To Crop or Not to Crop

Cropping in photography is an important tool that can be used to change the meaning of a photograph, by drawing the viewer’s attention to a different part of the image than in the un-cropped version. Digital photography has made cropping easy as pie. Heck, these days, you can even crop your photos on your cell phone in seconds. The question is, should a professional photographer crop his photos or not?

Shortly after I first starting shooting professionally, I was invited to attend a critique session with a small group of fellow photographers in New York City. A friend of mine hosted the gathering his apartment – it was a casual affair with some beers and whiskey and laughter. I was feeling very cool to be hanging out with photographers – I’d only been shooting for money for a year or so and was feeling quite proud to consider myself a peer to all of these cool people. Photographers are inherently cool, right? Right?

These cool photographers were all either photo-journalists, art photographers or both. We viewed slide-shows of each of our work – the photographic styles ranged the gamut from truly artsy-fartsy photography and hard-hitting journalism on one end of the scale to my more commercial work on the other.

At one point one of the most successful photojournalists at the event declared that she never crops an image and that a true photographer captures an image in the frame or not at all. “Anyone who crops their photographs is a hack”, she said, “because they don’t really see what they are photographing.”

I remember getting very quiet at that point. Clearly I could not admit that I was cropping nearly 100% of all of my images. I was spending a lot of time on post-production in fact, cropping and tweaking my images until they were perfect. The idea of delivering a no-cropped photograph to a client seemed … well … crazy. Holy crap. What if all these cool people found out I cropped? Would they think I was a hack? Never mind that even to this day, the question of whether I’m a hack or not is an almost daily consideration. I now know that comes with the territory of being a photographer. But did I need to be so hard on myself? For the almighty sin of cropping?

Back then I relied on all of the advice I could get (and still do) from other photographers and hearing a statement like that from a fellow photographer threw me through a loop. It is always tough to be told that you’re doing something wrong, particularly by someone who you have just met and want to impress. The thing is, I wasn’t even sure if it was wrong, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I was too inexperienced to question the seasoned photographer’s opinion. I left that critique feeling like dirt, because despite my ability to produce good images, in my mind they were somehow tainted by my use of post-production.

These days I have become a lot more philosophical about the whole issue: the bottom line is that if I need to crop an image to sell it to an editor or client … I’m gonna crop that image. This is the essence of being a commercial photographer: deliver the image that the client has paid you to make, on-time and on-budget. End of story.

When I started thinking about cropping recently, I realized something interesting about my work. Without any real conscious thought about it, I almost never crop. When I do it is usually small tweaks to straighten out an the skyline in a portrait or to clip out an unsightly crumb or piece of flatware that has sneaked into the corner of a food shot. Don’t get me wrong though, the reason I don’t crop isn’t one of artistic purity of thought or some other such nonsense. The simple fact is that over time I have become better at seeing the shot that I want to make without having to go back and crop it later.

The ironic thing is that I think that I got to this point BECAUSE of all of the cropping that I did as a beginner. I taught myself how to see a better image by playing around with the photographs I made, and as time went on, I was able to get closer and closer to framing the image correctly in-camera. I would also go so far as to say that when I do find myself spending a lot of time cropping an image or a series of images it is because I wasn’t as successful capturing the subject as I would have liked to be, and am just trying to make a the proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear. When this happens I need to be aware of it and need to spend some time figuring out how to do better the next time around.

If you feel an image needs to be cropped, go ahead and crop it. There is no shame in trying to publish the best image possible. You will not get kicked out of the photography club for cropping (anyone who tells you that you are doing something “wrong” with photography is not thinking clearly). I personally find that if I can make the image I want to make in-camera it means less time at my computer working on post-production and more time behind the lens.

Just remember that if you are cropping every single image you’re shooting, then perhaps you are using it as a bit of a crutch to get through. Spend some time studying the images you’ve cropped and see if you can figure out how you might make the same photo without cropping the next time. At the very least it will save you some time in post.

The bottom line, however, is that the only thing that matters is that final image, and it doesn’t really matter how you get there.