Why cropping is bad

For the longest time, I’ve been saying (perpetuating the popular adage?) that cropping is bad. I’ve touched on the reason in previous articles – notably these two on compositional building blocks, and proper perspective practice – But I don’t think I’ve really explained why. There are several reasons; I’ll go through these in some detail over the course of this article, and finish with a commentary on what really happens in the commercial industry – and why we photographers frequently want to strangle the creative directors, agency people or layout artists on the other end of the shoot.

But firstly, an example. Look at the image below: compositionally, it works, yes? What focal length was it shot with? The EXIF data says 16.8mm – oops, that’s a small sensor, so it’s probably about 100 or 150mm or something right? After all, the perspective fits.

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Fear and exhilaration. RX100

Think again.

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And again.

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And yet again.

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Oh, whoops. It seems that perhaps 16.8mm is actually somewhere closer to 40mm or thereabouts. At this size, with no other visual cues like depth of field to give away the technical properties of the image, there’s really no way to tell from the crop. This matters nothing to the viewer: each of these crops works compositionally, and doesn’t feel as though it was a compromise or chopped down from something larger. (Perhaps this is one of the hallmarks of a strong image period, I haven’t given it that much thought.) So long as them reproduction size doesn’t exceed the amount of resolution you’ve got to work with, there really is no way for the viewer of the image to know that what he or she is seeing wasn’t the original intention of the photographer.

Frequently, in the world of commercial photography, this is precisely what happens. In my earlier days, I spent a lot of time getting my compositions perfect with the intention that the images be used as-is, without cropping; of course I would leave space for copy etc. depending on the requirements of the client or the final aspect ratio. The intention was to preserve as much image quality as possible for whatever enlargements – sometimes billboard size, certainly poster size – would be required. When working with experienced clients and creative teams, this was certainly a viable approach.

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Another example. Senso-ji, Tokyo.

The trouble started when working with less experienced clients who either didn’t have a creative/ PR/ advertising team, or whose team was equally inexperienced: I started getting requests to leave a lot more space around my images ‘for cropping’. I was perplexed by this: on one hand, they wanted the same style and quality of images that were in my portfolio – all of which were perfectly framed and had zero loose space whatsoever – yet they still wanted the extra room to crop. Did they not realize that these two things were at diametric odds with each other? It wasn’t the file sizes that were the issue – good-quality D800E files are usually more than enough for almost any use – it was the space around the outside. I tried to argue the point to no avail, and in the end, the client wins – I leave extra space around the border. This has the upshot of making my compositions look a bit ‘small’. But the client is happy, so I suppose that’s one good bright spot.

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Senso-ji, original. Even between the crop – probably about 350mm equivalent – and the origina 90mm equivalent, there’s a lot of difference even though both are ostensibly of a telephoto perspective.

Personally, as an artist, this bothers me. It feels as though I’m ceding control of my composition to somebody else who may not have the same eye for it; almost certainly not a photographer. In fact, it’s exactly what is happening. You have no idea how the final image will be used or cropped; you can only hope it’s in a way that maintains the balance of the composition. It’s like a chef cooking the main portion of the dish, but having the waiter plate it and then running the risk of the diner complaining that the proportions of component sub-dishes are wrong, or the food is ugly. It’s now become such an ingrained habit that I’ve got to be careful with my personal work – not to be sloppy with the edges and empty space in a composition.

I realize I still haven’t explained why dead space and cropping are bad. The former is to do with compositional balance. Empty space can be used as a natural frame to isolate your subject; as a sort of visual cue to signal something anticipatory (if placed in front of your subject), or something historical (if placed behind). Or it can simply be used to show remoteness and emptiness in and of itself. The problem comes when the emptiness is not in harmony with the rest of the elements in the frame: this is what is meant by ‘balance’. A very busy center area and empty borders doesn’t work, because it feels as though the subject in the center has been artificially constrained and not allowed to use all of the space in the frame. Same case if all the action happens heavily to one side of the frame or the other. Clearly, this is not conducive to a strong composition – you’re neither using all of the available space in your frame, nor are perspectives properly employed.

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A more extreme example, from my experiments with motion. Definitely a telephoto perspective, right?

It’s the latter which is the cause of the biggest problems in cropping. If you leave say a quarter of the frame width empty on all sides around a center subject, then you’re in fact cropping the frame down to a quarter of the original area, which is doubling the focal length. A 24mm becomes nearly 50mm. 35mm becomes 70mm. Wide becomes telephoto. Take a 35mm shot: the real questions is, at the time of shooting, is the shot composed as a wide, or a tele? Both call for very different arrangements of foreground, midground and background objects to create an effective composition.

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And the original frame – a wide 24mm equivalent.

And here we come to the crux of the problem with cropping: it confuses perspectives. Poor use of perspective in composition is one of the major progenitors of weak images. This is generally more of a problem with wide angle than telephoto perspectives, simply because cropping a wide image can completely alter the angle of view of the shot to become a telephoto image, whereas this does not happen on cropping an image that’s already of a telephoto perspective to begin with (there is little difference in perspective between 300mm and 600mm, for instance). Wide-angle images with no clear foreground subjects result in the action being flattened into the background of the image and seeming very far away; there’s no obvious subject to come forward and attract the attention of the viewer.

At this point, if you haven’t read the earlier linked article on proper perspective practice, I highly recommend you do so now.

In order to make a strong image, you have to use both all of the available space in the frame, as well as the perspective of the lens effectively. And to do that, there has to be a degree of previsualization on the part of the photographer before taking the shot; it might be as simple as consciously putting your subject into the foreground with a wide, and looking for layers with a tele, or as precise as knowing exactly what focal length corresponds to what field of view. With practice and a degree of conscious observation, the former turns into the latter. This results in the photographer having the ability assess a scene and compose images in his or her mind’s eye before even looking through the viewfinder; combine that with a degree of anticipation, and you’ve got the skills to see strong images.

However, if your 28mm lens sometimes yields a 75 degree field of view (which is what 28mm should yield in on 35mm full frame format), sometimes it yields 50 degrees, or 42 degrees at others – how are you going to know where to position your subjects in the field of view arc to use up the full 75 degrees? The answer is, you won’t. And this results in dead or empty space in the frame, which in turn leads to compositional imbalance, which then results in a weak image. Familiarity with how to compose for a given field of view (and focal length) is therefore the key to strong images: frequent cropping makes this completely impossible.

In some ways, this is like an amateur who doesn’t understand perspectives shooting with a zoom: the lens does the framing, rather than the photographer. Sometimes you want to your subject to occupy a large proportion of the frame, but still retain context; the answer is to shoot wide and go closer, of course. Zooming in completely destroys context; cropping after the fact is the same. A competent photographer shooting with a zoom will pick their perspective first, then use their feet to frame – perhaps tweaking very slightly with the zoom to finesse things, but not by more than a few millimetres – any more, and the perspective deviates noticeably from what was intended.

The final reason not to crop has to do with reasons of image quality: why pay for 36 million (or however many) pixels, and throw away half of them? You might as well save yourself some money, processing time and storage overhead and just buy a 18 megapixel camera instead (assuming of course shot discipline is identical in both situations). Basically, you’re shortchanging yourself.

At this point, you are probably wondering if there are any situations in which cropping for composition is acceptable – other than the hack-fisted art director. This might surprise you, but I think the answer is a definite yes. Firstly: if you have an imprecise viewfinder, you might make proper use of the intended perspective, but still be left with a bit extra which you couldn’t see; trimming the edges to what you did see is fine. (Though with experience, you’ll soon learn to compensate for this.) Secondly, if you really, really, really have no choice: the rest of the frame is may be unimportant, and you have no way of getting closer, but this once-in-a-lifetime historical event is happening now in front of you. Then maybe. (But even so, I’d probably find a way of composing to use the rest of the frame as context to the main event.)

I think the only major reason for cropping is to achieve aspect ratios that are non-native to the sensor/ camera combination you’re using; but this of course goes with the intention that you will compose for these aspect ratios at the time of shooting, with the perspective considerations that are implied. Explicitly, this means that the final cropped image must always retain one original dimension from the original source file – height if cropped to a more square aspect ratio, or length if cropped to a more panoramic one. Otherwise, we’re back to throwing away perfectly good pixels again :)

My personal shoot philosophy is not to crop with the exception of different aspect ratios. I don’t trim for viewfinder inaccuracy, even when I shoot with rangefinders; I guess I’m trained to ensure that my subject occupies a reasonably central portion of the frame, and stands out strongly enough that the viewer isn’t distracted by any bits that might creep in around the edges. Do commercial requirements bother me? Without a doubt yes, but I do my best to manage the client so they understand why framing and shooting with the final use in mind always delivers the best results. MT

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Infinite frames in a crop: compositional building blocks (or, the future of photography?)

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Ion Orchard sunset. Leica S2, 70/2.5 Summarit-S

Here’s an interesting thought: sensor resolution is way past the point of far more than most people need – look at that recent Nokia 808 PureView and it’s 41MP sensor as an example. For most compact camera users, that’s just asking for trouble – file sizes, viewing, shooting technique…the list goes on.

What if we took a say 50MP compact 2/3″ sensor (not unfeasible) and just output no more than 5 MP from the sensor? You can zoom to your heart’s content before capture – either by taking a 1:1 crop or downsizing various portions of the frame; have a low light mode which uses pixel binning to reduce noise and/or improve dynamic range; and finally, make the whole thing speedy and lag-free by using a bright, fixed-focus wide angle lens. Or I suppose if you must have macro modes, make it AF. Finally, add some form of image stabilization to the mix, because that kind of pixel density is going to make most tripods look as though they have palsy. We’ve dropped the size, weight and cost of the zoom assembly; this makes for more compact, robust cameras. It also means that more engineering effort and perhaps even more money (though I wouldn’t put it past consumer electronics companies to want to hang on to every single extra penny and avoid R&D spending where possible) can be put into the lens, which should in theory improve optics.

The results probably wouldn’t be pretty at the pixel level, but the target audience is unlikely to care. And 5 good MP is more than enough for a clean 6×4″, or social media post, or email. Hell, it’d probably be enough for a decent A3 print if you use one of the pixel binning modes in good light. Think of it as digital zoom, but instead of getting degradation off the base pixel-level image quality, you get an improvement as you use more and more pixels.

However, I digress. As interesting as that idea is for the future of compacts – I wasn’t initially intending to suggest a new type of camera. What I wanted to explore are the building blocks of composition. Assuming everything is in focus, a scene – especially one shot from a wide angle perspective – can easily be decomposed into multiple elements, some of which contain the subject, some of which contain context, and some of which may turn context into a subject in its own right. All images are made up of these building blocks, and each can be treated as an image in itself. (Don’t try to compose this way in the real world, or you’re either going to go crazy or turn into a product photographer.) Examples may be – a face, a texture, a landmark.

Sometimes you don’t need more than a couple to create an arresting image – a portrait, for instance – sometimes you need as many as you can get to convey the chaos of the scene (crisis photojournalism comes to mind). What I notice in good photographers’ images is that all critical frames contain the elements required to tell the story, and usually in aesthetically pleasing relative placement, too. This is a learned skill; one can identify the critical elements required to tell a story, and then go out and look for a frame that contains them. I suppose the more control you have over the placement of the individual elements, and the more individual elements you can even identify in the first place, the stronger your image will be. Elements may break down into sub-elements – a wide shot may contain a portrait which can contain a face closeup; all of these things are building blocks.

This brings us full circle to the original starting point – how many images are there in an image? Let’s take the first image as an example:

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This decomposes into what I think are five clear elements; the building and its relationship with the organic are the subjects.

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What I find interesting is that each of these elements – or crops – could be an image on its own. And you can of course further subdivide these images down into their own building blocks. How many does one need to make up a strong overall image? One? Two? More? It’s hard to say; I think the answer is actually infinite. If you had infinite resolution, you could keep subdividing and cropping infinitely.

I know this is a fairly nebulous post, but stay with me here and you’ll start to see the genesis of an idea.

Let’s do the same, but in reverse. The frame below arguably works on its own as an image:

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But then, if we include more context, so does this:

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Or this:

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And this.

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We can keep pulling out…

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…until we reach the initial (final?) frame.

_8001447 copy Welding. Nikon D800, AFS 28-300 VR

Each of these compositions on its own would have worked as a frame. Similarly, continuously pulling out adds more and more context, until you pass a threshold beyond which the context dominates the subject. I framed the final shot that way because that was the farthest I thought I could pull out to maximize context, but at the same time isolate the subjects in the frame. Anything more and the subjects would have been too small to identify cleanly. You’ve also got to consider the final viewing size: smaller would mean physically smaller subjects, which would encourage tighter framing. Similarly, images that appear flat and cluttered at smaller sizes frequently work well when enlarged due to the greater amount of detail we can physically appreciate.

I started this article postulating on whether increases in resolution would lead to a new generation of pixel-binning super-sensored compacts; the more I think about it, the more I think it might even apply to photography as a whole. We have long past the point of resolution sufficiency for most purposes; shrinking pixel pitches mean that lens maximum apertures and diffraction-impacted apertures are converging. Eventually you’re going to have to buy excellently designed and well-corrected fast lenses and shoot them wide open to absolutely maximize resolution from the sensor.

Perhaps this will give birth to a new style or form of photography – we capture everything first, and then decide what’s important to the frame afterwards. A little bit like Lytro, but for composition rather than focus. Of course, we can do the same today with the super high resolution DSLRs, but there are limits to how much we can crop, and the lack of suitable lenses to serve as a reproduction optic. Such a camera – let’s call it post-capture framing – would be responsive due to lack of focusing needs; hyper focal would probably suffice; offer decent low light performance due to the large maximum apertures required; and be reasonably compact – rangefinder sized, perhaps – due to an optical system designed and matched to the sensor. It’d probably be closer in proportions to a cube, actually – once the lens is taken into account.

The skill of the photographer at the moment of capture would then be reduced to timing and exposure; the latter would probably be mostly automated, leaving only timing; however, this doesn’t make things any easier. The bulk of the work would now be done in post-processing – not just the digital ‘development’ portion, but also the editing, framing and cropping. I’ve always thought of editing as one of the critical skills for a pro – one’s reputation is based as much on the photos you show against the ones you don’t; being able to see the frame ‘in the wild’ and capture the moment in time is not an easy thing to do. Post-capture framing would give you all the time in the world to do that, which would make things easier somewhat – but also offer more opportunities and flexibility for other compositions.

This would of course raise some interesting IP issues: if another ‘editor’ cropped the original photo to a much smaller, unrecognizable frame, whose photo is it? The person who pressed the button, and just aimed the camera in the right general direction, or the one who actually saw the composition in the master frame?

It’s a brave new world, and an exciting time to be a photographer. Personally, though, I’m one of those very anal people who seeks to maximize all of the image quality they can get out of the camera; which means I don’t crop unless it’s to a non-native aspect ratio. Understanding the use of ‘building blocks’ to create a final composition, plus knowing when you’ve got enough context (or too much context, overpowering the subject) is a very important skill to refine, regardless of the technology involved. MT

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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