Contemplative Composition in Photography (Podcast 636)

Contemplative Composition in Photography (Podcast 636)

Today we’re going to dive into some of the thought processes I use when composing my photographs, with some real-world examples to help illustrate my ideas.

This post is a continuation of last week’s post in which I relayed many of the shooting methods that I use to ensure that I get great quality images without having to spend lots of time finessing my photos on the computer. It was already a long post, so I decided to talk about composition as a separate subject this week.

Having said that, although I’ll provide some explanations regarding compositional formulae, I am not going to provide an A-Z guide, preferring instead to give you advice on the questions I ask myself in the field and my methodology, so that you can implement this in your own unique photography.

Be Deliberate

The first and foremost advice that I can give on composition, is to be deliberate in your work. Although I’ve met some very talented exceptions, the majority of the time, if you shoot without giving much thought to what you are doing, your images will be weak and unrefined.

Of course, it’s easy to just tell you to think about what you are doing, but it takes time to develop what I call a Mental Checklist which you run through as you shoot, to help with the considerations that you need to think through in order to decide on a pleasing composition. The good news is that the more you shoot, the more automatic many of these decisions become, and that leaves us free to ask the questions that lead us to our most compelling compositions.

Settings Order

Some of the main questions I ask myself as I approach any scene start, for me, with my exposure settings, which I mostly decide in this order. Keep in mind that I work in Manual mode most of the time, so I’m changing my settings while looking through the viewfinder and checking where the caret on the meter falls based on the meter reading, and adjust from there with my own interpretation of what’s really happening with the light.

The majority of the time, I start by setting my Aperture, as this to me has the greatest effect on the visual appearance of my resulting photograph. You may have noticed that I use f/14 a lot for my landscapes, and that is because I like to get a lot of the scene in focus, and f/14 enables me to get deep depth of field, with most if not all of the scene in focus, from the foreground to infinity.

Photographer's Friend 3 for iOS

When using long telephoto lenses, the depth of field becomes shallower and shallower still as you focus closer to the camera, but you learn how much depth of field you get through experience, and also I spent a lot of time, especially in my early days, using Depth of Field calculators, such as the one I now have in our Photographer’s Friend app for iOS.

The reason I try to avoid using an aperture much smaller than f/14 is diffraction, that can start to creep in. Diffraction is caused by light spreading out as it passes through a very small hole, and I built in diffraction warnings to the Depth of Field calculator in Photographer’s Friend, to help show when this might start to affect your images as you stop down the aperture. 

In my tests last year I actually found that most of my lenses don’t really start to suffer from Diffraction until I stop down to f/22, so now continuing to use f/14 is more of a habit than a requirement, but it’s enough to get the depth of field that I want with wider lenses. I explained all about Diffraction and shared how you can test your own lenses in Episode 594 if you’d like to check that out.

Moroccan Man (Karim) in Well
Moroccan Man (Karim) in Well

I will, of course, use a wider aperture when I want a shallow depth of field, and also, sometimes it’s simply too dark to stop down the aperture for more depth of field. For example, when I photographed this gentleman (left) inside an irrigation channel in Morocco last year, there was so little light that I opened up my aperture to f/4, the widest the lens I was using would go before I even raised the camera to my eye.

The next setting I decide on usually is Shutter Speed. I’ve already decided what depth of field I want, and now I have to decide if I want to freeze the motion of anything that might be moving or allow it to move over time with a longer exposure.

In Morocco, I actually try really hard to use Aperture Priority, as the street photography style environment makes manual a little bit difficult to keep up with sometimes. For this photograph, I ended up with a shutter speed of 1/40 of a second, and that really is as slow as I’d risk shooting something like this at.

To get to 1/40 of a second, I actually had to dial in minus two stops of exposure compensation, because the dark environment was fooling the camera into thinking that it had to increase the exposure too much, which would have resulted in the man being over-exposed, and the dark background too bright.

Even then though, the risk of using a 1/40 of a second shutter speed is that the man might move during the exposure, and also at 105 mm focal length, even with Image Stabilization turned on, I’m risking introducing camera movement as well. The rule of thumb is that you use the focal length as your minimum hand-held shutter speed, so at 105 mm I really want at least 1/100 of a second, but in such low light conditions we have to take some calculated risks.

After setting my aperture and shutter speed based on what I need for the aesthetic values of the photograph, or based on restrictions placed on me by the environment, I generally adjust the exposure with the ISO. As I mentioned last week, it’s important to not be afraid to crank the ISO up a little when necessary, as shooting with too low an ISO will introduce noise because the image gets too dark. You are actually less likely to see grain by increasing the ISO.

Again, because I was using an automated exposure mode for this example photograph from Morocco, I had also turned on Auto-ISO and set a maximum ISO for the camera to use at 6400, and that is what I shot this image with. What this means though is that I was at f/4, my widest aperture, with a 1/40 of a second shutter speed, the slowest I wanted to risk shooting at, and the highest ISO. The resulting image was actually a little bit darker than I’d have liked, but with my hands tied, I rolled with it, and the grain was there, but acceptable.

I knew it would be because I have worked in these conditions often enough that I know what my camera will give me under these conditions. The important thing is that you think through each setting and understand why you select them, and what you can expect to gain from each setting.

Use a Tripod When Possible

For the previous example, it wasn’t possible to use a tripod, as I was in a narrow passageway with my workshop group, and also even if I had used a tripod, using an even longer exposure would have just introduced more risk of subject movement, but when it’s an option, using a tripod will generally help with your composition. Some people dislike using a tripod because they slow you down, but guess what? That’s one of the main advantages of using a tripod.

I use a tripod for 99% of my landscape work, because it gives me the time and stability to really refine my composition. I am very careful about how I frame my images, and hand-holding your camera, regardless of how steady you hold it, will always result in the camera moving around as you compose your photos. It’s impossible to really look at where each of the four edges of the frame fall, and align them all perfectly at the same time. The only way to do that, is to have the camera on a tripod, and fix it in place.

Use LiveView When Possible

Another thing that I recommend is to flip your camera into Live View at least as a part of your process to check your composition. When we look through the viewfinder, although the scene is framed, it’s still a three-dimensional scene, and our brains find it much easier to ignore distractions if it can move back and forth between the layers of the scene. Live View, on the other hand, shows us the image in two dimensions, flattening it, so that all of the elements in your frame are on the same plane, and this really helps us to identify problems and fix them before we make the exposure.

Of course, Live View doesn’t work well if you are hand-holding with a DSLR, but the electronic viewfinder on mirrorless cameras probably does bring some of these benefits to hand-held shooting, because you are looking at a flat image, as opposed to the actual scene through your lens.

Give Your Subjects Space

Shortly I’ll talk about using a tight crop to add drama, but as you saw in the previous example, I did two other things that I’d like to mention, the first of which is that you might notice that I left a lot of negative space to the right of the subject and above him. The space to his right is to add some balance. I’m not afraid to place a subject in the middle of the frame when it suits, although that’s generally considered to be a no-no. We’ll get to that too shortly as well though.

I’ve actually used the rule of thirds here, by placing the subject along the left third of the image. Although you’ll probably hear people telling you to avoid the rule of thirds because it’s overused, I really also want you to keep it in mind, because we as an art-loving biological being find it pleasing to look at. Artists have been placing their subjects on the third intersections of works of art for centuries.

Of course, just plonking your subject on a third line won’t help it if it’s badly lit and not well thought out, but in some circumstances, it’s definitely a compositional technique to consider as an option, and definitely, don’t try to avoid it just because someone told you its cliche. Make up your own mind!

The reason that I added some space above this gentleman, is to give him some space to look into. The light in the scene is coming from directly above, and I had asked him to look up into the light like this. If I’d cropped the image off directly above his head, it would look unnecessarily cramped. The other thing that I did consciously that I wanted to mention, is that I decided to crop of this gentleman’s feet, simply because he was wearing white sneakers that really didn’t match the rest of his traditional clothing.

The Not-So Dreaded Bullseye Composition

At One With Oneself
At One With Oneself

Just as I don’t want you to rule out the rule of thirds, I also want to dispel the common advice to not put your subject in the middle of the frame. Even though we call it the rule of thirds, it’s not a rule at all. It’s a guideline. Just one option from a plethora of compositional techniques to draw from as we see fit.

As you can see in this photograph of a snow monkey, I chose to put the monkeys face smack in the middle of the frame, and I think it works this way. I was careful to get equal amounts of space all around the face, but notice too that the face isn’t even sharp.

I broke another so-called rule here, by focusing on the monkey’s wet fur, rather than the face. To me this adds a little bit of mystique, forcing the viewer to fill in the gaps for themselves. I’ve even partly obscured the monkey’s eyes with its fur, again, something that you might try to avoid, but I think this all helps to add a certain amount of emotion to this image.

At least for me, I feel as though this monkey is deep in thought, because of the position of the face and the downward looking pose, but most of that is simply created by the composition. The reality is that the monkey was simply snoozing at the side of the hot-spring bath, probably not thinking about anything more than its next meal, but we can read so much more into this because of the composition.

The Tight Crop

Another reason the snow monkey photo works is because of the drama caused by the tight crop. This is the same for the image we’ll look at later of the sand dune, where the tight crop works best, in my opinion. 

Quite often, getting in closer and focusing on the most interesting visual elements will result in a stronger image. The problem is that when we are actually in the field, somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of our location, our brains tend to ignore the boring parts of a scene, and trick us into thinking it’s more beautiful than it is by focussing only on the elements interests us.

It’s important to evaluate what it is exactly that is attracting you, and think through your options to maximize the impact of those elements of interest. For example, here is a photograph of the mountains and glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón in Iceland. I’ve never shared this photograph because it’s absolutely boring! It’s boring because going wide like this has left all of the individual elements of the scene so small that they lose their impact and drama.

Jökulsárlón Icebergs and Glacier
Jökulsárlón Icebergs and Glacier

This is a somewhat extreme example, but to me, grabbing a long lens and finding details like the water flowing around the base of an iceberg can often be a much more compelling image than a wider scene trying to include too many elements.

Water and Ice
Water and Ice

The Human Element

Talking of elements, I also sometimes find that adding a human element to a scene can help the viewer to put themselves in the environment. As beautiful as the valley can be, one of the most popular photos from my first visit to Iceland turned out to be this one, where I used jumped into the frame myself and looked out across the land. 

Martin in Landmannalaugar
Martin in Landmannalaugar

Despite us patiently waiting for the crowds to disappear to get a clean shot of the Skogafoss waterfall also in Iceland, this shot became an instant hit thanks to the guy that walked barefoot out in front of the falls with an umbrella! Even for what is essentially a landscape photograph, the human element can add so much, even without being very large in the frame.

Umbrella Man at Skógafoss
Umbrella Man at Skógafoss

Also, note that as deliberate as I like to be, this photo was very spontaneous. I was walking away from the falls with my group when the man started to walk out like this, so I had literally just a few seconds to drop my camera back down again and frame this up for just one shot. 

Zoom However You Like!

There is one popular mantra blindly regurgitated by photographers around the world that rubs me up the wrong way, and that is “Zoom with your Feet”. This is one of those phrases that is used in my opinion for one of three reasons, all of which I take exception too, which are…

  1. To make you feel guilty for not walking

    If you blindly walk closer to a subject, you completely change your perspective. You might remember my episode 568 post “The Effect of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective“, in which I show examples of how the perspective of our photos changes as move closer to our subjects.

    Assuming you change your focal length as you move, this changes the relationship between the foreground and background elements in your frame, so there is always going to be an optimal distance for your composition. If you need to walk towards your subject to get to that distance, you’d essentially be zooming with your feet, but we should never do that blindly without considering perspective.

  2. To protect the ego of the 50mm lens shooter

    Some people latch on to mantras like zoom with your feet to help them to live with their decision not to buy a longer lens. There is a certain snobbery I sometimes come across with regards to using short focal length lenses and I sometimes meet people that have decided to only use prime lenses, and again, that’s your decision, but that doesn’t mean that you have to attack others for their decision to use a longer focal length to get their shots.

    It’s just another decision, like whether to use a Mac or a Windows computer, or whether to by a Canon or Nikon camera, or any of the other amazing cameras on the market. We make our own decisions, and it is completely unnecessary to tell other people why they are wrong about their own choices.

  3. Inability to think objectively

    The third reason I believe some people spout the zoom with your feet mantra is more understandable, as a general flaw in our human nature, but some people really just lack the ability to think objectively about the possible reasoning of others to do what they do.

    For example, a street photographer may well be able to shoot 90% of their images with a 35mm lens, and get stunning results, but if I were to take a 35mm lens to Namibia and try to photograph this lion doing what is actually just a fierce looking yawn, I would obviously have to get a little bit too close to avoid being eaten.

The Scowl
The Scowl

The same goes for walking off the edge of a cliff or into a body of water. There are a plethora of reasons why zooming with your feet may not be the best option, but I’ve talked enough about this for now, so I’ll jump off my soap-box and move on.

Effects of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective

In fact, before we move on, let’s look at an example of the effects of subject distance and focal length on the perspective that we achieve in our photographs, using some images from last year’s Complete Namibia Tour. First of all, here is a photo from a distance as we approached a sand dune. In this first image I included the entire dune and some of the sky.

Dune #35
Dune #35

This shows the dune in its entirety, with the trees at its base, but it’s not a very impactful image. The trees seem a little insignificant, and the dune itself doesn’t look all that impressive. My focal length for this image was 200mm.

As we move closer, here is another photo, shot with a focal length of 148mm, which shows the trees much better, because I’m closer to them now, but including the top of the sand dune makes it look much smaller than the previous shot. This is because of the relationship between the larger trees, and because I’m now forming a more acute angle on the first peak of the dune, almost obscuring the more distant peak, making it look much smaller.

Dune #35 Closer
Dune #35 Closer

I think this is a nicer photo than the first, but it doesn’t do the sand dune any justice. This third image though, shot with a focal length of 312mm, enables me to completely fill the frame with the sand dune, which in my opinion does both the trees and the dune justice, by balancing their visual weight in a much more appealing way.

Dune #35 Closer Still
Dune #35 Closer Still

You could also argue that the dune appears larger in this final image than the first two, simply because we cannot actually see it’s edges. We have no clue as to how large the sand dune is, but we do know that it’s at least four times or so larger than the trees. The other point that I wanted to make about this composition is that it also becomes harder to understand what you are looking at, with the darker shadow side and the texture in the sand apparently confusing some people, and I like that. I find that images can be more visually rewarding if you have to work a little to understand them.

And to circle back to the zoom with your feet topic, I did indeed walk a fair distance to get close enough to this dune to make these photos, but I also zoomed with my zoom lens to 312mm to make what I consider to be the optimal image that this dune has to offer. It’s more about using your brain and your own sense of the aesthetic than rotely following a mantra that is used for the wrong reasons far too often.

Tell A Story When Possible

Another mantra that I am kind of sick of hearing, is that every photo should tell a story. I don’t believe that every photograph can tell a story, opting myself to at least try to evoke some kind of an emotion in the viewer, as I described in my post about What Makes a Photograph Fine Art back in Episode 589.

But, when we can tell a story with a photograph, it can be a powerful thing. For this next image (below) I had arranged for a couple of camel handlers to walk through the dunes in Morroco, so that my group and I could photograph them, and we were lucky to have a beautiful sunset while we were out there as well.

Camel Silhouettes at Sunset
Camel Silhouettes at Sunset

Again the human element helps here, but we can build our own story based on the visual clues in this photograph, perhaps thinking of a romantic distant land, with the camel handler hear making his way to meet his future wife with his camel dowry, or something like that. I don’t even know if they have a dowry system in Morocco, but you get the picture.

Decluttering and Minimalism

I love minimalist photography. A tree on a snow-covered hill to me is one of the most satisfying types of photography I do. I mentioned giving the subject some space earlier but wanted to follow up here and say that in this kind of minimalist work, I really feel that in many ways, space is the subject. The tree and its shadow, and the grasses poking through the snow in this photograph (below) are nothing without the snow itself that is taking up most of the space in this image.

Tree with Grasses
Tree with Grasses

Because of the need for this space, I find that when composing this kind of image, the opposite approach to the tight crop is called for. I tend to go wider and include more space around what you might consider to be the main subject because the subject, in this case, is nothing without its space to live in. 

The reason this space works though, is because its uncluttered. Some of my images like this don’t even have the additional grasses, so there is nothing but snow, a tree, and a white or grey sky. Just as the snow absorbs sound, making it a surreal and relaxing environment to work in, it cleans everything up visually too, and this is incredibly appealing to me, and probably why my Hokkaido Landscape Tours are so popular.

The other takeaway from this though is the importance of decluttering your images, even when there is no snow to help with this. We are responsible for everything in the frame, and it’s our job to select a camera position and focal length that enables us to best isolate our subjects in an environment that contains the least distractions, and this comes back to my point about being deliberate. Look and really see what is in the frame, and ensuring that the edges of your frame are clean, and cut off in a pleasing way is of paramount importance.

Cropping in Post

One subject that came up in the comments for last week’s post, that I want to mention for thoroughness, is that although I prefer to get my images as close as possible in the field, there are times when I’m happy to crop my images, so let’s explore when I might do this.

The main reason that I consider cropping my work, is when it feels to me as though it will simply work better in a format other than the 3:2 aspect ratio that my camera records images in. For example, in the below image, I wanted to include a lot of zebras in the main group to show the one of the left as standing outside of the main group. I also wanted to cut off the group to the right in open space, rather than splice through a zebra, so this naturally led to an image with a lot of detailless sky.

Odd Zebra Out
Odd Zebra Out

Cropping this down to a 16:9 ratio helped me to reduce the amount of sky in the shot, and I also like the 16:9 crop, because it looks great on a widescreen computer or TV. I’m finding myself viewing images on the TV more and more now that we have such large 4K screens to really do our work justice.

I will also try to decide on the crop when I’m shooting, but unlike my policy to not clone anything out that I didn’t see in the field, that I mentioned last week, for cropping, I’m fine with cropping it and just seeing what it feels like after the event. My camera does have a feature where I can crop the images in the camera, and I can also tell it to not actually crop the image, just add the cropping information, so that I can edit it later, but I personally don’t do this. I can imagine what the various crops will look like easily enough without emulating it in the camera.

I Rarely Crop Arbitrarily

I also wanted to mention that I rarely simply use the crop tool without locking it to a specific crop ratio, simply because I like to ensure that I can print images with at least a certain amount of conformity. Of course, the 16:9 crop that I just mentioned is more for screen viewing, but for prints, I like to use either the native 3:2 aspect ratio, and I also like 2:1, where the image is twice as wide as it is high. 

I don’t only create canvas gallery wraps, but using specific ratios also make it easier to get the right sized stretcher bars for my prints. For example, for the regular 3:2 aspect ratio we have 20 and 30 inch stretcher bars, and for a 2:1 aspect ratio I could use 20-inch bars and 10-inch bars, or 40-inch and 20-inch bars. Now that I have a 44 inch wide large format printer, I could even use 60-inch and 30-inch bars, although I haven’t stocked this size yet.

For fine art prints, it’s not really a problem to have arbitrary crop sizes, because I always print with a border, and the image would just fit inside the borders, but having my images all cropped to specific aspect ratios does still enable me to select images of the same crop ratio just for conformity. When possible I like to present work that adheres to a specific set of attributes.

Again though, like many of the decisions I make, these are all just personal preference, and if you are happy to crop your images freely, rather than sticking to specific ratios, that’s completely fine. I’m just relaying what I do in case it can inform your own decisions in any way.

Northern Red Fox's Yawn
Northern Red Fox’s Yawn

The 4:5 Crop

Another crop ratio that I like to use is 4:5, based purely on the aesthetic quality I associate with the popular medium format ratio.

This ratio really suits portraits and was a popular film size with portrait photographers. In my own work, the image that sprang to mind as I tried to locate an example image was this one of a Northern Red Fox yawning, as we photographed him from the bus during one of my Japan Winter Wildlife Tours a few years ago.

Again, here I was using the crop to reduce the blue above the foxes head, but I do think it enhances the image by making it feel more like a portrait, as I think we’ve been conditioned to associate the 4:5 with portrait work.

I also use the 1:1 square crop too occasionally, but by that point I generally start to feel as though I’m throwing away too many pixels, so I’m more likely to shoot two or three frames and stitch them together for a square image rather than cropping down from a single frame.

Having said that, now that I’m shooting with 50-megapixel cameras, I’m more likely that I was before to crop in a little more heavily, as I can still leave myself more pixels than I used to get with an uncropped image just a few years ago. 


I could go on, and keep looking for examples and my thinking behind each photograph, but again, this has turned into a bit of a mega-post, so we’ll wrap it up there for now. As I mentioned at the start, a lot of what I’ve covered today aren’t solid guidelines, but I hope that what we have touched on will help you to make the optimal decisions regarding compositions as you create your own photographs.

I’m a firm believer in not necessarily learning rules but learning how to think for ourselves, and then thinking our way through situations to reach our own often new and refreshing conclusions. I’m being contradictory here in that I hope you read or listen to what I have to say on this stuff, but at the same time, don’t want you to think too much about what people say, especially when there are a lot of “shoulds” in the post.

I prefer myself to avoid using the word “should” because I don’t think we can really tell people what to do or how to do it. As we gain more and more experience in our wonderful pursuit of photography, we gradually fill a mental toolbox with tools which we can draw from as we work. The more tools you have in your toolbox the more likely you will be to pick the best tool based on your own interpretation of any given situation, rather than have someone hand you a tool and tell you exactly how you should use it.

Show Notes

Check out my Mental Checklist post here:

I explain about Diffraction and how to test your lenses for it here:

Here is my post on what makes a photograph fine art:

You can check out my tours and workshops here:

Music by Martin Bailey


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Cropping #2 – Aspect Ratios and Ethics (Podcast 138)

Cropping #2 – Aspect Ratios and Ethics (Podcast 138)

Last week we looked at how cropping is often used for artistic reasons, sometimes to overcome technical issues in capture or to bypass restrictions of your gear. Today I’ll go into more details on cropping for printing to a certain paper size, and automating the process of cropping, although I really don’t advise you do this personally, at least not on your originals. There is of course an ethical discussion surrounding cropping too, which I’ll go into a little at the end of today’s Podcast. I would once again like to thank Keith Wolfe, from Florida in the U.S. and Josephine Hughes, from Dublin in Ireland for questions on this subject.

So, now that we know what options are available in Photoshop and Lightroom for straight cropping and rotating, let’s go back to answering a major part of Josephine and Keith’s questions. Both asked about standardizing their cropping, and matching it to popular photo sizes, such as 5×7 or 8×10 etc. The most important thing to note with regards to cropping for certain print sizes though, is don’t do this to your originals. No matter how much sense this seems to make at the time, you really should never throw away pixels, because you never know when you’ll need them in the future. After all, if your only interest was shooting for 5×7” prints, you could just select the smallest size JPEG file that your camera can create, and even just go out and buy yourself a 2 megapixel camera, because that’s all you need to make a 5×7 print. It is highly like though that if you are listening to this Podcast, which we know you are, then you shoot more than just family snaps and it also highly likely that if you shot something out of this world, you’d want to print it at a larger size than 5×7 at some point, so let’s not restrict your choices unnecessarily.

Swans Awake

Even if you use Lightroom which saves the crop information separately, and doesn’t actually alter the base file, another important thing to note is that one crop does not fit all paper sizes. They are pretty much all different aspect ratios. Many digital cameras start off with an aspect ratio of 3×2, which is the aspect ratio of 35mm film, though some cameras shoot in 4×3 aspect ratio, which is the same as computer screens before wide screens started to become popular. If your camera shoots in a 3×2 ratio, and you crop for a 5×7” print size, you’ll lose a small slither of pixels from each side of the image. If you crop for an 8×10” print however, you’ll lose just over twice as much from either side. If you crop for an 8.5×11 print, then you’ll get a bit back. This means that automatically cropping you images down with no regard for their final use automatically in post processing is going to cause you problems later, especially if you are working in Photoshop, as it will apply the crop to your images, and then throw away pixels. What I suggest is that if you want to prepare photos for any particular print size, go ahead and make a copy of the original. If you use JPEGs, this is not such a big deal when it comes to disk space. If you use RAW, you might want to output JPEGs to a separate folder and/or use a different naming convention, say by appending the word “print” to the end of each file name. If you use Lightroom, you could also consider using Virtual Copies, as this does not actually duplicate the file.

By the way, we won’t be looking at any more cropped photos today, but I’m going to throw a favourite cropped image into the audio files and feed just for something to look at. Anyway, let’s take a look at how you actually apply the right aspect ratio for a certain paper size. Well, the cropping tools in both Photoshop and Lightroom have the ability to select or define preset cropping aspect ratios. In Photoshop, after you select the crop tool, there is another crop tool icon in the top left of the screen, with a small black triangle pointing downwards, indicating that there are options to view. If you click the triangle you will see a list of presets. If you’ve made any changes to the settings, you can click the little page icon on the right of this menu which is to Create a New Tool Preset. The width and height, and also the Resolution of the crop will be saved to the preset. This may sound a little complicated, but basically, if you want to crop your image to a 5×7 inch format, just select the 5×7 inch preset and make your selection. The selection rectangle will be restricted to an aspect of 5×7. Now, Photoshop is not very clever in one respect, or of course it could be me that is not very clever for not figuring this out, but if you are cropping a landscape aspect image, and select the 5×7 preset, it still draws a portrait aspect rectangle. You have to hit the two arrows between the width and height fields to switch the values around, making it the same aspect ratio as your image.

This is the best way I can see in Photoshop to crop your image to a specific aspect ratio. Lightroom in my opinion wins out here again though. In Lightroom, you also have the presets, which can be found again in the toolbar under the image when you have hit R on your keyboard to enter the crop mode. You’ll see a padlock that will be either locked or unlocked. If it’s locked, it means you cannot change the aspect ratio when dragging the nodes of the cropping frame around. If you want to be able to freely change the ratio, just click the padlock to open it, or vice versa. To select a preset size, again say you want to crop to the 5×7 ratio, just hit the little up and down arrows to the right of the padlock, after it says Aspect, Original, unless you already changed it. So, how Lightroom excels here is because when you select 5×7 it automatically crops the top and bottom of the image equally to make it fit to that aspect ratio. If you want to crop, but leave the maximum area of the photograph still available, this feature removes the necessity to make the selection manually. If you wanted to crop further with the same ratio, you just drag the nodes as before. The aspect will be locked at 5×7 or whatever you selected. Even if you unlocked the aspect ratio, it will be locked when you select a preset – all very easy indeed.

If you are using Lightroom though, I should note is that I personally don’t do any cropping at all for printing, as Lightroom allows me to do it on the fly with a few checkboxes. Basically I have created a number of printing presets, that specify the size of the margin I will leave around the image, and it also specifies the cell size into which the photography will be placed. If I want to leave the image un-cropped, leaving more room on either the top and bottom or the sides, because the aspect ratio doesn’t match the cell, then I do nothing more than hit the print button. If however I want to crop the tops or sides of the image to match the cell size, aligning the print with the aspect ratio of the paper, I just hit the Zoom to Fill Frame option at the top of the right hand toolbar in the Print module. This of course also works if you don’t use a margin, printing right up to the edge of the paper.

If you don’t do your own printing though, and you are not happy with the automatic crops that your photo store does, you might want to crop your images to the size that you are going to get your photos printed at, before you send them in. You can of course just crop each image individually, and if you have time, I would strongly suggest you do this, basically because you are going to be cutting something away from the image. Say if you had a group photo of your family, and uncle Albert was quite close to the right side, but there is a bit more space after aunt Betty on the left, then you might want to move the crop so that uncle Albert doesn’t get cut in half, and aunt Betty is much more snugly included on her side too. If you really want to automate this though, here’s a few possible ways to do this, based on the tools available to me, basically Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.

Say you want to process a whole batch of images that you know you are going to have printed at 8×10, and you pretty much know that uncle Albert isn’t too close to the edge of the frame, it would be nice to automate this task, rather than going through and cropping each one. If you use Lightroom, this is a pretty easy. Once again though, before you do this, I suggest you make a copy of your images, or create virtual copies, just to save yourself from having to back out of your changes later. Once you have your copies, hit R to enter the crop and rotate mode, then select your aspect ratio from the preset pull-down. Let’s stick with the example 8×10. This will automatically select your crop, so hit enter to apply it. Once you have your base crop, hit the G key to jump to the grid view, and go ahead and select all the other images you want to apply the same crop to. It doesn’t matter if they are landscape or portrait aspect, as Lightroom knows all about this and will crop the others correctly. Before we move on to the next step, make sure that the cropped image that will act as the base is still a little lighter than the others, and click the Sync Settings button in the bottom of the right menu. A dialog will open and you will see a whole bunch of checkboxes. If all you want to sync is the crop, uncheck all checkboxes except the Crop one. Below the Crop checkbox you have two options, which are Straighten Angle and Aspect Ratio. Straighten Angle rotates the image by the same amount as the selected base image, so it doesn’t really matter if you haven’t applied any rotation, but if you might have done, you would be better to leave this unchecked for a mass change like this. Just go ahead and turn on the Aspect Ratio checkbox here to apply the crop to all of your images, then go ahead and click on the synchronize button. Before your very eyes you will see all of the thumbnails for your selected images change to reflect the new crop. You can now go ahead and re-export these images to send to your printers. Remember that Lightroom won’t apply the change to your base files, it will just hold the changes in sidecar files or in your Lightroom database. If you did make copies just for this purpose before you start though, you can go ahead and overwrite the copied files with the cropped version. Just make sure you don’t overwrite your originals.

Now, if you use Photoshop, and want to do the same, it’s a little more complicated. Again, I suggest you work on copies, not on your original files. Open up the first one in Photoshop, and make sure you have a preset the same as the size that you want to crop to, then create an action to record yourself applying that crop. Basically you’ll want to click on the little page button under the Actions palette to create a new action. Give it a name that you will recognize later, and then when you click OK, the recording will start. Once you start recording, go ahead and select the crop that you just checked you have, make sure that the orientation is how you want it, and if it isn’t click the little arrows between the width and height fields to switch them over, and then make your selection. You’ll need to expand it out to the crop you desire and adjust it to make sure it’s nice and central, but when you are done, hit enter to apply the crop. Then go over and hit the square in the Actions palette to stop recording. Note that you’ll have to create two actions, one for horizontal and vertical, or landscape and portrait aspect photos. I suggest including that information in the name of the action and also the aspect ratio you are cropping too. You might want to add the name of the camera that you used to shoot the images too, because if you upgrade your camera later you will have different sized pictures and need to create new Actions.

If you only have a few photos to resize, then you can probably just open them all up and run the Action manually, selecting the horizontal or vertical aspect as necessary. If you want, you can assign a keyboard shortcut to the action to make it as simple as just pressing a key as you check the orientation of the images. If you have more than a few though, I would split your photos into two separate directories, one for portrait and one for landscape oriented photos, and then run the action as a batch process. To do this, select Batch from the Automate submenu. You’ll find Automate under the File menu. You can then select the Action you want to run, and select the folder in which the images that you want to run the action on live. If the files are already in the format you want them, you can just select Save and Close for the Destination, and Photoshop will overwrite your originals with the cropped version. You could do a more complicated action here and make various copies and even work on your original files and save to another format, but I’m not going to go into this today.

I did search around for some cropping tools, and with a quick Google search found some Photoshop actions to crop for various print sizes for you, but I figured that was not really appropriate. As most of you will know, I only like to talk about things that I have first-hand experience with, so looking up something just to talk about it here didn’t seem right. What I would like to say though is that if anyone does use a third party cropping tool, or indeed have any other advice about cropping that I haven’t covered in these two episodes, please do drop by the forum at and let us know all about it.

Well, having spoken so much about the act of cropping, we can’t really leave this subject without discussing whether it’s even OK to crop in the first place. For a long time, I personally used to try very hard to avoid cropping. I believed that to maintain the integrity of the art form, we should not change the photo in any way, concentrating on getting the framing as well as all other aspects of the photograph right in capture. Now, I have to stress that I still believe in getting things as correct as possible in capture. Your exposure, your framing, your composition, all of these things need to be as good as you can get them in capture, or you will degrade your image as you work on it in post processing. However, there are limitations in either the equipment, our budget for buying equipment, or ability to carry equipment, that means we cannot always frame things exactly the way we want. The world wasn’t made to fit into a 3×2 frame, and we can’t always afford or carry that extra piece of kit that will enable us to fill the frame with our subject, avoiding the need to crop. If I can’t physically get close enough to my subject for any reason, say I don’t have a long enough lens, or the subject is simply too far away and there’s a lake or some other physical or imposed barrier between me and the subject, then I will consider cropping to make the subject a little larger in the frame. In these cases, I will often maintain the aspect ratio, as the composition may not need to change.

The framing itself changes from camera to camera. If I were to shoot with a medium or large format camera I might be shooting with a square format or 4×5 for example. Does that make these cameras unethical because they don’t shoot a 3×2 aspect ratio image? I dare say everyone will agree that this is not the case, but for the sake of argument imagine that we said anything not 3×2 is unethical. What do we do? We could try to carry various camera systems that match our artistic goals for each possible situation, but this is of course physically very difficult and more than likely financially unviable. We would probably also find that once we got home and looked at what we’d shot, we may change our minds anyway. We should remember too that the 35mm film format only came about out of necessity. It was originally movie film turned on its side that governed the size and format. It was just one available option to the pioneers of the system.

If we look at even the most stringent of photography competition rules, we usually find that although photo manipulation is disallowed, cropping to a degree is allowed, along with tonal correction and some other generic changes like saturation and brightness within reason. This to me also indicates that cropping is a generally accepted photographic process or enhancement. If we consider what we mentioned earlier too, that most of the common photo sizes are not the same aspect ratio as a piece of 35mm film, this probably means that even those that prefer not to crop, have been having their images cropped every time they got prints made for years.

Anyway, you can tell, probably before even starting to listen to this last section that I am not against cropping images. I will always try to not have to, and I ensure that I still have enough pixels left to make a decent sized print if I do crop, but apart from that, I impose no restrictions on myself. I do of course though respect the views of anyone that does not want to crop their images. If you feel you should not crop your images, then don’t do it. I would never try to tell someone to do something that they don’t want to do. It’s your art, after all, not mine.

So that’s it for today. Please note that I will be locking the Assignment Album for uploads today, which is May 19th 2008. A quick scan through the Abstract Album shows me that you guys had a lot of fun shooting for this Assignment. You have as usual produced some great work. Whether or not you uploaded an image, please note that voting will now start until the end of June 1st. The vote buttons are above each image in the Abstract Gallery, and you can award one, two or three points to your 3rd, 2nd and 1st most favourite images respectively. You can change your mind as many times as you like by the way, so hitting the buttons as you go along is fine. I do suggest you come along and take a look at the gallery at and cast your votes while you’re at it.

Anyway, I’ll be back next week with another episode, so I’ll see you then if we don’t meet up in the Photography Forum at first. Either way, you just have a great week, whatever you do. Bye bye.

Show Notes

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Cropping #1 – Artistic Reasons and Tools (Podcast 137)

Cropping #1 – Artistic Reasons and Tools (Podcast 137)

Cropping is used for artistic reasons, to overcome technical issues in capture or restrictions of your gear, or not done at all, for ethical reasons. Today and in the next episode we’re going to take a little time to look at each of these areas, starting this week with why we crop from an artistic stand point, and go into some details on the tools available and the reasons for using them. The actual act of cropping is often thought of as making a simple selection and then selecting Crop from a menu. I suggest if that is how you have been cropping, you start using the crop tool instead. I’ll explain why in a short while. In the second part of this Podcast I’ll go into more details on cropping for printing to a certain paper size, and automating the process of cropping, although I really don’t advise you do this personally. And we’ll go into the ethical side of cropping too. To crop, or not to crop, that is the question!

Before we go on, I’d like to thank Keith Wolfe, from Florida in the U.S. and Josephine Hughes, from Dublin in Ireland for questions on this. Josephine actually wrote me about this a long, long time ago, and I never got around to doing an episode on it. Then, earlier this week, when I’d started to think about how important cropping is, and started to jot down a few notes, Keith’s mail arrived, asking about exactly the same thing. Both Josephine and Keith were interesting in standardizing their cropping, and also matching it to popular photo sizes, such as 5×7 or 8×10 etc. This is going to be pretty difficult to do as a generic crop, as many photo sizes boil down to different aspect ratios. Still, I’ll talk about this in more detail as we get into this topic. Anyway, Josephine, I’m sorry this has taken such a long time. I hope you are still listening to the Podcast! And thanks to Keith too, for reading my mind while kicking off the preparation for this two part series.

For many, one of the main reasons to crop is going to be for artistic reasons. If you are totally against cropping, and think it is unethical, bear with us for a moment, or fast forward a little. When I import an image to my computer, and start going through my selections, one of the first things I do is start to rate my images with stars, to mark the ones I’ll delete, with 1 star, and then things that I want to take through my post processing, and eventually upload to my online gallery and keep as one of my best shots, with three stars. Now, on the whole, I do no real post processing at this point, except for one thing, and that’s cropping. I don’t crop all images. It’s probably less than 5 to 10%, but I’ve never really counted. I got to wondering though, why do I crop in my selection process? My conclusion was because it is so important to the artistic success or failure of an image to me.

When I’m doing my first pass, sometimes I simply cannot go past some photos without cropping them to see how they look. From an artistic perspective, to me, some images just look better cropped. To help me explain what I’m talking about, let’s look at one of my real-world examples, which is image number 1654. As you can see, this image is very dark. For all intent and purposes, the top and bottom of this image, are totally black. When I looked at this in Lightroom, without any cropping, there was just so much black, it was overbearing. This wasn’t the main reason for the crop though. There are a few other reasons. The first one is that the black areas at the top and bottom of the image added nothing to the shot. As a subtractive art, where the act of selecting our lenses’ primary objective is to control how much of the world we leave out, it seems natural to me that the format of the camera is not always going to match the scene that I’m capturing. This is when I decide to get rid of a little more. The other reason is to enhance the composition of the image. As you can see in image number 1654, there are 5 swans flying across the scene, with a group of cormorants looking up at them. The swans make a long line. The group is broken up into 4 swans, and a straggler. By removing the top and bottom of the image, we make it obviously longer, almost panoramic, and this enhances the feeling of the line of swans also being long. In this case, it makes us feel that the straggler is lagging behind even more than we would feel he was if the shot was un-cropped. If it was un-cropped, he’d occupy a much larger slice of the image, which wouldn’t make it look as though he was lagging behind as much.

Cormorant Reverence

Cormorant Reverence

So, how did I decide how much to crop? Here, we can see that that the swans have cast a reflection in the surface of the pond over which they are flying. We need some space after the reflection finishes, or the shot will feel compacted and too tight. The subjects need some room to breathe. Note too that to maintain the balance of the image, the line of swans are slightly above center, and the cormorants are slightly below center. This is no accident. I purposefully made them about the same distance from the horizontal center line. By the time I’d left room for the reflections and a little room after that, this is the size of the crop that I arrived at.

Secretary Bird #1 [C]

Secretary Bird #1 [C]

So, in this example, my reason for cropping was totally artistic. There was nothing wrong with the areas I cropped out, I just didn’t need them, and felt the image would be stronger without them. Let’s look at another image now, where there were both artistic, and technical reasons for my crop. The next example is image number 1646. Here we can see the pensive stare of a Secretary Bird, shot in a zoo note. I haven’t snuck off to Africa to shoot this without telling you. There was a problem with this image though. As I shot the bird in landscape mode, it stood up, higher than it had been so far, and as I moved my camera up to continue shooting, a nasty splodge of bright green had crept into the frame on the left, and it was incredibly distracting. Of course, I moved, and recomposed for further shots, but I liked the stare of the bird here so much, and didn’t get another similar shot that I liked as much. I had three options to keep this image in my selection of best shots. The first one was ignore the splodge of green, but I couldn’t do that. The second option was to clone out the splodge. Well, I guess I could do that, but A) it takes more time that a crop, and B) it feels like the worse of two evils. The third option, of course was the crop, so again, while deciding if this shot stayed in my final cut or not, I hit the R button on my keyboard to jump into the rotate and crop tool in Lightroom. A few moments later I’m thinking that getting rid of the sides of the image were actually again if anything enhancing the image, allowing us to concentrate much more on the Secretary Bird. So here, I guess the result was the same, to enhance the subject some, but the reason for my initially thinking about cropping was different. I was overcoming a technical shortcoming on my part, when I actually captured the image.

Let’s take a look at a third shot, which is image number 1625. This is an example of where the initial need to crop was not obvious to me. The image originally had two dark patches in the top right and left corners. When I selected this, I didn’t really mind the dark corners, and I actually remember framing the shot like that, thinking that it would add something to the composition. Maybe help to close of the corners, like a vignette. After I uploaded it though, our good friend Landon Michaelson pointed out that the corners were a little distracting, pulling his attention away from the abstract beauty of the shot. After further consideration, I decided to crop after all, and re-uploaded the image. I left the other image on my server though, and linked to it in the fifth comment from the top in the conversation that Landon and I had about this image. If you are interested in taking a look how it was with the dark corners, jump to the image in my gallery, from iTunes, or from the thumbnail under this episode on the Podcasts page, or just input 1625 into the field at the bottom of the Podcasts menu at my Web site, and hit enter. This example does go to show though that our own judgement is not always the best, and it can help to put things in perspective when others provide feedback. Thanks again to Landon for his help on this one. I really like the cropped version, and we can see from the other comments, most others do too.

Pure Chrysanthemum

Pure Chrysanthemum

Anyway, those are artistic reasons to crop, and although related, cropping initially to overcome technical issues at the time of capturing the image, even though it can often improve the image artistically as well. While looking at another favourite image of mine that I cropped, which is number 827, let’s discuss a little about the tools available for cropping. First let’s talk about Photoshop, as I’m sure more of you use Photoshop than Lightroom. The most obvious way to crop a photo in Photoshop is to select the rectangular selection tool from the toolbar, then select Crop from the Image menu. This is fine, and achieves the result you are after, which is it cuts away the part of the image that you don’t want, or crops it. However, in doing this, you only have a little shimmering line on the image to show which part of the image will remain, and which part will go. Also, it’s a pain to adjust a selection. You can move it around, but to increase the size of the selection, the only realistic way to do so is to make a fresh selection. I say realistic because you can of course add to or subtract from a selection, but it is a pain and not really worth entertaining.

Drama through a Letterbox

Drama through a Letterbox

If we bear in mind that there are artistic decisions that need to be made when cropping, it is much more helpful to use the Crop Tool from the toolbar. This is the tool that looks like two set square laid across each other with a diagonal line going across them. I’m sure most of you already use this tool anyway, but let’s explore the advantages of using this tool. Firstly, it allows you to move, expand and contract your selection very easily. There are little nodes at each corner of the selection, that you simple click on and drag around to change the size of the selection. You can also grab the selection anywhere and move it around. This makes controlling your selection much easier. The other and perhaps more important aspect of using the crop tool is though, the fact that it darkens the area of the photograph that will be cropped away. This is very important for seeing what the image will look like once it’s cropped. You can nice and clearly what will be left, and still see, although it’s dark enough to ignore, what you will be cutting away. If you find that the darkened area of the image to be cropped away is too bright or dark, you can change the opacity in the toolbar above the image, while the crop tool is selected. You can also uncheck the Shield checkbox, and have no difference in brightness, but this makes the tool less useful in my opinion. If necessary, you can even change the colour of the darkened area, but I have never experimented with that. I use black at 75%. This may well be the default. I don’t remember if I changed this at any time.

Another useful thing when using the crop tool is that you can also move your mouse to outside of the selection, yet still over the image, and then click and drag to rotate the selection. Whether you do that or not, once you are done, you can hit enter to apply your crop, or click on the check mark in the toolbar above the image. If you decide not to crop after all, just hit escape on your keyboard, or the circle with the diagonal line through it in the toolbar. There’s more to this tool, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Right now, I just want to say that Lightroom is my current preferred tool for Cropping. When you think you want to crop the image you are looking at in Lightroom, just hit the R key on the keyboard. This jumps you to the Develop module and enables the crop overlay. With the mouse, you need to navigate to the Develop module if you aren’t already there, and the click on the Crop Overlay button below the image. If you see no toolbar below the image, hit the T button to display it. Whichever way you jump into crop mode, you will now see a rectangle around the image ready for you to move around to select the area to crop. There are a few fundamental differences between Photoshop and Lightroom here. The first and biggest is that Lightroom does not actually crop your image. It rights the changes to the xml sidecar file or the database if you don’t use the sidecar files, and applies them each time you view the image. It does also update the thumbnail and preview images, so most of the time you can even forget you cropped, but then if you come back into crop mode, you’ll still see the areas of the images that you cropped away, because they still exist in the original. In Photoshop, once you apply the crop, the image is cut out and the surplus is thrown away.

The other big difference, though more cosmetic, is the fact that whereas in Photoshop you move the crop selection around, in Lightroom when you move things around, the crop selection remains static, square to the screen and the image moves around or rotates beneath it. I don’t know which is best when just cropping, but having rotated the image in Lightroom which again you can do by grabbing outside of the selection with your mouse, the image that you see remains straight, which surely makes it easier to see the results, if for nothing more than the fact that you can do so without tilting your head. In Photoshop the selection rectangle itself rotates, making it more difficult to see the results.

I should also mention I guess that when you go into crop mode, Lightroom draws two horizontal and two vertical lines across the image, to help you with composition. This is the rule of thirds lines of course. Then, when rotating, as soon as you start to rotate, a smaller grid appears, which helps to see where the vertical or horizontal lines of your image fall, helping to keep your horizons etc straight. If you want to change these grid settings by the way, you can do so with the options available in the View, under the Crop Guide Overlay submenu.

So, let’s leave it there for this week, and next week we’ll go into cropping to for certain aspect ratios, to prepare for certain print sizes. Also, although I don’t personally suggest you batch crop, I have been asked about doing this to say prepare a bunch of photos for 5×7 or 8×10 printing, so I’ll give you some advice on how to go about that. And we’ll also get into whether or not it is ethical to crop in the first place.

I hope you enjoyed this episode. It may not have been anything new to most of you, but it’s always fun to compare notes anyway. I’m looking forward to next week too, when we’ll get into a bit more detail on cropping for certain paper sizes, and the ever daunting discussion about whether or not cropping is even ethical in the first place. For now though, you just have a great week, whatever you do. Bye bye.

Show Notes

The music in this episode is from the PodShow Podsafe Music Network at


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Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).

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