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One of the basics of composition involves the concept of the frame, in this case, the image frame. A photograph is constrained by the limits of the image edge, or the image frame. The image frame has 3 basic variables: the ratio of the dimensions, the orientation (vertical vs. horizontal), and how the actual content is placed within the frame. In photography, much of composition is out of our control and is dependent on the surrounding scene, existing light, etc. but we as photographers have significant control over these 3 variables of the image frame and composition. We will examine frame dynamics in future posts but for this post I will mostly be looking at the effects that cropping can have on the subject matter and overall feel of an image. Conventional wisdom says you should use the whole picture frame (whole sensor or whole piece of film) when composing your image but this has become less important with high quality, high megapixel count sensors that film can’t match (purists and film-snobs feel free to chime in now). While I try to use my whole sensor, this isn’t always possible. This can be due to a physical inability to reach the perfect location, such as a restricted or dangerous area. It may be due to time constraints. Frequently when I am travelling or hiking I may be on a tight enough schedule that taking the time to locate and set-up at the optimal spot isn’t an option, so I have to shoot then move on. This is where cropping comes into play. With cropping, all 3 variables mentioned above can be controlled and changed to optimize your vision of the image. Cropping is an art in and of itself that can have a dramatic affect on how an image is viewed.
I shoot all my photographs on either a Canon 5D Mark II or a Canon 7D. The 5D is a 21 megapixel full frame sensor, having the same size as a piece of 35mm film and the 7D uses the smaller 18 megapixel APS-C sensor. When I process an image I do my initial raw developing in Lightroom then open the image in Photoshop CS5 at a 300 ppi resolution. The 5D image opens at a size of 12.48 x 18.72 in. and the 7D image is 11.163 x 16.743 in., quite awkward sizes if you ask me. If I am going to use the whole image I then change the size to 12 x 18, at 300 ppi, using the crop tool then go onto process the image, as I have described in a previous post on my workflow. I frequently use the whole image or only slightly crop to remove something distracting along an edge or reposition the horizon or subject slightly. When I do this I will typically use the 12 x 18 sizing, which is the size of many of my photos posted in my archives. This maintains the 2:3 ratio of the original sensor size, with much more convenient even dimensions. If I need to crop more I will usually use either a 2:3 or an 11:14 ratio. If I am using the 2:3 ratio, I will typically size it at 12×18 or 10×15 depending on how much I am cropping and when cropping in an 11:14 ratio I usually size it as 11×14, all at 300 ppi using the crop tool. If I am doing an extreme crop of more than 50-60% of the photo, I will adjust the size down accordingly. I try to avoid doing this extreme of a crop very often as I do notice degradation of the image if I crop this much and it is only useable in smaller prints. If I am cropping an image as a panorama view I will usually use a 1:3 or a 1:4 ratio.
My first image was taken in a park, showing a small church near the Cementario de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Figure 1 shows the whole image. For whatever reason I didn’t get any closer to take this shot of the church and when I got back home, didn’t think much of it. I found the light pole showing through the gap in the trees on the left distracting as I did the light pole and buildings on the right, so I decided to crop it down. I wanted to maintain a horizontal orientation and an 11 x 14 seemed to work best with what I was trying to do. When I am cropping an image, I get an initial feel for where and what size the crop needs to be. just by looking at the overall image and deciding what needs to go and what needs to stay. Once I place the crop I move it around, resize it slightly, and sometimes change it to the opposite orientation to make sure I like how everything is placed and how they relate to each other before deciding on the final crop. With this first image, there were really only 2 basic choices, given that I wanted a horizontal orientation and the sides cropped out. I could either show more foreground or more sky. Figure 2 shows the whole image, with overlapping overlays showing my 2 crops and figures 3 and 4 show the final images. In both images I maintain all the important details, the fact that we are in a park and there’s foliage around and there is a church on the border of the park while, at the same time, giving a very different feel to the overall photograph by changing where I cropped it thus changing where I placed the emphasis. In figure 3, the crop was set lower, showing more of the foreground and grass and less of the sky and clouds. This gives the image a more intimate close-in feel while in figure 4 the mood is made opposing just by setting the crop slightly higher. By setting the crop higher, there is much less of the foreground while still showing we are in a park and much more of the sky and clouds visible, giving the image a much more open, less intimate feel. Both images are made stronger by cropping out distracting, extraneous details yet each has a distinctly different feel by changing the location and emphasis of the various subjects in the photograph.
My second image was taken on Lago Viedma, on the way to Glacier Viedma. In the original image (fig. 5) I found that the couple on the right pulled my eye to the right and then out of the picture frame. While I will occasionally have the eye directed out of the image if I am trying to achieve a sense of mystery or the unknown, I use this rarely as it is generally very distracting to have the viewers eye drawn out of the photo and is usually due to poor composition. Because of this distraction I decided to crop them out so began looking at effective ways to crop the photo. I again chose 11 x 14 dimension/ratio as this seemed to work best here. I looked at both a horizontal vs. a vertical orientation. Figure 6 shows the original with the 2 crops that I chose as overlays. Figure 7 is the final processed image with a horizontal orientation. In this crop I took out the couple on the right and some of the bare sky at the top, raising the horizon a bit. By cropping and orienting the photo this way it places more emphasis on the surrounding scenery that the vertical crop, lending an air of ambiguity to the overall feel. Is this image about the scenery and setting, about the couple having a conversation, or both? By placing more emphasis on the surrounding scenery while including the people help give a feel to what the overall experience was like. The image becomes more of a story of the viewer or photographer and the experience of the trip across Lago Viedma. In figure 8, the crop was placed in a vertical orientation, cropping the man sitting on the bench on the right. In this version, there is less emphasis on the surrounding scenery and more emphasis on the couple in conversation. The different crop changes the overall “story” of the image from one about the journey across the lake to one about the couple in conversation, both from the original image.
As I have illustrated, cropping can be a very powerful tool that can be used to strengthen the composition and overall intent of an image, but it should not be viewed as a panacea to poorly composed or poorly thought out photographs. In review, it is always best to use as much of the whole sensor as possible when shooting your image as this will generally provide the best quality, especially with larger size prints, and it forces you to think about your image and what you are trying to show with it as you shoot, not after the fact. I will typically use the whole image or only crop a minimal amount on 75-80% of my photographs. Yet, there are times when I can’t fill my whole frame with the intended image so I shoot with the thought of cropping on my mind as I compose. Then there are those times when my intent or my needs of a particular image may change, or I see a different image within a particular scene that I didn’t notice as I shot the photograph. It is at these times that cropping becomes a very powerful and invaluable tool.
Keep your eyes posted for Composition 101 (part II) where I will explore further the dynamics involved in the image frame.