Techniques

Compose or Crop?

by Nikhil Bahl | January 29, 2014

© Nikhil BahlComposition is an essential aspect of a good photograph. It’s our choice as photographers as to how the elements will be arranged in a photograph. It’s no wonder we take time to setup a photograph, making several technical and creative decisions along the way. However, there is always the option to crop later. With a digital photograph, cropping is just so easy it can be hard to resist. I don’t think I have ever come across a photographer who hasn’t cropped a photograph—I know, I do. The question is: how much, how often and why?

Flower composition © Nikhil Bahl

Since the subject was static, there was enough time to setup the composition as envisioned.

I am sure everyone’s answer would be different. Some of us shoot with cameras that don’t have 100% viewfinders and often we hurry as the light changes, trying to capture fleeting moments. Whether it is to fix a crooked horizon or to eliminate that branch that crept into the corner of the frame, fine tuning a composition by cropping is something that all photographers do. It’s not easy to police those edges in the viewfinder. But is it ok to crop an image severely to get to a good composition? Hmmm! Some might say “I couldn’t move to the right spot because it was dangerous” or “I didn’t have enough focal length” or “I didn’t see that composition earlier” and that is why the image was cropped 50%. I am sure all will agree that 50% is a severe crop. But is it ok to do that? It all depends on what you are going to do with the photo. If photography is just a hobby, and it more about enjoying yourself and sharing your images with family and friends, then maybe cropping isn’t a big deal. If you are someone who is looking to improve your skills as a photographer and possibly sell your work, then you might want to think again. Shooting with high resolution cameras has its advantages but a severe crop can cause you to loose too much resolution. So much, that you might not be able to make a large print, sell your image to a stock agency, etc.

Ground fog © Nikhil Bahl

The slow moving ground fog allowed for enough time to compose the image in camera. Only a slight crop was required to correct for a sloping horizon.

Then there is the often talked about “art of seeing”. We see through the viewfinder and make a photograph that captures our vision. So would you consider a severely cropped image as good as one that was composed in the camera? A common criteria of some high profile photo contests is “minimal cropping”. In essence, they do not consider a severely cropped image to be in the same category as one composed in camera.

Compared to landscapes, action photography poses a different challenge. With a moving subject, composing becomes much harder. It is not a bad idea to give yourself some room around the subject to make sure you get the shot. When photographing birds, I’d rather not clip the wings (when in flight) unless there is a possibility of getting an extreme close-up of the bird.

Sandhill cranes © Nikhil Bahl

In the original image, these two Sandhill Cranes were too far right in the frame. It was necessary to crop (about 30% of the image) for a balanced composition.

Egret takeoff © Nikhil Bahl

The loose composition allowed room to capture the water coming off the feet of the egret as it took off.

Cropping to change the aspect ratio of the image is also common and a strong argument can be made in its favor. Every photograph doesn’t need to have a 2:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio. Stitching more than one photograph to create panoramas is an option. However, that can’t always be done, especially if your subject is moving or the light is extremely transient.

Panoramic mountains © Nikhil Bahl

This panoramic photograph was created by stitching three horizontal images in Photoshop.

Foggy atmosphere © Nikhil Bahl

In this situation, it was necessary to work quickly as the light was fleeting and the fog ever changing. A minor crop on the right side of the image was required, as the fog drifted after I took a test shot to check exposure.

Abstract flowing water © Nikhil Bahl

With abstract images of flowing water, I tend to compose a little looser due to the unpredictability of how a wave might break. This image was cropped from the top and right (approx. 20%).

While there are several reasons why photographers might choose to crop an image, if we consistently rely on the crop tool it might lead us to make sloppy compositions. Composition is what the photographer brings to a photograph. Shouldn’t we try and get it right in the camera? Don’t be afraid to use the crop tool; just remember, it’s a tool, not a crutch.

About the Author

Nikhil Bahl is a full time professional photographer, author, educator, workshop instructor and environmentalist residing in the Washington D.C. area. Drawing inspiration from nature, Nikhil adopts novel approaches and seeks meaningful interpretations: to create photographs that transcend the commonplace, reflect deeper insights, and convey an enchantment of the subject's beauty.

An offshoot of Nikhil's fine art photography and love of nature is his documentation of wildlife behaviors and habitats. As a volunteer with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, his goal is to portray environmental stories with an artistic appeal, so his photographs educate and motivate about the imperative of conservation.

Each year Nikhil leads several photography tours and instructional workshops in the United States and abroad. His teaching encourages participants to advance beyond ordinary photos and develop their own style and vision. Nikhil is a regular speaker at photography clubs, expos and industry events. He authored the acclaimed eBook, Creative Interpretations and writes articles on the creative and technical aspects of photography.

Nikhil's work has been published in a number of print and electronic media and his fine art prints have been widely exhibited in the Washington metropolitan area, and are part of many private collections.

See more of Nikhil's work at www.nikhilbahl.com.

7 thoughts on “Compose or Crop?

  1. I always shoot loose and do final composition back at home. One of the beauties of having a 24 megapixel sensor. You can never add what you eliminated, but you sure can wipe out junk. I visualize my final shot, then expand the composition by about 10% per side and tweak until I’m satisfied back at home. The important thing to me is that I’ve a pretty good idea of what I want when I loosely compose, not shooting a bread basket of possibilities and pulling out a rabbit later.

  2. When shooting with intend to submit to an agency it’s a good idea to shoot a little – or even a lot – larger than actually needed, to allow room for copy or headlines. As a graphic designer I often find the perfect stock image to illustrate an ad or a brochure, but can’t use it because it doesn’t have a calm area to place text (text becomes pretty unreadable when placed over busy areas).

    The best procedure – time permitting – is to shoot two versions of a scene, one tight for fine art prints and competitions with picky rules, and another with plenty of sky or a similarly calm area for stock. Designers rather crop if they need a tight shot than artificially expand when real estate for copy is needed. And demand is enough to justify investing the extra time and effort.

  3. nice article.!!!!!!!
    sidenote: cropping is an old tool, came many years before digital, and if cropping was not na option, the famous 6 x 6 médium format used by many of the best photographers in the world, would have never existed ;-)….
    kind regards,
    andre

  4. Good point Tom! I have used that technique on rare occasions for macro photography. Never felt the need otherwise. Although, how much a photographer use this technique would depend on his/her shooting style.
    Glad to know that you are envisioning your composition beforehand. That was the point of the article. It’s just so easy to crop later that it can make a photographer lazy.
    Thanks for your comment!
    Nikhil

  5. There is another reason to crop that was not mentioned in the text:

    Sometimes shooting wide, then cropping, can provide us with an increased depth of field. This is particularly advantageous when we can’t just stop down to a smaller aperture, due to insufficient light, or the need to capture fast-moving action.

    I often find myself wanting more depth of field than the exposure triangle will allow, and in these situations I will shoot wider, with the intention of cropping to achieve the composition I envisioned when taking the photograph.

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