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

Perspectives, revisited

The two images below demonstrate the difference between choosing your perspective before you shoot and then composing around it, against choosing your angle of view then just picking whichever focal length happens to match where you are standing:

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2008. (Yurakucho, Tokyo; Nikon D3, 24-70)

Being self-critical, I was trying to ensure that all parts of the frame were filled; shooting with 24mm on full frame was a new experience for me, and the one mistake I continually made was not putting the subjects close enough to the foreground to be identifiable. Whilst a visually appealing image with nice lighting and geometry, there’s no real focus; the man should be in the gap closer to the traffic light to balance out that space. The most important thing to note here is that I wanted to get the whole scene in the frame to give it context – but failed to put a subject in.

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Late 2011. (Vienna U-Bahn, Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH)

Note how the diagonals converge onto the center of the image, precisely where it’s focused; there’s symmetry in the arrangement of the people to the left and right of the pillar, which balances the composition. I was shooting with a normal lens this time, and still managed to get some perspective in the frame. The red frame further focuses your eye onto the subject, which (in a large print) would be clear – the sign. The image is a metaphor for choices – left, right, back, forward – everybody is different, so everybody makes the choice that suits them best, which is why there are people on both sides of the platform. I’m pleased with this image now, but I have no doubt that I’ll find something to improve on if I look at it another five years down the road.

Metaphors and stories in an image aren’t so easy to capture, especially when you only have a very short amount of time to get the shot – most of the time it’s instinctive, if you happen to capture anything of deeper meaning at all. If you don’t, try again and practice until it does actually become intuitive. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t manage this consistently, and it’s something I need to work on. MT

Pet peeve: Proper perspective practice

Enough Ps for now.

One common mistake I used to make a long time ago, and continually rears its head is the proper use of wide-angle and telephoto lenses. A common conversation goes like this:

Friend: Can you recommend a good wide-angle lens?
Me: Why, what do you want to use it for?
Friend: Sometimes I can’t fit everything in the frame, so I thought something wider might help.
Me: [wrings hands in the air, launches into a tirade]

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Dinner. Any closer and my lens would have been in the bowl of soup. Nikon D3, 14-24/2.8

Rule One: They are NOT to ‘get more into the picture’ or ‘get closer’. That’s absolutely the wrong way to shoot, and will result in far-away looking and very, very boring images.

Why?

It’s all about perspectives. A wide angle lens has a wide angle of view, as the name suggests. This means, that things closer to the lens will be exaggerated in perspective compared to things further away; simply because the foreground subjects of a given size occupy a larger percentage of the field of view. A telephoto lens compresses perspectives; which is to say, a mountain 5km away will appear to be about the same size as one 10km away, because the angle of view of the lens is narrow, and both mountains occupy similar proportions of it – despite the difference in subject distance. It also helps that because of the higher magnification of a long focal length, your subjects are naturally going to have to be much further away.

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Ipoh hills at sunset. Nikon D700, 28-300VR.

Rule Two: Choose your perspective before you choose your lens.

If you know how you want the composition of your frame to appear – specifically, the relative prominence of subjects and other supporting elements – then you’ll know whether you need to use a wide-angle (all about the main subject, the rest is required to give context), a telephoto (isolating the main subject, or the main subject is compressed against the background) or something between.

This is one of the great secrets of professional photographers. Look carefully at news or photojournalism images: they’re shot with wide lenses, with main subjects front and center – that’s because the lines of perspective converge on the main subject, and the background is diminished. Give it a try, and you’ll find your images a lot more powerful. MT

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