To crop or not to crop?

That is the question….

To be honest it’s not actually the question for me, in my opinion one should do whatever it takes to create a great end product but the subject of cropping has just “cropped” up (sorry, couldn’t resist) in a forum that I regularly frequent so I thought I’d have my say on the subject.

First I need to confess publicly, if you hadn’t guessed already, that I am a cropper. If you visit my website (www.richardwalkerphotography.co.uk) you’ll see all sorts of different crops ranging from subtle to extreme all with one express purpose in mind, to get the best out of the shot. On the forum I was reading a fairly well known photographer by the name of Jared Polin was mentioned. Apparently he doesn’t advocate cropping, ever, his tagline being “Shoot RAW and don’t crop”. Now, Jared is a superb photographer, but whilst I agree with the “shoot RAW” mantra the anti-crop stance just doesn’t make sense to me and here’s why.

I Don’t Like My Camera’s Aspect Ratio

Whilst I love the micro 4/3 format for it’s small size, superb lenses and wonderful technology, I actually don’t care much for the 4 x 3 aspect ratio. For me as a landscape photographer it is just too square. So what can I do? Well, I can set my camera to a different aspect ratio but firstly the only options are 3 x 2 or 16 x 9 and I prefer 16 x 10, and secondly, what am I doing? Surely I’m cropping, I’m just doing it using the camera software rather than Lightroom and I’d much rather do it in Lightroom.

The point is that in my opinion it is the lack of cropping that will compromise my composition by forcing me to have an aspect ratio that doesn’t suit landscape photography.

You Can’t Always Be Exactly Where You Want When You Want

It is all very well for “experts” to keep trotting out the “get it right in camera” rule but it’s just not always possible. As an aside I also think that we should stop referring to these photography “rules” as I feel that beginners can be very put off if they don’t manage to adhere to them. Perhaps we should start referring to them as “pointers” or something like that because in 2015 the fact is that whilst you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear you can fix a lot in post and save a photograph that may otherwise have been a throwaway and one of the things you can fix is the composition.

The Langdale Pikes rise above Lake Windermere, Lake District, UK
This image was shot with a Canon 5D MKII which has a resolution of 5616 × 3744, yet after cropping this image came out at 4987 x 2153. The reason I had to crop was because this was the only vantage point from which to get this shot. I was shooting from a hillside, to move forward I had to move down the hill and lose the view.
Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 23.15.43
Original of above crop

From what I can see Mr. Polin shoots in a very controlled environment where I’m sure he can take the time to ensure he does get it right in camera but as a landscape photographer I don’t always have that luxury. When I’m out shooting my two main concerns are light and sky. I will think nothing of compromising composition by not being exactly where I want to ensure that I get the right light and sky. It is incredible how fast a scene changes, how fast the clouds go from beautiful white fluffy ones to a dull grey sky, how fast the light on a field changes from beautiful dappled light and shadow to flat and dull, and how the sun can disappear for the rest of the day leaving you having travelled miles staring down-hearted at what just a few seconds ago was an incredible scene that has now been replace by a boring, dull landscape that no-one will want to look at a photograph of.

This is why when I arrive anywhere I always quickly get a “banker” if the light is right. This is very often not taken from where I know I want to be but it sometimes turns out to be the best shot once it has been cropped.

You Shouldn’t Crop Because You’ll Lose Resolution

The main reason people cite for not cropping is that you lose resolution. This is true and I cannot argue with it for one second. It is absolutely correct that if you move your feet or zoom to re-compose and hence “get it right in camera” then you will keep the image at the full resolution that your camera will allow. But why does this matter? Well, bottom line is, in the real world it doesn’t. If you are sharing your images on-line or viewing them on your computer then with any decent camera you can crop severely and the resolution will still be plenty. But what about printing? Well, this is where it can matter, but generally you will have to go pretty mad with your cropping before you make an image unprintable, depending how big you want to print.

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Original of above crop. The crop is 2724 x 1703 or 4.6MP, still big enough to print at 34cm wide.

Let’s say you want to print at A3 size. I would suggest that 200dpi is more than acceptable so armed with this information we can work out the size of image we need to get a good print. So what is it? 36MP? 21MP? 16MP? Well, A3 is 16.53 x 11.69 inches, so 16.53 x 200 = 3306 and 11.69 x 200 = 2338px. So the size image we need to print A3 at 200dpi is 3306px X 2338px or 7.7MP. Will it be as good quality as if you’d got it right in camera? No it won’t. But will it be noticeable enough to stop you cropping a shot that doesn’t work into one that does? No, absolutely not, I have sold many images, some of which are on this page, that have been severely cropped.

An Image Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect

This is one for all the pixel peepers out there. Stop getting obsessed with the fine detail and look at the overall image. Does it work? Does it draw the viewer in? Do people say “wow” when they first glance at it? If the answer is yes then who cares if it is a little soft, or not perfect when viewed at 100%? Don’t throw away a good piece of art just because it is technically slightly flawed.

A fishing boat returns to St Ives harbour, Cornwall

Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 23.19.52
Original of above
The point here is that whilst one should always aspire to perfection it is generally impossible to achieve it. When I first started in photography all I read was “get it right in camera” as if this was a golden rule that could never be broken. The way I read it back then was if you didn’t get it right in camera (whatever that actually means) then you may as well throw it away. The first problem with this was that I had no idea what “right in camera” meant so it was difficult to know when or if I’d got it right. But more importantly it dawned on me that this was not a rule, it was an aspiration, what all those people were saying, badly as it happens, was if you can, get it right in camera, but if you can’t and the scene warrants a shot then give it a shot to the best of your ability and then do whatever you can to bring out the best in it using whatever technology you have available to you.
The bottom line is, don’t hang on every word of any photographer, not even me. Take advice, but always be prepared to ignore it and go with your gut instinct.
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