Today’s post focuses on a photographic technique – cropping.

How to crop an image – deciding what to include and what to exclude – is one of the most important decisions photographers make. How you decide to crop an image affects the impact and interest of the image.

Cropping is a decision that’s made both in-camera and in post-processing. When I’m talking about in-camera crop, I’m both talking about those cameras have the ability to actually crop an image in camera, but I’m also talking about using the zoom feature on your lens to decide on how much of the scene to include in-frame. This post will mainly focus on cropping in post-processing.

I’ll talk about some basic rules-of-thumb when cropping, but each image is different and you’ll have some preferences as a photographer.

I’m going to use a photo as an example that I took while waiting out in a field near Eminence, Missouri for some wild horses to show up. I whiled away the time watching bees flit from flower to flower.

So, let’s get cutting!

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Structured or Free-Form

The first decision I make when cropping an image is about the aspect ratio. Am I going to use a standard aspect ratio of 4×5 (which prints nicely as an 8×10 or 11×14) or 1×1 if I’m planning on sending the photo to Instagram? Or am I going to be much more free with my cropping, letting my subject guide my decisions?

If I’m only sharing digital images it doesn’t matter much, but if I think I might print the image, I do consider a more fixed aspect ratio.

Here’s a photo of a bee flitting around a field as an example. I’ve applied my own personal preset in Lightroom, but this is the crop that I got straight out of my camera.

I made some decisions about cropping when I took the photo. I was zoomed in all the way for the lens I was using and I included a number of flowers along with the bee.

Original photo with out-of-camera crop
Sony A7RIII 300mm 1/500@f13 ISO4000

I can choose to use a fixed 4×5 aspect ratio either landscape or portrait will work. I’ve tried to keep the bee roughly in the same place in the image for both crops.

4×5 Landscape Crop

4×5 Portrait crop

I like this photo, but I’m not sure that I’ll be printing it, so I could choose to go more free-form with my crop.

I make more decisions when I’m going free-form. Do I include the blurred flowers at the back? How much of the foreground stems do I include? Do I include the flower on the right? How about the blades of grass on the left?

Free-form crop

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds isn’t the only way of organizing your photos, but is one of the more popular.

For those of you who haven’t yet encountered the “Rule of Thirds“, it’s the idea that an image is more dynamic if important parts of the scene are offset (rather than centered) in the photo. I have both my Lightroom and camera setup to show a rule of thirds grid on my photos.

Here is a Lightroom screenshot of the original photo showing the rule of thirds grid. Notice that I took the photo with the bee’s head (the most interesting subject) sitting on line indicating the right third of the photo.

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 9.19.53 AM

Rule of third overlay on original photo

Ideally, my main subject should be on one of the “crash points” or intersections of the grid lines – for instance at the point where the top third of the image intersects with the right third. These are the most dynamic places in the photo. This doesn’t work for every photo, but it’s worth trying out a crop that puts important parts of the image at an intersection.

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The rule of thirds is more of a guide than a “rule”, but there is a reason that the rule of third is so popular. The photo tends to be more interesting if the main subject can be placed at one of these crash points.

I can crop in a little and move the bee up in the frame. I’m losing the top flower on the left and the flowers on the right, but I have to decide whether placing the bee at a more interesting place in the photo outweighs the loss of some of the flowers.

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 9.27.33 AM

Subject placed at crash point

Edges – Distractions, Bleeds & Trapped Space

The rule of thirds is a great place to start, but sometimes the rule has to be balanced with other considerations.

After making your first crop, look at the edges of the frame. Are there distractions or trapped spaces?

In the crop above, labeled “Subject placed at crash point”, there is an out-of-focus blade of grass on the far right edge of the frame and two others on the left.

Without going down a rabbit hole here about depth of field, they are out of focus because they much closer to my lens than the bee is. The out of focus background isn’t a problem (Shallow Depth of Field), but I don’t want my viewer’s eyes to be distracted by these unimportant blurry blades of grass in the foreground.

I have 2 options: 1) I can crop the image to get rid of the distracting elements or 2) clone them out in Lightroom or Photoshop. I use both options, but since this article is about cropping and not cloning, let’s tighten up the frame to get rid of the distracting elements.

Crop out distracting elements

This crop tightens up the image, but I’m not happy about losing the half of the flowers on the left side of the frame.

Also, this tighter crop creates a problem. The flowers on the left bleed off of the frame. This is ok sometimes and you’ll have to use your judgment to when to crop out part of an object, but in this case, I think the photo looks too cramped with the flower cut off.

So, after balancing the issues, I’ll probably instead chose to use a wider crop. I crop out the blade of grass on the right and clone out the grass on the left hand side (as well as the foreground flower in the bottom right). I’ll write a future post on how I decide when to clone out distracting details and how I do it.

Wider crop with distracting elements cloned out

The last thing to check for is trapped space. This is a place where a sliver of light or dark is trapped between something in the photo and the edge of the frame creating a shape of it’s own.

There’s not really a very clear example in this photo of trapped space, but if I go back to the original photo and zoom into the far right, I can sort of show you an example.

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 10.05.27 AM

Example of trapped space.

The point is to look at the edges of the frame carefully. Look for important elements that might be cut off abruptly or odd shapes that might be created by trapped space. These can distract the eye from the main subject.

Fill the Frame

The general rule in photography is to fill the frame with your subject, but breathing space and context are also important.

Filling the frame is a general rule because photographers often err on the side of making their subjects too small in the frame. It probably has to do with the difference between how we see the world and how our camera captures the world.

After your initial cropping, go back to the photo and see if you can take off a bit more on the left – on the right – from the top – from the bottom. It’s like pulling in your stomach after a large lunch!

I could crop in and zoom right into the bee, but I didn’t take this photo as a macro and there just isn’t enough clarity to fill the frame with the bee even with some noise reduction.

Trying to fill frame with bee

But in any case the photo isn’t just about the bee – it’s not a macro photo of the bee. The photo is about the bee in a field of flowers. There’s a context attached to the bee. The bee is doing something – flitting from flower to flower. If I cut out most of the flowers, I lose this context and the reason for the action.

How much context to include depends on the photo and the situation. It really depends on what your photo is about. It also depends on genre. Travel and photo journalism may need more context than say a portrait.

It’s generally a good thing to crop in close – maybe even closer than you feel comfortable – but make sure the photo breathes. Elements that are too close to the edge of the frame can make the photo feel cramped.

This is another reason why the rule of thirds works. The important elements aren’t placed in the middle, but they also aren’t place on the very edge of the frame.

Final Cropping Decision

For me, the photo above captioned “Wider crop with distracting elements cloned out” includes enough context to show the bee flitting from flower to flower without letting the flowers become the story.

The main, active subject – the bee – is placed on a crash point on the rule of thirds grid and there is enough breathing space around the flowers on the left side of the frame.

I’ve cropped and cloned out distracting foreground elements letting the flowers and the bee be the main focus.

But this isn’t the only way of cropping the photo. I may decide later that I prefer a different crop showing more or less context or placing the bee in a different part of the frame. There’s a lot of personal choice when it comes to choosing a crop.

Some photographers seem to have super-powers when it comes to deciding on crops, they do it intuitively, but these are some basic techniques that can improve your cropping skills and make your photos more dynamic.

Photo Bee in Field

Bee in Field
Final version