No Telephoto Lens No Problem – Tips on Shooting for the Crop



Maybe your photos are better than you think. Perhaps all you need to transform your images into keepers is to simply cut out the dead wood and get ruthless with the crop tool. While I’m not against getting your shot perfect ‘in camera’, I do believe that cropping like a boss during post-production can turn a ‘meh’ shot into a ‘whoa’ shot just by carefully placing those marching ants in Adobe Camera Raw and hitting ‘crop’.

Why limit yourself to a mediocre image when there’s a little hidden gem inside your average shot, waiting to be teased out like a gleaming pearl?

Get closer after the fact

Here’s an example of a cropped shot with the full frame shot below it. During the shoot I was happy with the original composition (below), but after studying the shot at home I decided that the scene needed to be more intimate, so in I went with the scissors of brutality.

Vancouver Island Waterfall Landscape Image Crop - Gavin Hardcastle

Cropped version

How to Shoot for the Crop

Full image uncropped

Tell the story

When your image has an obvious story, it’s often wise to cut out any non-essential space to ignite a more immediate reaction in your audience. By discarding all distractions, you’ll direct their attention to what matters most. With the image below, I wanted to portray the resilience of nature under the menacing specter of toxic pollution. I knew I had the shot but the story had much more impact after I’d cropped out all of the wasted space in my image. Ideally I would have used a longer lens to achieve the same result but all I was carrying at the time was a 24-105mm and there was no way I was going to let that stop me. Shoot, crop, done, breakfast.

'Held To Ransom' by Gavin Hardcastle


Use your megapixels

You’ve doubtless heard grumpy old fossils whine on about why big megapixels are pointless unless you’re printing wall sized prints. I’m here to tell you that’s a load of old codswallop. Try cropping out a small section of a 16 megapixel image and let me know good it looks at the full size of your computer screen. Lacking in resolution, hmm? Well I guess it depends on the size of your crop, but chances are things are starting to look a little crusty if you’re not packing some heat in the megapixel department. Size, as they say, does matter.

Here’s another example of using my megapixels to get closer to my subject. As you can see from the full frame image below the crop, I made no attempt at composing a foreground because I knew I’d be cropping out everything but my main subject – the magic tree of Fairy Lake on Vancouver Island. You can even see a hideous vignette in the full frame shot caused by the polarizer rig. Crop, done, lunch.



If you can’t afford a big telephoto lens but have a good quality wide-angle lens and a decent megapixel count, it’s still worth taking that shot of the bird on the other side of the lake. You can crop it later and possibly come away with a keeper. Sometimes it’s not even the cost of long lenses that puts people off using them, it’s the chiropractors bills that come from dragging them around. That being said, a top notch telephoto lens creates a specific look and for serious wildlife shooters it’s a must-have lens. This isn’t an anti-telephoto article so don’t be leaving angry comments.

A second chance at composition

When you’re familiar with a location and you’ve shot there many times before, it’s easy to plan your compositions long in advance. But what if it’s your first time and you’re shooting under pressure? Sometimes you get lucky, but sometimes you won’t spot the perfect composition until you review your images back at home on a full size computer screen.  That’s when cropping will give you that second chance at getting the perfect shot.

Butchart Gardens Vancouve Island Gavin Hardcastle

Teach yourself composition

I’m always telling my students that you can learn a huge amount about composition simply by reviewing and editing your images. Try and find two or more new compositions that are hiding in plain site right there in your existing images. This simple process teaches you a lot about balance, symmetry, framing, leading lines and whatever other compositional elements are right there in your images. Spend enough time doing this and you’ll become a better photographer when you’re out shooting. When cropping, you can start by asking yourself a few essential questions:

  • What is the main subject of my image?
  • What parts of the image do I love?
  • What parts of the image do I not like?
  • How can I focus the viewers attention?
  • What can I exclude?

By answering these five simple questions you’ll quickly identify the strongest parts of your image and transform them from stale, forgotten megabytes, into beautiful memories you can share with the world. I hope you found this article helpful and please, get cropping and then share your best cropped images with me, I’d love to see your results.


Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Gavin Hardcastle is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

  • Obviously, it’s good to have options to choose from, and cropping is one of them. However, I like forcing myself to work with the lens that I have in the camera at any given time and work to its strengths, trying to find the most suitable compositions right in camera to minimize cropping later.
    Different approaches, I guess!

  • April Ellis Lippert

    My Canon Rebel T3 is 12 megapixels….is that enough pixels to do a big crop like in the examples? I have always been afraid the pic would get too grainy! thoughts? I have an 18mm-250mm and just purchased a Canon 50mm f/1.4 and miss being able to zoom so cropping would be good!

  • disqus_vBZ2nSpMs5

    Zoom to 100% when you edit, and you’ll see how the grain looks. Grain is pretty easily looked after in ACR as well. An important thing to keep in mind if you know you’re going to crop is to make sure your camera settings are bang on. Lowest ISO possible, best aperture for the shot… and focus is critical. The little mistakes that would otherwise be hidden will be magnified when you crop.

  • disqus_vBZ2nSpMs5

    I’m a unapologetic crop tool user…I’ve “saved” a ton of shots this way, and I completely agree, it can teach a lot about composition so that when you are in the field you can start to see your framing better as well.

  • Jacqueline Derrick

    You said: “If you can’t afford a big telephoto lens
    but have a good quality wide-angle lens and a decent megapixel count,
    it’s still worth taking that shot of the bird on the other side of the
    lake.” Can you please tell me what a decent megapixel count would be? I have an Olympus Pen E-PM1 12 megapixel. I have a 14-42mm lens and a 40-150mm lens. Any advice is appreciated.

  • Damodara das

    Sure. That’s a “decent” MP count. Are you making huge prints for an art gallery? If you aren’t doing this (or something else which requires big images) then paying tons more for MP is just fluff. Even if you do want to print larger, you can get great quality with a little post-production scaling up.

    You already have a 80-300mm angle of view (135 film equivalent) in your 40-150mm lens. It’s got a lot of reach.

  • April Ellis Lippert

    Thanks Disqus! The simple act of zooming to 100% I did not think about! Thanks for the tips! 🙂

  • Cool! Every time better and better article!

  • Kimber

    This article is a breath of fresh air! Getting back into photography after a long stretch, I love the cropping afterwards! It has taught me a lot as you say and it is also great when you are trying to get a wildlife shot, cropping really saves you some time! Thankfully I’m blessed with a lot of mp! After really searching the market I went with the d800e. I love it! I also have a Sony camera with 18mp and a fixed Zeiss zoom lense, but the D800 is my baby now!

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    It’s all relative. Only you can be the judge of when your crop is too much. A 12 MP count would be fine if you were cropping into about 50% of the image and didn’t need to print a large print.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Hi April, see my comment above. When you say grainy I assume you mean noisy. That can be fixed with a setting of ISO 100 or lower if your camera does it. The problem will be when you need to shoot fast and are forced to crank up the ISO. For landscapes where I have time I always shoot at ISO 50.

  • Monsoonking

    Nice article. This is one of those things that seems so simple and obvious when pointed out, but so easy to forget about.

  • April Ellis Lippert

    Yes, I mean Noisy…I am old school from back in the day when we shot with film and our “ISO” was 60, 100, 200, 400 and eventually 600 and 800…I think we called it grainy then..ha! After reading this excellent article I went and did some cropping on some pics and used your tip and was pleasantly surprised!

  • ronald1216

    i use full zoom in hd then crop it

  • shshauXT1

    I ALWAYS CROP IF I SHOT SOMETHING TOO WIDE. USEFULL TO HAVE A 16megapixels !!! More is maybe not needed anymore. No need to go into jumbo poster sizes.

  • Helios

    10 good enough to play with. On 16 I have so much to play with width and distance to crop without loss of IQ on regular sizes photo papers. 20x30cm

  • Jacqueline Derrick

    Thank you 🙂 , large print, meaning larger than an 8×10?

  • Jacqueline Derrick

    Thank you, your answer is very helpful. I am not very wise when it comes to the aspects of digital cameras. I did not know about the angle of view, thanks.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Yes, 8×10 is pretty small so in most cases you’d have plenty of rez for 8×10 even with just 12 MP.

  • Even when I “get it right the first time” with a perfectly framed shot I like to take a wider shot as well because too many times what I thought was perfect on location turned out to be too zoomed too tight. Having a wider shot I can re-frame the picture and get a second chance at the shot I wanted.

  • Dave

    Many of my shots are taken with a 1000mm lens combination and I still crop most of them for composition purposes.

  • Sarah

    Trying printing at 8×12. You’d be surprised how much more you can get with those 2 inches.

  • Barry E Warren

    Great read, and info on doing more cropping which I’m guilty of. I’ve found many good photo out of so so photo by using the crop feature, They improved 75%.. Thanks Again for the Great read

  • Guest

    I do believe in cropping. This was taken with a Panasonic Lumix GF1 camera.

    Result and original

  • Guest

    I do believe in cropping.

  • FifeAndDrum

    White-throated Sparrow?

  • Lolly

    My Cannon 30D has 8.2MP Is that enough for crop at 8×10?

  • Keith Melton

    I have done this and have made few pictures out of one.

  • Adam

    This is my crop example put to extreme. Any enlargement bigger than postcard will show the pixels. Ant was 1.5mm long, photo taken with 16mpixels Pentax K-5 and 50mm lens, but for my own use and satisfaction it’s good. I use crop all the time for all the reasons mentioned in above article. Thank you for the great read.

  • Adam

    I’m sorry, but for some reason can’t load the image 🙁

  • Guest

    I am so glad to see someone write about the value of the crop. Although I do own a long (ish) lens, it is not always with me. In these photos, my wife and I visited a black water swamp for a hike. Waterlilies were in bloom but are not near trails. My gear that day was a FF camera and 35mm lens. Even with polarizer it is too bright, but the crop worked well, I thought. Thanks for a great article.

  • mtngirl

    I went to Everest Base Camp on the Tibetan side and specifically bought a 16MP camera for the trip, knowing full well that the photos I would take of Mt Everest will be blown up and hung on my wall.
    Cropping works, but I had to make sure that all the camera settings were perfect – any slight hint of soft focus, or low lighting, will distort the enlargement. I shot in RAW, and post processed which helped get things tack sharp. But not all came out and only one was worthy of the wall. I blew it up to 36″ x 22″ and couldn’t be happier.

  • arkhunter

    Noise will obviously be an issue if you crop too much on a high ISO/low light image. “…bird on the other side of the lake.” It’s never going to be as good as even a cheap telephoto. There are going to be resolution issues when you have a bird that is a few pixels vs several thousand. Yeah, you might be able to tell what it is but it’s not really useful otherwise.

  • G

    Hi there. A great article that reminds people that yes you can crop. It would be good if you could explain post cropping, how to upsize an image in pixels e.g. you have cropped it to a 8mpx image and would like to resize it to a 12mpx image. Also is it better to crop in Adobe Raw first or does it not make much difference if you do it after in photoshop. Look forward to your reply

  • Germano Freitas

    Great article. It would be interesting to have a follow up on aspect ratio. I crop in post quite often and always have doubts on which aspect ratio to choose, what are the limits, what looks most attractive, how tto ballance perfect rule of thirds x nice aspect ratio.

  • Doug Nickle

    I no longer need to be a member of Croppers Anonymous! I’m an unapologetic serial cropper. While I do try to get the best composition in-camera, doing so offers even further opportunity for an effective crop. Thank you for this article.

  • Michael Bogert

    Here the whole time I thought I’ve been cheating! After trying to get it right in the camera I often take a few more shots. Some with a wider image range and some zoomed in closer to allow me the freedom of second guessing what I thought was best. The advantage of a wider image range has proved to be vital when some hand held shots had a crooked horizon and needed rotation and cropping.
    Also, if I may add, cropping can be very useful when trying to capture birds in flight. The crop can make a throw away into a keeper.

  • Hilton Nell

    Very interesting read. Would love to read your views on saturation and temperature of photos and how to do this correctly

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