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The quickest way to improve your pictures is to cut them up! The humble ‘Crop’ tool has no sexy algorithms or dazzling special effects, but it can instantly transform an average picture into a great one.

The camera always fits your world into a 2:3 rectangle – perfect for the 4″x6″ print-outs from Walgreens. But why let the camera limit what your world looks like? A new world of photography opens up as you start to see beyond what’s in the camera’s LCD or viewfinder. Train yourself to ask “How would this scene look in a panoramic frame? In a square frame? Vertical frame?” etc. Cropping is the key to pursuing these questions.

With the high resolution sensors on today’s cameras, you can get very good images even after significant cropping. So let’s explore a few ways to make the most of the crop tool.

Shoot first, Crop later 
This mindset is especially valuable when there is a lot of action in the scene (kids, animals, sports, live performances etc.).

I came across a butterfly who found an entire field of bluebonnets all to himself (and I was the photographer who had the scene all to myself!). I adopted the “shoot first, crop later” mentality — here’s one of the images that were reasonably usable. What’s good and bad here?

Butterfly image before crop

Butterfly image before crop

Good:

  • The butterfly is in focus and perfectly parallel to the frame
  • Love the pattern of curvy weeds around him
  • The background has a dreamy quality with the white and purple forms
  • The yellow flower near the butterfly is adding another element without overwhelming the picture

Bad:

  • Too many distractions in the foreground
  • Large dark patch on the bottom right
  • The butterfly is smack in the center

Let’s crop the bottom 1/4 to eliminate the distracting highlights and the dark patch. The background on the right side is not nearly as dreamy as on the left side – so let’s trim some of that away. These two crops (bottom and right) bring our butterfly closer, and places him off center which makes for a more dynamic picture.

Butterfly After Crop

Butterfly After Crop

Change the Frame

The crop tool’s message to photographers is that there is a good picture in every situation – all we have to do is re-frame the scene.

It was the day of the 2013 Super moon – I went to Enchanted Rock with the sole intent of capturing the moon rising and setting over the magical landscape. My attempts at moon rising were a failure — my next best hope was to capture the moon as it set in the early morning. Alas, after a long day of hiking, I overslept –  the moon was gone and the sun was too high in the sky by the time I woke up. Time to Change the Frame. Here’s what I was shooting. What’s good and bad here?

Erock sunrise before crop

Erock sunrise before crop

Good:

  • The tonality in the image lends itself well to B&W
  • Love the pattern of the hills repeating themselves
  • The trees in the foreground also have some good structure

Bad:

  • Too many ideas – hills, sunrise, trees
  • Too many directions of flow — the hills are directing the eye to the left. The heaven lights are flowing from top to bottom
  • There’s really nothing on the right side of the image

Let’s  go with a square frame since most of the interest is on the left. Use the rule of 1/3s and place the horizon at the bottom 1/3 line and the sun along the right 1/3 line. Now, the viewer’s eyes are first attracted to the sun, which directs them down the heaven lights to the flow of the hills.

Erock after crop

Erock after crop

Change what the picture is about

Crop can give you new ideas for recasting a weak photograph.

The Bella Donna Belly Dancing group was performing at the Agora cafe. The open floor plan of the 2nd floor makes for some great opportunities to photograph the ambiance of the space during the performance. Unfortunately many of my attempts at this failed due to not having the right lens and not getting to the right vantage point. Here’s the best shot I got. What’s good and bad here?

Agora Cafe - before crop

Agora Cafe – before crop

Good:

  • Nothing, really
  • Maybe, the way in which the dancer’s swirl contrasts with the stillness of the rest of the space?

Bad:

  • Colors are too similar
  • Lens can’t open wide enough to stop the motion (f/4)

Let’s see if we can do something with that swirl of the dancer’s skirt. We crop in and notice how well it contrasts against the sharp forms of the Agora emblem. But the colors are too similar. We use the selection tool in Lightroom and select the entire floor and convert it to black and white while leaving the skirt alone. The resulting picture has nothing to do with the ambiance I was trying to capture, but it makes a strong statement. This is also a testament to how far we can crop and still retain a decent image.

Agora after crop

Agora after crop

I hope I’ve convinced you of the power of the simple crop tool.

For a more technical treatise on the topic of cropping, check out:

http://photography.tutsplus.com/articles/the-art-of-using-aspect-ratios-in-digital-photography–photo-7947

 

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