Dare To Crop

Don't fear the crop tool...

Don't fear the crop tool...

Rightly or wrongly, the majority of finished images today end up on the web or computer rather than as a finished print. If this is to be so, then I have a question for all who do post processing of their images.

Why then do we only think of finished images in the context of standardized print sizes?   It's a bit silly considering that the predominant image ratio is 2:3 and yet the predominant print ratio is 4:5. This means we've been cropping since day one of 35mm.  So why limit ourselves as such?  What is the reason to conform to a physical layout, when we have the control and capability in digital artwork to embrace any layout that best serves the art?  I mean it's ridiculous when we have to crop our DSLR and mirrorless images to fit a ratio that has never fit them in the first place to make a print and more silly if we have to fit an aspect ration when the only gating factor is the artist's choice.

A crop may allow you to tell a different story.  Some images are so strong that multiple images can be extracted from them by cropping

A crop may allow you to tell a different story.  Some images are so strong that multiple images can be extracted from them by cropping

Panoramas – A Non-Standard Ratio

Consider a panorama.  Many cameras automate the creating of panorama images and most high function processing software automates the creation of a panorama.  Now consider panos that you see in art stores and framing shops.  Are they just a collection of traditional ratios stitched together?   In most cases not, and a lot of time they are cropped tightly on the short side to further the sense of scope and scale on the long side. 

Try this test.  Go shoot a pano and then aggressively crop out excessive sky and foreground to create a long narrow final image.  Does it have more story and more power?   It probably will. 

What About a Square Crop?

Instagram only delivered square images when it debuted.  This requires cropping.  It wasn't a problem because most amateurs drop the subject in the dead centre of the frame but now more serious image makers are embracing Instagram and the organization is offering more flexibility in image ratios.  Yet there are situations where a square crop is still a more effective choice.  You aren't printing so why not?  (In reality, I do print, and I still make many images that are square.  That's what mats are for)  The square, like the circle is viewed as a “perfect” shape.  In fact a square crop more readily suits the mental picture than a rectangular crop because our eyes see a circular area, and the square has all four corners intersecting with the circumference of the circle.  For many years, professional medium format cameras including those from Hasselblad, Rollei, Mamiya and others only delivered square negatives or transparencies.  Many of my customers bring me old prints for reprinting that are square, and there were hundreds of thousands of people who made images using 126, 127 and 120/220 film producing square crops.  If you’ve never tried a square crop, you are missing something very powerful.

So here's your second challenge.  Find an image that you think might be stronger with a square crop and do it.  It's "not standard" but allows you as the artist to define the vision.  Make it so!

Software Preset Aspect Ratios 

Most post processing software offers several preset ratios for cropping.  And, many newer cameras offer an aspect ratio option for in camera JPEGs     What if you want to create a Hi Def look for your image?   Simply choose a 16:9 or 17:9 aspect ratio.   What if you want the whole CinemaScope experience?  Choose a ratio of 24:9 for that true theatrical look. The point is that getting to different aspect ratios doesn't have to be an exercise in trying to drag corners to proper measures, you can often do it using presets.

Thus challenge three is to use a predefined aspect ratio on an image to see how your story changes, when the crop changes

Breaking the Ratio Wall 

Definitely not a standard aspect ratio but is a nice poster effect removing extraneous elements and giving the skater lots of room to move

Definitely not a standard aspect ratio but is a nice poster effect removing extraneous elements and giving the skater lots of room to move

What if you decide that the crop that best serves the story you are telling is not a standard ratio?   Then use that crop!   The crop serves the image, not the other way around!

Challenge four is to crop the image in such a way that the image is strongest, without it necessarily being a standard aspect ratio.

Getting to Print 

When it comes to making a print, there is a perception that we must fit standard frame sizes.  It's not true.  You can get mats cut to go around any aspect ratio and fit a standard frame size.  It's no longer "fashionable" but many of us used to cut our own mats and you can get started doing so today for around $100.  If you won't be cutting a lot of mats then just get them cut at an art or framing store.

Then, when you do frame your print, you can choose from standard frame sizes in whatever style appeals to you.  Of course, if you have a hobbyist woodworker in your family, these folks can usually put together a really nice custom frame that you would never find in a store.  They can also usually do the glass work, because that is often a part of building cabinetry or furniture.

Another option is to print your "non-standard" crop on a standard sheet of paper but size the image to leverage white space on the paper to create a natural border and isolation space.  Some of the higher end printing papers are available with cut or natural decal edges and are well displayed in a floating frame.  Another nice technique is to mount the print to a piece of foamcore, and then surface mount that foamcore into a frame.  I spoke to a custom framer earlier this month in a family run shop in Etobicoke, and he took me through a number of very innovative routes to display your work.

One of my greatest teachers told our group that every image will benefit from some cropping.  I have found him to be correct.  So, don't be afraid to use the cropping tool to improve the look and story of your images.  We all have unique visions so why should we conform to some arbitrary layout in the world of a non-arbitrary delivery mechanism.

Cropping Makes an Image Stronger

We do our best to get the image right in the camera, or at least we hope to do so.  I still regularly see images made by photographers where the in camera composition is not really considered.  It's more splat than placement.  If all images benefit from some cropping, why are we so recalcitrant to crop?

For some folks, it's fear of losing something.  They don't want to discard anything in the frame. I want to encourage you to look at your images and think about excising parts that don't enhance the story.  You surely don't want to be at the point where you cutting out 90% of the image all the time, but I find that a crop will typically do more to enhance the story than to detract from it.

Sometimes we make an image thinking that a particular orientation will work best and later discover that this is not true.  Rather than discard, try an orientation crop, going vertical instead of horizontal.  Yes, that can mean a lot of discarding but it could make the difference between a culled image and a keeper.


The crop tool is a tool like any other available to us.  While we should always be working to fill the frame and get it right in camera, cropping can be the fine tuning that levels up an image.  When you are looking at your images, I dare you to ask, "how could this image be improved with cropping?"

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Until next time, peace.