The how of anything in photography is easy to learn.
The why is the more difficult question to answer but so much more fun.
That said, many people struggle with the why and because of that they never dig deeper into their own photography because there isn’t a clear and direct answer. There is no rule that says you have to crop or compose like this or like that. Yes yes, I know the Rule of Thirds says you have to always place the subject on the power point etc. etc. but that is, if you’re using it correctly, just a guideline and an example of why rules should be broken.
I have found that when it comes to their own photography many people would rather go for an if-then type of approach to their photography – rules driven – because it’s easier but by doing this they never answer the why and that is where the real magic is.
So, let’s look at cropping.
Like I said, the how is easy. Read any tutorial on cropping, learn the necessary keyboard shortcuts and you’ll be on top of the how very quickly. It’s at this point, once you know how, that you need to move on to the why.
Let’s use this image as an example.
This uncropped image complies to all the rules from a composition point of view. The subject is on one bottom left power point looking ‘into’ the open space, the horizon is close to the bottom third of the frame and there’s loads of negative space.
So do we just leave it there or do we go deeper?
There’s a concept called Visual Mass which refers to the element in the frame which draws your eye the most. In this instance it would be the penguin. There is nothing that fights for your visual attention and you cannot help but look at the bird.
The thing is that when you look at the image your eyes don’t just get stuck on the main subject and that’s it. Our gaze tends to drift across the frame and more often than not this is something you as the photographer can use in order to create stronger images.
In the image above the penguin is looking into the right of the frame which means that once you’ve see him your eyes will naturally move to the right of the frame. The horizontal movement of your gaze is then also supported by the rocks on which the penguin is standing which helps the side to side energy in the frame.
This visual energy is one of the first things you want to take into consideration when you ask your why you should crop an image.
I which way will my viewer read my image? Side to side or up and down?
In order to enhance the visual energy in this particular image I could crop the frame from the original aspect ratio to a 16:9 which will enhance the side to side movement of my eyes through the frame.
Same image. Same content. Same narrative. But overall a stronger image.
To me personally it would not make sense to crop this image into a portrait orientation as everything in the frame ‘says’ to me to look side to side. By changing the orientation I am immediately suggesting to the reader of my image that they will have to read the image up and down which is contradicted by the penguin looking to the side.
It’s most definitely not wrong but can you see how the narrative in the frame changes? You feel you want to read the image up and down but the penguin says otherwise.
Also, notice how in the this image the narrative in the frame is a lot more about the penguin than the open space it finds itself in which in itself could be your why when you decide to crop.
Some of the questions you might have asked yourself when creating an image like this.
- Which way does my eyes move through the image? Up and down or side to side?
- How can I, by cropping the image, enhance this natural energy or movement in the frame?
- What do I want to be the main narrative in my frame? The subject close up or the open space?
All of these questions will help you to figure out why you want or need to crop the image and then the how will be so much easier. These questions can be taken even further back to when you are in the field so keep them in mind when you are deciding how to compose in the field.
Here are a few more examples of how the visual energy in the frame can be highlighted and used as a very strong compositional elements when you create and crop your images. Each of these images has been slightly cropped to enhance the natural energy and direction of energy in the frame.
When you’re next out in the field don’t just get stuck on the how and make a point to think of the why.
Why do I want to take this picture?
Why should I shoot this in a landscape orientation?
Why should I crop this image as 16:9?
Eventually the answer to your questions will be more of a gut feel or instinct than a step by step thought process but, as they say, you have to learn to crawl before you walk. And trust me, it will be worth it!
Until next time.