It’s the year 2018 and I’ve just finished a quick search of the top 10 best selling digital cameras over at B&H Photo. Those 10 cameras sport an average megapixel count of 26.1MP. Six of those cameras were full-frame sensor models.
In 2004 I worked in a camera/photo processing lab and I remember the day we all stood in jaw-dropped awe as the Kodak DX4530 arrived at the store. The megapixel count of that glorious DX4530? A whopping 5MP. Bob Dylan was very much correct. The times are in fact a changin.
What all this means is that today, on average, our digital cameras pack in an enormous amount of resolution. This high resolving power affords us advanced possibilities for post-processing unlike never before and is especially true when it comes to enlarging and cropping our images. More specifically, these increases in resolution allow us to bend the limits of cameras and lenses by “shooting for the crop”.
What is Shooting for the Crop?
There’s no hidden meaning in “shooting for the crop”. It is a simple as it sounds.
When we say that we are shooting for the crop all it implies is that before our finger hits the shutter button we KNOW that we will be adjusting the entire composition of the photo later. This is entirely different from the usual organic cropping that sometimes happens during a spur of the moment flash of post-processing creativity.
Admittedly, shooting for the crop is not one of the most smiled upon photographic practices. Most agree that generally, the best way of making any photo is getting it consolidated, at least compositionally, before post-processing ever occurs.
The reason for this is because when we crop digital image files, no matter what, we are in fact making the individual pixel more apparent. The result is a loss of image sharpness and definition.
Still, there will be times when the focal length of your lens may just not fit the situation. This is the usual scenario. There may be a distracting element within the frame that your lens is simply too wide to exclude or maybe that 50mm just doesn’t have the reach that you would prefer to frame your scene.
Whatever the case may be, effectively shooting for the crop means taking into account quite a few factors and variables to make sure the image you intend to end up with looks as clean as possible. Let’s talk about a few things you should take into account whenever you are intentionally shooting for the crop.
Find the “Sweet Spot”
All camera lenses, whether they cost $300 or $3,000, have an area in their field of view which carries the highest optical sharpness. Most times photographers refer to this area of maximum lens sharpness as “the optical sweet spot” because, well, it’s the sweet spot for sharpness.
While some lenses are of higher resolving quality than others, all of them will have some degree of optical distortion and softness as you move towards the edges of the frame. The very center of the frame is essentially always the sharpest area of the lens and sharpness is dampened radiating outward. So when you’re shooting for the crop, always place the main subject or point of interest right smack in the center of the frame.
It doesn’t matter if centering the subject makes a horrible composition for your photo because you are going to crop and recompose later in post-processing. All you should concern yourself with is obtaining the highest level of sharpness for your main point of interest.
This is because when you crop a digital image you are almost always enlarging it at the same time. The more you magnify it the more pixels you will see. It’s here when true sharpness becomes of paramount importance.
Shutter speed and aperture considerations
Getting the absolutely sharpest image for cropping later extends well beyond the quality of your lens. In order to ensure you have the best croppable photo you must take into account the shutter speed and aperture you’re using when making the exposure.
Use a fast shutter speed
The more motion you can arrest in a photo the more clear and sharp it will be. This is one of the rare facts of photographic technique. When shooting for the crop you should always use the fastest shutter speed obtainable.
Of course, this isn’t true when you’re looking for intentional motion blur. Using a fast shutter speed helps mediate not only subject movement but also unintentional camera shake.
A great method to help you figure out the slowest shutter speed you can use is “The Reciprocal Rule.” I am a long-standing evangelist of this rule because it truly is just so incredibly useful for helping you to achieve sharper photographs.
The Reciprocal Rule states that when shooting handheld your maximum shutter time is equal to “1” over the focal length of your lens.
So to help reduce camera shake when using a 50mm lens your slowest shutter speed would be 1/50th of a second. If using an 80mm it would be 1/80th. If you’re using a variable zoom then simply use whatever approximate focal length you happen to have dialed in on the lens.
Caveats on aperture
Just as every lens has an optical sweet spot so too does every lens have an optimal aperture range when it comes to sharpness. Various lenses have wildly variable aperture sweet spots.
Some are tack sharp at wide apertures and soften as you move into smaller apertures. With others, the exact opposite could be true. Even two samples of the same model lens could have different results at the same aperture.
When shooting for the crop it’s always a good idea to shoot at your ideal aperture whenever possible. Just like using the optical sweet spot, using your lens’s ideal aperture will stack the odds in your favor when it comes time to crop.
To find out what apertures produce the best results for your particular lens will take some testing. Simply shoot an image at each aperture and compare them. Generally speaking, most lenses are sharper at the relative “middle of the road” apertures as sharpness tends to degrade as you approach the very smallest or the very largest apertures of your lens.
A brief word on megapixels
There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to megapixels and shooting for the crop. Without attempting to give too technical of a talk (you’re welcome) on image sensors, it’s best to remember that the more megapixels you have packed into your camera’s sensor the better off you will be when shooting for the crop.
We talked about how cropping a digital photo is essentially zooming in on the image. Since that image is made of little picture elements (pixels) the more you zoom the better you can see the individual pixels. Pixel depth and size aside, the more pixels you have held within a sensor the more flexibility you will have to crop more liberally.
Final thoughts on shooting for the crop
Let’s face it, shooting for the crop is not high on the list of best photography practices. But, unfortunately, we live in a real world of unexpected circumstances. We either won’t have the ideal lens available or the environment will limit us to resorting to some judicious cropping later in post-production.
Luckily if you already know you’ll be cropping an image later you can work to stack the odds in your favor to have better success. Here are a few key tips to remember whenever you find the cruel reality of a scene requires you to shoot for the crop.
- Center the point of interest in the lens. Make use of that optical sweet spot!
- Use the fastest shutter speed possible when shooting hand-held. Remember the Reciprocal Rule.
- Know which aperture yields the highest degree of sharpness from ALL of your lenses and employ if possible.
- Cropping exaggerates the size of the pixels that make up a digital image. An image from a 16MP camera probably won’t crop as cleanly as one from a 34MP camera.
As with most things to do with post-processing, don’t overdo your cropping. If you know you’ll need to crop down extremely tight just to come close to your ideal picture, allow me to ask a small favor; take a breath and put the camera down. Remember that there will be other photographs and more opportunities. A butchered photo of an incredible scene is less desirable than not having the image at all! Most of the time….
Do you have a cool before and after example of shooting for the crop? Share them with us in the comments!