Cropping is the Single Most Important Photo Edit You Can Do


We are sold software on the assumption that we can improve and fix what isn’t possible in camera. A simple crop is the best thing that you can do to an image, regardless of all the advanced algorithms available.

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. Some shooters think that the image should be as close to the final article you can get in camera before any automated adjustments in Photo Mechanic allow it to fly to its destination. 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

Editing is more complex and has deeper roots in film. While a smartphone photographer may be able to take one photo, edit it, then post it, some film editors require that the editing process takes place in a predetermined time frame.

This created a problem: How do I get the right image? The solution was to shoot multiple images — both repeats and variations — on the same theme. The darkroom would then have something you could work from.

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. You can still have images that are severely under- or overexposed, which you may be able, but blinkies cannot be recovered. This is only the largest error. Most of the time, it’s small adjustments for metering that you haven’t applied exposure compensation to and usually within 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.

I believe that cropping and turning (which really are two parts of one operation) is the most important 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. First, you took the wrong shot. 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. The shot above shows that weddings can be fast-moving so it is easy to get distracted, especially when trying to capture those 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. It’s possible that you know what you would like, but don’t have the means to achieve it. It could be due to an obstacle or because your prime is too limited. 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. As they were throwing confetti, I knew I’d get some reactions. This was one 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. You realize that it needs to be slightly cropped in colder light the next day. It felt more like his feet had been lopped off. I also removed any 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. This crop removes unnecessary clutter and tells a more compelling 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. Photographing, especially weddings, involves storytelling. It is always pleasant to see something in your photograph that you didn’t expect. As I was wandering about capturing people, this was my grab shot. 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.

You can shout it loud. Not all edits can be applied equally and not everyone has the time or desire to do them all. For the above reasons, if there were one editing option that was better than all others, it would be the crop. 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.