Cropping is the Single Most Important Photo Edit You Can Do


We’re sold software on the basis that what we can’t get right in-camera, we can fix and improve after the event. Even with all the fancy algorithms that are available to us, the single best thing you go do to your image is a simple crop.

Editing seems to be a bit of a Marmite activity — you either love it or hate it. There are those professionals who only want to be behind the camera and outsource all their editing to a production house that has a style they favor. Then there are those that see shooting as only half of the equation; you capture the image, but have a responsibility to turn it into the creation you envisioned. Of course, some shooters believe that you should get an image as close to the finished article in-camera, before a few automated tweaks in Photo Mechanic sees it winging its way to the client. Others are more inclined to view the memory card as a medium to store as much information about the scene as possible before extensive post-production manipulation.

Capture One Tools

In truth, most of us sit somewhere between those two extremes because we don’t have the luxury to outsource, don’t get it right in-camera every time, and because some things you just can’t do in-camera. This is no more true than when shooting with a smartphone where the camera’s weaknesses are brutally exposed, to then be deftly covered up by some clever automated post-production which goes completely unnoticed on a heavily over-saturated, over-sharpened, selfie on Instagram.

Core Image Edits

For the more subtle eye, editing is a far more nuanced practice that has deep roots in the film world. Whereas a smartphone shooter may well take one image, touch it up, and post it before moving on to the next, film required that there was a pregnant pause between shooting and editing that necessitated focusing on one before the other.

This created a dilemma: did I capture the image I wanted? The solution was to shoot multiple images — both repeats and variations — on the same theme. This then gave you something to work with in the dark room.

Only in a controlled environment — typically a studio — do you get the luxury to control every aspect of your shoot. As soon as you step outside, then more time is spent covering any mistakes. Divorcing editing from shooting is increasingly apparent the more frenetic your shooting becomes. This is no more evident than when shooting weddings or sports; you are in a time-dependent situation and have one chance (no re-runs!), often with limited gear. Perhaps inevitably, the end results will not always meet your aspirations and the role 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 core image edits? I think these boil down to the three primary controls you utilize when shooting: framing, exposure, and focus.

For post-production, this means adjusting crop and rotation, relative brightness, and sharpening, while also adding in color. Focus is the most critical to get right in-camera, although sharpening can at least partially mitigate small mistakes.

By far and away the most critical element — in my opinion — is the crop and rotation. Sure, you can have desperately under or over-exposed images which you might be able to rescue to an acceptable level, although blinkies are non-recoverable. However, that is about the gross error; most of the time it is small corrections for metering where you haven’t applied any exposure compensation and are usually in the one-stop range. You also want to get the exposure balance correct; how you do this will depend upon your personal style but could involve editing shadows/highlights, curves, or levels. Or combinations of them. However, the human eye is quite tolerant of these variations and less prone to the conscious complaint.

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

Cropping and Rotating

As I noted above, shooting under pressure is about capturing the moment and puts less importance on framing. That doesn’t mean framing is unimportant — it is. It’s just that other imperatives take precedence. However, once you are post-shoot, you are now in a position to tell the story.

In this instance, I think there are five reasons why you might want to crop. Firstly, because you got the shot plain wrong. You were in the wrong place, framed wrong, or just didn’t see what was actually going on even if you did manage to capture it. As the shot below shows, weddings are fast-moving and it’s easy to be wrong-footed, particularly when trying to capture those ad hoc moments. You might not crop in the same way, for the story you want to tell, but this was too busy and the subject was the lady in red.

Cropping: the wrong shot

Secondly, there is the long-reach shot. You know exactly what you want to get but aren’t in a position to get it. This might be because of an obstruction or because you are using a prime and can’t get closer. Either way, you rely on the reach of resolution to make up for the deficiency. In the below example, I wanted to get shots of the guests, not the couple. I know I would get reactions as they threw confetti and this was a prime example. Except I wasn’t in a position to be close enough.

Cropping: the long reach

Thirdly comes the wrong framed touch-up. This is an “I almost got it right” moment where the shot presented itself, I framed it up correctly, and grabbed it. It’s only in the cold light of the following day that you realize it should be cropped and straightened slightly. I was conscious that by cropping in it felt less like his feet were chopped off, as well as removing extraneous visual clutter.

Cropping: the touch up

Fourthly, because you want to change the aspect ratio. That might be because the image better suits it, you need to match ratios across different cameras, or in order to compile an album. The crop below gets rid of unnecessary clutter which tells a better story.

Cropping: the aspect ratio

The fifth, and final, type of crop is what you might call serendipitous luck or when you see something else. Photography, and particularly weddings, is about storytelling so it is always a pleasant feeling when you see something else in your photo that you hadn’t been expecting when you shot it. This was a grab shot as I was roving capturing guests milling around. It wasn’t until I looked at this later that I realized he was hitching his trousers up, a classic off-camera moment.

Cropping: serendipity

It’s All in the Crop

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

In fact, shout it from the rooftops. But not all edits are equal and you don’t necessarily have the time or inclination to apply them all. If there was one edit to pick above everything else, then it is the crop for the reasons above. It allows you to really hone your message. This is even more pertinent in the era of smartphones where much of the clever post-production is done for you; except, of course, the phone won’t know how to crop the image (although it could hazard a guess at straightening it).

Image credits: Elements of header photo licensed via Depositphotos.