The edges of your photograph are often the last things you pay attention to when clicking the shutter, but they are actually the first things you should be aware of. The four edges of your photograph make up its frame, and it is this frame that defines your picture. Careful choice in framing your picture is one of the most important things you can do to strengthen its impact. That means adjusting what you see through viewfinder so that you select the best part of the scene to form your final picture. This kind of framing is also called in-camera cropping.
The other kind of cropping happens after you’ve taken the picture. In this case, you use software to cut off parts of the image from the top, bottom, or sides, and essentially throw away the parts of the picture you don’t want. This could potentially change the dimensions of the picture.
Let me share my top ten tips for effective cropping.
Tip 1: Decide what’s in or out. As a photographer, your choice of framing is how you indicate what you think is important. In your decision of where to place your frame, you choose what to include and exclude from the picture. You should include only those things that contribute to your story. Anything that doesn’t strengthen your image actually weakens it. Don’t try to put everything into one composition!
Tip 2: Eliminate distractions. It’s human nature to direct your attention to your subject, and to ignore, or mentally filter out, everything else. This works against you when you’re taking a picture. It’s easy to pay so much attention to your main subject that you don’t even see other distracting elements. Unfortunately, those distractions jump out at you when you look at the final image. Make a habit of carefully scanning the entire picture before you click the shutter. Look for bright or dark spots, or splashes of strong color, that aren’t part of your subject. Watch for unfortunate alignments like a tree or lamp post that’s in line with a person’s head. Avoid parts of random objects, like elbows and tree branches, intruding into the frame. Work to eliminate all these distractions by moving your camera to change your cropping of the scene.
Tip 3: Watch the edges! Most photographers, especially those just starting out, concentrate on what’s in the middle of the image. Distractions like those described in Tip 2, that are also close to the edge of your frame, carry extra “visual weight.” This means that our eyes are more drawn to them. You must train yourself to scan the edges of your picture, and place the frame carefully to avoid including distractions. A tripod can be helpful to help you fine tune your camera position.
Tip 4: Avoid the bulls-eye. Where you place the subject relative to the frame helps to move the viewer’s eye around your composition, and creates balance between the elements in the frame. If you place the main subject at the dead-center of your picture, it can feel static and dull. An off-center subject is more pleasing and dynamic. Tip 3 can be used to your advantage to deliberately attract attention to an element of your composition by placing it close to the edge. The closer you place the subject to the edge of the frame, the more tension you create.
Tip 5: Keep hands and feet in! When you are photographing people, never cut off their hands or feet with the edge of the frame. Instead, compose the picture to include a tight shot of just the face, or a head and shoulders or three-quarter-length portrait, or a full length view of the person.
Tip 6: Create shapes. Where you place the boundary of your frame actually creates shapes in your picture. For example, when photographing a steep hillside, I can place my frame so that I create a triangle of sky and a triangle of land. No such shapes actually exist when you view the entire scene; you create them through your framing. Use these shape elements to add structure to your image. Having only one kind of shape repeated in the image (e.g., several rectangles) makes a stronger image than a mish-mash of shapes (e.g., a circle, a square and a triangle).
Tip 7: Follow the light! When you look at a picture, your eyes are automatically drawn to the lightest part of it. As a photographer, you can use this fact to guide the viewer’s eye in the image. Make sure the lightest part of the image corresponds to something significant in the subject. Framing the picture in order to darken any or all of its edges controls the movement of the viewer’s eye, containing it horizontally, vertically, or centrally.
Tip 8: Get oriented. Don’t be afraid to turn your camera vertically. Let the orientation of your subject guide you. If the giraffe is standing up, it makes a good candidate for a vertically framed picture! The orientation of the frame can also change the impression given by the picture. Horizontally framed images can enhance a feeling of stability or serenity; vertical images can reinforce an uplifting mood, or give a feeling of strength.
Tip 9: Change it up. Using software, you can crop an image you’ve taken. You can do this to remove unwanted elements from the frame, or you can do it to change the picture’s aspect ratio. The aspect ratio of a picture is the ratio of its length versus its width. For example, a 4”x6” image has an aspect ratio of 4:6, or 2:3. If you crop off a slice from the right (or left) of a horizontal picture, you could make your image into a square, which has an aspect ratio of 1:1. You could also cut a slice of the top or bottom of a horizontal image to turn it into a panoramic. Each aspect ratio has a different psychological influence on the viewer.
Tip 10: Get it right in camera. Unless you want to change the aspect ratio for effect, do your cropping in-camera whenever possible. Not only does it make less work for you afterwards, you also don’t throw away any data.
I hope these tips have helped you to realize how important the placement of the picture boundary can be. Try a few experiments to see the impact for yourself. Happy shooting!