Cropping is the Single Most Important Photo Edit You Can Do

We’re sold software on the basis that what we can’t get directly behind closed doors, we can fix and improve after the event. Even with all the fancy algorithms we have, the best thing you can do for your image is a simple crop.

Editing seems like a bit of a pot business – either you love it or you hate it. There are those professionals who just want to be behind the camera and outsource all their editing to a production house that has a style they prefer. Then there are those who see shooting as only half the equation; you capture the image, but you have the responsibility to turn it into the creation you imagined. Sure, some shooters think you should get an image that close to the finished article in camera, before a few automated adjustments in Photo Mechanic see it coming to the client. Others are more inclined to view the memory card as a medium for storing as much information as possible about the scene before extensive manipulation in post-production.

Capture a tool

In truth, most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes because we don’t have the luxury of outsourcing, don’t get it done behind closed doors every time, and because some things you just can’t just don’t do in-camera. That’s no truer than in a smartphone shoot where camera weaknesses are brutally exposed, only to be deftly covered up by clever automated post-production that goes completely unnoticed on a strongly oversaturated and too sharp on Instagram. .

Base Image Changes

To the more subtle eye, editing is a much more nuanced practice that has deep roots in the world of cinema. While a smartphone shooter may very well take an image, edit it and post it before moving on to the next one, the film required there to be a pregnant pause between shooting and editing that required focus on one before the other.

This created a dilemma: did I capture the image I wanted? The solution was to take multiple images – both repetitions and variations – on the same theme. This then gave you something to work with in the darkroom.

Only in a controlled environment – typically a studio – do you have the luxury of controlling every aspect of your shot. As soon as you go out, you spend more time covering mistakes. Separating the editing from the filming is more and more obvious as your filming gets frenetic. This is no more obvious than when shooting weddings or sports; you’re in a time-dependent situation and have a chance (no reps!), often with limited equipment. Perhaps inevitably, the end results won’t always meet your aspirations and the job of editing is to take that less than perfect capture and turn it into a more polished output. Or, to put it another way, you want to capture the moment, and how you frame it is less critical.

So what are the main image changes? I think it boils down to the three main controls you use when shooting: framing, exposure, and focus.

For post-production, this means adjusting crop and rotation, relative brightness and sharpness, while adding color. Focus is the most critical thing to achieve in the camera, although sharpness can at least partially mitigate small errors.

By far the most critical element – in my opinion – is cultivation and rotation. Of course, you may have hopelessly under or overexposed images that you might be able to salvage to an acceptable level, although the winks are not salvageable. However, that’s pretty much the gross error; most of the time these are small corrections for the meter where you haven’t applied any exposure compensation and are usually within the one-stop range. You also want to get the correct exposure balance; how you do this will depend on your personal style, but might involve changing shadows/highlights, curves, or levels. Or combinations of them. However, the human eye is quite tolerant of these variations and less prone to conscious complaint.

In my opinion, cropping and rotating (which are really two halves of the same operation) is the most critical element. If you had to choose one modification, it should be this one.

Crop and Rotate

As I noted above, pressure shooting is all about capturing the moment and places less emphasis on framing. That doesn’t mean framing is unimportant – it is. It’s just that other imperatives take precedence. However, once you’re after the shoot, you’re now in a position to tell the story.

In this case, I think there are five reasons why you might want to crop. First of all, because you were completely wrong. You were in the wrong place, out of frame, or just didn’t see what was really going on, even if you managed to capture it. As the photo below shows, weddings move quickly and it’s easy to go wrong, especially when trying to capture those ad hoc moments. You might not crop the same way, for the story you want to tell, but it was too busy and the subject was the lady in red.

Cropping: the bad move

Second, there is long-range shooting. You know exactly what you want to get, but you can’t get it. This could be due to an obstruction or because you’re using a prime and can’t get close. Either way, you rely on the range of resolution to make up for the shortcoming. In the example below, I wanted to take photos of the guests, not the couple. I know I would get reactions as they threw confetti and this was a great example. Except I couldn’t get close enough.

Culture: the long reach

Third comes bad framed editing. It’s an “I almost got it” moment where the photo came up, I framed it correctly and grabbed it. It is only in the cold light of the next day that you realize that you have to crop it and straighten it slightly. I was aware that by cropping, I had less of the impression that his feet were cut off, while removing unnecessary visual clutter.

Cropping: retouching

Fourth, because you want to change the aspect ratio. It may be because the image suits it better, you need to match the ratios between different cameras or to compile an album. The culture below gets rid of unnecessary clutter which tells a better story.

Cropping: the aspect ratio

The fifth and final type of cultivation is what you might call fortuitous luck or when you see something else. Photography, and especially weddings, is about telling stories, so it’s always a nice feeling to see something else in your photo that you didn’t expect when you took it. This was a shot while I was capturing guests walking around. It wasn’t until I watched this later that I realized he was pulling his pants up, a classic off-camera moment.

Reframing: serendipity

It’s all in the harvest

If shooting the image is analogous to writing the story, post-production is about telling the story.

In fact, shout it from the rooftops. But not all changes are created equal, and you may not have the time or inclination to apply them all. If there was one edit to choose above all the rest, then it’s cropping for the above reasons. This allows you to fine-tune your message. This is even more relevant in the age of smartphones where a lot of smart post-production is done for you; except, of course, the phone won’t know how to crop the image (although it might risk straightening it).


Picture credits: Header photo elements licensed via Depositphotos.

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