This may seem like nitpicking, but I assure it isn’t. There is a fundamental difference between trimming and cropping; I had a lengthy email discussion with a reader recently on exactly why it makes a difference – both compositionally and conceptually. There’s a third ground too, which is very much intention-driven – and unlike situations that require attorneys, photographic/creative intention is much easier to prove.
The three images here are original (full capture), trim and crop respectively. I think it’s clear to see that the third situation completely changes the composition, look and feel of the image. A trim is simple: it does not fundamentally change the perspective or impression created by the original composition, and there is no fundamental difference in composition or message compared to the whole capture. There are often many good reasons a trim may be required: most usually due to inattention of the photographer and having some unintended elements intruding into the edges of a composition, but also possibly due to technical reasons: not every camera has precise frame lines or 100% coverage finders. Even cameras which supposedly have 100% coverage are never perfect to the nearest pixel, and may well have offset or skewed masks (sadly seen too often, even in supposedly ‘pro grade’ models). That said, even large format is quite imprecise: the groundless doesn’t show exact edges; medium format is no better, and Leicas can be as bad as 80% coverage only – I used to use the outside of the frame lines as I found that to be a better guide.
Bottom line: losing a few pixels here and there is somewhat inevitable.
I’ve explained why cropping is bad in the past: fundamentally, it’s to do with compositional intent. By cropping I mean experimenting with cutting out parts of the frame after capture; in effect you are looking for a workable composition after you should have already composed. This inevitably results in a weak image because you would not have considered other outside elements of the frame that might have helped add context or strengthen the idea. Additionally, even if you find something of interest in the frame after the fact, you might not have been fully aware of it at the time of capture – meaning that spatial arrangement and composition for that small portion of the frame will not be optimal anyway.
I think there’s a further element of composition here: constantly cropping means being unable to previsualize and be familiar with the angle of view and foreground-background relationship rendering of a particular focal length, and this may result in fumbling and missed opportunities at the time of capture. Clearly, these are not the makings of a strong image.
There are reasons to consider cropping, however: this boils down fundamentally to pre-capture intent. If you visualise a composition in an aspect ratio not native to your camera – square, 16:9 etc – then you have no choice but to crop in post, though maintaining one of the original dimensions of the file. However, the big difference is that you are composing with the intention of doing so beforehand: you are not looking for the composition afterwards. The second reason is more prosaic: you may visualise a composition that simply requires a much more compressed perspective or a longer focal length than you have available. Once again, the intent is there before capture, and so the composition is balanced accordingly. The final reason to crop is more of a virtual exercise: a good frame should really be recursive in that each portion of the image holds some areas of interest. This way, more considered contemplation of an image yields further rewards for the audience in the form of additional layers of context or meaning. The ‘crop’ in this case i a compositional tool: dividing up the image into different sections as you’re composing helps to ensure there are no empty or dead spaces.
The last pair of images is a far more dramatic example of why you shouldn’t crop, and the beginnings of a greater philosophical discussion around the verisimilitude and ‘accuracy’ of photography: losing something may change the implied message substantially. The initial three images did not really change in meaning with the crop, but certainly you no longer got the impression of quite so much nature surrounding the building. This image is completely different: it moves from I think quite sinister to something a bit more ambiguous; a solo protagonist to some perhaps implied danger or predatory relationship. Clearly, these are not the same image at all – even though I simply went up a focal length step between the two.
I think this is where things become grey. We except a photograph to be a true and mostly indisputable representation of events especially when presented from a photojournalistic standpoint; elements/ subjects/ individuals can be clearly identified. What is ambiguous is the relationship between them – implied or actual. We, as the audience, cannot see what we are not shown. The photographer has already invoked their bias in the very act of composition, which is in itself cropping; a photograph cannot include everything remotely relevant by proximity. Even if it did, then it would be impossible for us to disentangle any meaning from it because there would be simply too much information.
Naturally, this raises the question of ‘what is the difference between cropping before and after the fact?’ I am not sure I have a good answer to this. I can only suggest that the intended message of the photographer can and would change substantially, and this might land up having potentially serious consequences. Think carefully before you crop…MT
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