have anything particularly wrong with it, but by radically cropping it into different shapes, you can give it a completely different feel or a stronger impact. The following photo is fine as far as it goes, but it’s a bit weak. There’s too much sky and a little too much water and neither of them are interesting enough to hold your attention.
After I cropped it into a panorama shape, it looked loads better—it divides it into three horizontal bands
and puts the attention firmly on the shapes of the sails against the dark background.
Sometimes you can find pictures within pictures. In the following example, I’ve cropped so radically that
I’m not left with enough pixels and the image is a bit too soft for printing out, but I’ve included it because
it lets you see the possibilities. Also, if I’d had the camera I now own (which has double the pixel count), it
would have worked much better. By cropping out most of the picture, I’ve drawn attention to the vibrant
colours of the buildings and you now notice the little chimney pot with plants growing out of it. This is the
picture I would have taken had I seen it at the time. I’ve drawn a white box round the area of the crop so
that you can see just how much of the image has been cropped away.
Some images lend themselves to a wide variety of crops—this one is one of them. The first picture is the
My first thought was to get rid of the wisps of cloud at the top, which drew attention away from the
figure, so I cropped it into a letterbox shape. This is the crop that I feel works best out of the following
But I could also have changed it to a square:
And a wide, very shallow crop makes it suitable for a website or blog banner, with space in the sky or on
the sand for text:
Or I could have cropped right in close to the figure:
And then, when I was playing around with producing book covers for a course I was studying, I cropped it
portrait style and added text:
How to Crop
Cropping’s pretty straightforward if you just want to do it by eye—in Photoshop Elements just click the
crop tool, then select No Restriction from the drop down menu and draw the crop out with your mouse to
whatever size and shape looks right. But you can also crop to a specific size—just select a size from the
drop down menu, or enter the dimensions you want in the Width and Height boxes, then add the resolution
you want in the Resolution box. (For web use, 72 is fine for resolution; for printing, you should aim
for about 200-300.) This is really useful when you want to crop two photos to the same size.
If you want to crop into a square, hold the Shift key down, then draw out your crop with the mouse, then
release the Shift key—it will keep your crop in a square shape if you do this.
Using L-shapes to find your crop
Although you can use Photoshop or a similar editing programme to experiment with cropping, I find that
the most effective way to see what can be done is to print your photo out and use a set of L-shapes to try
out the possibilities. Just cut two L-shapes out of black card—you can use white but black tends to work
best—as in the picture below. Then move them around and see how many new images you can create
out of your original. We sometimes do this in groups in my classes—we take one person’s print and the
others all experiment to see what effect different crops would make. The owner of the print is often surprised
and sometimes delighted at what the others come up with.
There are plenty of other options when it comes to cropping. You can crop to a circle, a diamond, a triangle,
or any other shape you want (using the Cookie Cutter tool in Elements). This is great for something
like scrapbooking, but it can look a bit gimmicky if used for a straight photo. But don’t be put off trying—
you never know when it might work, and who made the rule that photos have to be rectangular?. And it
could be fun to go out shooting photos with the idea in mind of cropping them to , say, a triangle shape—
that would definitely get you looking at the world a bit differently.
Why not take a new look at your old photos and see what other pictures are hiding in there, or if there are
images you’ve discarded that could be given a new lease of life?