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