What is Cropping in Photography and How it Can Transform Your Images

As photographers, one of our goals is to “get it right in the camera.” Meaning, nailing your exposure settings and composition so that your shot is great from the start. However, the beauty of digital photography is that we have a bit of leeway when it comes to post-processing. One of the easiest ways to transform one of your photos is by cropping.

This guide will dive deep into cropping in digital photography. We’ll explain some of the many reasons you might need to crop a photo. Then, we’ll describe the different methods for doing so.

Cropping is an important part of the photographer's process.
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

What is cropping?

The definition of cropping is to remove or adjust the edges of a photograph. There are many reasons why you’d want to do it. For example, you might want to:

  • Remove distractions;
  • Change the aspect ratio;
  • Create a close-up;
  • Remove unused space;
  • Improve composition;
  • or resize an image for print or social media.

Let’s explore these concepts in greater detail.


Cropping to remove distractions

Crop your photos to remove objects that distract the viewer’s eye away from the subject. Or, remove parts of your image that aren’t necessary for telling your story. Removing distractions in this way will make your photographs stronger and improve their overall aesthetic.


Cropping to change the aspect ratio

Aspect ratio is the relationship between the width and height of your image. Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras automatically shoot photos with a 3:2 aspect ratio, while Micro Four Thirds cameras and smartphones shoot with a 4:3 ratio. Widescreen monitors and televisions have a 16:9 aspect ratio. You might find that your image looks best in a different format than the default that your camera shoots at, so the easiest way to change it is to crop your image to the new format. You might even discover that you prefer your image as a horizontal landscape rather than a vertical portrait. Learn about this concept in further detail by checking out our guide all about aspect ratios.

Smartphones shoot with an aspect ratio of 4:3.
Photo by Marta Wave from Pexels

Cropping to create close-ups

Cropping is an invaluable tool for creating close-up photographs, especially when you can’t get as close to your subject as you want to. And, with the extremely high megapixels available on modern cameras, you can crop in quite a bit and still have a large enough image left to make a decent-sized print. Crop in tightly to show important details as a way to tell your story.


Cropping to remove unused space

Negative space is an important part of composition in photography, but if you find that you’ve ended up with too much empty space in a photograph, crop it out! The easiest way to do it is to use top-notch cropping pictures apps. Choose an app compatible with your device, and get to work.


Cropping to improve composition

Cropping is one of the easiest and quickest ways to improve the composition of your photographs. Consider the rule of thirds—the most common “rule” for composition in photography. It’s so common, in fact, that the grid lines in your camera and in your editing software automatically default to 3 vertical and 3 horizontal lines to help you follow the rule of thirds. The goal is to place your key subject where these lines intersect. If your image doesn’t follow the rule of thirds, you can easily crop it so that it does. Or, use it to improve other aspects of your photo’s composition, like leading lines, filling the frame, negative space, and creating symmetry. And, by all means, use it to straighten a crooked horizon line!


Cropping to resize an image for print or social media

If you’ve ever tried to print a photo to put it in a frame, there’s a good chance it had to be cropped first. Like we mentioned above, cameras often shoot at a 3:2 aspect ratio, while many popular frame sizes are 4:3 and 5:4 aspect ratio! 

The same goes for social media—Instagram and Facebook use square images, YouTube uses a landscape, Pinterest uses portrait format. If you plan to publish to each site, you’ll need to create several different cropped images, optimized for each site, unless you want to press your luck and hope that the same image looks “good enough” across all platforms. 

The best way around this issue is to plan for it before you ever press your shutter button, and allow extra space around your main subject. That way, you have room to resize to whatever format you need.

Cropping for social media.
Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

How to crop a photograph

When it comes to cropping your photos, there are two ways to do it. 

  1. Directly in your camera;
  2. In post-processing.

In-camera

When we talk about cropping a photo in-camera, we’re not actually cropping. We’re really talking about framing the scene before you shoot. When possible, this is the best method for planning your composition.

In post-processing

As we’ve mentioned above, there are so many reasons you might need to crop a photo. Fortunately, it’s very easy with whatever post-processing software you use, like Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, or some other Photoshop alternative.

In Photoshop, simply choose the Crop Tool from the toolbar. Handles will display on the corners of the photo. You can drag the handles to whatever size or shape you like. However, we recommend that you select an aspect ratio from the options in the control bar and then crop your image.


Final thoughts

As you can tell, cropping can be transformative when it comes to the composition of your photographs. That said, it’s always best to shoot with intention. Make use of leading lines, avoid distractions, and frame your images thoughtfully. Don’t rely on cropping to get the effect you’re looking for. Remember, when you crop, you also remove pixels and lose size. Instead, keep it in your back pocket as another editing tool to use when you don’t get it right in the camera.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

Leave a Comment