Photo Safari Skills: Image Cropping - the full story

06th March 2018

The use of cropping in wildlife photography has often suffered bad press. How many times have you heard, "Oh, but he must have cropped that", or "That's heavily cropped!"...? Certainly there are times when a crop has been over-used, or used in the wrong situation, and the poor result is often immediately obvious. In this blog, we'll look at what a crop is, how to use it to your benefit and how to avoid the pitfalls.

Applying a small crop to an image of two lions approaching the camera.
Applying a crop to an image in Lightroom. All image editing software will offer the capability to crop images, though Lightroom's tool is one of the most user-friendly.

Cropping an image removes unwanted areas of the image to improve the overall effect. I am going to start with the Benefits and Drawbacks of using the crop tool and then work through a few examples later on. So why would we choose to crop an image?

  1. To remove unwanted elements that distract from the main subject - in wildlife photography you definitely do not have full control of all the elements in your scene. It might be that just as the perfect lion interaction occurs, a dove flies across the background of your image! Being able to crop a sliver off the top of the image to remove this visual distraction is most helpful.
  2. To increase the apparent size of the subject - cropping off the edges of an image to "enlarge" the central subject is a common trick, and with cameras that have high resolution, it can give a good image of a subject that you could not get as close to you as you wanted.
  3. To change the composition of the image - cropping for composition is a very popular method of improving the impact of your image. Perhaps in the heat of the moment, you were not able to move the frame, or the auto-focus point, exactly how you wanted to, so you can crop the unwanted areas of the image to improve this afterwards. Of course, you cannot regain canvas that was never there in the image, so this is not a substitute for good technique.
  4. To adjust the image's shape or to fit a required purpose - some choose to crop an image to fit a more aesthetically-pleasing aspect ratio (the aspect ratio is the image's shape, as defined by its length on the short side as proportion of the long side) such as 3:2 or 16:10 or 16:9 or 4:3 or even a panoramic crop. Sometimes it's necessary to crop an image to make it fit a double-page spread in a magazine, or a banner along the top of a website or poster.

Applying a crop to an image of buffalos drinking at the Luangwa River.
Applying a panoramic crop to an image in Lightroom for printing on a large, wide canvas.

As I hinted at above, there are some negative impacts of cropping too which we should look at:

  1. Cropping reduces the overall size of your image, removing pixels and valuable data. If you are working with a 20 megapixel file (5,000 pixels x 4,000 pixels), and you crop off just 10% of the width and length, you will lose nearly 20% of the image's pixel count, leaving you with just over 16 megapixels.
  2. Cropping heavily reduces the file-size dramatically, leaving the resulting image unsuitable for printing and enlargements. The effect of this may well be visible to a viewer in the form of softness, pixelation and lack of detail.
  3. Relying on cropping to make up for poor compositional technique is not advisable. While it is fine to do so occasionally - perhaps when your had to get the shot in a hurry - it's much better to practice composition and adjusting your focusing points quickly so that you can include more canvas on the original image.

So we have looked at the benefits and pitfalls of cropping. Surely I would not have taken time to write an article on something that I advise strongly against? No, absolutely not. I use cropping in many of my images to remove distracting elements from the edge of the frame and to improve the shape and feel of the scene portrayed.

Firstly, I will look at cropping to remove unwanted elements from the edges of images. I always look around the edges of my frame as I am composing my shots, and try to remove anything that I don't want by zooming in or moving the frame. But if I have to move quickly, or I'm using a prime lens, I am not always able to do this. So cropping afterwards it beneficial. Here are a few examples with annotations.

Cropping an elephant image to remove small distractions.
This is one of my favourite images and it was the first in a series that I took. From far away I saw this situation materialising and I rushed through the forest to get there in time. The first image was perfect with the elephant's trunk and position in perfect harmony with the forest, but the large tree on the right hand side of the image is a little too dominant. I have cropped it slightly to remove that distraction and make sure the focus is on the elephant.

Cropping an image of hippos fighting to remove a distracting hippo head in the foreground.
We had been watching these hippos for some time, as the female tried to tell the male to leave her alone. At the same moment that the two faced up to each other, a hippo in the foreground lifted its head and disrupted the image! Cropping removes this grey out-of-focus lump from the bottom of the frame.

A beautiful image of a leopard daydreaming is marred by bright coloured lichen on a foreground branch.
Cropping this image slightly keeps the lovely composition but removes bright white lichen on a foreground branch that pulls the eye away from those dreamy leopard eyes!

Secondly, we'll explore times when using a crop can help with the composition of the image. I mentioned above that this is not best practice - and certainly improving technique is preferable - but we all need a bit of help sometimes!

A crop applied to enhance an image of a giraffe splashing through the Luangwa river.
This giraffe slightly took us by surprise. On a walking safari, we found her in the middle of the river on a small island. Suddenly, she started running through the water towards us, and I just managed to snap a few images. The composition was not quite what I wanted (!) so I cropped it to improve the focus of the image on the giraffe. I kept a bit more of the right hand side of the image because I didn't want to lose the detail of the oxpeckers that flew up off her back.

A leopard hunting in a gully on a safari in South Luangwa.
We were not able to get as close to this leopard as we would have liked because she was stalking a hyaena that had stolen her kill, and we didn't want to disturb the action. But when she lifted her head momentarily, I wanted the shot, so I took a snap, knowing that I could adjust the composition later.

An elephant appears from underneath a Sausage tree in Nsefu Sector, South Luangwa.
I loved the effect of this elephant emerging from under the arch of this sausage tree, and I chose to put it in the top right of the frame as an experiment! It didn't really work, so I cropped it later. It's a shame because I have lost so many of the pixels in the image that I probably can't print it...

Hippos and hammerkops in South Luangwa.
We were watching these hippos and hammerkops interacting in the amazing algal bloom that occurs for a couple of days only each year. Suddenly the hippo began to yawn, and rather than missing it to move the AF point, I took shots and hoped that I would be able to crop later!

Finally I want to look at cropping for improved shape and feel. Scenery and wildlife photographers take the majority of their images in landscape orientation; out of 4,309 images in my folders, only 862 - around 20% - are in portrait mode. My camera produces images which are 3:2 in aspect ratio. I like this shape for portrait-orientation images, and find that my style of photography works well with this. However, I tend to prefer a wider, flatter, more panoramic image shape for my landscape-orientation images, and I nearly always crop my 3:2s to a 16:10 ratio.

Applying a 16:10 crop to an image of elephants crossing the Luangwa River.
In this case, I applied a 16:10 crop to this image of a family herd of elephants crossing the river. In doing so, I cut off some of the distracting bright sky and some of the bright water below. Doing this did not remove anything of value and added to the image's impact by removing unwanted canvas.

But, as well as removing unwanted canvas, I think the 16:10 crop actually improves the shape and feel of the image, perhaps increasing the impression that it is taken in a wide, open space, and that there is a panoramic quality to the surroundings. I have been using this crop more in wildlife photos over the last few years, finding that it suits the environment that I work in and the style of photos that I take. Here are a few more examples, showing the original image and what has been cut off....

Applying a 16:10 crop to an image of a crowned crane and her chicks.
The crop here reduces some of the road below but still leaves lots of space for the Cranes to "walk into".

Applying a 16:10 crop to an image of impalas on a termite mound.
This crop allows me to reduce some of the distracting vegetation from below the impalas, but still keep the width of the image and the stunning trees above.

Applying a 16:10 crop to an image of an elephant calf under its mother's neck.
The ground below the elephants does not add to the image. And in fact, the tighter the crop, the better the composition, emphasising the proximity of the calf to the mother and the intimacy of that relationship. I could not cut anything off either side because it would be too tight for the mother's trunk and the calf's tail, so only a wider crop will work.

So we have looked at the reasons for cropping, the pitfalls and risks of doing so, and some of the situations where it has worked for me in my images. I know that there are some photographers who prefer the 4:3 shape and some that swear by 16:9....whatever your personal preference for the shape of the final image, make sure that you are cropping for effect, not to remedy miscalculations in the field....or at least not all the time! We all get it wrong occasionally!

Thanks for reading, and as, always, please ask any questions in the section below.


Photo comment By Wil: Dear Ed, Great comparison and explanation. Have one question related to not loosing pixels: what about using in photoshop the croptool without resampling (leave the resolution field empty) or use marquee tool. I think this could keep the pixels right for quality prints?
Photo comment By Edward Selfe: Hi Wil - thank you for your interesting question. You are right; if you crop the image and choose not to resample, you will be able to increase the image size but this be achieved by reducing the number of pixels per inch (increasing the size of the pixels). This will show in a reduction in the fineness of detail. So increasing an image's dimensions from 30cm to 50cm on the long side without resampling will reduce the pixels per inch from 300 to around 200. 200ppi is marginal for a decent print. So to answer your question, yes you can "buy" some image size by reducing the ppi, but not by too much or you will start to see a reduction in image quality when you print. Hope this helps. Edward

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