How Much Can I Crop?

You took the shot and for whatever reason you now want a different composition. How far can you go with cropping and still get a quality print? Chances are you’ve heard famous photographers talk about understanding composition and learning to “get it right” in-camera. This seems to be the holy grail for many photographers. Granted, getting a well-exposed and composed shot is what we all strive for. Doing so minimizes time in post production. However, sometimes you just cannot get the perfect composition. So, as a last resort, you are left with cropping in post-production to achieve that vision you have in mind.

You read that right. Use cropping as a last resort for “fixing” the photo. You worked hard for the shot and you should not indiscriminately throw away pixels through cropping. That being said, it is your photo, your art. Crop as much as you need to in order to achieve that vision mentioned previously. Know that the amount of cropping will affect image quality–some more noticeable than others. How much is too much? How much is somewhat subjective. How much degradation in quality can you tolerate in order to attain the composition you love? For me, my tolerance usually keeps my cropping to less than 50%. It may be different for you.

Here are some aspects to remember as you begin cropping in post production:

  • Make sure you can undo any crops. You can do this by using a non-destructive tool such as Lightroom. If you use a destructive editing tool, like Photoshop, make sure you create a copy of the original image.
  • Consider the final aspect ratio. If you plan to print and frame your images, then cropping using a standard ratio may be desirable. Otherwise, you will need mats and frames in custom sizes. I find that an 11″x14″ crop can usually be printed at 5″x7″ and 8″x10″ with very little difference.
  • Cropping magnifies any problems with the image. Start with a very sharp image as blur will be magnified in the cropped image. Avoid over cropping to keep resolution as high as possible.

Cropping images in post production provides a second chance to re-frame your shots and there are a number of different ways you can do this to achieve desirable results.

  • Remove empty space – when you cannot move to change the composition, you may end up with areas in the image that do not contribute anything.
  • Change the orientation – sometimes, the most obvious improvement is changing the orientation from portrait (vertical) to landscape (horizontal) or visa versa.
  • To follow the rule of thirds or another compositional alignment – There are many “rules” of composition, such as the rule of thirds and the golden ratio you can follow by cropping.
  • Remove distracting elements – try as you might, sometimes you cannot avoid capturing some elements in the photo that seem distracting. Often these are easily removed in cropping.

Despite your best efforts, there will be times when you will shoot photos in which the composition may not look spot on. Sometimes the slightest distraction can draw the viewer’s attention away from where you intended the viewer to concentrate. When this happens, instead of deleting the photo, try cropping it to preserve what is most important in the image.

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