From “mad cropper” to full-frame perfectionist

I almost never crop the photographs that I make. For me, the best images are captured by careful composition in the camera, and not ‘saved” by cropping after the fact. I will be the first to admit that I was not always so disciplined. In tracing my evolution from mad cropper to full frame perfectionist, I realized the idea of not cropping went from technical objective to moral imperative to aesthetic goal and now is a philosophical mission.

Like most photographers, I started out taking lots of pictures and being regularly disappointed by all the extra “stuff” that showed up in my pictures, besides the main thing I was photographing. Early on, I came to appreciate how a heavily cropped negative yielded a less than sharp (and usually very grainy) final print. As I improved as a photographer, I learned more and more how to “see like a camera.”

When I was doing newspaper work, I again encountered the cropping dilemma. On the one hand, newspaper photojournalism is premised on the idea that the photograph is an informational document, thus cropping was discouraged. On the other hand, photojournalism in print usually needs to be a ”quick read” that the viewer gets immediately, which encourages cropping.

When I left the newspaper world, I progressed up the food chain into magazine work, moving from black and white negative film to color slide film. There, the marketplace unintentionally settled the issue for me. I quickly learned to appreciate the double-edged nature of slides. The good news is that if you composed and exposed a slide perfectly, the end user was unlikely to change the image and what you saw on the slide was what you saw in print. Thus, my published imagery was getting ever closer to what I wanted it to be. The bad news was that it was lot harder to get that perfect color slide that was perfectly composed and exposed. In the world of magazines, the quality of the full frame image trumped the journalistic imperative, but both points argued against cropping. As my work since has migrated towards the more overtly personal, I have stuck with no cropping.

Today, my primary source of income is stock photography. Stock agencies require the highest file quality possible. Period, end of discussion! I cannot send less than perfect digital files to the agencies that disseminate my work. This is doubly true in the case of digital photography, where cropped images result in degraded file quality because cropping throws away valuable digital information. Also, my stock photography business is built on the model of creating and distributing a high volume of imagery with little or no post-production/manipulation. Any time I spend cropping images after the fact costs me time (and therefore money.)

Also, there is the issue of creative control. By that I mean that if I want the final image to have shallow depth of field, very fine detail, punchy contrast or a distinctive color palette, the last thing I want to do is crop my image and lose the photographic effect that I worked so hard to create.

The sole exception is when the proportion I have used for the original capture does not match my final output format. The most common example of this is when I am cropping rectangular images to show as square images. Even in that case, I will photograph with the square proportion in mind. I usually use some markers that are visible in the viewfinder, such as focusing brackets in the image area or the position of the exposure settings on the perimeter as informal lines to remind me where I will be cropping. Another example is when I need to crop out minor things at the edge that are “left in” because most of the viewfinders on today’s cameras only display around 92% of the captured image.

Digital photography has only increased the opportunities we have to work towards getting the best possible image in the field rather than fixing it after the fact. The immediate feedback available on the screen on the back of the camera is an open invitation to experiment, review and then experiment some more. That small screen can also be an ideal place to evaluate how the eye moves through an image. Especially so if the camera is turned upside down, helping the viewer look more at the graphic of the image and less at the content.

All of this thinking is something I share with my students. Yes, they can “fix it in Photoshop,” but they will never maximize their skills if they depend on cropping. This does not mean I expect them to get it on the first try. On the contrary, I encourage them to explore, review and then explore, over and over, trying different positions, different lenses, different compositions, different exposure setting, etc.

The thing that is reassuring is that most photographers “know” a good situation when they see it and decide to make a photograph. The disappointing thing is that few spend the needed time photographing that same situation, over and over, till they get to the best possible final image. Many photographers have the vision to see the good subject, but lack the patience to keep photographing that until they distill it down to the best image possible. Even though I am supposed to know what I am doing as a professional, I experiment like mad when I am trying to make a picture work just the way that I want.

And yes, there are many software programs besides Photoshop to improve less than perfect images. But, we all aspire to make the very best possible pictures and composing the image right is the best way to get that. Like anything else involving digital technology, “garbage in results in garbage out.”

Even though I have the technology to improve my images by cropping (or using special software,) I very rarely do. The final reason is probably the most important one. For me, photography is an ongoing challenge, an opportunity for personal growth. Each photography session is a new opportunity to test myself and expand creatively. I photograph for myself first and foremost. I am continually striving to make the perfect image. Though I may never arrive at perfection, the pursuit of it in itself is satisfying enough for me.

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