The word crop means to “trim or cut back”. Most photography processing apps have a crop tool to trim unwanted areas of an image, such as excess negative space or distractions, i.e. people, road signs, etc.
Cropping can also be used to make an image smaller (in pixels) and to alter the image’s aspect ratio, i.e. the width and length of an image.
There are several benefits the photographer can gain from cropping, such as:
- Enhance composition
- Remove distractions
- Alter aspect ratio
- Remove too much visual information
- Change image orientation
- Focus on re-framing
There are also several disadvantages when using the crop tool, such as:
- Decreases resolution and detail, which reduces print quality
- Cropping takes out more pixels which reduces the maximum print size
- Increases image quality issues; for example, out-of-focus areas in your image will become more obvious
- Lens issues such as chromatic aberration and lens softness will also become more obvious
- Photos taken with a higher ISO will show up more noise when an image is enlarged by cropping
With all that said, cropping is an excellent way to add minor adjustments to an image in post-processing.
However, the crop tool should not be relied on to bolster the overall image appearance because its considered bad photography etiquette by most photographers.
For example, if I were to shoot a landscape image to print in large format, ignore essential things such as composition, distractions, exposure triangle, etc., and rely solely on the crop tool to fix these problems. I would encounter more problems with my image, such as reducing the maximum print size and decreasing resolution and detail to name a few things.
Therefore, getting as much of the image right in camera is essential before applying aggressive post-processing editing.
However, if you are in a rush or are not really into selling prints or entering your work into competitions, then by all means, use the crop tool how you want.
Below are five of the most common reasons you should use the crop tool and how it could improve your images.
While negative space is considered practical for some styles of minimalist photography, too much negative space in wildlife, flora, macro, or landscape photography will likely see you lose points in a photo competition; in addition, it can overwhelm and distract the viewer from positive space or even the subject you’re trying to highlight.
This is where cropping becomes a valuable tool, though it’s important not to go overboard because the same thing happens if you use too little negative space. Your focus isn’t clear, your audience is distracted, and your overall design becomes ineffective.
The unedited image below has too much negative space to the right of the image, which could be considered suitable for minimalist negative space photography; however, the subject looks lost and the audience will likely get distracted.
Furthermore, the background is black, which could lead to higher financial expenses for the end product; therefore, it’s considered wise to crop this image.
Cropping has removed the excess negative space to the right of the image, leaving me with a more squared ratio, as seen below.
Furthermore, I’ve adjusted the subject evenly on the grid, thus balancing my main subject with negative space to nail an effective photographic composition that will draw the viewer’s eye.
And while this specific image will lead to higher financial expenses when I come to print it because of the black background, by reducing the negative black space, the costs won’t be as much as they were without the crop applied.
Distractions are unfortunately common in most genres of photography.
Therefore, by applying the cropping tool, we remove these distractions from the viewer’s eyes or remove unnecessary parts of the image that do not form part of the story.
Removing distractions in this way will make your photographs stronger and improve their overall aesthetics.
Photoshop’s new content removal tool can be used in the image below. However, applying “minimal and non-evasive” post-processing techniques is always best before going down that path.
As you can see in the image above, a few distractions in this picture distracts the viewer’s eyes.
The first is the head sticking up from the bottom, which, if removed, would undoubtedly cause more problems, i.e. the bottom of the woman’s arm would be sliced off, leading to a crop that’s too tight. This is where Photoshop’s content removal tool could come in valuable.
The second distraction is that of the woman in the far right of the image, and the third is the yellow balloon. Applying the cropping tool to remove these two distractions is considered best over invasive editing in Photoshop.
With the cropping tool applied and the two distractions removed, the focus is centred more on the female speaker, and the image becomes less busy. In addition, the image aesthetics have been improved too.
Fill the Frame
Filling the frame in photography makes the image/subject more intimate; this is especially useful in portraiture, wildlife and street photography because it captures what’s essential, thus reducing redundancy.
In the case of portraits, it will be a tight portrait without leaving much space on the sides; however, it is essential to note that this type of crop may not work for all kinds of scenes or situations.
Below is an example of applying this type of composition using the crop feature in post process.
The first image below illustrates a bird resting on a bench, and while the composition is okay, it does lack an intimate appeal.
In post process, I’ve adjusted the orientation of the image ever so slightly and cropped in more to fill the frame.
Applying that simple crop in post process makes the subject appear tighter, and the negative space around the bird has gone.
Unfortunately, as you can see, this has decreased image quality, such as background noise being more apparent and the subject appearing slightly out of focus. In addition, this cropping style, whereby I’ve sliced a significant portion of the image off, could also reduce print quality.
However, filling the frame using the crop feature helps capture and show more details of the subject.
When applying this crop style, it’s best to use close-up images of subjects. For example, you may want to fill most of the camera’s frame first, then apply the remainder of the crop in post-process. This would result in fewer image and print quality problems, as seen in the image below.
In photography, orientation refers to how you take and display your photographs with your camera. Orientation in cropping means the same thing, but in this case, we’re now dealing with the image in post process.
There are several reasons we may want to re-orientate an image in post process, for example, to form a different view from the one we shot in camera, i.e. orientate from portrait to landscape, or to create a new composition that could not be achieved in camera.
Most photographers are programmed to use the camera’s vertical default position when shooting, or they often overlook visual aspects in a photo, such as diagonals and leading lines; this is where the cropping feature comes in quite useful.
I love playing with the orientation of a photograph in post process because we tend to see more composition ideas in post process than when looking at a camera’s back screen or through the viewfinder. This is because we’re focusing more on our subject, settings, environmental factors etc.
The image below, shot by photographer Tom Fisk, looks appealing, and the composition is excellent. However, when I viewed Tom’s image for the first time, my eye was immediately taken to the right-hand side of the image where the combine has left tracks. Furthermore, the subject does looks slightly lost, and there’s not much in the way of visual detail.
By rotating the image anti-clockwise by 45 degrees, we form a new visual perspective that highlights the subject, removing distractions and some extra space to the right of the combine.
Furthermore, the crop tool has highlighted those leading lines in the field, adding more attention to the subject, colour, detail, and surrounding scene.
We can now see more of the subject, we’ve lost those distractions to the right of the image, and visual balance and flow appear more pleasing.
The aspect ratio is the proportional relationship between an image’s width and height. There are several reasons why you may want to change the aspect ratio of an image in camera or post-process, for example.
- Influence composure
- Remove clutter and distractions
- Resize your image for printing
- Re-frame for composition
- Resize images for social media banners, posts, website headers, apps, etc.
1:1, 4:3, 3:2 and 16:9 are photography’s most common aspect ratios.
The 1:1 aspect ratio is straightforward, meaning the width and height are equal proportions. This is used for any square format of a photo digitally or in print.
The 4:3 aspect ratio is compatible with most print projects and displays well on social media.
The 3:2 ratio is one of the most popular aspect ratios used in modern photography. This ratio is a bit wider, giving the subject more “breathing room.” In addition, this ratio is excellent for displaying images on Facebook.
16:9 allows for high-resolution images without compromising image quality. 16:9 is popularly used for landscape photography or online photos, of which most PC displays are set at that ratio. This allows you to display your entire photo without cropping the sides to fit in the display, as you would have to do with a 4:3 aspect ratio image.
Changing the aspect ratio of an image by using the crop ratio feature in Adobe Lightroom also comes in handy for re-framing and removing clutter, as seen in the image below.
Photographer Анастасия Триббиани shot this image; however, for print purposes, it’s; probably wise to crop out that distraction to the left.
I’ve applied a 1:1 crop ratio here making both the width and height equal in size, which is perfect for printing, and with that distraction removed, all eyes are on the main subjects.
Photographer Fede Roveda shot the image below in a ratio of 16:9, which looks fantastic for social media banners, website headers, etc.
However, for printing, it’s probably wise to adjust the crop ratio in Lightroom by using the crop overlay to remove the distracting clump of snow to the left of the image.
The focus is now on the skier, the image looks less distracting, and the visual balance and flow have been restored by maintaining the rule of thirds.
Cropping can make an image smaller (in pixels) and change the image’s aspect ratio (length to width). Photographers have historically cropped images to direct the viewer’s eye to a particular subset of a larger image.
Cropping is an essential feature to remove distractions, clutter, and blown highlights, to straighten an image, change the size and shape of an image, and to remove content at the edges of an image, i.e. people, trees, cars, etc.
In addition, you can also use the crop tool to change the orientation of an image, thus highlighting leading lines, symmetry, golden ratio, etc. Cropping also allows you to change the image dimensions without distorting the image.
Legitimate reasons for cropping include centring an area of interest, trimming negative space, and adjusting the aspect ratio of an image for printing and displaying on phones, laptops, large screens, websites, apps etc.
However, while there are many benefits to cropping an image, cropping also has its disadvantages, such as decreasing resolution and print size. Furthermore, chromatic aberration and lens softness will become more apparent. And photos taken with a higher ISO will show up more noise when an image is enlarged by cropping.
As mentioned, cropping is an essential feature but should be used cautiously. Cropping an image too much removes pixels and reduces print quality, whereas enlarging a photo with a small number of pixels can lead to artifacts.
Hence why it’s always important to get as much of the image right in camera before you proceed to evasive post-processing. i.e. composition, rule of thirds, levels, exposure triangle, etc.
Furthermore, cropping should be kept to a bare minimum if you want to print your images commercially or enter them into local and national competitions.
J. J. Williamson | The Norfolk Photographer
My name is Jon Williamson; I’m an ethical photographer and writer with fifteen years of experience in the industry. I shoot landscapes, seascapes, riverscapes, fine art, and portraits. I also run workshops, run tours, and offer one-on-one photography feedback.