Monday, February 20, 2017

The Crap On Cropping

Swish! The most cherished sound in basketball, when the ball enters the hoop eluding even the metal rim that engulfs it, and touches nothing but net on its homeward descent towards success. It means the trajectory of the shot was pure, confident, and barring the rare "lucky shot," the end product of countless hours of toil and practice.

All Photos: © S. Banos

Recently, I was challenged (to put it politely) on PetaPixel (see comments) to write something concerning cropping, more specifically, on why cropping in camera is such an important discipline to learn and master. Now, I don't usually do "tutorials" of this sort, but this is something I firmly believe in- one of the most important practices one can adapt towards becoming a better photographer. That said, I'm also a believer that every dog has its day, and that yes, there are those certain instances in which cropping after the fact is necessary, particularly to eliminate distracting elements that were just impossible to eliminate in the moment. Frankly, if you are shooting with a long telephoto, you are already cropping to an extreme- so have at it! And yes, many famous photographers (even Robert Frank) have cropped, do crop, will crop. I know, I know...

All B&W photos: Tri-X, Nikon, 20mm

But if you really want to develop your photographic eye, your sense of composition (and timing), cropping in camera is one of the most important disciplines any photographer should practice, practice seriously, and adapt for life- particularly in this digital era when we now have the incredible luxury of selecting various aspect ratios right in camera! It is as essential (if not more so) as consciously shooting in color or B&W, and not just converting to the latter as yet another last ditch attempt at visual redemption.

When you are out shooting (whatever your subject or genre), you should be looking for those compositional elements that either make or break a photo (and how to visually maximize or minimize them), and you should be doing so with the mindset that those are the very decisions that will ultimately decide your photo's fate. If you are operating in that mode, you are automatically disciplining yourself to look harder, work harder- you know there won't be any quick and easy shortcut at the end of the day to try and salvage that... which doesn't... quite... work. 

Wide angles are invaluable compositional tools for comparison and contrast, balance and emphasis.

That doesn't mean you don't shoot till you have the so called "perfect shot," it means you practice and discipline yourself to the point where you are making each and every corner of that rectangle work for the image- whatever the circumstances. And when it doesn't work out, instead of trying to salvage a mediocrity, you study and assess why it failed, and vow not to make the same mistake twice (don't worry, you will- just not as many times). Hone your craft to the point that when you see an opportunity, you are capable of composing it in the moment to its fullest potential- and no, it most certainly is not easy. What's that? Life is happening too fast and doesn't wait for you!? Is that what Winogrand, Meyerowitz, Friedlander, Cohen, Gilden, Papageorge or HCB said when photographing the street? Learn to anticipate and make movement work for you, grasshopper- theirs and yours! Learn where to place yourself; street photography in particular is a dance between you and your subject matter. Study the masters' images, along with good lighting, their success and spontaneity derive from placing the main subject matter and supporting details where they matter most to balance, complement or contrast- no space is wasted

Color photos: Ricoh GR

Finally, to help facilitate this most crucial of exercises- know your tools. Many of the aforementioned masters use very simple kits, and they've shot with it for years; in particular, they know the strengths, limitations and perspective of their lens- how it renders various subject matter, and how, where and when to position it for maximum effect. Every millimeter of that image should be sacred, hallowed ground to be used to your advantage- if you go into it with that reverence and respect of craft, you won't be so nonchalant about mutilating it after the fact. 

Someone once implied that this process was rather anal, this automatic rejection of shots that were not composed properly from the get go- I simply asked what they would call the repeated practice of trying to recompose and (re)crop a photo after the fact, into something it already wasn't...

Color automatically adds more information- a 28mm (e) lens can prove ideal.

“If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson


  1. Great article Stan, and quite the lively discussion on PetaPixel! I feel the same way you do, it's my job to effectively use that rectangle (or sometimes a square) and place the subjects in a strong compositional matter in it. When I was younger and learning the basics, I always felt something was wrong cropping a photo to make a print. I would look at it drying and think "Well you know if you would have gotten closer" or "You should have taken a couple of steps to the right..."

    also, that photo you opened this article with, is one my all time favorites of yours, is it one of your books?

  2. Thanks! One could also lose considerable quality when cropping a 35mm neg.

    The photo is in the Peopl(e) book; a friend of mine got a 27in inkjet of that photo for his living room- amazing how it held up! Grainy? You bet- but the tonal values are amazing- don't think digital would've held up as well under same conditions...