Using Cropping to Improve Photographs

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The following guest post on cropping images was submitted by Peter Carey from Hidden Creek Photo and The Carey Adventures.

Cropping, or removing certain portions of a photograph, has been around since the beginning of photography. In the digital photography age it is easier than ever to use this technique to bring about stellar results from your photographs. Before you discard that photograph you think of as boring or uninteresting, try a few of the suggestions in this article and see if you can pull something out that wasn’t there before and turn that throw-away photograph into a frame worthy print.

Cropping is fairly easy with most modern photo software. In this article I will be using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to demonstrate principles and techniques. While the specifics will be different from program to program, the basics are the same for most. Most programs will let you select a cropping tool and then either click and drag a freeform box around your subject or present you with clickable corners which can be moved about to gain the crop you are looking for. Clicking and dragging is the essence of modern cropping on the computer and is very easy to learn, while still being a powerful tool to help improve your photographs.

The Rule of Thirds

If you have not already done so, take a look at our rule of thirds entry for some information on the Rule of Thirds. It is a basic concept which helps make for aesthetically pleasing photographs and is a good place to start when considering cropping. With that said, it’s even better to apply the Rule of Thirds when taking the photograph instead of relying solely on the post-production work to give you a better photograph. However, a large portion of the time the photographs we take can use a little and that’s where these cropping techniques will come in handy.

Cropping 9.png

With this first photograph as an example, there is far too much sky showing in what otherwise would be a pleasing mountain scene in the Himalayas. To improve this photograph I select one of the preset crop ratios; in this case 8×10.

Cropping 10.png

When selecting preset ratios you are essentially telling the program what size of paper you will be printing to. This is important to know as 4×6, 5×7 and 8×10, the most popular sizes of prints, all have different ratios. If you do not crop the image for the specific size of paper it will be printed on, you risk having the photolab crop off parts of your picture and the results may not be what you desire.

In this example I have moved the crop box around just the mountain and foreground hillsides.

Cropping 11.png

I kept the mountain in the top third of the image (note the helpful Rule of Thirds guide lines Lightroom overlays on the photograph) while placing the small home just about on the lower third line. After accepting the changes, the program presents the final image which has far more pleasing proportions than its predecessor.

Cropping 12.png

This is a very simple and quick crop and I now know I will receive nearly this exact photograph when printed at 8×10.

Going Wide

Another option for a crop is to take that normal picture and turn it into a wide panorama. This technique has been very successful for one photograph in particular my wife, Kim, shot on her first trip to Nepal. She took a picture of a row of prayer wheels as they sat outside a temple. This picture really didn’t bring out the wheels themselves and had a lot of distraction as you can see.

Cropping 4.png

To improve this image I decided to crop out everything else and just leave the prayer wheels. While this seemed a bit unconventional at the time the resulting image was our top seller last year.

Most panorama prints come in one of two size; 6″x18″ or 12″x36″. Math tells us the ratio is the same in both so we’ll set Lightroom to use this ratio, ensuring we can get our prints made in a standard size. A couple of clicks of the cropping tool allow me to enter in the ratio I desire if it is not standard. I enter a 1:3 ratio (actual inches/mm or pixels do no matter at this point).

Cropping 5.png

Cropping 6.png

There will now be a box set to the ratio entered that covers the largest portion of the screen. From here, grab one of the corners and drag it until the box is just the size you want. The ratio will remain the same.

Cropping 7.png

Don’t worry too much about the over all pixel size at this point, unless you are working with a very small picture. Now you can drag the image or box around until the right portion of the image is lined up and accept the crop (usually performed by pressing the Enter key). When finished, you will have a panorama image most photo developers can easily handle.

Cropping 8.png

Sometimes Tall Is Better

The next example shows what can be accomplished with freeform cropping and taking a vertical stance on the image. While the freeform ability of modern programs is great in principle, you will need to find a custom photofinisher capable of printing your image ‘as-is’ to retain the stylized crop you give it. These photofinishers are not hard to find but may charge a bit more than the corner 1-Hour Photo store.

The image I selected for this demonstration suffers from too much clutter.

Cropping 1.png

The temple itself is pleasing as are some of the statues in the foreground, but that big light on the left side is just distracting from the subject of the photograph. After trying some standard Rule of Thirds crops, I still didn’t get the image to line up to my liking. So I decided to use a freeform crop. All this means is I will simply draw a box around what I want to keep instead of using the default ratio tools.

Cropping 2.png

Once the area is selected I can fine tune it a bit. Most programs offer ‘handles’ on the crop box corners or sides allowing you to move the box and resize to your liking. Experiment here and see what works best for you. In my case I went real tall to get the whole temple, and real skinny to keep the proportions to my liking. The resultant photograph got rid of the distractions in the image (although it could use a bit of straightening, but that’s for another post).

Cropping 3.png

Limits

It’s important to make a note about limits. While cropping can help improve your overall photograph, if the original was taken with a low mega pixel camera, don’t expect to lop off ¾ of the image and still have a great quality (resolution wise) print. Check with the photo printer you plan to use for guidelines on the least amount of pixels they require for a good image and don’t crop below this magical number.

Cropping can gain you some great end results when used wisely. It can help make sure the 5×7 image you requested from the photo printer is exactly what you saw on your screen. It can help make a dramatic panorama print out of an ok standard photograph. And it can give you freedom to experiment with different ratios to see what you can pull out of a cluttered photograph.

Be creative. Have fun. Experiment. Cropping is an easy tool to use in a computer and can help shape your photographs in a new light.

Peter and his wife Kim are avid photographers who enjoy travel, portraiture and wildlife photography. They are slowly getting the bulk of their images online which can be viewed at Hidden Creek Photo. A travel related blog of their past and current shenanigans can be found at The Carey Adventures.

Read more from our Post Production category

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • And whatever you do (crop?), don’t forget the ratio! :]

  • Peter Serko

    Nice piece. I should add that one danger here is mistaking cropping for good composition in the first place. I use to crop a lot of my photos until I realized that if I was more thoughtful and careful in my composition I would not need to crop as often to get the results I wanted. Away.. better to first compose in the camera than to do it later.

    Thanks for your well done and informative article.

  • Mickel

    Only if you’re printing them

  • Nermal

    How important is the Secret Ratio? Seems to me it’s a convenience for the printer. Is there any reason to use a standard ratio other than that? For example, do people respond better to ratios closer to the Golden Ratio?

  • Peter Carey

    Yes, this entry is mainly about printing crops and that’s what the standard ratios are for. The last example points to picking something other than standard which is almost always more enjoyable than the standards.
    Where the standards come in handy is when you have 15 prints to make and its far cheaper (read; more profitable) to pick standard sizes so you can pick standard mattes and frames.

    More importantly though, is to have fun with it and experiment with what YOU like best.

  • R

    There is school of thought in Art and Architecture that suggest that people find the Golden Ratio to be aesthetically pleasing:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio#Aesthetics

  • another great tutorial. this one is really practical, since it’s graphics driven.

    the rule of thirds is a useful pointer. but most importantly is the mention that 99% of the time, a tighter crop is going to produce a marvelously better photo than a wide crop. fill your frame with your subject and suddenly it’s a lot more exciting and interesting.

    Ansel Adams said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

    Personally, I adhere to Robert Capa’s mantra, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”

    Nice article.

    cheers

    david
    http://www.davidsmeaton.com

  • Is cropping normally effective if it produces a square image?

  • Lee

    I’ve seen many comments around this topic at other locations where the point is driven home to do a better job of composing the shot to begin with. The idea being to get what you’re looking for when you create the photograph, not in the “developing” process.

    In my experience, I have created some great shots in the original composition and printed those being quite happy with the results. But later, I go back and look at the shot and notice something else interesting in the image that I didn’t notice when I took the original photograph. I crop away, create a completely different image and end up printing that to add to what has become a study of a subject.

    Many times, going back to re-shoot the subject to explore what I newly discovered is not possible because the subject may be hundreds of miles away. I find it hard to believe that this is not a technique or practice that photographers have practiced long before the advent of digital processing.

  • Great tip! When I first saw the cover pic it made me laugh. Cropping out the models head did make it a better photograph!

  • cropping pleases me as i find something new from the original, and in a multiple type of subject, i make 3-4 photos, no doubt in d-photography it reduces the pixels, but one thing is self satisfaction and other is not necessarily going for big enlargements. so for a creative person, cropping plays a vital role.

  • Maurice

    Great tips for those that have proper software to do the auto-ratios. Before I started using Adobe Elements 6, I was just cropping away using my pc editor. When it was time to print, usually sent out for the job to be done, an 8×10 came on an 8×10 sheet, but the photo was nothing what I hoped for. The picture on the sheet was more like 7×9.

  • Suzanne

    I generally discourage people from cropping. It is far better to get a good composition to start with. Plus, by cropping you are removing pixels that you would have had you taken the photo better composed to start with. That said, I have done it on occasion when I felt the shot really warranted it. Generally, to straighten a horizon or edge that should be horizontal or vertical.

  • Bilka

    I could not agree more with Peter in his statement, which I pasted below.

    Consider this when making images:

    Look.
    Think.
    See.
    Shoot.

    PREtouch, don’t REtouch. That is my mantra.

    Craft images. Don’t take snapshots. Expand your photographic creativity and vision. Force yourself to create in the environment of your viewfinder. Let that ne your “world.”

    Bilka

    —-

    Peter Serko Says:
    February 13th, 2008 at 3:37 am
    Nice piece. I should add that one danger here is mistaking cropping for good composition in the first place. I use to crop a lot of my photos until I realized that if I was more thoughtful and careful in my composition I would not need to crop as often to get the results I wanted. Away.. better to first compose in the camera than to do it later.

  • Is it just me or does anyone else find that vertical temple shot rather unsatisfactory?

    i

  • Good piece, thanks.

    While I agree that composition is generally better than cropping, there’s nothing wrong with doing it. It’ll teach you how to compose better.

    Often, you only have a moment to get the shot, so while you’ll try to crop it, afterwards, there’ll always be a “wish I’d composed like this instead” and cropping can help with that.

    The more you crop now, the less you’ll need to do it in the future as you’ll be teaching yourself the art of composition by simply trying it. Learning how to comp by feel, instead of having to think through the whole process is a talent that can be learned by anyone.

    Cheers,

    Mike

  • Lonnie

    I’m hearing pros and cons here, but the fact is that cropping is just one more tool we can use. While composition is certainly best, a gentle crop can save an image. I’ve taken images from four years ago and cropped them for use in a training Power Point today. This is a great place to listen up and learn. Thanks to all.

  • mrpinto

    For heaven sakes purists, calm down a bit! We all want to compose the best shot possible in-camera, but there’s still a place for cropping.

    For example, if the vantage point you want to shoot a scene from is in the middle of a lake, shooting from the other side and cropping is a lower-cost alternative than hiring a boat. With a target resolution that’s small enough and a sensor that has enough megapixels, this is a totally workable, if un-ideal solution.

    In my case, I shoot mainly sports and I crop all the time. There are too many players, officials, spectators and other folk moving around too quickly to guarantee that an otherwise great shot won’t have some stray leg entering in a corner or such. Most of the time I have a good read on who’s going where and I can shoot accordingly, but there are limits to my predictions and I don’t have time to change vantage point. My time is better spent surveying the action as a whole and working on adjusting focal length and maintaining focus. I don’t get two chances at a play, so I want every tool possible to make the shots I do get as good as they can be.

    The simple fact is that photographers don’t always have the time, vantage point or equipment to get the desired composition. It’s better to have those things, but it’s certainly worth looking into tools that can help out when you don’t.

  • Good article! I was always taught to crop your photo before you shoot it. That way you maximize the image quality. Sometimes it can be difficult to imagine the final image and cropping may be necessary once you return to the lab.

    As a good rule of thumb, when cropping images of people, do not crop at a joint (elbow, knee, wrist). Typically when people are cropped at a joint it makes them look really funny and like they are an amputee or something. When cropping images of people try and do so between joints and use cropping to flatter body types.

    A tool I recommend to people new to cropping is Snapfish. Snapfish offers a whole range of tools suited to digital photography beginners and hobbyists. Check out Snapfish Labs here: http://www.hp.com/idealab/us/en/snapfish.html

    Happy shooting and editing!

Some Older Comments

  • Annicedda May 28, 2008 03:13 am

    Good article! I was always taught to crop your photo before you shoot it. That way you maximize the image quality. Sometimes it can be difficult to imagine the final image and cropping may be necessary once you return to the lab.

    As a good rule of thumb, when cropping images of people, do not crop at a joint (elbow, knee, wrist). Typically when people are cropped at a joint it makes them look really funny and like they are an amputee or something. When cropping images of people try and do so between joints and use cropping to flatter body types.

    A tool I recommend to people new to cropping is Snapfish. Snapfish offers a whole range of tools suited to digital photography beginners and hobbyists. Check out Snapfish Labs here: http://www.hp.com/idealab/us/en/snapfish.html

    Happy shooting and editing!

  • mrpinto February 22, 2008 12:10 pm

    For heaven sakes purists, calm down a bit! We all want to compose the best shot possible in-camera, but there's still a place for cropping.

    For example, if the vantage point you want to shoot a scene from is in the middle of a lake, shooting from the other side and cropping is a lower-cost alternative than hiring a boat. With a target resolution that's small enough and a sensor that has enough megapixels, this is a totally workable, if un-ideal solution.

    In my case, I shoot mainly sports and I crop all the time. There are too many players, officials, spectators and other folk moving around too quickly to guarantee that an otherwise great shot won't have some stray leg entering in a corner or such. Most of the time I have a good read on who's going where and I can shoot accordingly, but there are limits to my predictions and I don't have time to change vantage point. My time is better spent surveying the action as a whole and working on adjusting focal length and maintaining focus. I don't get two chances at a play, so I want every tool possible to make the shots I do get as good as they can be.

    The simple fact is that photographers don't always have the time, vantage point or equipment to get the desired composition. It's better to have those things, but it's certainly worth looking into tools that can help out when you don't.

  • Lonnie February 18, 2008 09:42 am

    I'm hearing pros and cons here, but the fact is that cropping is just one more tool we can use. While composition is certainly best, a gentle crop can save an image. I've taken images from four years ago and cropped them for use in a training Power Point today. This is a great place to listen up and learn. Thanks to all.

  • Mike Pearce February 15, 2008 06:30 pm

    Good piece, thanks.

    While I agree that composition is generally better than cropping, there's nothing wrong with doing it. It'll teach you how to compose better.

    Often, you only have a moment to get the shot, so while you'll try to crop it, afterwards, there'll always be a "wish I'd composed like this instead" and cropping can help with that.

    The more you crop now, the less you'll need to do it in the future as you'll be teaching yourself the art of composition by simply trying it. Learning how to comp by feel, instead of having to think through the whole process is a talent that can be learned by anyone.

    Cheers,

    Mike

  • Ian W February 15, 2008 08:22 am

    Is it just me or does anyone else find that vertical temple shot rather unsatisfactory?

    i

  • Bilka February 14, 2008 12:21 pm

    I could not agree more with Peter in his statement, which I pasted below.

    Consider this when making images:

    Look.
    Think.
    See.
    Shoot.

    PREtouch, don't REtouch. That is my mantra.

    Craft images. Don't take snapshots. Expand your photographic creativity and vision. Force yourself to create in the environment of your viewfinder. Let that ne your "world."

    Bilka

    ----

    Peter Serko Says:
    February 13th, 2008 at 3:37 am
    Nice piece. I should add that one danger here is mistaking cropping for good composition in the first place. I use to crop a lot of my photos until I realized that if I was more thoughtful and careful in my composition I would not need to crop as often to get the results I wanted. Away.. better to first compose in the camera than to do it later.

  • Suzanne February 14, 2008 06:55 am

    I generally discourage people from cropping. It is far better to get a good composition to start with. Plus, by cropping you are removing pixels that you would have had you taken the photo better composed to start with. That said, I have done it on occasion when I felt the shot really warranted it. Generally, to straighten a horizon or edge that should be horizontal or vertical.

  • Maurice February 14, 2008 06:01 am

    Great tips for those that have proper software to do the auto-ratios. Before I started using Adobe Elements 6, I was just cropping away using my pc editor. When it was time to print, usually sent out for the job to be done, an 8x10 came on an 8x10 sheet, but the photo was nothing what I hoped for. The picture on the sheet was more like 7x9.

  • gopalshroti February 14, 2008 05:19 am

    cropping pleases me as i find something new from the original, and in a multiple type of subject, i make 3-4 photos, no doubt in d-photography it reduces the pixels, but one thing is self satisfaction and other is not necessarily going for big enlargements. so for a creative person, cropping plays a vital role.

  • Leap Year Photography of Ft Myers February 14, 2008 01:55 am

    Great tip! When I first saw the cover pic it made me laugh. Cropping out the models head did make it a better photograph!

  • Lee February 14, 2008 01:10 am

    I've seen many comments around this topic at other locations where the point is driven home to do a better job of composing the shot to begin with. The idea being to get what you're looking for when you create the photograph, not in the "developing" process.

    In my experience, I have created some great shots in the original composition and printed those being quite happy with the results. But later, I go back and look at the shot and notice something else interesting in the image that I didn't notice when I took the original photograph. I crop away, create a completely different image and end up printing that to add to what has become a study of a subject.

    Many times, going back to re-shoot the subject to explore what I newly discovered is not possible because the subject may be hundreds of miles away. I find it hard to believe that this is not a technique or practice that photographers have practiced long before the advent of digital processing.

  • Louella February 14, 2008 12:31 am

    Is cropping normally effective if it produces a square image?

  • david February 13, 2008 04:43 pm

    another great tutorial. this one is really practical, since it's graphics driven.

    the rule of thirds is a useful pointer. but most importantly is the mention that 99% of the time, a tighter crop is going to produce a marvelously better photo than a wide crop. fill your frame with your subject and suddenly it's a lot more exciting and interesting.

    Ansel Adams said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

    Personally, I adhere to Robert Capa's mantra, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough"

    Nice article.

    cheers

    david
    www.davidsmeaton.com

  • R February 13, 2008 04:06 pm

    There is school of thought in Art and Architecture that suggest that people find the Golden Ratio to be aesthetically pleasing:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio#Aesthetics

  • Peter Carey February 13, 2008 01:45 pm

    Yes, this entry is mainly about printing crops and that's what the standard ratios are for. The last example points to picking something other than standard which is almost always more enjoyable than the standards.
    Where the standards come in handy is when you have 15 prints to make and its far cheaper (read; more profitable) to pick standard sizes so you can pick standard mattes and frames.

    More importantly though, is to have fun with it and experiment with what YOU like best.

  • Nermal February 13, 2008 04:36 am

    How important is the Secret Ratio? Seems to me it's a convenience for the printer. Is there any reason to use a standard ratio other than that? For example, do people respond better to ratios closer to the Golden Ratio?

  • Mickel February 13, 2008 03:55 am

    Only if you're printing them

  • Peter Serko February 13, 2008 03:37 am

    Nice piece. I should add that one danger here is mistaking cropping for good composition in the first place. I use to crop a lot of my photos until I realized that if I was more thoughtful and careful in my composition I would not need to crop as often to get the results I wanted. Away.. better to first compose in the camera than to do it later.

    Thanks for your well done and informative article.

  • Klaidas February 13, 2008 03:36 am

    And whatever you do (crop?), don't forget the ratio! :]

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