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Cropping - The Most Underrated Tool

(…have you ever written a word so many times that it stopped looking like that word and looked like something else entirely?…)

Cropping. I always feel like it’s one of the most underrated aspects of photography. Before I got into photography, I always saw cropping as a very straightforward editing option. It was always like “Hey Uncle Greg is in the corner. Can you crop him out?” 

Over the years, I have really grown to appreciate the cropping tool. One fundamental reason for my love of this tool is its availability basically anywhere. Whether you’re on a phone, tablet, computer, or even a camera, the cropping tool is readily available. Heck, even if you have a photo printed out in front of you, you could chop it up.

Cropping goes far beyond removing people from pictures though. Cropping is all about creating a composition that maybe wasn’t there in the original photo. Composition in a photo is an understanding of what the subject may be in relation to the environment. 

If I asked you what is the subject of this photo, would you have an answer? There’s a good chance you would tell me it’s the butterfly in the middle of the picture. This shot is so close that it doesn’t really leave room for your eyes to wander anywhere else.

What about this one? What is the subject? This could be a little more tricky depending on where your eyes went first. The subject could be the model or it could be the environment; or it could be both. Or, because the environment is reflected in the sunglasses, can we assume we’re seeing the world through her eyes? Photographers play with composition like this all the time. Sometimes it’s very simple and conventional and, other times, photographers like to play with perspectives. 

Sometimes when I’m on my computer, editing photos I’ve taken on location, I notice some diamonds in the rough. I like certain aspects of the photo, but maybe something is a little off. Maybe the subject isn’t defined. Maybe I’m too zoomed out. I go through this process on purpose sometimes. If I need to take a photo really quick and don’t have the time to really examine my subject, I take a wide shot and decide what I want to do with the picture later. This isn’t always the best rule of thumb, but I’ll save those reasons for a different post.

So let’s say we have a picture here of a waterfall in Iceland. This waterfall is called Skogafoss and it’s nearly 200 feet tall and 82 feet wide. This is a big waterfall. I wrote all about it in my Iceland series. But something feels lacking in this shot. As I go through all my pictures after a trip, I see things like this all the time. It looks like it could be a cool picture, but it just doesn’t seem as tall and grand in the photo. 

Some of this has to do with using a wide angle lens. Wide angle lenses and waterfalls will almost always elicit you saying “you had to be there, it looked so much bigger in person.”

So is there a way to fix this? Yes and no. You can always do more in the moment based on the lens you used and filters and such. But once the photo is already taken, cropping becomes a huge helper.

The first step I would take with this photo is looking for a subject. Okay, we have the waterfall. That is a good subject. Is there anything else in the photo that might be interesting? There are some cows in the picture. They’re small but they’re kind of fun to look at. 

But then we go back to that waterfall. It’s huge, but this picture doesn’t make it look huge. It’s small and centered in the picture. So I cropped the photo the best way I knew how.

There’s a funny trick to waterfalls. If you want them to appear larger in a photo, try cropping off the top of it. It doesn’t have to be a lot; just the very top. By doing this, the viewer doesn’t know when the waterfall actually starts. It could go on for another 100 feet. Showing less can sometimes add more mystery. By cropping the photo, the cows naturally got larger and they help show scale. Any time you want to show off how big something really is, try having a person or a scalable object in the shot. This will lend some perspective to the viewer.

And then there’s the old rule of thirds. If you’re not aware of this rule, it’s an old photography trick where you take a point of interest and position it off to one side. When cropping and editing, you’ll typically see a grid show up on the screen. This grid is to help position what needs to be centered or leveled, along with utilizing the rule of thirds.

For this picture, I put most of the waterfall on the leftmost side and kept the cows on the bottom third. 

You can also do this with people too. Placing the subject on the intersection points of the lines can make the photo more interesting to the eye and a little less predictable.

So there you have it. There’s a quick dive into why I think the cropping tool is so valuable. It gives you the chance to save photos that you might otherwise overlook. I challenge you to take a look through your pictures and try it out. I think you’ll be surprised with what you find. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to drop a comment below!

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