Every Picture Tells A Story

Cropping Defined

Cropping doesn't mean 'chopping' out important bits of context or history of an image. Rather, think of cropping as the act of cutting away unnecessary or unwanted portions of an image to help focus the viewers attention and help tell a story.

Cropping in Camera or In Post Production

Generally, it's preferred to crop inside the camera first. This is true whether shooting with traditional still, moving, print or digital medias. The classic example we've all seen is the 'picture of the animal' where the subject (the deer ,moose, whatever) is so small it's impossible to distinguish in the picture. Garbage in, garbage out, is the golden rule. Here are a few do's and don'ts to help with in camera cropping decisions which have a significant impact on the quality of an images composition, visual impact and ability to tell a story:

  • Do: take your time
  • Do: zoom in/out to help frame the picture
  • Do: look for distractions and remove them (either physically or through camera position, orientation and zoom)
  • Don't: put the subject dead center in every photo (see rule of thirds discussed later)
  • Don't: get stuck in horizontal hold, rotate the camera vertically to see how things look
  • Don't: get stuck shooting at eye level, change height to help crop out distractions or improve composition

Digital photography has some unique considerations and features when it comes to cropping in the camera which include:

Instant Preview:

Take advantage of the on the spot preview features using the LCD panels and don't be afraid to delete and re-shoot when possible.

Aspect Ratio:

The aspect ratio of a typical digital camera is not the same as the printed images. Be careful not to crop the original 'too tight' as you may not have enough image context to perform final cropping for different printed sizes.
Example: A typical digital camera might capture a picture which is 2048 x 1536 pixels. 2048/1536=1.333 for a ratio of 1:1.333. Cropping the shot accordingly in camera will provide the greatest flexibility for post production cropping for different print sizes.

View Finder Cropping:

Unless the camera uses a TTL (Through The Lens) view finder, the view finder is off set from the lense. As a result of the physical offset the captured image is not exactly what is seen through the view finder. To compensate, on important photos, use the camera's LCD panel which displays exactly what is captured.

Mega Pixels and Resolution:

In simple terms, when an image is cropped pixels are physically removed so the more pixels you capture, the more flexibility you have in cropping later. Capturing lots of pixels (e.g. maximum resolution) provides the greatest amount of flexibility later for cropping as large portions of an image can be removed yet still provide sufficient resolution for printing. Cropping after shooting, in post production, is best used to fine tune a well cropped in camera image. Rarely will post production cropping save poor in camera cropping and composition. Given the different aspect ratios of digital photos verses printed photos as discussed earlier, post production cropping is obviously the logical choice when cropping for print size (discussed later). The bottom line is to take the time to compose the image and tell the story.

The Physical Process

With digital tools, the physical process of cropping is fairly straight forward and be achieved using a few simple methods. Caution, always work on a copy of your digital files when cropping. The act of cropping an image is destructive in that data is physically removed from the file!

Dedicated Cropping Tool

Selection Tools and Menu Items

Some applications (PhotoShop, PhotoShop Elements, iPhoto, etc) provide a dedicated tool for cropping images. The advantage of a dedicated cropping tool is they often permit rotating an image while cropping, constraining the crop operation to a preset aspect ratio or size (or unconstrained cropping to any aspect ratio) and they provide positive visual feedback usually in the form of screening out the data which will be removed when cropped. The down side to dedicated cropping tools are they provide only rectilinear shapes (i.e. you can't use the tool to crop an oval shape).
Most image editing applications provide an array of selection tools for rectangular, circular and free form (lasso) selections. After the area to be cropped is selected, some applications have a menu item specifically for cropping. Other applications require using the Copy or Cut and Paste commands to insert the cropped information into a new file. The advantage of using a Selection Tool is they often permit specifying the aspect ratio and you can perform square, rectangular or oval and circular selections for cropping. The down side is the visual feedback can often be poor in that only the 'marching ants' describing the selected area are visible and the image cannot be rotated while cropping.

In all cases, the physical act of cropping the image is fundamentally the same whether using a dedicated Cropping Tool or a combination of a Selection Tool and a menu item. Select the area you want to keep, and get rid of the rest.

Reasons for Cropping

There are several reasons why an image might be cropped including any one or combination of the following reasons:

  • for sheet size (aspect ratio) or layout
  • for general composition
  • to remove distractions
  • for context and history
  • for dynamic visual effect

Let's examine some of the nuances associated each of these reasons for cropping.

Cropping for Sheet Size (aspect ratio) or Layout

This is the most common reason to crop an image, particularly when dealing with digital cameras. The aspect ratio of images taken with a digital camera (4x3 or 1:1.33) do not match standard printed sizes (e.g. 4x6 or 1:1.5). Further, some sheets have different aspect ratios requiring an image be cropped differently for a particular printed size. This is a prime example of why it's critical to always make a master, and work on copies of files when cropping. It can be helpful to think of printed size as an aspect ratio verses inches of printed paper when cropping. If you crop to the correct aspect ratio (e.g. 1:1.5) then the image will fit correctly, full bleed, to a 4x6 printed page.

Example: Comparison of different aspect ratio's as compared to what the a typical digital camera captures. Notice both 4x6(1:1.5) and 3x2 (1:1.5) have the same ratio. As such, an image cropped to 1:1.5 could be printed full bleed on a 4x6 inch sheet of paper or a 3x2 inch sheet of paper (wallet size). For comparison, all sizes are shown from a common lower left hand corner. However, don't forget the 'crop box' can be moved anywhere in the image area to achieve the best 'picture inside the picture'.

Some images will lend themselves better to certain aspect ratios and sheet sizes than others. Don't be afraid to experiment with unique aspect ratios which might create dynamic looking images If you're combining multiple images on a single page or perhaps integrating an image into a written document, the particular page layout can have a dramatic effect on how an image needs to be cropped. You may need to crop an image to a non standard size to fit the physical space requirements or to enhance the composition of an image so it supports the written text.

Cropping for General Composition

Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly. (Dali Lama)

As noted earlier, image composition is in many respects an art form. Rules are meant to be broken but a few rules which should be considered when cropping for composition include:

Rule of Thirds:

Divide the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically. The points where those lines intersect are good starting points to place the main subject. Essentially the primary subject is slightly off center.
Example: Notice the subject, while not precisely on the third, is in the upper third region with respect to their faces. Overall the subjects faces and torso's are in the right hand third of the image. The overall composition feels balanced both in the position of heads and torso and the vertical orientation compliments the shape and balance of the image.

Here's another recent example to compare the rule of thirds and cropping for dynamic effect (image copyright 2009 Brian Huculak)

In this second example we're looking at the same scene only we're cropping for dynamic effect. This cropping could be done in camera or post production - in this case it was a combination of the two. The original photo was cropped tighter to just include the whole face then the final cropping was done in post production. This let's us ensure we have sufficient pixels to created the desired print size and resolution and we could be very precise in how we cropped the exact center line of the face. Note we've changed the proportions of the image slightly: it's now narrower and taller. The yellow lines show the image broken down using the typical rule of thirds. Also notice where the '09 graduation tassel falls: on the right most third. This strong vertical line gives us an anchor for the right most edge of the image and tells a story about when this image was taken (the class of 2009). We've also cropped the face in half to further frame that message.

Even more fun can be had when we start to enhance the image to add some interesting edge effects that build on the cropping. In this case the graduates favorite color was orange so we started to play on that theme. Note in this example the image isn't cropped quite so tight left to right - it maintains more of the original shots aspect ratio. While slightly off the classic rule of thirds with respect to cropping, the image is still balanced and gives us a bit more space to the right to add some color that doesn't adversely affect the balance or composition.

Focus Attention:

Crop to make the primary focus or center of attention clear. For example, the eyes of a person might be the focal point of a portrait Example: Typical snap shot (left) lacks a focal point. What's important here? Their faces are, so crop to tell that story. (right) The curtains, furniture, etc., aren't important context for this picture's story.

Allow for Movement:

Consider how the viewer's eye moves across an image and allow for that movement. For example, in a portrait of someone looking left to right, make sure to allow 'space' for them to look into or include enough of the subject so the viewer knows what they're looking at. Cropping too tightly will make the view wonder what's going on.


Generally, cropping off people's limbs at joints makes them look like amputees. It's okay to crop off a hand, leg or even portions of a person's head or face, but consider the other cropping and composition factors when doing so. The minds eye can fill in many blanks to complete a person's torso, limb or part of their face or it can stop and wonder what happened to those parts.


Cropping can be used to bring out natural frames within an image to further enhance the focal point. For example, looking through a cluster of trees towards the mountains can help create a frame to focus the viewers attention and provide depth to an image.

Example: There are numerous examples of how a photo can be framed using existing elements in our surroundings. Here's a commonly seen example where the opening of a tent is used to frame a very dynamic view (Mt Everest (29035' / 8850m) as seen from Tengouche Monestry (12,700' / 3870m)). Experiment - look around for elements that can help you frame your composition - once you start to look for those types of elements you'll be surprised at just how obvious they become.

Cropping to Remove Distractions

Removing distractions is part of general composition and an integral part of in camera cropping. Take the time to scan the entire frame and remove anything that distracts from the story the image wants to tell. Distractions might range from removing that ex-spouse or not so loved one, to making sure there isn't a branch or light pole growing out of someone's head.

Example: Cropping can be used to achieve a few goals. First, the guard rail is distracting and is a negative element in the landscape. Cropping also establishes the faces as a focal point (left third) and provides context by including a unique landscape element (cliff dwelling in right third). Lastly, an aspect ratio which is wider than tall accentuates the linear nature of the rock formations and long horizon line.

Visual distractions can also include an image with poor vertical or horizontal alignment. Rotating and cropping the image (at the same time when possible or in separate operations if required) can help remove significant visual distractions. Imagine a sunset on the lake where the horizon isn't flat and the water runs off one edge of the frame. Equally distracting can be vertical elements such as columns or trees which appear to lean in one direction.

Cropping for Context and History

Context and history often go hand in hand when telling a pictures story. Context is fairly obvious in that the image may need to contain important visual clues to help establish it's mood. The context may also provide us not only with where an image was taken, but when, which can become a critical compositional component. Examine the picture of a man and his daughter sitting on the hood of a car shown below. If the photo is cropped to show only their faces and torso, we lack any sort of context as to when the picture was taken. If the photo is cropped to show the subjects and perhaps part of the car's grill, visual clues exist which express the when and where of the image which tells a more compelling story. In contrast, tightly cropped head and torso portrait can tell us both who and when if the subject is wearing a uniform or distinctive clothing as shown below with the example of the WWII air force pilot.

Example: note the tight cropping (left) shows us who but lacks any context. The lack of context makes for a fairly dull image when compared to the cropping on shown on the right. Now we see the automobile telling us when in time the photo was taken. The overall composition is also better in how it positions the subjects in the frame (rule of thirds) and the orientation fits the length of their torso's nicely. (both images are cropped to 4x6 aspect ratio)

Example: Note the extent of cropping here to show the soldiers upper torso. The extent of cropping doesn't look unnatural and the amount of uniform provides historical context as to the genre of the image. In this case a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot from World War II.

Cropping for Dynamic Effect

This is perhaps where cropping can be the most fun since we get to bend the rules. Experiment with different aspect ratio's, shapes and sizes. A circular or oval cameo can be a delightful way to crop out unwanted faces from a crowded picture while adding some aesthetic appeal. Choosing cropping aspect ratio's which compliment the subject can help reinforce the composition and create a very dynamic image. Being brutal to focus the viewers attention and capture the essence of an image can create images which are truly dynamic.
Example: An example of the subject (mountain ridge) being dead center verses the rule of thirds. In this example, placing the subject dead center helps create a more dynamic sense of scale. The sky and ground planes create a strong sense of perspective and help establish distance/scale. The long, horizontal, cropping helps accentuate the length of the mountain chain.

Example: Here's a portion of the same image from the panorama shown above. Notice the ground and sky planes have a stronger visual impact than in the more stretched out / horizontal example above. The foreground contains more detail texture in the frosty, frozen, waves of mud. Which one is better? You be the judge.


Cropping is a fundamental tool in composing interesting and compelling images and today's digital tool box makes experimentation safer, easier and more fun than ever. There are a variety of reasons why an image might be cropped and we've only touched up a few of the more common one's here. Hope that was informative and helpful. (huc) Brian Huculak


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