Picture in Picture: To Crop or Not to Crop?

When you crop the photo, you tell a lie.
— Douglas Coupland

I will be the first one to admit that I’ll use cropping when it’s necessary. Of course, it is my preference to leave images full-frame, but sometimes I look at a photo and see opportunity in cutting corners, so to speak. For myself, the decision to crop a photo — and the extent that may or may not be acceptable — is primarily driven by the quality requirement around how that photo is to be used. I’ll use an image from the sequence yesterday’s blog photo came from as an example. The first photo in this post is full-frame. While I was considering it, a picture in the picture caught my eye; I made a virtual copy, clicked on Lightroom’s crop tool and started cutting away.

One of the things I try to take away from finding a picture within a picture is the reminder to be more aware of opportunities to use the camera’s full frame to get in closer, move the camera slightly one direction or another and be more creative with composition. I’ll often ask myself what I would have needed to have done differently to get the cropped version’s framing in-camera and not in-processing. I find this gives me ideas and new things to try on later shoots as I strive to challenge and improve my skills.

What are your thoughts about cropping? Do you agree with Douglas Coupland that cropping a photo is the equivalent of telling a lie?

Full-frame self-portrait, Nikon D800, ISO 400, f/1.4 at 1/8 sec., 50mmClick for enlarged view.

Full-frame self-portrait, Nikon D800, ISO 400, f/1.4 at 1/8 sec., 50mm
Click the image for an enlarged view.

Tightly cropped self-portrait, Nikon D800, ISO 400, f/1.4 at 1/8 sec., 50mmClick for enlarged view.

Tightly cropped self-portrait, Nikon D800, ISO 400, f/1.4 at 1/8 sec., 50mm
Click the image for an enlarged view.

=^,,^=
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20 comments

  1. Since I consider myself to be a beginner, I try to take “good, honest photos” from the very start, so that I don’t develop poor habits, or become reliant on technology such as Photoshop. Therefore, I try to keep cropping my images to a bare minimum. However, I have been given some very good advice on when it’s good (even necessary) to crop/isolate images, so I realize that it’s also important to know “when” to crop. In other words, I completely agree with your thoughts. I love this photo(s) and the sepia color. Apologies for the long ramble, I hope you can understand my English 😉 As always, thank you for another great and post!

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      1. When I get my D800 I will crop more (jk). Actually, It depends. For portraits, I want my subject to fill the frame, but with enough margin to be able to crop for various print sizes… unless I’m shooting against an infinity backdrop, because then I can easily manufacture more margin. Shooting photo-journalistic wedding style, get close and shoot wide (a la Joe McNally). Then you can crop the distracting elements out, unless it’s the look on the ex-boyfriend’s face, then leave it in. 😉 It really depends on the purpose of the image.

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  2. Earl, I admire your courage in exposing your photographs to comments from my untutored and questionable sensibilities. I believe that Jeff is making a philosophical statement: just by choosing one subject out of the available universe of possibilities, you are in effect ‘cropping’, incurring the opportunity cost of not photographing something else and yes, I am serious.

    I think that the process you go through once you have taken a photograph – asking yourself how you could have improved your use of the camera and your own perception to improve the photograph – is one of the reasons your skills are evolving by leaps and bounds. But now that we do have Photoshop, et. al., isn’t ‘getting it right on the first pass’ just hotdogging? (That’s an honest question. I’m not such a kidder about aesthetic matters.) Don’t you take a dozen or a hundred shots to bracket the subject matter? Then you can Photopuzzle them to get the composition that fulfills your intention plus a few more where your genius (in both senses) peeps out unexpectedly.

    Obviously, I disagree with Mr. Coupland… with one very strong exception: journalistic photography. If you represent something as being the truth, it had damned well better be the whole truth in every picture. Otherwise, we all crop our experiences anyway to get certain effects… a camera is just an extension of that. Thank you for letting me express myself. Your work sometimes makes me laugh or cry out loud.

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    1. You did a great job conveying what I wondered if Jeff meant, and why I was compelled to ask him for more more info Yes, in the sense you note, every photo is cropped from a larger, contiguous scene.
      Photoshop doesn’t justify bad habits; the “spray and pray” approach you allude to comes with no guarantees or consistent outcomes. A business that relies predominately on luck to survive isn’t going to survive long.

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      1. You’re saying that I’m the one who is out of date, and you’re right. I learned the bad habit of ‘spray and pray’ long ago, before digital cameras and Photoshop, and I have never had to satisfy a customer or an exacting Muse. Points taken, lessons learned: skill is always more dependable than luck, more skill is more so, and Lady Luck is no business lady. I thank you because now I’ll be trying to meet this higher standard when I take photographs.

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  3. I’m very old school. I learned to shoot slide film many years ago. I also learned to fill the frame with the picture I wanted. For me, the only reason to crop is to clean up some small flaw. I like the original picture given what you’ve written in the past.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Ray. One of my teachers had the same take on it as you. He would sometimes make prints in the darkroom that showed the edges of the negative just so the viewer knew they were seeing exactly what the photographer saw. That’s very much like the frame of a slide, so your perspective and training makes sense to me.

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  4. I have my camera to take extra wide photos. I choose that setting in order to be able to crop. What I envision and what my camera sees are not always possible, ie: a car bumper sticking out in the way, or a lamp post. I frame the photo in my eye, let the camera do its work and then crop it to my original vision.

    I grabbed a photo of a toddler learning to walk, following his shadow. It was cropped down to the “photo” I saw. Any interference from me to get closer or run after the toddle would have destroyed the moment. I snap quickly and crop out the “stuff.” I get my shot. I love the crop capability.

    On the other hand if I don’t alter my photos in photoshop other than the planned crop and adding some additional contrast, when the lighting wasn’t to my liking.

    Is it right or is any of it wrong? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and if it pleases me I’m happy. Of course there is no accounting for taste, not even my own. 😉

    Cheers to capturing great moments.

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    1. The takeaway I get from your comments is we do what we do to satisfy the demands of our personal style, process and vision. I’m all for that, actually; if we are able to realize our vision using an image out-of-camera as-is, great. If it takes tons of tweaking, compositing, cropping, whatever; so be that, too.

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

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