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Cropping - Creating the box

When we first came to photography, hoping to take good pictures, we were usually advised to follow certain rules - the Rule of Thirds being an example - but do we ever stop to wonder where those rules came from?

Contrary to what we might like to believe, decisions about our likes and dislikes are already made for us by our DNA and the way we have dealt with life’s experiences. The rules are already in place.

The world’s greatest artists and photographers knew there’s more to pictures than meets the eye, not magic - more a sleight of hand - but that’s a story for next time.

We’re taught that composition is important, that it consists of of a number of elements, and the experts tell us that success happens when all those elements come together in harmony.

In the imaginary Good Old Days almost everything about a picture was determined at the moment of exposure, a time when we were probably being asked how much longer we’re going to take, and other distractions. Of course we might have joined the elite and had our own darkroom, allowing us to manipulate the image a little.

Mercifully, all this is behind us with the arrival of digital photography, and the ability to edit pictures, in some cases compensating for the mistakes made at the time of exposure.

Today, let’s dispense with the non-starter idea that pictures should be perfect at the time of taking, and look at just that major editing feature called Cropping.

Cropping is simply creating the box to contain our picture. We can balance and alter a picture’s composition to make it attractive, starting not with the computer, but in the camera.

Final Cropping at the time of exposure is like throwing away our ace card. A 12-megapixel or more camera with a decent standard lens, and held rock-steady, allows us to produce quality pictures with plenty of space around them. A lens-hood is an essential accessory of course.

When the situation prevents the use of a standard lens, as in candid people-pictures, by all means use a zoom, but without cropping too tightly. The greater the zooming, the worse the quality.

When it comes to editing, there are no rules for cropping, but here are some useful guidelines:

1 Pictures cropped horizontally create an impression of ‘width’ whilst vertical ones say ‘tall’. In competition work the ‘letterbox’ style is gaining popularity, and square crops suggests we’re Instagram fans.

2 Cropping can be used to align a subject to fit the rule of thirds, emphasise an off-centre portrait, or to accentuate a subject different to the one originally intended.

2 Space around the subject. When the subject is so large that it touches the sides it gives the impression of trying to escape. It looks less cluttered and more balanced when surrounded by something called ‘negative space’. Space also creates an impression of simplicity, an important feature in a picture.

3 It’s often possible to create maybe three or more different compositions from the original if there’s plenty of space to work with.

4 Avoid halves. Half a tree, half a person, half a car, or half anything looks awful, spoiling the picture and suggesting that it’s unfinished.

5 People and other moving objects should be moving into a picture, depending on which way they’re facing, with more room in front for them ‘to move into’.

6 Very bright areas at the edge attract the viewer’s eye out of a picture rather than into it. Careful cropping can avoid this. Skies are not essential for landscapes.

7 Relevance. Sometimes an object which is not relevant to a picture can be cropped-out, making the picture more wholesome. On the other hand, something relevant can be included. Cropping-in a farmer and tractor ploughing a field can bring life to a landscape.

8 Sloping horizons and leaning verticals can be corrected by cropping. The job is much easier when there’s plenty of space around the subject to play with. Similarly, diagonals are a powerful element and sometimes a near-diagonal can be converted into an actual diagonal by imaginative cropping.

These notes are not intended as definitive rules for cropping, but more the starting point for further exploration of an apparently simple subject.

Copyright Graham Gawthorpe 2019