To Crop Or Not To Crop

November 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

To Crop Or Not To Crop

That is the question

I recently read an article by a landscape photographer who stated that they NEVER crop their images. This article seemed to regard cropping as some kind of mortal sin that would result in a terrible fate for the offending photographer (perhaps some special hell exists where the light is always beautiful and the camera batteries are always flat).

While I was reading this I also though about many tutorials that I have seen about post processing and where images are cropped, sometimes quite extensively, in order to remove unwanted features etc.

There are some kinds of photography in which cropping is the norm, wildlife photography for one. When it comes to landscapes I believe that the crop tool has its uses, and can be one of the most powerful post processing tools in the photographers arsenal, but it also has its dangers, so I thought I would write a short piece on when I think the crop tool is a bad thing, and when I use it on a regular basis. Of course these are my opinions and the approach I take to my own work.

I'd like to start off with a bit of a reflection on why some people are so reluctant to crop images, and it all comes down to losing some of the image size.

When digital cameras were in their infancy, and megapixels were in short supply, cropping an image, even a little bit, could severely constrain the print size of the image making it of considerably less use.

Today we are seeing DSLRs with 36  and even 50 megapixel sensors, entry level DSLRs with 20 or 24 megapixels and compacts at 16 and even 24 megapixels. We now have the ability to crop away some of those megapixels and still have large high resolution images.

My own camera has a 24 megapixel sensor and I can crop the image to two thirds of its original size and still make some pretty large and high quality prints. Of course the megapixels alone don't determine the quality of the image but they are often a reason why people are reluctant to crop.

OK, so lets start off with, what I consider to be, the bad reason to crop an image.

Careless composition

I do not believe that the crop tool is a substitute for good composition in the field. The attitude that "I can always crop it later" leads to sloppy composition and that, almost always, leads to poorer pictures. Having said that, we all make mistakes in composition from time to time.

I have often shot a scene and then discovered, once I have the images back on the computer, that there is some element on the edge of the frame that spoils the image. Sometimes you just can't see it through the viewfinder or on the small screen on the camera, especially if shooting in low light or high contrast conditions.

For that reason the first reason I use the crop tool is:

Tidying up image edges

A little bit of cropping to tidy up an edge is one of the times that I use the crop tool, but one that I try to avoid if I can by being careful about my composition in the first place.

So, what are the other reasons I turn to the crop tool when shooting landscapes?

Wide angle shots with verticals

When I shoot very wide angle shots that have vertical lines in the scene, such as buildings, trees etc, then I know I am going to have to correct those verticals in post processing. By doing so I will change the composition slightly and some things at the edge of the frame may be lost.

So I tend to shoot these images a little wider than I think I will need so that I can then fine tune the crop once I have corrected the verticals (I use Lightroom to do this and the Guided Upright function is superb)

You can read my article about wide angle lenses HERE

Stitched panoramas 

Panoramas almost always need to be cropped in post as the edges are rarely even and the composition is often difficult to be certain about when in the field.

For that reason I tend to shoot so that I get a wider field of view (both horizontally and vertically) than I think I will need and then crop it to the correct composition after I have stitched it together.

Changing the format

This, to me, is where the power of the crop tool really lies.

DSLR sensors have a 3:2 ratio. For some images that works really well but I must admit I have become particularly partial to either the 16:9 or 8:10 formats for a lot if my landscapes. So I will often shoot with the intention to crop later.

I know that there are some cameras that now have a 16:9 (and maybe an 8:10) preview available (for example, I believe the Canon 5DS has this) so that you can compose the shot and see it in camera with these formats, although the image produced is still 3:2 and needs to be cropped in post.

I have, on a number of occasions, gone even more into the 'letter box' format with 2:1 ratio images. Another format I occasionally use is a 1:1 or square format. I don't use this often for landscapes but sometimes it really does suit the scene better.

The images that I crop to a different format are almost always planned that way so that I compose accordingly in the field rather than cropping being an after thought when I get the images back home (although there are rare occasions when I take the decision later).  

In Summary  

The crop tool is not an excuse to be sloppy about composition but, with planned and considered use it is a fantastically powerful tool and one that we shouldn't be afraid of using  

I hope you've enjoyed this article   Don't forget to check out my landscape photography videos at

I'll be back with my monthly review at the start of December


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