Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

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In this article, we’ll look at some tips for cropping your images into better compositions.

It’s a good tool

There’s an adage I learned over a decade ago when I did construction work in the summer that I still try to live by; measure twice, cut once. It’s a fantastic rule of thumb for carpentry but thankfully when it comes to photography you have a bit more leeway.

While there is certainly something to be said for getting your photos just right in camera, one of the wonders of modern digital photography is that you have a myriad of tools at your disposal if you want to fix things later on as well. Things like exposure, contrast, color saturation, black-and-white conversion, and even adding and removing elements can all be done with the magic of Lightroom and Photoshop.

But there is another tool available in every image editor that can have a powerful impact on your images and is quite easy to use as well. Sometimes all it takes to give your pictures the added punch you’re looking for is a few clicks of the humble crop tool.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition - flower

The math of cropping and why it’s okay to do it

Before getting too deep into the art of cropping it’s important to know what your goals are for your photography and look at the math behind those megapixels. Most modern digital cameras have anywhere from 16-24 megapixels. Mobile phones are usually about 12, and some ultra-expensive DSLRs are 36, but I’m going to use 20 megapixels as a nice round baseline here.

Printing size

If you’re going to print your photos it’s a good idea to have them be at least 200 dpi or dots per inch. This means you could take an uncropped image from a 20-megapixel camera and print a pristine picture 27 inches wide! If you’re making standard 4×6″ prints it’s even better. A 200 dpi print at that size contains about 1 million pixels or five percent of what the 20-megapixel camera has to offer. Suffice it to say, unless you are turning your pictures into wall-sized posters there is clearly a lot of room within those megapixels to crop to your heart’s content.

Online size

There’s also the issue of posting and sharing your pictures online. A good rule of thumb for that is to keep the maximum dimension, either width or height, to no more than 2048 pixels. This means that of the pixels available to you from a 20-megapixel camera, you could trim away 16 million of them (almost 80 percent!) and still get a sharp picture for sharing online. Of course, there are always exceptions to this, and some sites might want your pictures to be larger than 2048 pixels, but if you’re posting them on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, or other popular sites that size is more than big enough.

You have some room to crop

I know all this might seem a bit off the beaten path when it comes to learning how to crop, but the moral of the story is that you should, of course, do whatever you can to get your pictures composed in camera. But know that you also have a massive amount of wiggle room to crop them down afterward and you needn’t worry about losing quality. As an example, here’s a picture of a rabbit that I shot with a 50mm lens on my Nikon D7100.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition - rabbit

You might be wondering how I got close enough to take this picture with just a 50mm lens, but in truth I was quite far away and just cropped the image. A lot!

The 24-megapixel sensor on a D7100 allows for a huge amount of cropping, especially for a site like dPS which requires pictures to have a maximum dimension of 750 pixels. The original, I assure you, did not look like this at all.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition - rabbit far

The actual dimensions of the cropped image are 1982 x 1321 pixels which means it’s plenty large enough to make a 4×6″ print at 300dpi. All this goes to illustrate my point that no matter what camera you use, you probably have plenty of room to crop your images if you really want to do so.

The art of cropping

When deciding what to crop out of your images there’s no hard-and-fast rule that will guarantee perfection every time. However, there are a few guidelines that are likely to improve your images in most scenarios.

Crop to focus your viewer’s attention on the subject

As I go through my photos in Lightroom I often find that in addition to my main subject I have included other elements in the frame that might distract the viewers or detract from the impact of the subject. Of course, these details can add a sense of texture, context, and emotion to a scene. But if your goal is to get your viewers to focus on something specific then you might want to utilize the cropping tool to make that happen.

The family photo below contains a lot of elements that, while certainly serving to add a sense of context and texture to the picture as a whole, lessen the overall impact of the image.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition - family image

The uncropped image. The subject is clearly the family, but the trees, sky, and bridge in the background tend to distract the viewer and lessen the impact of the photo.

Cropping in on the family results in a picture that is much more visually pleasing. It still contains some of the background elements of the original but the subjects are clearly emphasized. Details such as the ring on the woman’s finger are more noticeable as well. I shot this on my Nikon D200 camera which is only 10 megapixels and the resulting image is a paltry 6 megapixels (3030 x 2028) but could easily be printed as an 8×10″ or even 11×14″ image.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition - family cropped

A bit of cropping has a big impact on the final image.

Would it be better to get this picture right in camera with no cropping at all? Absolutely! But sometimes that’s just not an option, and if that happens to you don’t have to be afraid to crop.

Not just for portraits

This can work in situations besides portraits, such as the following picture of a construction site. As you look at it, ask yourself, what is the subject of the photo that I (the photographer) want you to focus your attention on?

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition - construction

The uncropped original. There’s so much going on here that it’s a bit too overwhelming.

Before I show you the cropped version, I need to put a caveat here – there’s no accounting for taste. It’s possible that some people like the uncropped original precisely because it shows so much activity. But I really wanted to call attention to the steelworker sitting on a beam on the right-hand side and in the original version, he is just one small part of the whole. However, a bit of cropping fixes the matter entirely.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

Cropped, and much improved.

Voilà! A significantly better image, and at 2125 x 1422 pixels it could easily be printed as an 8 x 10, framed, and hung in an office lobby. (Now if only the Crop tool could eliminate the vertical fence lines in the foreground, but that’s a subject for another article.)

If you find that your initial pictures contain elements which distract your viewers from what you want them to see, the crop tool can go a long way towards remedying the situation. At the same time, still resulting in pictures that are plenty big enough to print, share, or email to your friends, family, and fans.

Crop to reframe your subject

Cropping can help immensely when you are looking for ways to portray your subject in an interesting or more compelling light. Many people go with the simple method of putting their subject in the center of the frame, but that’s not always the best method to create the most pleasing images.

When I shot the picture below I put the boy in the middle of the composition, which resulted in a decent image but isn’t nearly as compelling as it could be. The space around him distances the viewer from the subject, and it also doesn’t work to have so much empty space on the right side when he is looking to the left.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

Notice how much the emotional impact of the image changes by simply cropping the photo such that the boy is on the right-hand side.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

Re-cropping, in this case, does a couple of things. First, it gets rid of much of the empty space on the right side of the photo, and in doing so leaves a large portion of the left side open and empty. It works within the context of the photo because the boy is looking in that direction, and that leaves our minds to wonder what is so interesting just out of frame. The empty space on the left feels intentional and helps draw you in, leaving your imagination open to the possibilities that are just out of view. The picture is more interesting and impactful as a result, and all it took was a bit of cropping.

Moving subjects

This technique is especially useful when your subject is moving, as it helps create the impression that the car, plane, child, or turtle you have photographed is about to fill the empty space that is currently unoccupied. The first image below is straight out of the camera and has several problems that could easily be improved upon with a bit of cropping.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

While the boy and tortoise above are obviously subjects of the picture, there’s a lot of empty space around the pair that could be used more effectively especially since they are in motion. Now look at the cropped image below and notice how much better it is.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

Cropping the picture eliminated the ugly PVC pipe on the left side but it also created a stronger overall composition by emphasizing the empty space on the right. The subjects appear to be moving from left to right, and leaving empty space on that side helps you imagine that the PQRST (Perambulating Quadrupedal Reptilian Service Transport) will soon be occupying that space. The result is a more visually engaging image that draws viewers in much more than the uncropped original.

Using leading lines

One more example of this has to do with a concept called leading lines. If you don’t get your shot perfectly composed when you initially take it you can simply crop it to your liking for maximum visual impact. To illustrate, here’s a picture of a humble acorn sitting on a ledge.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition - accorn

There’s not a lot going on in this picture and I wouldn’t exactly put it up for any awards, but I’m using it to illustrate a point. This original image can be cropped to make a much stronger composition by taking advantage of the fact that viewers are drawn to the diagonal leading line going from the top right to the bottom left.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

Cropping down a bit but putting the acorn on the left side results in an image that is jarring and uncomfortable because leading lines are used entirely inappropriately.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

If your brain is hurting right now by looking at this photographic monstrosity, fear not. I have cropped it a different way in order to properly use leading lines and the picture is far more pleasing.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

When you look at this photo your mind naturally follows the curved path of the acorn and the empty space on the left side feels natural and intentional compared to the previous image which felt frustrating and off-balance.

Crop just for the fun of it

When it comes to artistic pursuits such as photography, there are a million guidelines but very few hard-and-fast rules. Even those are sometimes just begging to be broken. When cropping a picture don’t be afraid to eliminate portions of the picture you simply don’t like, or even play around with aspect ratios to get a picture you just happen to enjoy more. When I took the picture below I thought it turned out fairly well in camera, but the circular nature of the subject looked kind of strange in a rectangular photo.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

A couple of clicks with the crop tool in Lightroom resulted in a picture that, in my opinion, just looks more interesting.

Tips for Cropping Your Images for Better Composition

There might be some kind of artistic theory or explanation behind using a square-shaped crop of the original rectangular image, but if so I don’t know what it is. All I know is I like the second picture better, and in the end, that’s what really matters to me.

You can apply the same reasoning to your photography as well, and clip away with that cropping tool to your heart’s content if for no other reason than you happen to enjoy the results. As a bonus, when you crop in a program like Lightroom your edits are non-destructive so you can always go back and recover the original image if you want.

Get it right the first time

I need to close this article with a rather important cropping caveat: it’s always best to get the photo right at the time you shoot it. Cropping is fine and can certainly be used to great effect. But really, the best solution is to make sure you are shooting intentionally and using things like leading lines and eliminating distractions when you actually take the photos. However if you find that your images just aren’t quite as appealing as they could be, then by all means start cropping.

Are you the kind of photographer who only uses what your camera records, or do you prefer to crop your images to get the effect you are looking for? Do you have any other thoughts or tips regarding cropping? Leave your responses in the comments section below!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • Terry Cameron

    I always hear that you need to get the cropping right when you take the photo. The problem I have with that advice is I don’t always know what dimensions I will be printing the photo. Many times, I will be printing in different sizes. I have found it more convenient to take the photo more zoomed out and then cropping to the dimensions I need later. Of course you still want to be as close as you can while still allowing the flexibility to print in different sizes without losing important detail of your photo.

  • Frank Petrocelli

    Great article. I am a cropper, but I do strive for correct framing when shooting. I find I crop mostly when straightening out a landscape photo that didn’t quite keep the horizon level. Or when I want to move my son’s face to one of the “cross hairs” in the rule of thirds grid. One thing I try to do however is to always crop to a standard size. In my early days I did not keep the aspect ratio constant when cropping to remove an ugly portion of the picture and when I printed it to a standard photo size, it did not fit well. Just a thought.

  • Debbie Langer Borato

    So well explained…..thank you!!!!!!

  • Marc Thibault

    good explanation t.y.v.m. do yu crop with L”R.or Ps.??.i have DxO 11 and affinity,,,window photo,,i use often,,,for birds,,,and macro flowers,,have a good day…..

  • Glad it was helpful Debbie!

  • Allan

    Great article, appreciate the information…..I hear the term 100% crop in a lot of discussions…can’t you explain a 100% crop

  • waledro

    Cropping is possible now in the digital age. In film days it wasn’t that easy and not possible if one didn’t develop the prints oneself. To get the proper focus, the subject may be right in the middle of the frame. By careful cropping later, like your example of the boy, it can be made into a more appealing photo later. Sometimes when I see the photo on the computer, I find that there are two possible pictures within the frame and by cropping for each one separately I’ve gained a simpler, more interesting photo(s).

  • Andy Coles

    Wow! That was impressive and who would have thought cropping has so much power!? Through trial and error I’ve become the type to make the photo as intentional as possible and use the cropping tool to help be ‘precise’.

  • It has to do with screen resolution and photo size. When you’re looking at a desktop monitor, you are probably seeing a screen with 72DPI or 72 pixels in one inch. But when you pull up a photo from your camera on a computer you are looking at a much smaller version of the image unless you zoom all the way in on the photo such that a single pixel in the image also takes up a single pixel of your screen. That’s call a 100% zoom. When you see the term 100% crop in online articles it usually refers to the same thing: the picture you’re seeing as a 100% crop is a zoomed-in version of the original picture that shows every single pixel.

  • Allan Hewitt

    Thanks, I hadn’t related that to the actual computer screen resolution…appreciate the explanation…again, great article

  • Ron Ginther

    I have always asked myself how I would draw the image and compose with the camera. I find that like Terry Cameron said I too may not anticipate what crop the final image needs to be. I Try to shoot just a little wide to allow for fine adjustments in size and composition. Compose and take a step back.

  • K.C. Marsh

    Also, I find that cropping is simply essential with certain shooting situations. Case and point, when I shoot telephoto and am trying to shoot wildlife. Even with the great reach of the lens I’m often still “too far” to create a compelling photo. I depend on cropping in situations where I can’t physically get any closer. That’s why I love your example of the 50mm lens and the bunny. I could see myself (or others) thinking, “I’m too far away, too bad I don’t have a telephoto lens” and then not take a photo. One of the benefits in that situation is that you have a prime lens, can shoot a much sharper photo then your kit zoom (or most zoom) lenses and you can come away with a fun photo afterwards by remembering the crop tool. Fun stuff and a great way to think about the tool. Thank you for the article.

  • rwhunt99

    One other thing, is you can crop to re-purpose your photo. You might have taken the photo for one reason, but then later using cropping, can for instance, adjust empty areas for text .

  • Ian Steele

    When my sons played football (Aussie rules) I had a lot of trouble capturing the play I wanted, ball was missing, cut off part of their body etc. I found out that the professional photographers take wider angle shots and then crop later, it also means they don’t have to move their camera around as much thus reducing the chance of blur.

  • OldPom

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/05b755770fa69012d29efee7469fa2e8117ed0915730280a065061ec5d990860.jpg This ‘panning ‘ shot, as it came from the camera, contained far too much of the deliberately blurred background. A fairly drastic crop made a much better, in my opinion, effect. . Promoting the ‘frozen’ cyclist to main subject !

  • Iain Mckeand

    Thanks for the great explanation. I had not related how pixels and image size tie in. I have found that cropping solves many of the small issues that are talked about in the other replies. I enjoy very many of the articles you publish, they are are very much appreciated. I have only recently re-entered the photography world from film days and am loving the freedom which digital imagery gives. People like you who give freely of your time and knowledge are the salt of the earth. Thanks again

  • Randall Bo

    I have been waiting for this article. Thank you.

  • Stewart Rigby

    I take a lot of sports action photos of my local soccer team here in Portugal and tend to shoot with a wide angle lens then crop to the action I want to portray.It produces some pretty spectacular results.

  • SueWsie Wils

    I find that often a subject doesn’t actually suit the standard dimensions, so cropping can be essential. An example would be where there is great interest in the central strip of landscape and sky, but not at the top or bottom. The cropping works .

  • Stan Hingston

    I absolutely agree, Terry, and was going to make that point myself. As Simon explains so well most cameras allow plenty of room for cropping, so why not make use of it. I might print at 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, or crop to 3×4 or 5×8 ratio to match a digital projector. I may even want to switch from a landscape to portrait format. So leave the cropping to the last step just before printing.

  • pete guaron

    Alas – with the best will in the world, “getting it right in the camera” is not always the result. When you make it home with what’s in the cam, download it all onto the ‘puter, and see for the first time on a 27 inch screen just exactly what you did, you see ways to “do it better”. And cropping becomes a must, with some shots.

    It’s not that the original shot was “wrong” – it’s just that more time to reflect on the subject opens our eyes to opportunities that weren’t obvious in the heat of the moment, when the chance at “that shot” opened up in front of us.

    At this point, I start to feel for the ‘togs amongst us who say they don’t print – everyone just keeps their photos digitally these days, don’t they? – the photos are simply passed around on the net, or as attachments to emails, or whatever, and never leave the wonderland of computerised technology.

    I’ll restrain myself – be polite – and not mention just exactly WHAT I feel for them.

    Ignoring that – it’s only really when you print your work that you fully appreciate the way[s] in which cropping (slight or major) can improve a shot.

    And one final point – no matter what camera you use (even one with the option to change formats), each photo will have a format fixed in cement by the camera, at the moment when you fired the shutter. But the world isn’t all 3×2 – 6×6 – 3×4 – 4×5 – or whatever. And if you choose to be lazy and NOT remove the “junk” sitting on one side or another of the shot, because it was the camera’s fault for having that format, wasn’t it? – the composition of many of your photos will be weakened, accordingly.

  • pete guaron

    Good point, OP – and it’s a standard piece of advice to people taking panning shots, to include a bit extra, so that you CAN do this, to end up with a “perfect shot”! Ian Steele makes a similar point, in the next comment after yours!

  • pete guaron

    Although I have various post-processing software**, Marc, I find the crop tool on PS is the easiest and most accurate to use.
    **(collected a range of them, a while back, to compare them and see which ones suited my purposes better)

  • pete guaron

    All too often, when we find ourselves “on the cutting room floor”, SueWsie, the horizon line in a landscape needs to be moved up or down – but can’t be left in the middle, or wherever, because the shot looks weak. A strong sky might suggest cropping the foreground – and t’other way round, if the foreground is the main interest.

  • Denise Belanger

    Even though I was taught to try to get the best photo in-camera, over the years (especially back in the days of film cameras) many of my so-so pictures were saved by framing a print in a mat cut to the size necessary to isolate the “cropped” image, and popping it into a nice frame.

  • Mr. Fusion

    To add, many photos never see a printer. Instead, they are posted on line. Thus, even standard photo frame sizes may be dispensed with.

  • Mr. Fusion

    I have no hesitation when I crop a photo. To me, that is one of the benefits of digital; the liesure of making a shot better in post.

    Much of my work involves youth sports. Cropping a play so only the essentials are in the shot make it far more powerful. Too many times I’ve ruined a good play because I was off center or too close.

    One point not mentioned above; be careful cropping out people in the background. Few things are more distracting han having someone in the background cropped at the head. For your subject, it is ok to crop the feet or legs, bit not the head. If you have extra room, leave it over the head, not the feet.

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