To crop or not to crop, that is the question. Edward Selfe discusses the pitfalls, and the reasons why cropping can be a photographer’s best friend.
he use of cropping in wildlife photography has often suffered bad press. How many times have you heard, “Oh, but he must have cropped that”, or “that’s heavily cropped”?
Certainly, there are times when a crop has been over-used, or used in the wrong situation, and the poor result is often immediately obvious. In this article, we’ll look at what a crop is, how to use it to your benefit, and how to avoid the pitfalls.
Applying a crop to an image in Lightroom. All image editing software will offer the capability to crop images, though Lightroom’s tool is one of the most user-friendly. (Pictured above)
Cropping removes unwanted areas of the image to improve the overall effect. It is helpful to consider the benefits and drawbacks of using the crop tool.
So, why would we choose to crop an image?
- To remove unwanted elements that distract from the main subject. I n wildlife photography you definitely do not have full control of all the elements in your scene. It might be that just as the perfect lion interaction occurs, a dove flies across the background of your image. Being able to crop a sliver off the top of the image to remove this visual distraction is most helpful.
- To increase the apparent size of the subject. Cropping the edges off an image to ‘enlarge’ the central subject is a common trick, and with cameras that have high resolution it can give a much better frame of a subject than you could if you couldn’t not get as close as you wanted.
- To alter the composition of the image. Cropping for composition is a very popular method of improving the impact of your shot. Perhaps in the heat of the moment, you were not able to move the frame, or the auto-focus point, exactly how you wanted to, so you can crop the unwanted areas of the image to improve this afterwards. Of course, you cannot regain canvas that was never there in the image, so this is not a substitute for good technique.
- To adjust the image’s shape or to fit a required purpose. Some people choose to crop an image to fit a more aesthetically pleasing aspect ratio (the aspect ratio is the image’s shape, as defined by its length on the short side as a proportion of the long side) such as 3:2 or 16:10 or 16:9 or 4:3 or even a panoramic crop. Sometimes it’s necessary to crop an image to make it fit a double-page spread in a magazine, or a banner along the top of a website or poster.
There are some negative impacts of cropping too which we should be aware of:
- Cropping reduces the overall size of your image, removing pixels and valuable data. If you are working with a 20-megapixel file (5,000 pixels x 4,000 pixels), and you crop off just 10 per cent of the width and length, you will lose nearly 20 per cent of the image’s pixel count, leaving you with just over 16 megapixels.
- Heavy cropping reduces the file-size dramatically, leaving the resulting image unsuitable for printing and enlargements. The effect of this may well be visible to a viewer in the form of softness, pixelation and lack of detail.
- Relying on cropping to make up for poor compositional technique is not advisable. While it is fine to do so occasionally – perhaps when you had to take the shot in a hurry – it’s much better to practice composition and adjusting your focusing points quickly so that you can include more canvas on the original image.
I use cropping in many of my images to remove distracting elements from the edge of the frame and to improve the shape and feel of the scene portrayed.
First, let’s look at cropping to remove unwanted elements from the edges of images. I always look around the edges of my frame as I am composing my shots, and try to remove anything that I don’t want by zooming in or moving the frame. But if I have to move quickly, or I’m using a prime lens, I am not always able to do this. So, cropping afterwards it beneficial. Here are a few examples:
This is one of my favourite images and it was the first in a series that I took. From far away I saw this situation materialising and I rushed through the forest to get there in time. The first image was perfect with the elephant’s trunk and position in perfect harmony with the forest, but the large tree on the right-hand side of the image is a little too dominant. I have cropped it slightly to remove that distraction and make sure the focus is on the elephant.
We had been watching these hippos for some time, as the female tried to tell the male to leave her alone. At the same moment that the two faced up to each other, a hippo in the foreground lifted its head and disrupted the image. Cropping removes this grey out-of-focus lump from the bottom of the frame.
Now, let’s explore times when using a crop can help with the composition of the image. I mentioned above that this is not best practice and certainly improving technique is preferable but we all need a bit of help sometimes.
This giraffe took us slightly by surprise. On a walking safari, we found her in the middle of the river on a small island. Suddenly, she started running through the water towards us, and I only just managed to snap a few images. The composition was not quite what I wanted so I cropped it to improve the focus of the image on the giraffe. I kept a bit more of the right-hand side of the image because I didn’t want to lose the detail of the oxpeckers that flew up off her back.
We were not able to get as close to this leopard as we would have liked because she was stalking a hyena that had stolen her kill, and we didn’t want to disturb the action. But when she lifted her head momentarily, I wanted the shot, so I took a snap, knowing that I could adjust the composition later.
I loved the effect of this elephant emerging from under the arch of this sausage tree, and I chose to put it in the top right of the frame as an experiment! It didn’t really work, so I cropped it later. It’s a shame because I have lost so many of the pixels in the image that I probably can’t print it.
We were watching these hippos and hamerkops interacting in the amazing algal bloom that occurs for only a couple of days each year. Suddenly the hippo began to yawn, and rather than missing it to move the AF point, I took shots and hoped that I would be able to crop later.
Finally, let’s look at cropping for improved shape and feel. Scenery and wildlife photographers take the majority of their images in landscape orientation; out of 4,309 images in my folders, only 862 – around 20 per cent – are in portrait mode. My camera produces images which are 3:2 in aspect ratio. I like this shape for portrait-orientation images and find that my style of photography works well with this. However, I tend to prefer a wider, flatter, more panoramic image shape for my landscape-orientation images, and I nearly always crop my 3:2s to a 16:10 ratio.
In this case, I applied a 16:10 crop to this image of a family herd of elephants crossing the river. In doing so, I cut off some of the distracting bright sky and some of the bright water below. Doing this did not remove anything of value and added to the image’s impact by eliminating unwanted canvas.
As well as removing unwanted canvas, I think the 16:10 crop actually improves the shape and feel of the image, perhaps increasing the impression that it is taken in a wide, open space. There is a panoramic quality to the surroundings. I have been using this crop more in wildlife photos over the last few years, finding that it suits the environment that I work in and the style of photos that I take.
Here are a few more examples, showing the original image and what has been cut off:
The ground below the elephants does not add to the image. And in fact, the tighter the crop, the better the composition, emphasising the proximity of the calf to the mother and the intimacy of that relationship. I could not cut anything off either side because it would be too tight for the mother’s trunk and the calf’s tail, so only a wide crop will work.
So we have looked at the reasons for cropping, the pitfalls and risks of doing so, and some of the situations where it has worked for me in my images. I know that there are some photographers who prefer the 4:3 shape and others who swear by 16:9. Whatever your personal preference for the shape of the final image, make sure that you are cropping for effect, not to remedy miscalculations in the field… or at least not all the time! We all get it wrong occasionally!
For more information on some of the concepts in this article, have a read of Edward’s Photo Safari Skills section on his website. Specifically, there are articles on setting up your camera for safari, using metering modes for night time photography, adjusting exposure compensation and an article on Luangwa’s leopards